My first attraction to science was a second grade fascination with astronomy, a world of enchantment found in the pages of The Book of Knowledge set of encyclopedias my parents had wisely furnished me. With no in-person adult guidance on the subject, though, my enthusiastic application of book learning to the actual night sky now seems humorous. (I confidently told whoever would listen that three particularly bright lights in a row about 20 degrees long were Mars and its two moons, Phobus and Deimos—an impossible configuration.) The charm remained undiminished as I grew up, but as growing up and grown up exigencies flourished, spending time with the sky was crowded out by life’s terrestrial preoccupations.
However, I’m still awed by a new space probe view of a planet, a “deep sky” picture crammed with galaxies, or just the unaided beauty of a clear night sky, particularly if the latter is spiced up by Venus or Jupiter. My selection of a Facebook Cover Photo reminds me of my sadly dormant telescope and stargazing activity—an exquisite Hubble shot of our next-door galaxy, Andromeda.
I recently received a Facebook message accompanied by a beautiful telescopic view of an unnamed part of the sky. The originator, a Christian, viewed the marvelous splendor as proof of a supernatural creator (the one specific to his religion, of course). It is easy—and almost automatic—for my first reaction to be the all the reasons that celestial wonders are no proof of the supernatural at all, much less of a theistic God, and far less of this man’s particular God with all its trappings of angels, sin, miracles, salvation, hell, heaven, and genital-focused morality.
There is a time for that debate. There are occasions for us to argue about attributing to natural phenomena whatever will support one’s religious narratives about them, just as there are opportunities for railing against religions’ tendency to impose its rules on others. In seeing God in the galaxies, I’m sure the faithful merely see themselves as “giving God the glory,” as St. Paul said, a worshipful acknowledgement of their God. I can see how they’d do that and certainly defend their right to do so. But I hope they can see that persons who don’t believe their stories nevertheless stand in just as much awe as they, imbued with just as much pulse-quickening appreciation of this spectacular universe.
Science offers a baseline on which religionists and unbelievers can both agree: the splendors themselves whatever their source—the “raw data” of experience made more penetrating with telescopes for visible light and radio frequencies, along with noncontroversial findings about energy and mass. Relieved of speculation and doctrine, we can celebrate these wonders together.
Freed of making dogma of ancient guesses, atheists can then easily appreciate and even be inspired by fables of the ancients. After all, they gazed at the same stars and planets and were, as we, inspired by so compelling an unknown. We need not burden these ancient tales with modern supernaturalism in order to benefit from the sense of awe they articulated.
I remember being on the deck of a cruise ship in the Mediterranean late one night. I was with a few others who, like me, had grown tired of a day of studying and subsequent imbibing in the bar. We agreed to just go look at the sky, all reclined on chaise lounges under a panoply more striking due to being unopposed by city lights. The setting and experience moved me to recite these lines in the quiet of that evening, speaking to myself as much as to my colleagues.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech,
And night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.
To me, this poetic translation of one person’s awe is beautiful. Abrahamic religions ascribe them to the colorful Old Testament character David—he of the smooth river rocks and the demise of Goliath. His poetry is neither diminished by its cloudy provenance nor is it enhanced by believing David was on speaking terms with Yahweh. It expresses with no footnotes necessary a sentiment that we, our ancestors, and our progeny can access nightly.
Being enthralled by the stars is personal to me and, at the same time, shared with multitudes across the world and with multitudes across the eons—not just with David, but every human who ever looked up and wondered, then wondered anew. Sharing across generations and across creeds and geography is a powerful authentication of the comradeship of human beings. It is no surprise that the human race has been so awe-struck by the celestial extravaganza as to make up countless stories about what it is and where it came from.
The most succinct expression of my intimacy with the stars was given to me at an early age. Dr. Károly Hujer, a Hungarian astronomer, autographed my juvenile astronomy notebook with a sentence taken from “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by the 19th century English poet Sarah Williams. I rarely bask in the night sky without remembering her words:
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.