Astronomy and Theism Are Not Incompatible


A telescope at sunset.

"Astronomy teaches us humility and compassion," writes Huma Munir. "Of all human virtues, humility is probably the most beautiful and important."

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 Qur’an 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 realize 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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)

This piece was originally published at On Religion.
Huma Munir is a teacher and a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas. She is also the spokesperson for the Austin, Texas chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women Association. You can tweet her @humamunir.

One thought on “Astronomy and Theism Are Not Incompatible

  1. Thank you for this well thought out blog letter!
    As a member of a Christian church, I would like to share some thoughts of mine related to the same issue.
    May 3, 2015 [started 4/13/15]
    Evolving Christianity?
    Traditional Christianity seems to have difficulty disengaging from the world view of St. John of
    Patmos, who dictated of the Book of (his) Revelations. It was common sense at his time that humanity
    was governed by monarchs, emperors, and/or local subservient rulers. The rest of humanity were more
    or less domesticated servants of these rulers in various roles, such as court officials, soldiers, farmers,
    etc. Above these earthly rulers existed the heavenly trinity, who waited, with the unfathomable infinite
    patience of God, to establish the kingdom of God on earth, which would impose a rule based on of love
    and justice upon us unruly and foolish humans.
    One trouble with this traditional Christian story is that a small subset of us humans keeps
    poking their childlike curiosity into the vast expanse of our ignorance and discovering that our cozy,
    sometimes brutal, earthly home, with its demonic underworld and its perfect celestial heavenly
    covering, as was self evident in the first century of our experience with Christ, is actually an
    insignificant ball with a biosphere harboring amazingly complex life forms, in an unimaginably vast
    and rather inhospitable universe. (Sorry for the run-on sentence, but the thought needed to be a
    continuous one.)
    A second trouble with “Christianity” is that its professional arm has continued and even
    expanded the brutality of the Roman Empire, when it is coupled with an imperial nationalism. I hardly
    need to go into a long history of “Christian” nations militarily and psychologically subjugating,
    sometimes exterminating, “heathen” cultures in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. “Love your
    enemies and your neighbors” usually took a back seat when there were valuable resources, land and
    slaves to be had. In fairness, I should mention that there were always many “Jesusites” who lived in
    monasteries, or worshiped at friends of Jesus meetings, or Mennonite churches, who did not participate
    in that brutality. However “Christianity” has a very bad reputation among many humans.
    Perhaps what we are left with, as appreciators of the Jesus of Nazareth story, is the possibility of
    the Holy Spirit pervading more of the human spirit, where It actually finds much inherent hospitality.
    Is there any harm in leaving the return of a judging Christ, in glorious crown and robes, behind along
    with the other relics of the supposedly perfect celestial heaven? Rather than “throwing out the baby
    with the bathwater”, perhaps we could take the baby Jesus out of the dirty bathwater, wrap Him up in a
    clean towel and give Him a gentle hug, then throw out the dirty bathwater with its imperial pollution.
    Could it be that the Creator has made this world possible, populated by humans with an inherent
    Holy Spirit that needs to be nurtured, not only with mother’s milk and the care we need as helpless
    infants, but also embodied by loving communities that help us to grow into healthy adults? The answer
    is demonstrably “yes” when dealing with the many groups that have succeed in creating enjoyable
    communities. The task now is to make it possible for all these small cultural tribes to realize that they
    are part of a global human community, in which loving relationships and equitable sharing are also
    essential. We have the communications technology to make such understanding possible. However, we
    do not seem to have the ability or courage to successfully confront those who use that communications
    technology to propagate fear, hatred and greed.
    Hope and love,
    Fred U.

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