Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, Ph.D., 62, is president of the Magis Center (www.magiscenter.com), headquartered in the new chancery office of the Diocese of Orange, California. The center’s goal is to demonstrate that faith and reason and science are compatible, and to combat the increasing secularization of society, particularly among young people.
Fr. Spitzer was born and reared in Honolulu, Hawaii. His father was an attorney and businessman; he was one of five children. His father was Lutheran; his mother a Catholic and daily communicant. He attended college at Jesuit-run Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, initially pursuing a career in public accounting and finance.
He went on a retreat led by Fr. Gerard Steckler, a former chaplain for Thomas Aquinas College, and “he got me very interested in theology and the Church.” He began attending daily Mass and taking classes in theology and Scripture. He bought a copy of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica from a used book store and began reading it. “I saw the solidity of faith in the light of reason,” he said, “and once that happened, I was ready to go.”
He joined the Society of Jesus in 1974, and was ordained a priest in 1983.
Fr. Spitzer is the author of several books, including Healing the Culture (Ignatius Press, 2000), Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life (Ignatius Press, 2008), New Proofs for the Existence of God (Eerdmans, 2010), and Ten Universal Principles (Ignatius Press, 2010), as well as numerous articles for scholarly journals, and has delivered hundreds of lectures. He is a teacher, and served as president of Gonzaga University from 1998 to 2009. He continues to produce an enormous volume of work despite suffering from poor eyesight throughout his adult life (he has not, for example, been able to drive a car for 30 years), which has gotten worse in recent years.
Fr. Spitzer recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: Prominent atheists often frame the debate between themselves and religious people by saying you either believe in “science”—however they may define it—or what they call the fairy tales of the Bible. What response would you offer such a viewpoint?
Fr. Spitzer: To start, I wouldn’t let them get away with saying faith and science contradict one another. We’re privileged to live in a time when there is more evidence from physics for a beginning of the universe than ever before. I made this point to [atheist scientist] Stephen Hawking in 2010, when I appeared along with him on Larry King Live. Stephen knows this. (Watch the discussion online.)
The debate centered on what was before the beginning of the universe. If you say “nothing”, then there has to be a God. You can’t move from nothing to something. Even Larry King got that. He asked another physicist on the program, Leonard Mlodinow, “How about that Leonard, how can you make something from nothing?” All Leonard could do was to equivocate on the term “nothing.”
CWR: Speaking of Stephen Hawking, he made the news recently when he officially declared himself to be an atheist. Do you find atheism widespread among the scientific community, or do a handful of atheist scientists receive a lot of publicity?
Fr. Spitzer: About 45% of working scientists are declared theists. Another vocal group, let’s say 20%, describe themselves as atheists. A third group is the agnostic naturalists. They’re not sure whether or not God exists, but they don’t what to compromise the naturalistic method by believing in God. I wouldn’t describe them as atheists.
CWR: Scientists often marvel at the intricacies of what Christians call Creation, but seem to suggest that these things developed on their own without a Designer outside the system to create them. Do many scientists have blinders on when it comes to God?
Fr. Spitzer: I’m the executive producer of Cosmic Origins, a film which features eight physicists talking about their faith. Owen Gingerich, a well-known astronomer at Harvard University, for example, says, “I can’t prove to you that mathematical intelligibility comes from God, but I’m psychologically incapable of believing otherwise. So, I call it God’s universe.”
Scientific atheists view it differently, but it has nothing to do with science. It never did. Science can’t disprove God. Scientific evidence has to come from observation of things within the universe, and God is outside the universe. How can you use evidence from within the universe to disprove a Being that is outside it? It doesn’t work. It’s impossible, any more than a cartoon character within a cartoon can disprove the existence of a cartoonist outside the cartoon who created him.
No scientist can know the universe so sufficiently to know it doesn’t need a Creator. What Hawking says is pure hogwash. Science must remain open to new discovery. It’s an inductive discipline. It works from particular observations, and we unify those observations with our theories. But we don’t know if our theories have enough data to be complete. Why is that? Scientists don’t know until they have discovered it.
CWR: Often it happens that the majority of the scientific community believes something, and then it’s proven not to be true.
Fr. Spitzer: Yes. It’s called scientific revolution, and it happens all the time.
Hawking is being foolhardy, at best. Scientific atheism is not scientific. It is based on the scientist’s emotional and intuitive decisions, his feelings towards God. An atheist like Richard Dawkins doesn’t want to be responsible to an authority outside himself.
Some people argue that religion has done more harm than good. But that’s not the case. Religion has led to every kind of social good: law, culture, public education, hospitals, humane treatment of widows, orphans and the helpless (and not just to Christians). People point to bad things that religious people have done, but that doesn’t characterize religion, but weak human beings who are religious.
Other people are bitter about suffering in the world. How could a loving God allow it? When they don’t get an answer they like, they refuse to believe in God.
All these are emotional reasons and have nothing to do with science.
CWR: When discussing faith and reason or faith and science is it important to distinguish ourselves as Catholic? For example, we wouldn’t want to associate ourselves with certain literal interpretations of the Bible made by fundamentalist Protestants. There seems to be a tendency among atheists to lump all Christians together.
Fr. Spitzer: Yes, we have to distinguish ourselves. You can’t be a biblical literalist and a Catholic. Our view on inspiration of Scripture is different than a conservative Evangelical view. Some of the things they say really get scientists rankled up.
There are two views on inspiration. There is the typewriter or dictation theory, which says that God dictated to the authors of Scripture their books word-for-word: the truth about everything, about nature, about salvation, all lumped together. God dictates it to the biblical author, and that’s that.
That is not the Catholic view. With us, God works with the biblical author so that he, though inspired by God, is using his categories and concepts that belong to his time and understanding.
The job of the biblical author is to give the truths of salvation, but not the truths about the explanations of the universe. In the 5th century BC, for example, when Genesis was written, it would have been impossible to tell the story of the creation of the world using the modern scientific tools of today. Since the scientific terminology was not available, it was easier to have God say, “Let there be light.” (Actually quite a profound statement, as I reflect on the Big Bang event.)
It’s ludicrous to believe that the writers or readers of Scripture at the time could have understood it using the scientific tools of today.
The purpose of the biblical author was to challenge the four big heresies of the day: 1) that there were many gods instead of one, 2) that the sea, sky, wind and other forces of nature were God rather than creations of God, 3) that human beings were cannon fodder or playthings in the hands of the gods rather than made in the image and likeness of God and loved by Him, and 4) that matter is evil and only the heavens are good, rather than God looking at things He has created and seeing that they were good. Each of these things relate to salvation.
As Catholics, we need to know that the Catholic Church is not against science. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who developed heliocentric theory, was a Catholic cleric. Gregor Mendel (1822-84) was an Augustinian monk and abbot and was a founder of the modern science of genetics. Nicolas Steno (1638-86) was a Danish bishop who was a pioneer in anatomy and geology. Most impressive of all was Msgr. Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), a Belgian priest who proposed the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. These were all Catholic priests. Stephen Barr, a physicist featured in Cosmic Origins, has written about the many priest-scientists who were at the forefront of the development of science.
There are Vatican observatories outside Rome and in Tucson, Arizona; there’s a Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Many Nobel Prize winners are Catholic scientists. It is ludicrous to say that the Catholic Church is against science.
However, the Catholic Church is very different than other churches in regards to science and Scripture. In his  encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII explained that biblical truths are for salvation, and that the Bible pronounces truths necessary for salvation. Science’s role is to determine the truths that describe and explain the universe and nature.
CWR: While Catholics respect the role of science, Catholics also believe that nature’s laws can be suspended to allow miracles to occur.
Fr. Spitzer: Yes. God is not harnessed in by natural laws. He can suspend them any time he wishes. There are miracles all over the place. There are many books substantiating miracles, for example, the miracles of Lourdes. There is a medical commission which has been set up at Lourdes which has documented miracles to the hilt.
CWR: Do you think Catholics feel pressure to compromise their beliefs for fear of being labeled “non-scientific” or even superstitious?
Fr. Spitzer: Yes, unfortunately, but they don’t have to. Science points to the existence of God. This is what the Magis Center is about.
CWR: At a so-called Reason Rally in Washington DC in 2012, “new atheist” Richard Dawkins said about religious people: “mock them, ridicule them, in public.” He specifically mentioned the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist as something that should be “ridiculed with contempt.” Do you think Dawkins is out of effective arguments and has just decided to get mean?
Fr. Spitzer: That is mean! Dawkins has been debated by good scientists and prelates, and has been effectively put in his place. What’s left is for him to air his grieving heart. It’s not scientific. What he’s talking about is breathing contempt. And when someone wants to breathe contempt, there’s something amiss, something antithetical to love and peace. People need to pray for Dawkins. He wouldn’t like that, but it’s what he needs.
CWR: A section of the Magis website has an interview with Dr. Pim von Lommell talking about life after death and near death experiences (NDE). Explain what an NDE is, and why you give it the attention you do.
Fr. Spitzer: Many of our kids today are closet materialists, and there’s no faster way to change their thinking than by introducing them to NDEs. NDEs can occur when someone has a heart attack, is clinically dead for a time, and then revived. By clinically dead, we mean that for a brief period a patient has no electrical activity in the cerebral cortex, and little, if any, electrical response in the brain. In this situation, a person cannot be conscious, cannot see, cannot hear, cannot engage in cognitional activity, cannot remember and cannot recall. About 20% of people who have undergone clinical death who have been gone for over 30 seconds make extraordinary claims about their experiences during death.
Their “trans-physical” form leaves their physical body and winds up looking at the physical body away from and above the body. They are able to see, hear, experience consciousness, recall, move (even through walls) and defy gravity. Whatever this trans-physical form is, it is living.
CWR: Is it the soul?
Fr. Spitzer: Catholics would call it the soul, but for the materialist, I’d call it a trans-physical form. But whatever it is, it is self-conscious and remembers what is going on, despite the fact that clinical death has occurred.
We can verify these claims from the reports of the people who have had NDEs and can report on unusual data that can be corroborated by researchers. For example, a man is dead and someone removes his dentures and puts them in a drawer. He is revived, and he knows without being told where the dentures can be found. How could he have known? The only way is that he observed them being removed while in a trans-physical form.
Or, a person dies and in an out-of-body experience she passes through the walls of the hospital and sees an old shoe on a third floor ledge outside. She is revived, and tells the doctors about her experience. Someone crawls out on the ledge and finds the shoe. Both of these are real-life examples.
Eighty percent of blind people who undergo a NDE report that they were able to see for the first time. Others report “going to the other side,” seeing God, or a white light, or Jesus, or loved ones who have died. Once they come back, they tell us they no longer have a fear of death.
I indicate on our Magis website, however, that I report on NDEs with some trepidation. All such experiences need to be corroborated by researchers. Some who report NDEs could have an agenda and be lying.
CWR: What is the background to the work done by the Magis Center?
Fr. Spitzer: PEW surveys indicate that 34% of young people have no religious affiliation or belief in God, as opposed to 20% for the general population. This number is up from 24% 10 years ago. In other words, we’ve been losing young people at 1% per year. These numbers ought to shock everyone; some of these are Catholic kids who no longer believe.
Now, these are not people who say, “I’m bored with Church” or “the priest was mean to me in the confessional,” but who say, “I do not believe in any religion.” This is different than anything we’ve seen in the history of the country. We’re experiencing an incredible secularization of our culture.
I recently gave a lecture at USC. A young man came up to me and said, “I recently ‘converted’ to being an agnostic, but I have to say that this was the best lecture I’ve ever heard. You changed my mind.” This is central to the work of the Magis Center: giving young people the information they need so they can believe. We need to get scientific apologetics information to our kids. We need to stop the hemorrhaging and keep good, analytical kids from walking out the door. It’s particularly bad in parts of the country that are less religious.
In 2009, I wanted to develop a contemporary apologetics program for Catholic high schools. I approached [Catholic philanthropist] Tim Busch and asked his help. I worked out of his office in Irvine, California, until recently when we moved into the new chancery office of the Diocese of Orange (the Bishop of Orange, Kevin Vann, is on our board of directors).
I’ve written much of the material for the program myself, and I’ve been approaching Catholic high schools to ask them to include our program. I argue to the kids that faith and reason, and faith and science are compatible. I also reach out to religion teachers, who are often uncomfortable with talking about science.
Besides high school, we have programs for colleges, parishes and an internet audience. If you visit our site we offer much free material, and there is a store where you can buy additional resources. Our four landing pages are: faith and science, happiness and suffering, virtue and freedom and the reasonableness of Christianity.
Right now, I travel extensively to give presentations. It is my goal to be able to give webcasts, where I can sit in my office and present material all over the country, and to train a speakers bureau to give presentations.
CWR: What are your needs?
People who are interested in joining our speakers bureau should email us through our website. Parents and teachers should look at our material on our website, both to teach their children, and to be marketing agents for us to high schools. We hope they’ll knock on the doors of religion teachers, or ask their parish staff to make us part of their Confirmation program. We also welcome prayers, and are in need of donations to continue our work. We will certainly put any donations to good use.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!