God's Mechanics: The Religious Life of Techies

Uploaded by GoogleTechTalks on 16.08.2010

MATT: Thank you all very much for coming today. Thanks as well to those of you who are joining
us on VC. My name is Matt. I'm one of the folks here who works on our space related
products in our 20% time, moon, Mars, sky and so forth. I'm here today with the great
privilege of introducing an astronomer extraordinaire who works at the Vatican Observatory. When
I was first telling people about this talk, I was struck by the number of people who weren't
aware that there was a Vatican Observatory. We live that time in America when there seems
to be a sense that science and religion are fundamentally irreconcilable, but the Vatican
Observatory has been proving that idea wrong for centuries. Here, to talk about that relationship
between science and religion and the practitioners of both is Brother Guy Consolmagno who is
astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and author of a number of books and papers and
so forth both related to astronomy and to the relationship of science to religion. There
are a couple of his books down up front, if you want to take a look. And learn more about
what he's talking about, without further ado, I give you Brother Guy Consolmagno. Thank
you. >> CONSOLMAGNO: Thank you. Thanks for having
me here. Before I get into the talk itself, I wanted to give you a little film clip to
tell you something about the Vatican Observatory just so that you have a feeling of what it's
about. And this was a film made at our observatory last September when we dedicated the new Observatory.
>> Benedict XVI blessed the new headquarters of the Vatican Observatory. It's a new set
of buildings about a mile from the old headquarters, south of Castel Gandolfo. The Pope was accompanied
by the Jesuits that direct the observatory. They showed him around the new installations,
telescopes, and pieces of media rights from their collection. The Vatican Observatory
changed its headquarters because they required the more space to accommodate the large number
of students and researchers that work there. Before, the observatory was in the summer
residence of the popes. But for security reasons, the number of visits were limited. The new
center has a conference room, more classrooms, a library, and a space for the Jesuit community
a bit separate from the space from students and researchers. But the large part of the
activities of the observatory are done at another center in the Arizona dessert. The
observatory in Castel Gandolfo is still a point of reference for astronomical investigation.
With their observatory, the Vatican is securing a place in the area of world astronomical
research. >> CONSOLMAGNO: Well, two stories about that
little visit, the observatory has been in its current form since the 1891. We've moved
a number of times. We've most recently moved into these beautiful new quarters which are
air-conditioned and the Jesuit residents upstairs has more than one shower. We used to be in
the Pope's home which was a castle built in 18--in 1590 by Maffeo Barberini who later
became Pope Urban VIII who was that pope who called in Galileo. And Maffeo Barberini's
residence now is an astronomical observatory, which is kind of nice. But the Pope, when
he came, first of all wanted to know about the piece of Nakhla that I showed in the Mars
media, right? Of course, he wanted to know why--how it came from Mars. And I explained
to him as I'll explain to you, [SPEAKING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE]. At that point, we switched
to English. The other thing was at the end of the talk and as he's going out and shaking
hands of everybody who works there--you know, just a typical head of state come to visit--he
shakes my hands and he sees my hand where the big ring is. "I didn't know you were a
bishop." I said, "I'm not a bishop, I'm only a brother. I'm an MIT graduate." A month ago,
when I was buying this suit, exactly the same thing happened. I was at the Vatican department
store. I walked in, the guy says, "You'll want this size," hands it to me, "Don't bother
putting it on. Trust me, it fits." And then he said, "Oh, we got these wonderful bishop
robes." And I'm going, "No, no. It's an MIT ring." "MIT?" Bishops he has by the dozen,
but he had never met an MIT grad before. So there's a wonderful thing about having a brass
[INDISTINCT] out there. What I want to actually tell you about in this talk began not with
science but science fiction. It started at a science fiction convention in Chicago, about
seven years ago. And it was after, you know, a long, fun, exhilarating day at the convention,
that an old friend of mine, from my MIT days, and her husband caught up with me with a surprising
question. "Could you explain to us how you make this religion thing in your life work?"
Okay. Now, they understood that a person like me who's a Jesuit brother and an astronomer
could exist because after all, I do exist. But they wanted to know, in a very practical
way, "How?" What are the nuts and bolts of how I make my religion and my science all
work together? And they were interested in it, they were interested in religion at this
particular point in a way that they never were when we were all just punk MIT engineers
together, is that they were getting older. They were raising a family. And they were
asking me because along with me being a Jesuit and a friend, I was also like them, a techie.
And they got me wondering. Actually, what does religion look like to a typical techie?
Now, what's a techie? A techie is someone who makes their living as an engineer or a
scientist, sure. But it's even more than that. It's someone whose orientation to the world
is pragmatic, logical, functional. Where an artist who's going to ask, "Is it beautiful?"
Where a philosopher is going to ask, "Is it true?" The question behind the techies world
view is, "How does it work?" Techies see the world in terms of processes to be understood,
jobs to be done, problems to be solved. And--there's a common assumption out there that most techies
are atheist, or at least skeptics and, you know, no doubt, obviously, a lot of them are,
but equally, a lot of them are not. With these endlessly boring debates between science and
religion, there is a simple fact that often gets overlooked. An awful lot of scientist
and engineers also happen to be church goers and even the non-church attendees are living
in a culture that is saturated with religion and they--and we are fascinated by it. I'm
on a list serve with a bunch of friends who are mostly engineers and science fiction fans
in Chicago and a couple of the people on the server are--on our list--are Orthodox Jews.
And there is more fascinating questions about how do you make this rule work? How do you
do that? It's not an issue of religion, it's not an issue of belief, but just, oh, a set
of rules. How do these rules get applied? This is cool. A few years ago, I was invited
to lead a certain Bible study group in--I'm thinking--yeah, Catholics, we don't do Bible
study, thank you. A Bible study group in Houston--I'm going, "Whoa," especially in Texas, we don't
do Bible study--a Bible study in Houston with a bunch of astronauts. "Astronauts? I could
do that. Yeah, that's cool." Actually, it turned out half the astronauts in the group
were Catholics, so much for that. But there was this one guy who was not a Catholic, who
volunteered to me that he wanted it clear, right upfront, he was a seven-day creationist.
You know, strict, he was solid in his belief, the universe was absolutely created exactly
the way it was described in the Bible, word for word. And, you know, I wondered to myself,
like, "Had he ever actually read Genesis? The bit where it says the world is flat and
there was a dome and water above and below the dome," you know. Where does the shuttle
go? How come it doesn't get wet?" And then, he told me what he had done for a living before
he was an astronaut. He was a test pilot and it hit me. You know there's a--a test pilot
is not the kind of guy you'll want who's going to creatively interpret his written instructions.
There's an awful lot of jobs where a rigid literalism is actually part of the job description.
You just don't want those people to go with you to the Museum of Modern Art. And part
of that comes out of our techie culture and, in fact, there's a bigger issue underlying
this literal mindset more than being able to puzzle out the subtle meanings of the Scripture,
or the subtle meanings of paintings. It speaks to the serious misfit between the typical
techie and the typical church. A hundred years ago, for example, the Catholic Church in America
was the church of immigrants. It was a blue-collared church. It was a church of factory workers,
laborers. And a lot of the things that the church would set out to do were dealing with
the problems and the issues and the mindset of being an immigrant, being an outsider,
having to work 12 hours a day to support your family. So you had, you know, big emphasis
on schools, big emphasis on getting people to rise economically. Nowadays, the economy
of the world is dominated by high tech. I don't have to be here to point that out to
you guys. And thanks to all those Jesuit Universities, a lot of the laborers of a hundred years ago
have grandkids who are now people working at places like this; the children--the grandchildren
of the Polish immigrants, and the Irish immigrants, and the Italian immigrants. Unfortunately,
I don't see a whole lot of evidence that my church is responding at all to the needs of
techies. Religious instructors, retreat directors, the kind of people I ran into when I left
my technological job and enjoining the Jesuits, they spend an awful lot of time trying to
develop what they call the affective side of our personality which most of us here is,
"Yeah, I don't want to be affected." No, that's not what they meant. It's the part that speaks
to our hearts, our inner most desires, that's challenging enough for a poet. For a techie
who has no idea what the hell you're talking about, such preaching just sounds like gibberish.
A techie friend of mine described once--he was going to a retreat and the retreat director
said, "Image yourself as a rosebush." So he's thinking--I guess the retreat director said,
you know, realize that you can be both a beautiful flower and pretty prickly and thorny at the
same time--I don't know what they were thinking. My friend spent the entire time saying, "Okay,
what kind of rosebush? What kind of image? What would be the right f-stop?" Another case,
an engineer friend of mine decided he wanted to marry a Catholic. He figured, "Well, maybe
I ought to be a Catholic." So he asked me to be his sponsor and I went to all the classes
with him; oh, you know, the RCIA, the Religious, something, Instruction for Adult. I can't
even remember what it stands for. And there was a nun who taught it and had been really
good in talking a whole lot about how you can learn to appreciate and get to know how
God loves you. And my engineer friend, week after week, was getting more and more frustrated.
And finally, after about a month, he said, "Okay, what's with all these stuff about God
and love? What am I suppose to do? When are they going to tell me the rules?" And that's
the techie question. How does it work? Well, you know, if you got to talk to techies, you
go where the techies live. So in April and May of 2005, I was doing a Jesuit program
called Tertianship which is a kind of spiritual sabbatical that Jesuits take after you've
been in the order 15 years or so. And so I actually moved up to Sta. Clara University,
you recognize this is Silicon Valley. You could probably see yourself there. I spent
six weeks driving up and down U.S. 101 between San Jose, San Francisco interviewing friends,
and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, scientists, and engineers, anybody
who said that they'd be willing to talk to me about their religious beliefs or their
lack of belief. I probably talked to about a hundred different techies at that time.
And out of that, I collected 25 stories that are in the book and I want to share some of
them with you. All the names are changed so that I don't embarrass too many people and
so I didn't have to get their permission to use their stories. I'm really embarrassed
because one of the people is--that I wrote one of the stories about, is in the audience
now and I didn't ask his or her permission. But that's all right because I spent the morning
with Brian who's a science comedian. He was complaining about how people steal jokes and
I'm thinking of all the jokes I stole that are in my book. But these things are, you
know, one more thing to talk about in confession next week. The names have been changed and
they're in alphabetical order, in the order in which I interviewed people. So it's Tuesday,
it's mid April, I've taken the CalTrain in the BART up to Berkeley, and I'm sitting with
Allen and Beth; an astronomer and a medical doctor. They're in a shambling hundred year
old house and some lumpy furniture, the house is full of character, there's this explosion
of toys and books only some of which belong to their kids, and Allen and Beth are church
shopping. Just like my friends from MIT, they're facing the same issue of choosing a religion
for their family. The needs and the desires of the kids are what's driving the issue;
kids are growing up pretty fast, not a whole lot time, it's a decision they can't put off
much longer. So what are the product features that you're looking for in a religion? To
Allen, the intellectual content of the religion is what's important. Beth says that what she's
looking for is more emotional content to the liturgies; you know, chants and drums, that
sort of thing. But it's clear that Allen would be put off by bad liturgies and Beth by fraudulent
theology. Beth is looking for a sense of mystery which she says she feels lacking in the Unitarians
that they visited. Allen was raised a Unitarian, she also describes him as kind of sterile.
On the other hand, Allen was put off by the Quakers as being too flaky. Beth notes, "Maybe
that's just the flake--the Quakers you get in Northern California." The editor of my
book was a Northern California Quaker who got a good laugh out of that. And yet, even
to Allen and his desire for an intellectual foundation to their religion, the core beliefs
of any given religion are not so much things to be believed as only as things to be not
disbelieved; things that are at least not unbelievable. They're not looking for a religion
that's closest to the truth. They don't think they could make that judgment because they
don't know the truth. They can't make that kind of fine distinction. They just don't
want to belong to a religion that's obviously wrong. So what religions do they think are
obviously wrong? I asked them. Since that review, I've gone around, asked people all
over, I'll ask you guys; two religions, including the two my friends came up with, are always
mentioned as obviously wrong religions in the mindset of a techie. Any guesses?
>> Scientology. >> Scientology, number one. Absolutely. The
other religion that they thought was obviously wrong if you're a techie?
>> Mormons. >> Mormons, number two, which is really odd
because my thesis adviser at MIT was a Mormon. So it's clear that there are a lot of Mormons
who are techies. But for the non-Mormon techies, Mormonism looks really strange, and I think
they're used to that fact. The features that you go looking for when you're shopping for
a religion depend on the functions you're asking the religion to perform. You know,
if your religion is supposed to bring you closer to God, then that implies a deeper
question. So what? Why would you believe in God? To the techie, the question isn't so
much a search for the proof of God's existence but rather, even if God believes or not, what's
the benefit of bothering to care if God believes or not? And after a lot of these interviews,
I find believing in God is useful to a techie, very pragmatic, because, for one thing, it
answers Leibniz's famous question: "Why is there something instead of nothing?" It's
not the only answer, it's not the only possible answer, but it is an answer that works. Oh,
okay. For other people, other techies, it's useful because having a religion allows you
to orient yourself in the universe. It gives you the benchmarks. It allows you to have
a direction in life and to know whether you're making progress or not. And for some people,
it's just a response to those questions you have at 3:00 in the morning when you're wondering,
"What's it all about? What am I supposed to be doing and how come nobody's told me that?"
It's what the theologians call 'a longing for the transcendent'. More from my notebook.
Carol and David, both are scientist at NASA Ames. I'm sitting in their home outside of
Mountain View. It's a Wednesday evening. It's about a week after I gone up to Berkeley.
Carol and David are older than my friends Allen and Beth. Their home is more sparsely
furnished. Over a mantle on the fireplace, there's two framed pictures; his adult kids
and her adult kids. Now, Carol describes herself as a liberal Methodist, and David as a none
believer. And Carol says that she uses her belief as a way of orienting and structuring
her life, and as she says, "Believing in God makes me a better person that's why I continue
to believe," which sounds like a very functional answer. But to both of them, the most compelling
reason for belief is in fact that internal urge that makes you look for the transcendent.
Even David admits that he can be moved in uncomfortable ways when he's attending church
with Carol on, you know, Christmas and New Years. But David is still an atheist. And
he says to me, "You know, I was raised a Presbyterian, and in my early 20's, I went to this, you
know, youth group in our Presbyterian church. And one day, the minister brought in a rabbi
and a catholic priest. And they are both really good, and actually, our minister was really
good. But I was realizing I was very puzzled, because I realized, they can't all be right.
So it seemed to me the only logical possibility is that none of them are right." Now, when
I tell non-techies that anecdote, they break out laughing. When I tell techies that anecdote,
they go, "Yeah, I could see the point." I feel it myself even though I understand why
it's actually not logical. It does say something about techies make snap judgments about new
theories. But it also, you know, approaches a fundamental puzzle to the techie mindset.
If all religions are trying to get you to relate to the same one true God, how come
there's so many of them? So I talked to a guy at the Santa Clara campus; I'll call him
Ian. Ian is an engineering professor. He's Eastern Orthodox Christian. He teaches a course
for engineers that examines religion using the mathematical theory of chaos. Okay. To
him, different religions are different series approximations to the truth. I don't think
I have to explain what series approximation is, here. You know, some religions converge
in the truth faster than others. Some actually get close for awhile and then diverge. It's
a classic case of using techie language and techie experience to make sense of religion.
The trick comes up again a day after I talked to Ian. I signed out the Jesuit community
car, not that. I drive up Route 101, almost into San Francisco, and then peal off into
the rather ordinary suburban neighborhood of South San Francisco. The only thing that
tells me I'm not back in Detroit where I grew up is I can smell the salt from the ocean.
Driving down a street of cookie cutter houses, in front of one, there's a BMW microbus; up
on blocks, it says 'free Huey' on the side. You know, it's something you do with Huey
and Dewey, I don't know. No Sapphire Sign Theodore fans in the audience? You guys are
way too young. Anyway, I'm calling him Jules in the book. This is the one guy, he is so
distinguishable that I realized I had to get his permission. And I was originally going
to call him Justin and he said, "Don't name me for a boy singer." So he's a science fiction
fan; I'm going to call him Jules. He's a Caltech graduate. He makes his living as a professional
photographer. He combines artistic talent with his techie abilities in the dark room
to produce these incredible visions of nature and they were all around us as we were sipping
tea in his living room. I remember, I went and he just, "Would you like some tea?" So
we go into the kitchen, he opens the kitchen cabinet, and there are 27 unmarked jars of
little leafy powders. And he says, "Every one of them is tea and this is [INDISTINCT],"
I'm assuming every one of them is tea. And, you know, he could tell, "Okay, I'll take
the [INDISTINCT], fine, great." Which [INDISTINCT]. Yeah. We're surrounded by a thousand vinyl
record albums, dozens of paintings, a couple of original cartoons by artist friends of
his, and he's sitting there in this big, wide, bright Hawaiian shirt with a big peace sign
on a chain that's--peeking out from underneath his beard, except the shirt's a whole lot
wider than it was in 1968 and the beard is a lot grayer. But other than that, you know,
I'm back in time. And I described my project to him. And we talked about it for a while.
Like me, he sees himself as a techie, but a techie plus--a techie plus someone who's
part of the community, and yet able to step out of it, and look back, and ask questions
from the outside. So, being a couple of techies, we start enumerating all the different ways
you can approach the question of why are there so many different religions. We come up with
five classes of ideas. Number one; they can't all be right, so they must all be wrong; you
know, my friend David, the astronomer. Number two; they are all right, they're just different
descriptions of the same thing. All churches must be equally true because they all teach
essentially the same thing; content equals rules. If all your churches come up with the
same rules, they must all have the same content, and therefore they're all the same. I saw
that, in a friend of mine who was a Seventh-day--how do I put this? He'd been raised a Catholic.
He left the Catholic Church because it had way too many rules. Then he married someone,
and joined her church, and now he's a Seventh-day Adventist. Talk about too many rules. Number
three; different religions are like different computer operating systems; which one is right
for you depends on how you're wired. In other words, the choice of the religion you follow
depends on your personal history, your internal needs, your genetics, the general question
of what you're trying to get out of the religion. And that's not the same as saying they're
all the same because there is one religion that's right for you because you're wired
different from the guy over there. And like different computer operating systems, some
religions have more features than others, but at the cost of a higher overhead, and
the greater possibility of bugs. That sounds like my friends, the church shoppers. Number--I've
actually getting [INDISTINCT]. Number four; different religions are different approximations
to the truth; some approximations converge faster than the other, and we've heard that
before. That's different from number two or three because it suggest there actually is
one religion that converges the fastest, that really is better, at least, in a functional
sense, if not necessarily true or in the long run. And number five; different religions
are like different kinds of the physics. You know, Aristotelian Physics is perfectly common
sense, but it actually isn't very accurate and it's a whole lot less useful and powerful
than Newtonian Physics, and most engineers get by fine with Newtonian Physics. But in
the long run, in the really difficult cases, Newtonian Physics fails. And then you have
to go into Quantum Physics, and who knows, maybe there's steps beyond that. So people
have different religions and seem to get by just fine with different religions until they
come into one of those places where the less true version fails them. Of all the five versions,
that's the only one that says, at the end of the day, "Only one religion really matches
the truth in all of its completeness." We can argue of course about which religion that
is. I'm a Catholic and a Jesuit, and you can kind of guess where I came from, but I happen
to know a lot of techies who would give me a good argument in the other direction. I
talked to students, to professors, to young Turks, to senior executives, to theoretical
scientists, to engineers; a lot of differences among them. But I do see a lot of common pattern
in my interviews. The typical techie has serious questions about truth and religion when they're
in college. It's usually a 'he' of course--so there's more women techies today than there
used to be. I have this picture--does any anybody here recognize what that is? You bet
you. That's the MIT chapel, and right behind it is the dorm I lived in. You can see my
room, with the large speakers in it, off to the left. That's Bexley Hall. I gave a talk
once with a bunch of MIT types, who said, "You're wearing a collar like that and you
lived in Bexley?" I go, "Well, yeah." He goes, "Boy, you really did take drugs seriously
when you were there." What can I say? Not true. Okay. So the typical techie has serious
questions about truth when he's in college. A lot of them abandon organized religion at
that point, though they never necessarily totally abandon the search for God. And then
they get married, maybe they start a family, and they windup going to church again, usually
the wife's church--it doesn't matter if the wife or the husband is the techie, it's usually
her church. However, even though they're back in church, they still never let go of their
skepticism. Just as when they are out of a church, they never let go of their desire
for God. Techies who are old enough to be parents are the ones most likely to be coming
to church, but they don't go there to obtain their values or to obtain their idea of what's
true because by that time, they think they've already got that. Basically, what they just
want is to be in a place where they're comfortable in dealing with those values and truths, you
know, to be challenged but not too much, and a place that will help them to pass those
values on to the kids. The kids on the other hand can be skeptical of organized religion,
but they might still see reasons for believing in their desire to find their sense of meaning,
to help them discover what they're supposed to be doing with their lives, to deal with
those big questions of self identity and defining their own ideas of truth and value. Meanwhile,
there's a lot of other aspects of religion that seem to me would be especially appealing
to a techie but they're downplayed in religion nowadays. For example, the church, my church,
and in various ways, Christian churches, can claim a historical connection to Jesus Christ
and his immediate followers; something that is called Apostolic Succession. You never
hear anybody in the church talk about that anymore, but in fact that guy in the pulpit,
wearing the funny suit who doesn't know how to make the microphone work, was ordained
by somebody who was ordained by somebody who was ordained by somebody, and you can actually
trace back all the way to the original people 2,000 years ago. And if you're Jewish, you
can do it even further. That sounds like arguing from authority and arguing from, "I've got
the power and you don't," and therefore, very unpopular in American culture except when
I had a bunch of scientist friends of mine visiting in Rome--and you can buy a poster
in Rome that lists all the popes by name and, you know, presumably pictures of the ones
we have photographs of. And a friend of mine was just blown away, "You can actually do
that? You can actually name all of them in a continues line?" And I go, "Oh, yeah. You
know, it's, you know, a mean value if they ever have to come from some place." This very--the
sense of the historical credibility is so powerful that there are skeptics who spend
many awful lot of time trying to disprove the lines. "Oh, well, you made up the one
on the middle. You made up..." You know, I really don't care if you made up the one in
the middle or not. That's--as I say, the Existence Theorem tells me that there was a chain. I
don't have to know the names. In fact, the magnificence of Saint Peter's Basilica itself,
which is often an embarrassment to American Catholics, incited a real religious experience--another
scientist who was visiting me, he had come to Rome, he was pretty--brought an instrument.
We were going to observe an occultation. And we had a couple of days free so we went--you
know, did a tour of the sites; going to Saint Peter's. Before he set foot in Saint Peter's,
he had described himself as a fallen away Unitarian. Halfway into the church as he's
looking at the building, he turns to me and he goes, "Guy, the people who built this,
they really believed this stuff." And I go, "Well, yeah," you know, and he's shaking.
And I'm thinking, you know, "There are drugs to help your problem here," but--he went home,
he joined his dad's church, his Lutheran Church, became really active and that he's now teaching
everybody else how to behave just as he was teaching them all. It's fascinating. The power
expressed in the immensity of Saint Peter's, like the Apostolic Succession, is tied into
this greater issue of authority. Ministers in typical churches are very often afraid
of coming across as too authoritarian. They want to, you know, project a humility. They
want to say, "Well, you know, I'm just one of you guys." They tend to want to downplay
their ordained status, the fact that they actually had to study something to begin--a
minister. The trouble is, to most techies, if you think about it, authority carries an
enormous importance and respect. Everybody in this room is an expert in something. "Damn
it all, I know it better than you do." And if you're saying, you know, "I'm a doctor,
not a metaphysician. Damn it all, Jim, it's because I am a doctor," and I respect that
authority and I don't like being called on to being something else that I'm not. And
I respect anybody else who is an authority in what they do and I expect them to know
their stuff. And if they come on to me saying, "Well, you know, I'm just kind of hacking
this together. I really don't know what the hell I'm talking about." You're likely to
take [INDISTINCT] at their word. Then why should I bother listening to you? Why should
I listen to some guy in a dress up on the pulpit who doesn't know how to make the microphone
work? It's interesting that I suspect one of the reasons why Jesuits do well in techie
settings is because everybody knows we've been way overeducated. You know, the typical
Jesuit priest has the equivalent of at least a Masters in Theology and another Masters
in Philosophy along with whatever it is that they've studied, you know, in my case a PhD
in Planetary Science. And so you can say, "Okay, talk to me about the stuff you know
and I'll listen. Try to tell me something about stuff you don't know and I'll squash
you." Fair enough. And there's actually a whole thing in the gospel about the centurion
who says, "I know how to give orders." And he says to Jesus, "I know. Well, you can give
orders." In that same sense, that sense of authority, is something that I swear, more
religious people should get from anybody who's actually trying to tell them something about
religion. "Tell me why you know; tell me what you've studied." And I think it's a legitimate
question that you should ask. Unfortunately, it's tough to go unto a church and ask that
because the guy you're going to ask it is going to see it as an attack rather than--as
the honest question that you and I are really asking. Back to my notes in Silicon Valley.
May 9th, I'm jumping way ahead, I'm talking to Xavier. Xavier's 28 years old; self described
atheist. This is the cathedral where he works. No stranger to religious and evangelical sales
pitches. No stranger to the sense of the power of a centralized authority. He also tells
me that, you know, he thinks most people use membership in a church for that sense of community.
And, you know, at his time in life, he doesn't think he really needs that. Okay. But through
all of my interviews, I've been getting the sense that here we have this marvelous theology
in the Catholic Church and nobody's bothering to take advantage of it. They're joining the
church for, you know, the potluck suppers and the religious education. And my friend,
Xavier, says to me, "People are not going to church for what you're selling. You think
you're selling truth; your customers already have truth. They don't want truth from you.
What you're selling to them is tech support." So is your priest, or minister, or rabbi just
somebody you call in when things are broken? Or maybe you go there for once a week scheduled
maintenance. Still thinking of a repairman, I head off to lunch the next day with the
Ethnologist, Julian Orr. Now, this is his real name. He used to work at Xerox. He studied
the anthropology of office workers. He spent a year dressed up as a Xerox copier repairman,
living with Xerox Copier repairmen, writing his doctoral thesis at Cornell, which he turned
into this book, Taking About Machines. He's retired now. He's raising sheep on the hills
outside of Half Moon Bay, but he was coming into Stanford to visit his acupuncturist,
and so we agreed to chat over a Middle Eastern falafel, [INDISTINCT] in a street café. And
at this point, I've been in Southern--Northern California for two months, and this all seems
perfectly normal to me. He tells me how Xerox Copier repairmen are given thick manuals about
how to fix the machines. But in practice, the manuals are utterly useless. Machines
never break the way they were expected to break back at the home office. There's nothing
in the manual about what to do when somebody leaves a baloney sandwich in the paper feed.
Instead, what they do is they sit around Denny's, waiting for their beepers to go off, and meanwhile,
they trade stories. There is this deep oral literature about how I fixed this, and how
I fixed that, and how I was able to cut a piece out of this tin can, and wrap that,
and made it work. And what they do is that they take the book of rules and they back
engineer from the rules to an understanding of how they think the machines must be working.
Because nobody ever bothered to tell them how the machine works, all they got was this
book of rules. And then it hits me. Isn't that the way that religion practicing techies
deal with the rules of their religion? They over--they agree with the overall general
goals that they hear from the churches even if they don't have a whole lot of respect
for the documentation that describes how to reach the goals. And just like with the Xerox
Copier repairmen, there is this unspoken contempt of people who just follow the rules blindly.
And even more of a contempt to the suits who insist on such a behavior. Just following
a cookbook implies you don't understand the underlying technology. And I find exactly
the perfect illustration of this point a few days later. I'm at Denny's again, as it happens.
I'm talking to Yas. Now, Yas is a scientist in his 40s. He's a devout active Lutheran,
rather conservative one. He's pretty contemptuous of what he refers to as the bubble-headed
Jesus that you get in some churches. He wants serious content to his church. He finds the
presence of liturgy in Sunday communion important but he doesn't really go on about ritual in
general except in one instance. He says the most meaningful liturgy he ever experienced
was in fact his own civil marriage to his gay partner. So there he is, an active and
committed Lutheran, attempting to live--living in a permanent committed gay relationship.
And I can see the way the gears are working because, you know; I know his church doesn't
recognize such relationships, but his church does teach that sexual relationship should
be monogamous, should be committed; that's exactly what he's trying to do. As far as
he can see, he's following the rules even if they aren't the rules that are in the book--the
rules that he's invented for himself in a sense, but the rules that matched the baloney
and the sandwich problem that he was faced with. Just like the Xerox repairmen provide
customer satisfaction with repair procedures that would never make it into the official
manual. There's a side to all of these conversations that surprises and impresses me. It's the
commitment that all of these people have given to their various faiths. You know, we techies
only have so many hours in the day. One way you deal with the fact there's so many different
things we want to do, is to multitask. So, you have your share of science fiction books,
their fantasies, you play games, you listen to music, you go to movies. Yeah, that's a
playtime when you can relax, that's the time when you're with friends. That's also a time
when you could contemplate the big questions of life. You know, what are the kinds of games
in literature that are appealing to us? Role playing games, fantasy and science fiction,
games that are conducive to self-reflection, games that allow us to examine our own goals
and identities, to allow us to--the distance, to feel comfortable in doing all of the above.
You know, when you are immersed in a fantasy novel, when you're struggling with the hero's
ideas of good and evil; when you're listening to Windham Hill music and you got a hi-tech
sound system; when you're imagining yourself in the life of an itinerant monk, in a role-playing
game, hope you have enough hit points; these are the techie versions of meditation and
prayer. But meditation and prayer is a spirituality which is slightly different from religion.
So what's the role of religion in life? You know, is it just another lifestyle choice;
Starbucks versus Peet's? I think, to a lot of non-techie religions, that's the way it
comes across. I recall, when I was thinking of joining the Jesuits, I was showing some
of their literature to a techie friend of mine who I'd known through the SCA. And she
was an atheist, but she was looking through all these stuff and going, "Hey, I could see
why this could be really appealing. I could see all of these great buildings you live
in, and these marvelous libraries, and, yeah, this looks pretty cool, you know. Except for
all these God stuff here, I could get into this." Going back and reading all of my interviews
of all the people I talked to, reading between the lines, I have a hunch that those techies
who do belong to a church, it's more than just lifestyles or communities. You know,
you're getting something there either that you don't get out of a bowling league. Techies
do have a religious life. When they go to church, it is for something more than what
they get out of going bowling. It is precisely for the God stuff. It's just that they--we,
have a very deep reticence about talking about it even to a trusted friend, even to a family
member, even to themselves. You know what it's like here, if you bring up--if you are
religious, you're not going to talk about it because either they're going to misinterpret
you as some guy who's trying to push your religion on the other fellows, or they're
going to be some of these who's going to push their religion on you which is just as bad,
or you're going to be misunderstood, or frankly, it's none of your [INDISTINCT] damn business.
It's not something you talk about in this setting and I think that's completely reasonable.
It's something else that makes it very hard when you move to a culture where religion
is something you talk about, whether it's the deep south or--I remember in Kenya, the
first three things people would ask you is, you know, "What is your name? What is your
tribe? What is your religion?" If you ask them, are you married and have families, they
get very upset because their family and their wife, that's very private, why do you want
to know? But they'll happily tell you about their religion. It's just a cultural thing
and this is the culture we're in. And yet, because I have the collar and the MIT ring,
I was allowed to bring these questions up to my friends and they were allowed to speak
knowing that I was just, you know--I wasn't even taking notes, I was kind of memorizing
it and typing it when I got back. I'm not making any judgments on any of them; I'm just
curious. The thing that got me when I stepped back after the two months of, you know--there
was not one person to whom I asked my questions about religion who looked blankly at me. They
all knew what I was getting at. I wasn't raising anything new that they hadn't already themselves
thought through, regardless of where their answers came out. There's one more wrinkle
in all of these. In this world, in this technological universe, and the technological vastness of
the future we're living in, curiosity about the world is a basic human trait. Denying
it denies ones humanity. And the ability to understand the world in a scientific sense
empowers the individual. It gives you a habit of mind that looks for cause and effect which
a lot of poor people don't have. They think crap happens and that's all there is to it
rather than saying, "Why did it happen? What can I do about it?" Or, "What can't I do about
it?" So don't waste my time doing that; go some place else. Technology shows us how impossibly
big problems can be broken down into smaller solvable problems. The ability to understand
technology, the ability to be a techie is a social justice issue. I was in the peace
corp. I got fed-up with Astronomy one day when I was 30. I quit my post-doc at MIT.
I said, "I want to go some place where I'm useful." So six months later, I'm in Africa,
and what did they ask me to do? Teach them Astronomy. Why? It's because Astronomy is
one those things that makes us human beings and not just well fed cows. You know, I got
a very, very clever cat. My cat has never wanted to look through my telescope. If you
deny that to somebody, you're denying them their humanity. Okay, a lot of techies are
not really good when it comes to talking about feelings; tough. It's true of a lot of us.
I think the church has to learn how to speak to us and I think those of us who are techies
and members of a church have a responsibility to talk to our church people about talking
to techies because you're the guys who have the cred on both sides of the isle. You know,
set up a telescope in the church parking lot at night and let kids look through the telescope.
Give a talk on Sunday afternoon on the theological implications of Unix and Linux. Whatever.
You know, how can a church expect to reach techies except to meet the techies where they
live. And maybe you can--even teach the minister how to make the damn microphone work. Remember,
Jesus himself was a techie. It's not just that Jesus is male, and single, and smarter
than everybody else around him. And when he tried to fix the world, he got crucified.
Consider, the word technology comes in the Greek word "techne" which to the ancients
represented the mere mechanical fashioning of the physical world as opposed to the more
exalted idea of being a philosopher [INDISTINCT]. No wonder that Jesus, the carpenter, was about
as welcomed among the Pharisees as a plumber in a philosopher's convention. You know, my
fellow techies, we feel just that alienated at times, but still, some of us believe. Yeah,
we're just mechanics; we're God's mechanics. Thanks a whole lot for having me here. And,
oh, I should mention my--the couple who I've--talking to, their younger son just got into MIT. All
right. Thanks for coming. >> MATT: Is this on? Yes. Okay, so we have
time for just a few questions. Please wait for the microphone if you have a question
so that those on the VC or in the future, watching a video, can hear the question.
>> CONSOLMAGNO: And to [INDISTINCT] not just about this, you may want to talk about your
own experience, or maybe you want to ask me about meteorites, or astronomy, or why isn't
Pluto a planet, or, you know, throw it out there and I'll do what I can.
>> MATT: Noel, in the corner, has the first question. Let me just bring this over there.
>> NOEL: So one of the logical conclusions of your talk is that we need a new church
that actually gets closer to the truth and is appropriate for techies.
>> CONSOLMAGNO: The very question implies the truth as if it was a one dimensional aspect.
I think there's lot of churches out there that are close to truth but are doing a really
awful job of communicating it. More than once I've had, you know, friendly settings where
I'll talk about catholic belief and at the end they'll say, "Well, you make it all sound
really reasonable, but I know Catholics really don't believe that because that's not what
I see in the papers." And you do have to realize that the only topic that gets more poorly
covered in the news media than religion is probably science and technology.
>> MATT: Okay, next question. >> So as an agnostic who's married to a catholic
and raising a young son who's going to be raised Catholic, this was a very interesting
talk to me on a personal level. At one point, you spoke though of how the church could stand,
do kind of emphasize it's--how much heritage--the lineage of expertise. And I think one of the
potential flaws in that argument isn't necessarily that--the church isn't--that doesn't necessarily
have the right answers or isn't necessarily an expert because there's this long line of
expertise. It's because it lacks a certain degree of independent verification that someone
else, you know, someone from outside the church can't necessarily look at that and judge independently
or it's difficult to judge independently whether or not they are correct.
>> CONSOLMAGNO: Yeah, the--that's again treating the church as technology. And I would say
that the advantage of going to a church for a philosophical body of knowledge is the same
as the advantage of going to MIT rather than buying a copy of Halliday and Resnick on your
own, and trying to page through it. In theory, you could do the latter, but it's not a very
efficient use of your time. The other point of my expertise argument is that if the church
itself recognized what it is an expert in, it might be less likely to try to speak on
the things that it's not an expert in which has damaged it's credibility in lots of areas.
And so I'm saying this as--you know, I'm not speaking to the right audience today about
that. I'm saying this mostly to my fellow church people, that, you guys will listen
to somebody if you have a reason to believe that they know what they're talking about.
Give us the reason to believe and--you know, people of--you know, one time somebody asked,
"How can you be a Catholic? You have to believe everything the Pope says infallibly." Well,
no, that's not Papal infallibility which is in fact very, very narrow. I'm one of the
few guys who--I can say to my boss, "You're not infallible about all those other things
unlike many of us." To be able to know that a lot of these questions have been thought
through and implications are there that we don't have time to get to on our own, and
that there are twists that I would never have thought on, on my own. Not because I'm stupid
but just because I've got other things to do in my life. That is the utility of belonging
to an organized body of knowledge. >> MATT: Okay, in the back here.
>> Hi, I'm a lapsed catholic and I have two small children. My husband and I are thinking
about starting to take the kids to church, but I don't agree with the church's stance
on birth control or gay marriage, and I'm just wondering, I don't know, how do I overcome
that because it's a real problem for me? >> CONSOLMAGNO: An awful lot--I mean, in--rather
than aiming at those two points--I don't think it's going to be, you know, recorded--well,
all I can say is I'm very sympathetic with the problems. Number one, look at the people
around you who are living that life, and I'm not one who has--you know, I've never had
to deal with those issues, so I don't have the answer. But in general, the body of the
Church and what it's teaching is more than any two or three data points. As a scientist,
I look for the entire cloud of data points. I try to see where the center is, I try to
see where the inherent systematic biases are going to be, where is it coming from, who
are these people, what's important. And a number of things where I don't have the answer
because, frankly, even if this wasn't being recorded, I don't know that I have the answer.
You know, in gay marriage, I've gone around at least 720 degrees on that one, and I'm
probably still spinning because I can see--where [INDISTINCT] I can see, but I can't see, but
I can see. And as I get older, I tend to be more conservative but more tolerant, if you
understand how that works. The way that the--St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit Order
put it as, "Take what comes from the church and try to read it in the most positive light
that make sense with your experience of the universe." What are these guys trying to say?
What is it that they are afraid of? Are the fears legitimate? But at the end of the day,
after you've read, after you've studied, after you've prayed, you have to follow your conscience.
And I can say that, and being recorded, and nobody is going to get me on that because
that's a fundamental point of Catholicism. Catholicism is not following a bunch of rules.
As someone else once said to me, "The church doesn't have rules. The church has teachings."
Rules--you follow the rules or you're not playing the game. Teachings, you go, "Oh,
I never thought of that. Okay." But then you still have to go back and apply it to your
own life. >> MATT: Okay, anymore questions today?
>> CONSOLMAGNO: Nobody wants to know about Pluto? I was on the committee that demoted
Pluto. That's why I mentioned it. [INDISTINCT]... >> MATT: He has entire treaties on his website,
actually, with his position for you to read. >> CONSOLMAGNO: It's all Vatican plot, you
know that. >> MATT: All right then. If there are no more
questions, let's all please thank Brother Guy Consolmagno one more time.
>> CONSOLMAGNO: Thanks for having me here.