When I arrived in Manila in September I was carrying a precious cargo. An album of photographs that were taken probably between the years of 1902-1906 by an English Jesuit, Fr Robert Brown (n.b. not Fr Browne – the Jesuit on the Titanic click ). The photos are a gold mine – taken of the different islands, different missions and different tribal people. They contain a treasure trove of ecclesial, anthropological and environmental information – at a time when cameras were still the preserve of the enthusiast, not commonly used. The Jesuit research institute here in Manila, ESSC (Environmental Science for Social Change), is currently making a digital archive of them, as they are particularly interested in how the pictures give a record of Environmental Degradation, and also an invaluable ethnic record of tribal life, dress, customs. The important lesson for me is the story of these men and how their work presents the true face of the relationship between science and religion, which is currently being distorted by fundamentalists on both sides of the argument.
Each of the men in the photograph have fascination stories to tell – and maybe if time permits we can cover them. But focusing on Fr Brown first. Fr Brown was sent as a scholastic to the Manila Observatory to help the transition from the hands of the Spanish Jesuits ( Spain being the departing colonial power) to the arrival of the American Jesuits (the arriving colonial power). The Manila Observatory had distinguished itself for the first accurate warning and tracking of Typhoons in Asia. Fr Faura (not pictured) had successfully tracked and warned of a Typhoon in July 1879 that hit the North. So when he warned of typhoon to hit Manila in November many lives and ships were saved due to his warning being heeded. The prestige of the Observatory was so great when the Americans arrived that they turned it into a Central Bureau with 50 observatory stations. The Jesuits received grants from the government and observations were shared amongst the Bureaus. Fr Brown’s job in the transition was to translate the books of the impressive Fr Algue on cyclones. As well as this work and his photographs, Fr Brown took over Fr Stanton’s work on investigating insects on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. Many of these insects were ill-disposed to the local crops – so it was another example of invaluable Jesuit scientific work. In fact Fr Brown discovered a new genus and 11 new species of Hymenoptera. It is delightful to read in his obituary to other Jesuits that, “A member of the Society bitten by the Brownius Armatus or the Clostocerus Brownii may take comfort from the reflection that they are named after a member of the province.”
Why do I mention all this – well I was prompted to because yesterday I was sent the picture to the right. It seems ironic to me that Richard Dawkins – and many of the ‘new’ Atheists – don’t even seek to understand the complex phenomenon that is religion. They use a parody of Religious Fundamentalism – and generalise from this to dismiss all forms of religion or belief in God. Surely this is a crass methodology. In fact surely he is guilty of the same kind of ignorance and bigotry that he (rightly) points out in some forms of religious fundamentalism. There are many counter examples - The Jesuits and the Manila Observatory is only example. What about the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – or the fascinating work of physicist/ priest John Polkinghhorne, or the valuable work of the Templeton foundation.
As any good Catholic will tell you in the words of Anselm that healthy religion is about ‘faith seeking understanding’ . Benedict XVI has made it a big theme of his papacy – the importance of the relationship between faith and reason – especially as a counter to religious terrorism. This debate is crucial, so it is a shame that in the age of soundbites it is being dominated by the likes of Dawkins, who according to Tina Beatties excellent book ‘The New Atheists‘ presents the so called ‘new atheism’ as intellectually limited and culturally parochial. The new atheists are railing against a God created in their own image – Beattie: ‘Dawkins’ God is as much a thoroughly modern English bully as an ancient supernatural tyrant.’
I just wish that the voices of people like Polkinghorne could be heard more above the din.