A Scientist’s View on Space and Spirituality

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The earliest moment I remember struggling with the overlap of outer space and religion was when I was watching a Space Shuttle launch. I noticed that the shuttle didn’t go through a part of the atmosphere that was called “Heaven.” In that moment, I had a very difficult internal argument – I couldn’t decide which to believe in, space travel or God. Years later, I’m now a college student studying Aerospace Engineering, and I’m still struggling with that decision.

Through my deliberations on the subject, I have found that the cosmos and spirituality overlap more than many people realize. While the Bible doesn’t mention a lot about the stars, it does mention the bright star in the North that guided the wise men and the shepherds across the desert to see baby Jesus. People traveling to Bethlehem used the stars to guide them across the desert to find their place with religion. In addition, there are a lot of Bible verses about the heavens, which directly correlate to the heavenly bodies that make up the cosmos.

Every day we take the motion of the cosmos for granted. Without this motion, our lives would be extremely different. A lot of these interactions define our way of life, including our spiritual way of life. The earth rotates around the sun, causing the twenty-four hour cycle we call day and night, which also correlates to the times people pray. When I was traveling in Morocco, I found that religion revolves around the time of day – with prayer called from the mosques five times a day. Starting at five in the morning through ten in the evening, the prayer is called from the towers, following the general cycle of the sun. When I lived in Spain, I toured the Alhambra situated in Granada. Many of the ceilings in the Alhambra resemble the cosmos. The throne room is known as the Seven Heavens, and each level of the ceiling represents one of the seven heavens of the cosmos that a soul travels through to reach the eighth level of Muslim paradise.

The cosmic relation to spirituality also appears in literature, film, and television. Many novels tell of the protagonist’s deliberation between following a scientific path versus following a spiritual path. One book entitled The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill follows a young Quaker woman during the nineteenth century who follows a path to become an astronomer. It discusses her choices and how those caused conflicts within her Quaker community.

Carl Sagan, a great cosmic sage, explored the relationship between science and the spirit in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. He states that we are stuck with science, and once we recognize its beauty and power, we will find its spirituality as well. Sagan says, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.

In the field of filmmaking, the cosmos is usually given a fictional representation, but one that stems from a real understanding of our universe. One film I think about frequently is Contact, which follows a young woman studying extraterrestrial life who gets the chance to take a trip to another world. Instead of going to another physical world, the spacecraft travels through a spiritual dimension, allowing the woman to have one last connection with her father, who is in Heaven. In the movie Interstellar, Dr. Brand (played by Anne Hathaway) mentions that love can transcend boundaries; this can be taken either literally or as a suggestion that spiritual love can transcend boundaries of space and time, and can reach different planets and galaxies.

With the recent passing of Stephen Hawking, the world has one less voice connecting cosmology and spirituality. Hawking wrote a book entitled A Brief History of Time, which explores the history of space over a period of time and ties into a “theory of everything” that Hawking was developing with the goal of helping scientists to “know the mind of God.” At one point, Hawking declared that he was an atheist, but said he believed that space travel offers the best hope for human immortality.

The cosmos surrounds our every moment and every movement, yet we don’t fully understand the magnitude of how it affects our lives. While many religions have embraced the role of the cosmos, Christianity still has some work to do. Growing up as a Quaker, I felt supported by some Friends in my space-exploration endeavors, but not by all. Within the Quaker community, the cosmos appears through spirituality. For most of my life, I have attended IMYM (Intermountain Yearly Meeting), where young Friends hold worship-sharing under the stars – this further connected the cosmos and the spirit for me. Over the years, I have struggled to believe in God, and I have come to the choice of not believing. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a spiritual person. I believe that all living organisms are connected. As both Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan stated over the years, “We are all made of stardust.” All living organisms are made of the same materials as stars, which proves that we are all interconnected – with each other and with the cosmos.

I have been respected by my fellow Quakers and I love how open this community is, but I am scared to talk with people from other religions or even other denominations of Christianity. I feel that people who are on the extreme end of Christianity are so wrapped up in their religion that they forget the importance of understanding and exploration. Without exploration, religion wouldn’t have expanded like it has today. There are many people in our world who still believe the Earth is flat or that humans didn’t go to the Moon. I feel that religion can often stand as a barrier, blocking out reality, especially the reality of explorations made within outer space. My hope is that future generations in all walks of life will embrace the future of space exploration and will help to further humanity’s understanding of the relationships between the cosmos and spirituality. ~~~

Flora Quinby loves traveling, but unfortunately thus far, her travels have been contained to Earth. She is currently studying Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In addition, she is a member at Boulder Monthly Meeting and attends Intermountain Yearly Meeting.