Science, Religion, and the Pursuit of God

I immediately hit traffic as I pulled off the highway into downtown Detroit on the evening of March 24th, 2016. Cars were looking for any open parking spot they could find so that they could attend an event at the Fox Theatre. A line wrapped around the building as thousands of people scanned their tickets and filed inside. I intently listened to the conversations in the line around me as my wife and I slowly approached the door.

“It’s amazing that this event is so packed,” a man said behind me—a schoolteacher if I remember right. “Who would have thought this many people would show up to listen to a scientist? Shows you how much our world is changing.”

That’s right. I was surrounded by thousands of people who wanted to spend their Thursday evening listening to a science lecture given by the great Neil deGrasse Tyson of Cosmos fame. I had quickly fallen in love with Carl Sagan’s rebooted tv show. The way Tyson explained things on it made a lot of sense to me and had thus led me to start listening to his podcast StarTalk, and to read the books that he and other scientists had written. My wife had obviously caught on to this new interest of mine as she had arranged these tickets as a birthday gift to me.

While strangers behind me continued to exchange pleasantries, I tried to convince myself to turn around and enter the conversation, longing to interject the fact that I was a pastor. Often this is social suicide, but in this case, I was excited to be a minister at a science event without a picket sign. I was there for me and I wanted the people around me to know. I sensed that this was a testimony in and of itself.

The schoolteacher was right. It was amazing that thousands of people had gathered in Detroit and paid at least $50 a ticket just to hear an astrophysicist talk about anything and everything he wanted to talk about. And I was one of those people!—someone who never gave a rip about any science class in his life, but now desired to sit in the presence of the scientific orator of our generation and listen. Little did I know as I found my seat in the balcony that I had just entered church.

Having hardly missed a day of church in my life (I’m not addicted or anything), I felt right at home in the Fox Theatre. There was no way I could miss the comparison. Tyson’s beautiful message called people to pursue science and use it to get ahead of upcoming disasters so that others could be protected. He dared his listeners to dream of new adventures into space and the realm of the unknown.

We all meditated on the famous icon, The Pale Blue Dot—a picture of the earth taken 3.7 billion miles away by the Voyager 1 satellite as it left our solar system in 1990—while Tyson read a psalm from Carl Sagan’s reflections on the picture:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

-Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, page 9)

But it wasn’t just the service that felt like church—it was the congregation that really hit it home. Being used to the occasional interruption while preaching, I could sense the pastoral burden that Tyson had to carry as people yelled out comments while he spoke. I felt the embarrassed, burning faces of the traditional congregants when a man from a rather eccentric denomination of science loudly interrupted Tyson mid-thought to emotionally interject the completely unrelated question, “When are you gonna talk about the megastructure orbiting KIC?” 

His question was in reference to a star identified as KIC 8462852. At that time, the Kepler space telescope had been keeping an eye on the star for a few years and during that time witnessed strange dimming patterns. The star was not behaving as a star should behave and therefore, scientists were confused. When these details were released in September of 2015, people quickly started looking for theories—many news sources latching onto the extravagant notion that a Star-Wars-Death-Star-planet-sized-space ship had orbited in front of KIC 8462852, blocking it and therefore dimming its light for a small period of time. There were other theories we could have gone with, but the 21st century is obsessed with extraterrestrial life (as evidenced in our movies and TV shows), so of course, that’s what people gravitated towards: possible evidence that we are not alone in the universe.

Like a good pastor, Tyson graciously paused to take note of the man’s question and disarmed the conversation from going further. It shouldn’t have phased him that people were wondering if there was other life out there. After all, he has mentioned that, “Anytime I’m on an airplane and someone finds out I’m an astrophysicist, I always get asked a series of questions, and the first one, 99 times out of 100 is, ‘Is there life elsewhere in the cosmos?’” So he dealt with the man’s hijacking question and then returned back to his original train of thought.

And also like a good pastor, Tyson at one point offered some conviction for the congregation to chew on. He referenced the Christmas Eve of 1968, when Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders circled the moon and took turns reading a few verses from the creation story in Genesis while people watched and listened on their TV’s and radios. Tyson recognized that some were upset that the astronauts read the Bible on that occasion, but he pushed them to get over it, explaining that diversity is part of what makes America the great place it is.

That night at the Fox Theatre taught me something: science is just like any other religion. It’s the hope that we’re not alone and that there’s something else out there. It’s the desire to know at our core that our existence matters—that we’re worth something. It’s the drive to protect the land we’ve been entrusted with. It’s the ability to see all humanity with empathy and love. 

Science is spiritual and those who study it are pursuing a spirituality of sorts. To quote Paul Wallace, an ordained minister who did his doctoral work in experimental nuclear physics and gamma-ray astronomy:

I cannot help but sense a note of desperation in our quest for extraterrestrial intelligence. I think it’s a symptom of profound loneliness coupled with the collapse of traditional religion. But human beings cannot avoid religion altogether, so we listen. Night after night we search the cosmos, waiting and hoping and listening and looking. With our telescopes we gaze outward across billions of light years to the very edge of the Big Bang, desperate to find out where we came from, who we are, where we’re going, and whether or not we are alone…. And we do all of this for the same reason we pray and sing and worship: We are a bewildered species and we seek a connection to someone or something, visible or invisible. So perhaps the connection is out there. There’s no scientific project more obviously religious than the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Paul Wallace (Stars Beneath Us, page 139)

Interestingly, while often claiming no religion, I’d say that many scientifically-minded people often search more adamantly for God than many Christians do. We all know that deep down somewhere, something is wrong with us. The Christian revels in the saving grace of Jesus, the unconditional love of the Father, and the intimacy of the Holy Spirit to heal that void. The unreligious science-minded individual seeks to fill the same void, but does so by searching the depths of creation, which we can only pray, will lead them straight to the Creator himself, since creation speaks of him (Psalm 19:1-4).

Though at the same time, there is the concern that, as C.S. Lewis says, “If you do not at all know God, of course you will not recognize Him, either in Jesus or in outer space” (“The Seeing Eye,” Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, page 62). But perhaps if we’re willing to enter the conversation with humility and listening ears, we can help lead those searching the depths of science toward Jesus.

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