Why does the cosmos matter for discussions of science and religion?

The realm of physics and astronomy is wide (physically and metaphorically!), and spurs questions foundational to religion, philosophy, and human significance! Scientific advances are sure to yield abundant fodder in socially relevant conversations for years!

The field of physics attempts to make sense of the Universe at all scales, from the impossibly small particles from which we are comprised to the inconceivably large structures within which we exist. The miniscule yet fundamentally important realm of quarks, photons and protons (among many others) is articulated by Quantum Mechanics through such concepts as the simultaneously wave and particle nature of light and the inherent uncertainty in the physical universe. At the other extreme, Einstein’s General Relativity provides a framework for understanding our cosmos on the largest possible scale and accounts for the large-scale gravitational effects of all matter on space and time. From quarks to quasars, physics and astronomy address an enormous variety of objects and phenomena, many of which provoke intriguing physical and metaphysical questions.

(continue reading below!)

Explore further!

Starry night sky above a lake
  • Video
  • 3:47

Awe & Wonder: Scientists Reflect on Their Vocations

In this inspiring short film, scientists describe how their fascination with the beauty and complexity of nature informs their vocations,…

  • Video
  • 9:16

Humans in a Vast Universe: Astronomy and Cosmic Significance

In this film, Drs. Guy Consolmagno, Jennifer Wiseman, and David Charbonneau explore humanity’s connection with the universe, the expanding nature…

SciFi Explores Science, Morality, and Spirituality Throughout Time
  • Video
  • 01:19:55

Imagining Different Worlds: Science, Ethics, and Faith in Science Fiction

In this recording of the 2020 holiday lecture and discussion, Br. Guy Consolmagno and Dr. Nnedi Okorafor discuss how intersections…

Since the beginning of human history we have been looking up at the night sky, wondering about the countless points of lights and what might lie beyond. Ancient astronomers observed that the visible heavens are relatively ordered and predictable, yet also peculiar and vast. Such universally experienced mystery has engendered tremendous philosophical, religious, and scientific inquiry. The last several hundred years in particular have witnessed revolutions in the way we understand the Universe. Copernicus re-envisioned the cosmos as sun-centered, not earth-centered. Galileo observed Jupiter’s orbiting moons and the Sun’s “imperfect” spots that led him to challenge the traditional Greek conceptions of the heavens. Indeed, both religious and scientific communities have had to regularly revise their understanding of the cosmos as more discoveries come to light.

Modern astronomy and physics continue to reveal many unanticipated features of the universe’s structure and evolution. Astrophysicists theorize that all space, matter and energy expanded explosively from an extremely dense soup of subatomic particles in an event called the Big Bang. After a process of cooling and coalescing, cloudlike nebulae of gas and dust collapsed to form stars, and these stars clustered to comprise galaxies. Eventually, terrestrial planets and moons were forged from the heavier material expelled from dying stars. Over an unimaginably long span of time—approximately 13.7 billion years—the components of the Universe gradually formed, and today the universe continues to evolve as space itself dramatically expands.

In addition to piecing together the intricate history of the Universe and explaining the various objects we see around us, astronomers also seek to predict what the future may hold for the cosmos. However, such projections are constrained by the limits of our current understanding and by uncertainties inherent in many physical processes. As a result, recent cosmological models are not only plentiful but also often directly contradictory. Will the expansion of the Universe continue to accelerate until space is torn apart in a “Big Rip?” Will the currently expanding Universe eventually begin contracting, leading to a “Big Crunch” and potentially another Big Bang? Could it be that this universe is only one of an infinite number of other universes? Discussion of the Universe’s turbulent past and uncertain future raises many socially relevant questions including: How does the vastness of space inform our conception of humanity’s role in the Universe?

More locally, a notable feature of our planet is that it contains conditions suitable for an incredible diversity of life. Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is the fact that astronomers are discovering a multitude of planets orbiting other stars, some of which may share these conditions and some of which may also host life. Such discoveries would impact our perceptions about human uniqueness, significance and purpose, and we must be prepared to address and explore the implications.

The realm of physics and astronomy is wide (physically and metaphorically!), and it spurs questions foundational to religion, philosophy, and human significance. Advances in particle physics, cosmology, astrobiology and energy are sure to yield abundant fodder for socially relevant discussions over the coming years.

Click here to view the entire list of commonly asked questions.

Explore more resources!

Biological Evolution and the Kinship of All Life
  • Video
  • 8:24

Biological Evolution and the Kinship of All Life

In this film, Drs. Sean Carroll, Jeff Hardin, and Neil Shubin explore key ideas about the process of natural selection…

Humans and Race
  • Video
  • < 1 minute read

Humans & Race: The Series

A new video series from AAAS DoSER exploring the past and present intersections of science and racism. This series will explore difficult topics such as how science contributed to racism, how modern science understands humanity as one species, how racism is still real, and how the history of science is far from perfect when it comes to racist ideas.

A scientist wearing a lab coat is talking to a group of people in a science laboratory.
  • Article
  • < 1 minute read

AAAS celebrates 25 years connecting science and religion

  • Becky Ham

The AAAS DoSER program is celebrating 25 years of connecting science and religion on June 15 with a free virtual…

Other Common Questions