Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Holy Exhibit B: Los Alamos

Here's the second part of my Round Robin entry for the topic "Holy," posted just a little late. I could have gotten it in sooner, but instead I got caught up reading a long thread about fanfic on Making Light. Sorry! Onward....

Last night we looked at Sedona, Arizona, and the way a red rock mesa can inspire people to very different paths in considering what is holy, the how, the who and the why. For some people, all that beauty is nothing more than the happenstance of faulting and folding. Others see a Maker behind the process, operating directly or indirectly. Still others imbue the rocks themselves with mystical properties.

The exterior of Jacob's church pays tribute to
natural beauty with a man-made waterfall.

People in Los Alamos, New Mexico, by and large, seem to take a more orthodox approach to such things.

Exhibit B: Los Alamos, Then and Now

As you may recall, the reason for my trip to New Mexico last weekend was to witness my 9-year-old godson's First Communion in the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, I extended the trip a bit so I could hack around a bit on the way there and on the way back. But really, the point of the exercise was to see Jacob for the first time in about four years, and to fulfill my role as his godmother.

Jacob (left) prepares to receive the Eucharist for the first time.

So I bought Jacob a few little things at the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, and headed out to Los Alamos. Jacob's reaction to the little religious cards and medal was classic: "I have just the box to put these in!" Good thing I brought the Aragorn figure as well.

Jacob and his certificate, memento of the day. The pastor reported
that one child hoped to stop sinning after receiving Communion.

Anyway, Sunday morning came, and I struggled to get to the church on time, having been up most of the night. Jacob's parents had given me a map and directions, though, and I thought I could make it in the fifteen minutes I had to get there. Unfortunately, map reading is not my strong suit, because I have trouble following spatial relationships. So I got within a block of the Catholic church, which is within a block of the Methodist church and the Episcopal church and probably at least one more similar site. I stopped in front of the Methodist one, parked, stared at the map, stared at the other buildings in every direction (except where I should have been looking), and went over to the school parking lot next door to ask directions.

"It's right across the street," a coach and one of his students told me. "Follow the cars that are turning in."

This made sense. After all, I had just followed another car all the way from White Rock, guessing that one church or another was the other vehicle's destination. And it was true: there was a line of cars across the street, turning in next to a church building as modern-looking as the new St. Ann's church building in Manlius when they first built it in the late 1960s. I got in line with the rest of the cars and SUVs, drove into the parking lot, and looked for a parking space. There were none left! I ended up parking on a bit of dirt just above a cliff, and arrived in church just a minute or two late.

A life-size crucifix dominates the church's modern interior

Now, the point of all that explanation is this: Jacob's church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a rather large church for such a small city, certainly larger than St. Michael's here in Tucson. It's one of more than thirty religious institutions in Los Alamos. New Mexico almost certainly has a relatively high percentage of Roman Catholics compared to other states, but one would not necessarily expect that in Los Alamos. Los Alamos is essentially a town of researchers and government contractors, with a bit less of an Hispanic influence than is seen elsewhere in the state.

More than that, Los Alamos is a town of scientists and their families. It's a town of physicists and engineers, a geek town, where the attendees of a post-Eucharist picnic have all heard of Doctor Who. I dare you to match that sf geek quotient at church socials elsewhere! This is a town where everyone works at the lab, or in some service or support capacity such as retail. Even in the Mass I attended, the pastor told an engineer joke in the course of his sermon.

"So what?" you may be asking. "What has any of that to do with being holy?"

To which I answer: remember what happened in Los Alamos in the early 1940s. This was the home of the Manhattan Project, were Robert Oppenheimer et al developed the atomic bomb. The Los Alamos National Laboratory, where Jacob's dad works, is essentially the same facility that was started for that purpose, all those years ago. Nowadays the research is more diverse and less problematic, but I'm sure that some ethical dilemmas remain, as they do everywhere. Did the original scientists at "Site Y" need their churches and synagogues to maintain their perspective, and avoid feeling the opposite of holy because of what they were doing? I don't know the answer, but I'm guessing that this may have been true for some of them.

As for today's physicists and engineeers and the rest, they certainly don't seem to be straying far from the religious mainstream with their Catholic and Methodist and other well-attended churches. Oh, there may be some atheists, New Agers and Wiccans in the mix somewhere, but that's not the impression I got, driving around Los Alamos on a Sunday morning. Here are people who do all sorts of cutting edge scientific stuff, and then go off to church, send their kids for religious instruction, receive Holy Communion and so on. I'm sure that if I'd been there early on a Friday evening, I'd have seen the same basic behavior from the lab's Jewish contingent and their families.

Jacob and some of the other kids after Mass.

What does it prove, if anything? Empirically, nothing at all. But it does show that for many people, science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and that traditional religious expressions can be as important a part of life as the scientific method. I think that's as it should be. As I read somewhere recently, science and religion don't have to be in conflict, because they are there to answer different questions. Science is about what and how. Religion is about who and why.


See the entry below this one for an updated linking list to this Round Robin Photo Challenge.

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Carly said...

Excellent my dear! Just ask Scully! LOL. :)

Fabulous photos, nice part B to the challenge.

julie said...

Great posts, both of 'em! Now I know you took that trip just so you could get cool pics for the RR! ;-)

And that is one cute kid.

Sassy said...

Karen~I so enjoyed seeing Jacob's Communion. That celing shot of the church is a great one. Then below you have the New Age respresented. I knew I could see more than one photo over here! Well done! Blessings, Sassy

Gannet Girl said...

Religion and science, always in tandem at Los Alamos. Think of Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Hindu god Vishnu: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds."

Informative and fascinating post.

Globetrotter said...

"Unfortunately, map reading is not my strong suit, because I have trouble following spatial relationships"

What a hoot! I can't believe someone with a mind as brilliant and geeky (this said as a compliment since I'm so technologically challenged that it hurts...)as yours had trouble reading a map!

You've come up with some very good points and insights in this post, too. It is very interesting that so many scientic-minded people attend church regularly. Though I've always felt that science and religion can converge rather seamlessly if people can just overcome the outdated notion that the two don't mix well.

The communion pictures are lovely and what a wonderful second part to the photo challenge!

Jimbo said...


Thanks for the interesting perspective on Los Alamos. It's always nice to read an outsider's point of view.


Keep up on one man's point of view about Los Alamos here: