Forum: Religion and the Planetarium
Richard H. Shores
Shores Consulting Services
108 Thompson Lane
Nashville, Tennessee 37211
During or after a presentation, we often ask questions, answer questions, and hear comments from our audiences on a wide range of topics. One of the most difficult areas to deal with are religious comments and questions from members of the audience. I posed the following question to a number of planetarians and asked them to respond:
Sometimes, members of the audience bring up religious explanations for astronomical topics such as "God did it,” for the rising and setting of the sun, or they will make a comment after a show that they disagree with a particular area of your presentation because it goes against their religious beliefs. How do you handle such comments without alienating the responding individual?
The way I handle these cases is to remind the offended member that science is not by nature opposed to any religious faith.
Science is not an abandonment of personal faith or a denouncement of religious expression. It is an attempt to provide people with a way of looking at the universe around us which is repeatable, uniform and testable. Though the scientific world view works this way (or tries to), the "laws” of science are not (bad pun warning) carved in stone.
This is the way I deal with it: Both science and religion are ways of looking at the universe. Both provide inputs for decision making and action for the practitioner to use (or not). While some science has become dogmatic at times during the human experience, it is—in my opinion—possible for a person of religious fervor to do good science. Science and religion are not exclusive in their existence, but neither are they interchangeable in their practice!
Tom Hocking, FIPS
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Wouldn’t it be nice if the world were sufficiently enlightened that we didn’t have to worry about offending "fundamentalists”-whether the self-appointed scientist who thinks that religion is bunk, or the scripture thumping zealot who sees a satanic plot in every new discovery?
Personally, I try to answer such questions by calmly pointing out that I find no conflict between my scientific and religious beliefs; indeed I find that they complement one another. Some people will never be satisfied with that answer—but that seems to be their problem, not mine.
You might paraphrase Einstein’s comment: "God is subtle, not malicious.” Another favorite Einstein quote: "Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.”
I occasionally give a talk on science and religion called "The elephant is clearly like a rope”—using the story about the blind men trying to describe an elephant to one another as a metaphor for the lack of apparent communication between scientific and religious communities. In that talk I quote from the Bahai tradition: Science and religion are like two wings on which humanity will take flight. With only the wing of religion we risk falling into superstition. With only the wing of science we risk falling into blind materialism.
Dr. George Spagna
Department of Physics
I can accept nearly any religious explanation for an astronomical event because I can think of it as a cultural viewpoint that must be acknowledged and respected. We can present many viewpoints that differ from conventional "scientific wisdom”—from Australian aboriginal cosmology, to Navajo views of nature, to Chinese geomancy, to Christian, Moslem or Judaic dogma relating to the cosmos. If a certain culture says that the Sun is a Dog, it is not my place to try to convince them that the Sun is not a Dog. It is nearly always fruitless to try to get a person to see an error in logic when dealing with questions of belief.
The more serious problem that I might encounter is when an audience member does not respect MY beliefs. In such cases, I would drop the issue as quickly as possible and claim no belief of my own. More often, though, when I am able to present my own perspective of the universe, most people are open-minded enough to acknowledge and respect my viewpoint, even though they know deep down that what I am saying is totally absurd from their perspective.
University of California, Berkeley
First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Richard S. Cox. I am an educational specialist with Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am also a very devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Although I don’t get many questions regarding this topic, it is something on which I have spent a lot of personal thought time. Of course, my views are my own and not representative of Hansen Planetarium or the LDS church. This is not a prepared response. I am simply writing what I am thinking at this moment.
In a nutshell: Assume there exists a god. We have shown and proven beyond the point of refute that there also exists natural laws which govern Nature. Therefore, either god created the laws when he created the universe, or he created the universe subject to these laws. If he created the laws then they are good and certainly worth our study as part of our understanding of god. If he is subject to the laws then they are independent of him and certainly worth our study as they are the controlling forces in the universe.
Enough joking. If you are dealing with a person who believes that knowledge is bad then you’re out of luck; and there are many people out there who do feel this way. If an angel were to visit them they would cover their faces and hide and the thought of gaining a deeper understanding. Their ‘faith’ lies in their ignorance.
I believe that God gave us a brain and he expects us to use it. He placed us on this world and commanded us to take care of it. How can we take care of the Earth if we do not understand it? Why would there be eight other planets orbiting the Sun, and countless stars in the nighttime sky if we are supposed to avoid looking up? He created us, this Earth, our galaxy, etc. All this for the purpose that we might enjoy it. I find great joy in learning! Now does God have one finger on Venus and another on Neptune, and is he pushing these planets along the sky constantly? Absurd! He set down certain laws and he let the laws govern the motion of celestial objects. He built the machine and then pushed the start button. Does this mean that God is just sitting back and watching? No. He is still actively involved in the development and progress of man. Not one sparrow falls but what he does not notice. We study Mars, Jupiter and Venus. Because they’re there? Possibly. Man has an insatiable desire to explore, to expand his horizons, to learn. But by learning about these other worlds we have dramatically increased our understanding of our own world and the importance of caring for it.
People have often asked why the theory of evolution is taught in religious schools. My answer is that whether or not you believe that explanation for the development of life, you must agree that because of that research our understanding of the bio-diversity of the Earth has increased. We now understand the importance of maintaining that diversity. Life has become more precious to us because we believe more and more that all life is somehow connected. We are all part of the Earth. World peace will result not from hiding our faces from new knowledge but from a more clear understanding that we are all passengers on the same ship.
Ignorance, not knowledge, is the cause of pain and suffering in this world. Ignorance is the tool of the tyrant, the oppressor. Knowledge breeds freedom and happiness.
Religion is a touchy subject. It is based on non-tangible and emotional understandings and proofs. If people want to be offended they will be—regardless of what you say to them. But a person who truly follows the teachings of Christ will be a person of love, honor, respect, charity, and forgiveness.
Science is a pursuit of knowledge. Religion is also a pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately they have developed to be opposed to one another. If there is an absolute Truth, then both science and religion are a part of it and will be in total agreement when the Truth is found.
"God did it that way”? Well, good. But if you think it’s important to understand and learn about God, then let’s understand what ‘that way’ is and why it works so well.
Richard S. Cox
Salt Lake City, Utah
I have had some pretty unpleasant experiences along these lines, but when the person making the religious comment has been more interested in talking than in conversion or confrontation, I have found that questions and comments about religion and science can lead to some very stimulating conversations.
My experience has been that such people have some interesting misconceptions about science that can be used to approach the subject in a friendly way. For instance, many people seem to believe that most scientists are atheists. When someone tells me "God did it,” I often tell them that probably most scientists would actually agree with them, but would then go further to ask the question "How’d He do it?” Assuming that something we don’t personally understand must have been done by a Supreme Being simply replaces one mystery with a bigger one. Since I suspect that the idea that all (or most) scientists are atheists is related to the idea that science itself is atheistic, I also like to point out that science is actually "non-theistic” instead. The methods of science are simply unable to tell us anything at all about the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being; "scientific proof” or either the existence or non-existence of God should be viewed with equal suspicion.
Our job is to present accurately the findings of science, not just the findings that present no conflict with religion so far as we know. Conflict with religious thought is almost inevitable (particularly when we are dealing with the subject of origins), and a special case of this disagreement arises when a visitor makes specific claims attempting to refute science or specific theories. Often the claims sound convincing but are actually unfounded; I think it is important to try to set the record straight, not necessarily for the benefit of the person making the claims—all too often they aren’t interested—but for the benefit of other audience members who might be listening. Allowing invalid claims against science to go unchallenged may well leave a listener with the impression that those claims are unanswerable, and that scientists have far less understanding of nature than they do.
I believe that the role of a Supreme Being in any of the processes studied by science—the origin of the universe, of earth, or of life, for instance—is something that people have to decide for themselves, and that it is absolutely untrue (as some would have us believe) that people have to choose between science and God. Science and religion often get different answers to similar questions because they pursue those answers in different ways, accepting different types of evidence. Both ways reflect our humanity, and most Americans seem to find ways of accepting both their religious ideas and scientific discoveries. Perhaps our role in this is to provide the information they need to help them do that to whatever extent their consciences allow.
David E. Hostetter
Lafayette Natural History Museum Planetarium
I have never had a person refer to God as an alternate explanation to rotation for the sun’s daily movement. However, I have had children and adults in audiences express religious-related objections to the Big Bang origin of the universe as well as the geologic history of the earth. It is natural for people to try to connect past teaching with what they see and hear anywhere, including at planetariums. I think it is better that people "connect” rather than compartmentalize religious and scientific thinking.
I believe that it is important not to appear to belittle "the person”—child or adult—bringing up a past teaching and/or belief. If you are perceived as accepting of the person and his/her ability to decide, you have a much better chance to make an impact with what you say. With a non-defensive (relaxed but concerned) disposition, I usually acknowledge the idea.
Then I say that "it is my understanding, and I have worked hard to learn this, that … (the Big Bang or whatever idea is the scientific one that I think is correct) is what happened. I say something like "Like you, I am interested in knowing the right answer. The answer for me is based on knowing that … (here I give a brief statement of scientific evidence that may or may not be understandable to the objector.) I keep asking myself, ‘What is the right answer and the evidence for the right answer?’ I keep learning, and my understanding changes. I may not know the right answer, but my understanding is based on all I can learn.”
As the planetarian thinks appropriate, it can be helpful to mention that religion and science can and should be applied together to help each human being to develop to his/her greatest potential.
I do not think that we can change the minds of those who do not accept the scientific method applied to astronomy. If a person is inappropriately using religion to deny the science of the universe, he or she has a mind set that, a) shuts out information that does not support the narrow, dogmatic view, b) is stubbornly defensive, and c) strongly resists change.
Dr. Jeanne E. Bishop
Westlake Schools Planetarium
I would like to give special thanks to Jeanne Bishop for her assistance with the phrasing of the Forum question. And thanks go out to all who responded, and found the time from their busy schedules to contribute. If you would like to respond to this or any Forum topic, please feel free to send your contributions to me. I will be happy to publish them!
This article originally appeared in the Planetarian, Vol 22 #3, pages 36-37 & 55, September 1993. The authors have likely moved since. The Planetarian is the quarterly journal of the International Planetarium Society, and this article is copyrighted by the International Planetarium Society. You may print it for personal use and link to this web page from another web site, but the article may not be printed for distribution or reproduced in another web site without permission of the Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.