Father Coyne: Jesuit priest and scientist extraordinaire!

fr_coyneYesterday I was honored and thrilled to meet Father Coyne, a Jesuit priest, Ph.D. in Astronomy specializing in astrophysics, and retired head of the Vatican’s research observatory located at the University of Arizona in my hometown – Tucson, AZ.   (I realized the Tucson connection when I saw he had a 520 area code for his cell phone).  I met him at his residence at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school right here in Syracuse.

A friend of mine at school told me about a series of lectures on religion at Le Moyne and looking at its website I quickly found Fr. Coyne.  He was on Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” – one of its few rational religious voices.  He was also interviewed by famous New Atheist Richard Dawkins for a TV show about Darwin, and the full interview is on youtube.  Check it out!

dawkins_coyneFr. Coyne is an ardent and passionate voice for both the (potential) depth of religion and the validity of science, including evolution.  I thoroughly (that’s an understatement!) enjoyed my time with him and I wished we had videotaped our conversation so we could put it on youtube!!  (He did say we might do this another time.)

We talked about a lot of things, but we touched on how earnest many atheists are in their critique of religion and that they have many good points based on ethical and scientific grounds.  We agreed that absent from debates on science and religion are Jesus’ own very anti-establishment and anti-religion views/teachings and his focus on experience and common sense.

We agreed that there is no dualism between the spiritual and the material.  That is, the spiritual is in the material and vice versa.  There’s not separate realms or realities, although it can be useful or inspiring to envision such things.  Here’s my little phrase that sums it up:  “We don’t need the supernatural.  The natural is super enough!”

I tried out a few of my newest thoughts and ideas on him – like my pithy saying above – which were very well-received.  For instance, we talked about faith.  St. Paul says faith is hope in that which is unseen.  For me, that includes the power of love, the depth of the human spirit, and our search for the transcendent or the divine (in a symbolic way but one that can be experienced).  He agreed, and I said I felt a lot of sympathy for those who only know of the word “faith” as belief in doctrine or dogma and criticize it as such.

But along the lines of St. Paul, there’s a huge difference between belief in what’s unseen (we believe in many things that are unseen) and belief in things that scientific evidence is strongly against.

For example, I don’t believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus).

From a scientific perspective it’s just so highly unlikely.  But adding to this, virgin births are  present in the stories and myths of other religions and cultures.  Is Christianity’s virgin birth true while all other cultures’ and religions’ virgin births aren’t?

What I conclude is that virgin births are a very dramatic element that mean “Hey!!  Listen up!!!  This person is very important!!”  And I do believe that Jesus was and is very important.  Hopefully there can be more depth and public discussion of why.  What did he teach?  How is that different from Christianity?

This was just a bit of what we talked about.  It was amazing, though, to talk with someone who thoroughly understood where I was coming from from both a religious and scientific standpoint.  Each of us experience awe, inspiration, and transcendence through both science and religion.

I look forward to getting to know Fr. Coyne more and am amazed and thankful that our paths that unknowingly overlapped for so long in Tucson now “knowingly” overlap in Syracuse, NY of all places!


7 thoughts on “Father Coyne: Jesuit priest and scientist extraordinaire!

  1. I’ve always enjoyed the science vs faith argument…why cant they coexist? The problem I’ve always had with the “super” faithful is their desire to see the Bible as completely factual. Like the belief that the Earth is only 10,000 years old, that man walked among the dinosaurs, etc.

  2. Ethan,
    This is great! I would love to hear more about your conversation. It is refreshing to see someone delving into human spirituality with such commitment. I often think, ‘am I the only one of m peers who is constantly seeking spiritual experiences and answers?’ It’s nice to know that I’m not!
    Looking forward to more posts!

  3. I have a hard time saying that there is a “scientific” argument against the virgin birth. I don’t think science addresses Jesus’s birth at all. It’s a one-time event and there are no claims that it is representative or repeatable. You have no data from the event, and you can’t run an experiment to test it. Saying that it hasn’t been repeated when it was a one-time situation that wasn’t repeatable…what does that show?

    It isn’t “science” that is against the virgin birth, it’s a naturalistic philosophical world view.

    Now, to toss a wrench into the situation, I think there are very legitimate historical/theological reasons to see the virgin birth as a dramatic storytelling element, which may not have actually occurred historically. 😉

    • Hi Jonathan,

      What I mean is that science is skeptical by definition toward any extremely rare measurable outcome that is not repeatable and testable. The virgin birth is not a qualitative event – it happened or it did not, and if it did happen then either natural laws were somehow suspended or altered, or the miracle was worked through some unknown “natural” cause that only seems supernatural. Many Christians, however, do believe that God regularly intervenes in a similar way as the Virgin Birth: that God is an actual entity with an active will and is supernaturally intervening in ways that go against (or are separate from) the natural law: physics, chemistry, cause and effect as we know it, etc. There have been enough studies of prayer and other supposed supernatural events that show they either did not happen or are not repeatable (because it’s hard to prove that something did not happen).

      With supernatural events supposedly happening all the time, science should be able to observe them. I’m not even talking about controlled experiments. There should be enough observations of supernatural events to draw some conclusions from. I don’t think this has happened.

      I could make up some fantastic event and say science has nothing to say about it, but that’s not very fair. How then do we decide between fantastic events?

      I do appreciate your wrench!! I also consider historical and theological methods to be part of science, as they follow a logical methodology. So in this sense, if science includes historical and theological methods (which is how I see it), then science does still provide a reason not to believe in a literal virgin birth.

      • A more practical and important question is whether belief in the supernatural is an essential element of Jesus. Is it truly a line in the sand which should separate whether or not people engage with Jesus’ message and person? For the most part, Christianity does draw this line in the sand. It generally doesn’t encourage this kind of questioning within its own ranks, and for the most part non-Christians are (or perceive that they are) turned away if they cannot believe in miracles or certain other doctrine/dogma.

        I think that the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about is something real in a sense and something that can be experienced. We could even give it a non-religious name, like a deep interconnectedness or something more culturally relevant like the Democracy of God or Kindom (kin = family) of God (the kindom thing actually appears in a lot of theology).

        When Christians mistake the finger for the moon (to borrow from the Zen koan) are they not also shutting the door of the kingdom on themselves and others? Jesus really, really, really disliked this.

      • I think the historical is certainly a part of Christianity. I think that science can inform the historical, but I don’t make the same connection between scientific results and discounting all possibility of all miraculous events that you do.

        When I took the “History of Science and Religion in the West” course at Mudd, I remember that an atheist in the class (she lived in East, was really outspoken, I forgot her name) did her special report on those prayer studies. She came to the interesting and fair conclusion that while the studies showed nothing conclusive about prayer, it was sort of ridiculous for a Christian to believe that they would, because a God that was obliged to respond to prayers in that non-relational statistical sort of way would be a fairly ridiculous God. As with many other non-theist voices in that class (Mike Rust was a great example), I found some real insightful and fair wisdom in that analysis.

        I tend to stay away from drawing lines in the sand, regardless of what the lines are. Are you familiar with the centered-set views of belonging, as opposed to closed-set?

        • Jonathan,

          I disagree with her! If prayer did *sometimes* result in healing, like for instance, when it was “genuine”, when the person was “spiritual enough” or when “God felt like answering it” (whatever those criteria are, so that we ourselves *aren’t* in control of when prayer is answered) we should still (!) see and be able to measure the effect. Maybe healings only happen 5% of the time, or even 0.01% of the time. If the studies are done right, even a small rate like that could be found to be statistically significant.

          I’m not familiar with the exact terms you’re using about centered-set and closed-set, but I imagine it has something to do with being inclusive or respectful even when people believe different things or disagree about some things.

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