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Space and religion: How believers view latest space developments

Jennifer LeClaire always looks up to the stars in fascination.

She watches the news for reports of the expanding universe. And despite the oft-cited tensions between faith and science, she says none of this conflicts with her religious beliefs.

“You can’t help but think of God and his awesome power and his omniscience and his knowing of where to put everything," LeClaire said. “We’re in God. This is God. This is God’s body.”

LeClaire, an editor and writer at the Christian magazine Charisma, isn't alone in finding harmony between her fascination with space, and the science around it, and her belief in God. In fact, the Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that 61 percent of the American public said science doesn’t conflict with their religious beliefs. And 52 percent of people who attend church weekly also don’t believe new scientific knowledge conflict with their beliefs, according to the study.

And yet what lies in the heavens is an open question, and unlike the religious beliefs of many, our understanding of space is constantly changing. A study released in November by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that 1 in 5 suns have an earth-like planet orbiting it, which means there may be about 40 billion planets that could support life in the universe. A month earlier, Cornell University published a study that identified a separate seven-planet solar system than our own.

While religious believers once felt threatened by science that changed their understanding of the world around them, or even its shape, experts say that's changing. Most believers are becoming more comfortable with science, especially as it relates to space exploration.

In fact, most believers see the universe as an extension of God's work, experts say.

Religion’s place in space

Salmeed Hameed, an associate professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College, said space has played a role in religion’s history for years. Islāmic text mentions multiple worlds, and the Bible refers to God as the God of the heavens and the Earth — an indication, Hameed said, of multiple planets and God’s hand in the ever-expanding universe.

In the seventh century, the Catholic church insisted there were planets similar to our own, said Matt Stanley, a professor of astronomy at New York University. He said this idea about more earth-like plants developed when many theologians thought the stars in the sky were like our own sun and must have earth-like planets with them.

Stanley said in the 17th and 18th centuries, religious people believed there were many planets and they were likely inhabited. The common thought in that period was that it would diminish God’s power for there not to be life on other planets, Stanley said.

“There’s a sense that anything else than a universe beaming with life is an insult to glory of the God,” Stanley said. “It’s an ever-changing thing because new discoveries are and have shaped different cosmologies.”

Hameed said increasing knowledge about space reshaped the way people thought about the cosmos by having them question what they thought about God. When it was discovered Earth wasn't at the center of the solar system, for example, believers questioned how they perceived the universe, Hameed said.

The same can be said today, as religious believers often respond, interpret and discuss, any new space information that comes out, Hameed said.

“The more things we discover," Hameed said, "the more wonders of God there will be."

The Rev. Glen Swartwout said that many religious people believe the universe came from one divine source, and that doesn't mean God's power is restricted to just Earth's creation: “There’s no end to the beauty and mystery and what we can learn,” he said.

And like LeClaire, Swartwout sees the universe as part of God’s body.

“We’re these living cellular bodies living within God’s heavenly body,” he said. “I call it the 'big gift' rather than the Big Bang.”

Life on other planets

Somewhere in the 20th century, the general population began thinking that religious beliefs were imperiled by the thought of their being life on other planets, Stanley said.

But that assumption is wrong, he said: “For the most part, it’s still not thought that religious belief has any kind of disconnect with the idea that there’s other life out there,” Stanley said.

There are some religions that use new space knowledge to feed into their beliefs — like UFO religions, that teach that extraterrestrials exist and are interacting with humans.

Hameed said some other modern religions incorporate the new space-related knowledge into their beliefs, like Scientology. These newer religions are often looked at as cultish, Stanley said. He said one religious group, Heaven’s Gate, believed heavily in extraterrestrials as the group committed a mass suicide to show its devotion to the idea of life on other planets.

Perceptions of how the universe works — as well as religion itself — might be reshaped, if extraterrestrial life is discovered, Hameed said. Though some believe God created the universe, Hameed said believers of many religious think God focused on humans. If other species came into the foray, it would challenge the way believers understand the way God influenced their daily lives, Hameed said.

“There are more planets, that’s great, that’s all apart of God’s creation,” he said. But “the discovery of life elsewhere would challenge religion. The challenge would come in if some discoveries challenged some of the centrality of human beings.”

He said, for example, if life was found on Mars or Saturn’s moon, Europa, believers would raise questions about “multiple origins of life,” Hameed said.

“Religion would completely transform," he said.

But LeClaire doesn’t think her beliefs in God would transform in the slightest.

“I don’t think if we find life on another planet it negates our faith at all. I think it shows us Gods movement.”

Confidence from the cosmos

LeClaire said believers find confidence in the universe, at least for now. When you look at other planets – like Mars, a planet that some scientists believe once housed life — it can’t all be random and for nothing, she said.

“This wasn’t an accident,” she said. “This wasn’t some Big Bang. This wasn’t some afterthought. It was deliberately conceived. This was hand-crafted in a way that God intended.”

She said God has given humans the tools — like intelligence, will and knowledge — to study the universe. This led to the creation of rocket ships, telescopes and the other tools to look at the galaxy, she said. Studying about the universe, planets and Earth is a part of God's plan, she said.

The universe is so chaotic and scattered that it can’t just be happening without some sort of guidance, she said.

“It’s proof that God exists,” LeClaire said. “It’s so perfect. It’s so ordered so perfectly. What’s to keep it from melting and coming down? God.”

Email: hscribner@deseretnews.com Twitter: @hscribner