Astronomy and Theism are Not Incompatible 5 May 2015
In 1990, spacecraft Voyager 1 took one last photo of the Earth from 6 billion kilometers away before drifting further into outer space. The Earth stood out no more than a tiny dot against the vast expanse of darkness in the space.
Inspired by the photo, famous astrophysicist and atheist, Carl Sagan, wrote a book titled Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. In it, he said studying astronomy can be a humbling and a character-building experience. Though Sagan did not believe in a higher power, his work has greatly inspired me to connect with God, and has led me on a journey of self-reformation.
In many senses, and contrary to popular belief, astronomy is helpful to religious believers.
Firstly, it teaches us that the world is limitless.
When I was a child, my father would talk to me about stars, galaxies, and worlds beyond our little home. I grew up in Pakistan, where hot summers and lack of air-conditioning would force people to sleep outdoors in the verandas and open rooftop terraces. I loved those summer nights when my father and I would stay up late talking about the latest astronomical discoveries and watching the shooting stars zooming across the night sky.
I also grew up in a religious household and was particularly interested in certain Quranic verses dealing with astronomy. For example, the Quran says the creation of the heavens and the Earth are among one of the greatest signs of God (42:30). The spiritual knowledge, combined with my father’s passion for astronomy, helped me imagine an infinite world in a society with limited opportunities – especially for women. It has helped fuel my ambitions and dreams till this day.
Secondly, astronomy heals us. Our universe is unfathomably vast. In fact, astronomers have trouble defining just how enormous the cosmos is because it is constantly expanding. Human vocabulary simply fails to do justice in trying to describe this incredible phenomenon. It is no wonder that we find ourselves getting lost while watching space documentaries or reading about the cosmos.
We don’t need to be experts in science to understand that the universe is big and beautiful. When we realise that we are one of the tiniest particles floating in space, we begin to look at life differently. Sometimes, getting lost in something so big can help us heal from the tragedies and afflictions of this world.
Thirdly, astronomy teaches us humility and compassion. Of all human virtues, humility is probably the most beautiful and important. When we realize how insignificant our existence is in this grand universe, we are filled with feelings of meekness. This virtue helps us focus on bettering ourselves, rather than focusing on what others are doing. The Bible also says that those who seek to be exalted will be humbled and those who seek to be humble will be exalted (Luke 14:11).
Thoughts of malice and violence also seem trivial. According to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, recently said seeing pictures of space and nature can help us become more compassionate.
Whilst astronomy may instil humility in some of us, it also helps us realie that our actions have significant bearing on Earth. In his book, Sagan reminds us that our planet is the only home we have: “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot”.
The world often seems wrought with grief and affliction. From natural disasters to human conflicts, our planet can seem like a dismal place at times. The fact that the Earth is the only known planet thus far to harbor life, reminds us that human beings must work together to address issues leading to wars, genocides and global warming. Holy scriptures like the Quran also admonish humans from creating disorder on Earth (7:57).
Finally, astronomy offers us a comforting thought. Astronomers like Sagan have often disputed God’s existence. However, astronomy has helped me connect with God and improve in spirituality throughout my life. The enormity of our universe is fascinating, but also frightening. I know there are scientific laws that govern the heavenly bodies, but there are still many inexplicable mysteries that need answers.
I take comfort in the fact that there is a Creator who is able to sustain our awe-inspiring universe. As the Quran says, “God is He Who raised up the heavens without any pillars that you can see. Then He settled Himself on the Throne. And He pressed the sun and the moon into service. All pursue their course until an appointed time. He regulates it all” (31:30).
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