Of Astrophysics and Atheism: Wherefore Religion in the Space Age?

 
 

A future without religion will be a future diminished, for faith—but only a certain kind of faith—is absolutely necessary in the space age.

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Does religion have anything to offer us in the space age? Astrophysicists recently confirmed the existence of cosmic inflation (which accounts for the rapid expansion of the universe during the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang). Now that we know about dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs boson, the existence of other earth-like planets, and a thousand other shocking cosmological revelations, it is tempting to suggest that religion will become relegated to playing the role of quaint typewriter to astrophysics’ astounding computer. Will religion have any relevance in the twenty-first century and beyond?

Because we no longer need religion to explain how the universe works, religion—for these and other reasons—continues to take an intellectual beating; just witness a recent issue of The New Yorker, where faith suffered a double-whammy roundhouse blow from two of my favorite writers, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Gopnik.

I loved Tyson’s answer to the question of whether he is an atheist: “It’s odd that the word ‘atheist’ even exists,” he responded. “I don’t play golf. Is there a word for non-golf players? Do non-golf players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word, come together, and talk about the fact that they don’t ski?” In other words, for many people—and perhaps especially for astrophysicists—religion is so irrelevant to their lives that its irrelevance need not even be justified.

But perhaps Tyson employed the wrong analogy. Of course non-golfers are not anti-golfers. The more apt analogy would be asking a non-reader if he’s an “anti-reader.”

It is possible to lead a good, ethical, and moral life without reading books. But a life without reading is a life diminished. Like a life without music or humor or love, a life without books lacks an additional dimension; one can still exist on a physical plane, but without reading, one will miss out on a certain kind of beauty. An astrophysicist need not be a reader of literary fiction in order to investigate the lives of stars. But a science without literary fiction is a science diminished: it is a science that may not be fully attentive to the lives of human beings; it may be a science that lacks empathy; and it may be an astrophysics that is not fully conscious of the human stakes of cosmology.

As with literary fiction, so with religion. A future without religion will be a future diminished, for faith—but only a certain kind of faith—is absolutely necessary in the space age.

Yes, there is a certain kind of faith that has no place in the age of space: it is the kind of faith that seeks to limit us, to shrink us, and to disempower us by treating us as irredeemable sinners. The kind of faith that has no place in space is the austere faith that imagines an authoritarian God who wants nothing more than to keep us down and earthbound with rigid rules. The kind of faith that has no place in space is the otherworldly faith that preaches about the world-to-come rather than urging us to make life better in the world-that-is.

But there is a faith that we unquestionably need in the space age. There is a kind of faith that empowers us—it is a faith that believes in a kind of God that, above all else, is a God of life. This God of life, to paraphrase 12 Years a Slave, doesn’t only want us to survive; the God of life wants us to live. And this God doesn’t only want us to live; this God wants us to flourish. This God wants us to be all that we can be. Living with this kind of faith means believing that we must do everything possible to survive, to live, and to flourish.

Religion cannot, nor should it, attempt to explain how the world was created, nor should it attempt to explain how the universe works. Science, not religion, possesses the answers to these questions. But religion, not science, can explain why the world was created, and can elucidate the meanings behind the workings of the universe. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written, “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

A religion that lives in the realm of meaning, not mere fact, is a religion that teaches that the universe emerged from no life to life, from chaos to order, and from anarchy to complexity not because of some fluke of nature, but because a God of life was the love that breathed fire into the equations of physics that make life in our universe possible. This kind of religion teaches that life was allowed to evolve in an otherwise inhospitable, chaotic, dangerous universe because a God of life desires human life. This kind of religion teaches that the God of life so desired the full flourishing of human life that this God gradually withdrew from the world and let human beings assume responsibility for completing the work of creation. This kind of faith empowers us to believe that a God of life is behind this highly improbable evolution of life, and that this God wants us to keep developing into independent, actualized, greater human beings.

The faith of the space age will not believe in the sacrosanct nature of any physical structure, even planet earth—even, yes, the “Holy Land.” The faith of the space age teaches us that more important than holy structures are holy beings. The religion that will not be a relic of the past but will be an indispensable component for our future survival is a kind of religion that teaches that human beings, not the planet earth, are the only creations that are in the image of God; the religion of the space age will teach that human life, not planet earth, is sacrosanct.

The faith that has a place in space teaches that we must not stay earthbound and limit ourselves to this planet, but that we must venture out and explore, that we must invest in science, and that we must go to Mars and beyond.

The faith that we need for the space age is the faith that inspires us to believe in ourselves; it is the faith that teaches that, as God is infinite and unique, so too, each human being—regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, physical shape, mental ability, or sexual orientation—is equal, unique, and infinitely valuable. The faith of the space age says we must not be afraid to leave our holy sites and our temples and, when the time arrives, to depart from this planet; the faith of the space age will impel us forward, proclaiming that we will surely be able to venture out, establish human life on a distant planet, and reach the next destination in the journey of humankind.

The kind of religion that is irreplaceable in the twenty-first century and beyond is a religion that partners with literary fiction in helping us to empathize with our fellow human beings; it is the kind of religion that partners with fiction and science in inspiring us to imagine that a better world will be possible tomorrow because we can work together in perfecting the world today; it is the kind of religion that teaches that each and every human being is irreplaceable, because each and every human being is endowed with godliness and can achieve goals that are beyond our wildest imaginations.

We will need religion in the space age, for we will need a faith that gives us the inner strength to make the kind of bold leaps that the great explorers once made. Just as Columbus, da Gama, and Magellan were strengthened with the knowledge that they possessed supporters and patrons who wanted them to venture out and explore, our religion for the future teaches that we have a God who wants us to go out and explore, who wants us to keep living, and who wants us to accomplish feats that exceed our wildest dreams.

The value in religions’ rules and restrictions lies not in cherishing the rules as ends in and of themselves, but in the power that flows from living with discipline—a discipline that empowers us to develop all of our own individual, unique, infinite capacities. The religious discipline of the space age will be a discipline that enables us to live and flourish. The faith of the future will encourage us to imagine and create; it will inspire us with the confidence that is vital for inventing, innovating, and succeeding; and it will do so by teaching us that we are images of God, endowed with awesome brainpower and tremendous intellectual capacities.

This kind of religion is not the faith of an idle pastime; it is the essential equipment for the future sport of human existence. Far from being irrelevant, religion in the space age will be absolutely necessary—as necessary as reading literary fiction is for appreciating the complexities and beauties of each and every human being, and as necessary as reading books is for cultivating the imagination we need to realize that the improbable is absolutely possible—Exhibit A being life in the universe itself. This kind of religion, and this kind of faith, will be part of the fuel that propels us forward into the space age and beyond.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. His writings on art, religion, literature, and film have appeared in The Weekly Standard, Journal of Religion & Film, Religious Studies Review, Bright Lights Film Journal, Moment Magazine, and Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.

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