Astrophysics and Religion

You’d think, from a distance, that astrophysics and religion would have very little to say to each other. Astrophysicists care about the composition of planets, they tend to be fiercely rational, very uninterested in teaching us how to live and not ones to raise big moral questions. Religious types, for their part, are passionate about faith, very suspicious of reason and desperate to teach us how to live. Now, our natural sympathies tend to be with the astrophysicists. But here’s a strange thing: whenever one spends time with the subject matter of astrophysics, one’s liable to experience some pretty unusual feelings, which are not at all unlike those you sometimes get when you spend time around religion. It seems that beneath all the differences, there are some fascinating points of connection between astrophysics and the faiths. Two stand out in particular… At their best (and we stress, their best) religions are very good at making us feel a sense of awe: at how small we are next to the big almighty things out there. And they’re also pretty good at reminding us that we should be kind, think of others and sense our kinship with strangers. However, it’s a problem with religions, that their power to evoke awe and their recommendations about kindness, tend to be bound up with a lot of superstitious and sometimes rather obscure material, which puts many otherwise well-meaning people off these topics. Now, strangely enough, when it comes to awe and kindness, astrophysics (though it has absolutely no stated mission in these areas) can have an extraordinarily effective impact. Let’s start with awe. For centuries, in people’s minds, God was the most awesome thing around, but you don’t have to spend long with astrophysicists to start coming across things more inspiring than anyone could previously have conceived of. For example, the fact that on the very clearest nights, we can see up to two thousand five hundred stars from Earth, but this is only a 100 millionth of the stars… in our galaxy. There are around 300 billion stars in this galaxy and then, there are roughly an equal number of galaxies in the observable universe. In other words, for every star in the milky way, there’s a whole other galaxy out there; for every grain of sand on every beach on Earth, there are 10,000 stars. This kind of awe is strikingly helpful when it comes to our mental well-being. It restores perspective. We’re constantly losing sight of what’s truly significant, and what doesn’t in the end matter so much. We’re so bad at seeing things in their proper relationships, so we dramatize, lose our tempers, make mountains of mole hills. For all this, astrophysics can help us, reminding us of our proper place in the grand scheme of things and thereby, making us a little less likely to lose our composure and our hold on reality. Then, there’s kindness. Nothing is more natural than to think only of ourselves, to care very little for other people, let alone animals or the planet itself. Religions once tried to give us holy commandments to develop our ethical sense, but astrophysics gives us something even more powerful: a sense of how extraordinarily rare and fragile all life is. There are 500 quintillion or 500 billion billion Sun-like stars and probably a hundred billion billion Earth-like planets, and yet, it seems, we are the only living things in space and time. We are isolated beautifully freakish phenomena on a tiny blue dot in a quiet corner of an infinite universe. This recognition can have a wondrous effect as ethically powerful as any other. Suddenly we look at other people not as our enemies or competitors, but as fellow breathing things who’ve also evaded momentous odds and are clinging on to the one very vulnerable temporary thing we all have in common: LIFE. A sight of the Earth from space, can foster a planetary as opposed to a merely individual consciousness. It edges us towards an intra human compassion; the barriers between people break down. It can also inspire an interspecies compassion. We, the earthworm, the crab, the camel and the hawk, and even the oak tree in the pampas grass, all partake of the same miraculous chemical good fortune. Once you think about this, a curious sense of global kinship develops. Far more effectively than the ten commandments or the gospels, but in an analogous way we break out of our customary egoistic cocoons and our narrow orbits, and we refrain ourselves as all of us co-tenants of a sublime vulnerable dot. Astrophysicists don’t directly care about any of this, and yet their work leads us to these emotions as effectively as any religious texts. They may not give a damn, but we should. We should, for example, perhaps build up public planetariums in a slightly different way. Admitting that we’re coming here, not necessarily or principally to learn all about the universe; we’re coming here to acquire a new more compassionate and more conscious perspective on our lives on Earth. Our planetariums are more than fit take on the ethical and psychological functions once given to temples and churches. We can value astrophysics not because we’re all going to become scientists or a very interested in deep space in and of itself, but for another, nowadays, far less mentioned reason: because the galaxies are, miraculously, the conduits to helping us develop into slightly wiser, more conscious, more mindful and generous humans, on our painfully isolated fragile blue dot.

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