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Faith and the cosmos: An astrophysicist fields the big questions

Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter talks about a topic during an “Ask a Spaceman” segment. Screenshot from YouTube

(RNS) Paul M. Sutter teaches astrophysics at Ohio State University but reaches a far broader audience through his “Ask a Spaceman” podcast and on social media, where he fields questions — in plain, entertaining and conversational English — from anyone who wonders about the cosmos.

And because science and faith both embrace the biggest of questions of the universe, Sutter sometimes finds himself addressing people who want to know about God, or how they can reconcile science with what they have been taught in Sunday school.

RNS asked Sutter — raised Roman Catholic as the son of a former priest — how he handles these queries, whether science and religion must conflict and what he thought about debate between Bill Nye, aka “The Science Guy,” and creationist Ken Ham.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How often do people ask you religious questions?

Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter is the chief scientist at the COSI Science Center at Ohio State University and the scientist behind the popular 
“Ask a Spaceman” podcast. Photo courtesy of Paul M. Sutter

I get these kinds of questions all the time. Some are antagonistic. But most people are genuinely curious.

I have my own personal rule, which is I never, ever tell people what to believe. And I never, ever tell people they’re wrong. I share with them what I know and how I know it. If someone says, “Well, I think the Earth is a lot younger,” I say, “OK, fair enough. But give me the chance to explain why I think the universe is 13.8 billion years old.”

There’s a century of very difficult work that went into giving that answer and I think that how we got there is far more interesting than the actual number itself. I love the chance to explain that process.

What do you say when someone wants to know how science dovetails with their faith?

These kinds of questions are a lot harder than those coming from people whose faith conflicts with science. Of course I have my own personal beliefs. But when I’m in front of the public I’m not Paul Sutter the human being with complex beliefs. I’m Paul Sutter the astrophysicist. So I’m only going to share what I know from science.

If someone says, “Help me understand the nature of divinity or this section from the Bible,” I honestly can’t help them. They might want to talk to a theologian or a philosopher. I’m in the astronomy department.

But when you tell people you can’t help them with their faith questions because you’re a scientist, aren’t you sending a message that there’s an incompatibility between faith and science?

I personally believe that there is only a conflict between science and religion if you want there to be one. People ask if scientists are religious. I tell them that I personally know many scientists who are atheists, and many scientists who are very devout Catholics, and Muslims and Jews and Hindus — and they all seem to sleep at night and they all are able to get work done and they all are able to pray, if they’re the praying kind. And we all get along.

I bet you often get asked about your own religious beliefs – or perhaps lack of beliefs.

You can ask about my personal beliefs and I don’t share them. In my presentations to the public, you are not getting all of Paul Sutter. You don’t want to hear my views on politics. You don’t want to hear my views on dietary habits and hygiene. I’m not an expert on those.

Of course I have my personal beliefs. But there’s a trust there: I speak publicly as an expert, as an avatar of science, to help people understand science and the scientific process. That is my job there and I don’t want to violate that job.

What about the questioners coming from a more hostile place, challenging science from a religious perspective?

Strangely, when people are antagonistic it’s usually not from a religious perspective. Usually those people are conspiracy theorists who hold wild, crazy ideas about how the universe works — like people who believe that we didn’t go to the moon. I honestly can’t think of a case where someone was very antagonistic from a religious perspective.

Did you watch the 2014 debate between Bill Nye, The Science Guy, and creationist Ken Ham?

Bill Nye, known from his 1990s TV show as “The Science Guy,” tours the exhibits aboard the full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Ky., with Ken Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis. Photo courtesy of Answers in Genesis

I deliberately did not, though I’ve seen snippets of it. I thought it was a mistake — for both of them, actually. If an opportunity — and I’ve had a few such opportunities — does not create an educational moment, then I’m not going to do it.

In that debate Bill Nye and Ken Ham essentially gave side-by-side press conferences and they just spoke to their team. Here’s our contender in one corner for religion and here’s our contender in the other corner for science — and they’re going to battle it out? I think that’s the wrong approach. And that’s a destructive approach. There’s no education there. I don’t know who won but we all lost.

How did you learn to talk to people so they’ll listen?

My dad was a Catholic priest before he became my dad and before he left the priesthood to marry my mom. My uncle is actually still a Catholic priest. So it was in part genetics and part being raised to be able to talk loudly in a room. And after that it was practice. I gave as many presentations as I possibly could.

When I watched your Tedx talk — before I knew your father had been a priest — you reminded me of a preacher. Do you think you sound that way?

The first person to point this out was my wife when I did my very first rehearsal for my TEDx talk (an independently organized talk based on the TED Talk format). She and I and my speech coach decided on this more theatrical approach, which is not my typical approach.

My dad was my biggest supporter and my best critic. He was a great coach. He remained very active in the church and would read at Mass sometimes. He had a very deep voice, a very dramatic presentation. I was probably channeling him.

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

23 Comments

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  • The primary conflict comes from creationists who challenge science where it contradicts the Bible and most of the challenges come from the religious side. I am not aware of any peer-reviewed scientific studies on evolution v creation or the existence of god, etc. Science has no data on how life or the universe originated – science addresses how the first life forms evolved and our knowledge of the origin of our universe ends at a few nanoseconds after the Big Bang. The issue of an intelligent god (Deism not personal gods) bringing this into existence is not the domain of science because there is and likely will never be any evidence.

  • Pronouncing judgement on the Nye-Ham debate while only viewing snippets (30 second sound bites out of a 2 hour debate?) doesn’t sound very “scientific.” More like “I’ve already made up my mind!”

    Whatever…

  • The majority of US scientists are atheists, in fact the more expert, accomplished and renowned scientist the higher the incidence of atheism.
    Don’t forget that most religionists have been regimented and brainwashed since a young child and now are heavily emotionally involved in maintaining their beliefs despite absence of reason or rationality. Don’t forget the Catholic Church holds that all human beings, from the first one to the last one, are tainted with original sin and that religion works by obedience, guilt, repression and fear. Fear of vengeful punishment for eternity in horrible ghastly flames and suffering!
    Sick, truly.
    So rational reasoned scientist by day; irrational unreasoned religionist by night(?!). Yes.
    Science: what is. Religion: what ought to be.

  • The issue has been scientifically settled regards creationism v evolution. All the current sources of debate concern the details of evolution. Note that evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life – that’s another topic that hasn’t and likely can never be settled.

  • People have the ability to compartmentalise – some only a little, some apparently completely and most somewhere on a sliding scale between the extremes. It’s what enables some people to cheat whilst believing they love their spouse; it also allows situations like the guy I knew who was a chain-smoker for up to eighteen months until he walked ashore for several tobacco-free months before repeating the cycle.

    FWIW – I see two reasons why I think that Christianity (all religions?) and science are incompatible.

    1 – Christianity is basically about the primacy of humanity in general and the self in particular. Science says that we are just another animal that, temporarily, is the world’s top predator.

    Christianity claims that god made/oversaw the arrival of the current world through a purposed intent. Part of that is either that humans are the supreme physical beings for whom the world was created or, depending upon their ability to understand evidence, that God guided their development so that they might be able to control and exploit the earth’s mineral and living contents. It’s also about the person’s relationship with their god and about the ultimate destination of their soul.

    Science examines the evidence and the evidence makes it clear that we are an evolved response to random variation moderated by natural selection. Not special, not the result of intent and without any reason to support the existence of either an afterlife or a soul.

    2 – Christianity restricts the possible answers to any question – any question has to be answered, and always is capable of being answered, within the limits of the enquirer’s religious dogma. Science follows the evidence and reaches conclusions which are seldom certain and sometimes, at minimum, inconvenient.

    Christianity cannot allow answers which cast serious doubt upon the existence of whatever lies behind the believer’s particular creed; when it can’t provide a definitive answer, and no-one is able to make one up which will hold water even with the faithful, the default position of you’ll find out when you’re dead/God’s ways are mysterious etc. etc. are deemed answer enough. God is not to be questioned!

    Science tries to start without pre-conditions and consists of a process which accepts human frailty and seeks to minimise our preferences, bias and wishes. The scientific method seldom produces definitive answers and sometimes has to conclude that “we don’t know” is the (current) ultimate answer. The results of the scientific method are there to be questioned, not just questioned but mercilessly challenged – sometimes they are replaced with a better understanding.

    I submit that the day when the scientific method and Christianity (all superstitious belief?) are compatible is the day when superstition dies. (I’m not holding my breath).

    I’d rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned – Richard Feynman

  • So why do you think your God waited 13.82bn years (give or take an oz.) to decide that the magic number would be seven?

  • The Sabbath was given to the Jews who celebrate it from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Why do Christians choose Sunday?

  • As said by Alan Watts – “We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

  • ” Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.”

    Truth is like beauty : It exists only in the eye of the beholder.

  • Semantics. In the end science relies on evidence, religion doesn’t need it and often ignores it. Science makes no claim to truth but tries to build an accurate model of our physical world. Most religion claim to have the truth.

  • Don’t accept your premise “…God waited 13.82bn years (give or take an oz.) to decide that the magic number would be seven?

  • What about Jesus Christ?

    Probably a man who was born in Nazareth to a woodworker and his wife. Felt that the local established religious traditions needed socialising and set out to improve the lot of his fellow humans. Fell foul of the religious authorities who persuaded the Romans to make an example of him.

    He died. – this much may well be true(ish) – other than that we have propaganda, wishful thinking, power politics, invention and lies – all interwoven in a confused and fact-light narrative about an unnecessary and undetectable deity.

    He may have been, by the standards of his day, a decent man – as ever was, ISTM, his intent has been appropriated, manipulated and twisted; then obliterated within mystique, ritual and regulation so that others can make a few bob off their more gullible neighbours.

  • If your God created the universe he did so c. 13.82bn years ago. Why would he hide until a mere few thousand years ago – thus depriving modern humans from receiving the benefits of his input for around a quarter of a million years.

  • ISTM you may be on right track. Sounds like Gandhi who said something like if it wasn’t for Christians, he would probably become Christian.

    The only way we know about Him is because of his followers, many of whom died for promoting Him and His message.

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