March 27, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 33°F


Catholic astronomer speaks on relationship between science and religion

The Rev. George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., spoke at Cornell University in a lecture titled “The Dance of the Fertile Universe: An Interplay of Science and Religion.” The presentation took place at 7 p.m. Monday in Sage Chapel. It was the fifth Beggs Lecture on Science, Spirituality and Society sponsored by the Cornell United Religious Work.

Coyne is the McDevitt Chair in religious philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. It was there that the Rev. Carsten Martensen, chaplain of the Catholic communities of Cornell and Ithaca College, first met Coyne and became acquainted with his work. Martensen said he thought of Coyne, a fellow Jesuit priest, when he heard that the CURW was looking for a speaker at the beginning of the academic year.

In front of a packed audience that included faculty and students from Cornell and the college as well as Ithaca community members, Coyne discussed the place of the “God question” in scientific thought, specifically in the creation of the universe and evolution of life on Earth. He used the themes of a fertile universe, chance and destiny.

“If I’m a religious believer, and I am … I believe that God created the universe that I am studying as a scientist,” Coyne said.

Coyne began his talk with a crash course in astronomy, covering topics like the Big Bang theory, the creation of stars and galaxies and how the Earth became a planet that could support life. He then brought in the question of religion, asking “Did God do it?” and rhetorically responding that no specific approach, scientific or religious, can give a complete answer. Coyne used the image of a parent-child relationship to explain his views on God’s role in the universe.

“As a child grows up, you have to let loose,” Coyne said. “The child has to begin to make its own decisions. I think of God dealing with the universe in precisely that way, hoping that in the universe people like us would come out of this universe, but not predetermining it.”

Coyne also held a Q-and-A session with students and faculty after the presentation.

Martensen said he hoped that students left the lecture with both a deeper faith and a better understanding of the history of the universe, which he hopes will lead to positive action in the larger community.

“Some people feel that if you are a true scientist, you cannot be a believer,” Martensen said. “My hope is that this will help us integrate our lives more fully, [with] science and religion.”

Junior Katie Ahrens, a math major and a member of the Ithaca College Catholic Community, said she found Coyne’s presentation especially enlightening given the balance of religious and scientific thought.

“I kind of see the beauty in mathematics and see how God could be present in something that is so beautiful and so symmetrical and makes so much sense, and yet something that’s very much an integral part of the real world,” Ahrens said.

Coyne said he did not have a solid answer as to whether or not God created the universe because there is no scientific proof. However, he said he encouraged respectful discussion as a means to find the answer.

“Scientists who … include God are not doing science, and religious believers who will not accept what science says about an expanding, evolutionary universe are blinding themselves to the marvels of what God has done,” Coyne said.