Science and religion and a quest for truth

As far as the eye can see: astrophotographer JP Metsavainio’s creation of the Milky Way


It is perhaps fitting that in the lead up to Holy Week — Christianity’s greatest celebration — Finnish astrophotographer JP Metsavainio has announced that, after 1,250 hours over the course of about 12 years, he has finished creating a single image that reveals the magnificent beauty of the entire Milky Way.
Back in 2009, Metsavainio began this project, which is a 1.7-gigapixel mosaic of the Milky Way composed of 234 individual images all stitched together. The resulting image captures the entire galaxy, speckled with about 20 million of the Milky Way’s roughly 200 billion stars.
So, how could a single image take 12 years?
In his blog, Metsavainio points to “the size of the mosaic and the fact that the image is very deep. And adds: “Another reason is that I have shot most of the mosaic frames as individual compositions and published them as independent artworks.”
Don’t fret if you can’t get your head around the roughly 200 billion stars in our Milky Way. You’re not alone, trust me, but who knows what secrets those stars may one day yield.
For me, Easter begs the question: Are religion and science that far apart in their quest for a meaning to life? They may in fact be more compatible than some would argue on the, you know, Big Question of who are we, how do we come to be here, and what’s next in the grand scheme of things?
Consider this: Pope Francis acknowledges that the Big Bang and evolution are real, and that God is not a “magician with a magic wand”. The Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff and a scientist by training, has said that both evolution and the Big Bang are “not incompatible” with the existence of God, and that both “required” a Creator.
To argue that being religious is incompatible with being a scientist does not cut it, when you consider that the father of the Big Bang was actually a Catholic priest, Belgium’s George Lemaitre; that the pioneer of modern genetics was an Augustinian monk, the Morovian born Gregor Mendel; and the decoder of the human genome is Dr Francis Collins, a once avowed atheist who converted to Catholicism in his 20s while studying quantum physics.
Perhaps no one knows better than Francis Collins how easy it could be for a scientist to play God with human destiny. While studying for his first of many degrees, Collins said: “I realised something very fundamental, that I had made a decision to reject any faith view of the world without ever really knowing what it was that I had rejected. And that worried me.
“As a scientist, you’re not supposed to make decisions without the data. It was pretty clear I hadn’t done any data collecting about what [religious] faiths stood for.”
Similarly, Pope Francis last year told a gathering of astronomy students at the Vatican that “scientists and people of faith must admit they don’t know everything and must never be afraid to explore and question”.
Our best estimates are that there are around 200 billion stars in the Milky Way and at least 140 billion galaxies across the universe. When you ponder this unchartered vastness, and the wonders of the natural world, or the mysteries of consciousness, what are you left with? Nothing but a material world, the workings of which are just waiting to be discovered by the logical reasoning of science? Or a Divine Originator, a power incomprehensible to our limited reasoning but gives meaning and purpose to it all?
Increasingly, modern science, particularly astrophysics, alludes to an Original Cause.
The eminent evolutionist Richard Dawkins leaves me cold for he starts from the arrogant premise that there is no God and that the Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago and everything that has followed since is, effectively, just chance. Could just as easily not have happened.
I don’t buy that. Darwin never ruled out a Divine Originator. And science has yet to define what exactly consciousness or reality is. That the laws of physics are so minutely fine-tuned, that there is Life, that you and I exist at all — a nano-nano second either side of the Big Bang and the ‘conditions’ for such would not ‘be’ — is, in the true sense of the word, a miracle.
Ergo, anything is possible. There is just as likely a God as there is not.
Contrary to widespread belief, the modern Catholic Church is science-friendly: its support for Darwin contrasts sharply with the unscientific belief in Creationism of many evangelicals across the world — a concept Pope Benedict XVI criticised in 2007 as “absurd”.
Increasingly, modern science, particularly in the field of astrophysics, alludes to — indeed, concludes of — an Original Cause or God. (Robert Lanza’s Biocentrics and Bernard Haisch’s The God Theory are not a million light years from Higgs boson and the God particle.)
My Catholic upbringing in the Ireland of the Sixties did little to answer any of the Big Questions. And I could not rationalise a God who would condemn to eternal damnation, nor a devil that existed apart from God for that defeats the very definition of what God is — the All That Is.
My father many years ago said to me, if you cannot believe then you should at least hope. My small circle of friends is in the main atheistic or agnostic. The familiar stark divide between people of religion and those without I feel is too crude. Many atheists have convictions and experiences just as profound as those that believers count as ‘religious’.
Though they do not believe in a ‘personal’ god, they nevertheless believe in a ‘force’ in the universe ‘greater than we are’. As did, and few consider this, Einstein who wrote: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious.’’
Finally, where we stand on Jesus might be a good question to ponder this Holy Week. Do we believe He was the Son of God, that He could perform miracles, that He died for us?
Do we believe that He even existed?
Such contentions have been argued for centuries by philosophers and theologians, from Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
It would appear there is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past.
This evidence is of two kinds, according to the noted historian Paul L Maier: internal and external. Or, if you will, sacred and secular. “In both cases, the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence,” says Maier.
On the sacred front, the most detailed record of Jesus’ life is recorded in the Gospels. In addition, a number of early non-Christian sources name Him quite clearly.
Meantime, happy Easter and go easy on those eggs. I’m off back to my tome on parallel universes. As if one was not enough to contend with…

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