This article in the Atlantic isn’t really written by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf, who’s published some good things in the magazine, but is a series of readers’ answers to a question he posed earlier. But it does serve to tout religion and faith, and to promote false claims that science and religion are compatible become some religious people are science fans. (I went after this misunderstanding in Faith Versus Fact.)
Friedersdorf’s into to the piece below:
This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Last week I quoted the late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan on humanity’s place in the cosmos, and asked readers for their thoughts on outer space.
And here is the question he asked his readers:
This week, five planets are aligning in the night sky: Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Uranus, and Mars will all be visible just after sunset, alongside the moon. I’d like to take this cosmic occasion to ask: What role has outer space played in your life, your worldview, or your imagination?
Or: How, if at all, should we keep exploring it?
He then quotes Carl Sagan:
In Cosmos, the astronomer and astrophysicist did his best to give readers a sense of the unfathomable:
No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion … Worlds are precious.
In Pale Blue Dot, he writes:
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.
In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. 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 to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Maybe we humans ought to spend more time in dark places gazing up at the night sky.
And of course he was inundates with answers about the effect of the planetary alignment—and space exploration itself—on readers’ worldviews. Surprisingly some readers responded with thoughts about God, or perhaps Friedersdorf selected answer that mention God. Regardless, I think that it’s misleading to couch the answers as showing “The Surprising Compatibility of Science and Faith.” All it really shows is that people can believe in God and also evince wonder at the universe at the same time, or that science-friendly people can be religious. This of course gives the impression that the readers’ answer buttress some kind of comity between science and faith. To my mind, that’s not compatibility but cognitive dissonance, as I argue in Faith versus Fact, for science is the very antithesis of faith. But I’ll give a few excerpts of reader’s responses and then reprise my thoughts at the end.
Click to read:
Ben, a man of faith and science, reflects on the biggest and smallest questions:
To explain how I feel about outer space and how it shapes my worldview, I have to start with one of my favorite Bible verses: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:3-5, KJV).
. . . believe that understanding the laws and behavior of the universe is one of the few times we can directly observe God’s handiwork. Indeed, looking up at the night sky, I see that humanity is “crowned with glory and honour.”
Glenn was a pastor in Houston near NASA’s Johnson Space Center:
About 75 percent of our church worked in the aerospace industry. It was an interesting experience leading triple-redundancy NASA engineers to “live and walk by faith.”
. . . We have been told that science and faith are incompatible. In fact, there is a vibrant faith community in and around NASA doing the hard work of science. I was having lunch with an astronaut a few weeks after his return from the International Space Station. “You know, I looked out into the void of space,” he said, “and it was black, white, cold, and lonely. And then I looked down at Earth and it was bright green and blue with swirls of white—warm, inviting, and interesting. I decided if I could choose to be any place in the universe, it would be right there on Earth.”
Robert, a graduate student in philosophy, harkened back to the ancients:
Like Aristotle, when I was very young, I thought the planets and stars in the sky were something like gods. I don’t think this anymore, of course. Nevertheless, they are in some sense above and beyond us, endowed with a sort of beauty we ourselves are incapable of manufacturing. I simply do not know how someone can gaze at the images from, for instance, the James Webb Space Telescope and think otherwise. Even without technology, there is something marvelous about gazing into the sky and noticing just how much is out there. Thousands of stars, five planets, and even our own galaxy are visible from Earth with the naked eye. Light pollution has crowded out quite a bit of this. But even just a few stars, or a few planets, is enough to see the vastness of it all.
Still, despite the enormous powers of these celestial spheres, they cannot appreciate their own beauty. Humans alone are known to be capable of appreciating the universe in this way. This has always made me ascribe special status to humans, and to think that human concerns are of special importance. I don’t take this to be inconsistent with the scale of it all, but rather a result of it. If we aren’t here anymore, the all the beauty in the universe won’t mean anything to anyone. So something of enormous value would be lost.
I worry that, for all the good that scientific advancements have done for us in understanding space, we’re starting to see the universe as nothing more than a collection of big rocks and balls of gas; these days, the planets and the stars, particularly the moon and Mars, tend to be objects of escapist fantasies more than objects of wonder.
This is a mistake, even for those who think the future of humanity may be space colonization. The beauty of the universe cannot be captured by an exhaustive description of its mechanics or of its utility to us. To think this, rather than appreciating the literally otherworldly nature of outer space, is, I think, the wrong kind of anthropocentrism. The majesty of the heavens has inspired joy, wonder, and creativity in human minds for as long as we have existed, and their beauty is divine. So, I figure, why not let myself think, along with Aristotle, that, even if not literally, the first people were right in thinking that the planets “are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature”?
This view—that understanding more about the universe detracts from its wonder and beauty—was expressed early on by Walt Whitman in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” to wit:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
This attitude is related to scientism, a pejorative word meant to apply to the view that science encompasses everything we need to know about reality. And, in fact, it does, but so far it’s been unable—and maybe always will be—to explain the feeling of awe (“spirituality,” if you will) that comes with moments like looking at the night sky. But how does knowing what you’re really seeing detract from its wonder in interest? It’s that attitude that baffles me. How much more interesting nature becomes when you understand that it’s the product of a naturalistic process—evolution, often via natural selection!
At any rate, I can’t see any purpose to this article except to tout God, do down science, claim that science detracts from wonder at the same time that it claims that science and religion are compatible? No, science and religion are incompatible, mainly because religious understanding and its truth claims are based on faith, while science’s truth claims are based on empirical evidence. The presence of religious people who like science no more proves that science and religion are compatible than observing sports fans who like science proves that science and baseball are compatible.
Dawkins has explained the fallacy of this view, but maybe it’s time to explain it to people again.