FRANKLYWNOW - Astronomy & Belief

Astronomy & Belief

By Kimberly Hosey
Download PDF (176Kb)

From his cluttered second-floor office at Arizona State University - walled in by books and blanketed in several layers of papers - Rogier Windhorst attempts to multitask.

As he returns to his office from teaching freshmen astronomy students, he carefully leaves the door open for drop-ins during his office hours. He navigates the labyrinth to his chair and turns on the computer - "It's so old my students won't even use it," he says. The screen reveals a cascade of open windows, scattered like papers on a desk. He begins to work, and chews the better part of a spinach wrap while he talks enthusiastically about his research.

The topic is the heavens - which from Windhorst elicits equal mention of high redshifts and philosophical notions, always with a sort of dreamy zeal. For Windhorst, both a prominent astronomer and a professed Christian, the age-old science-versus-religion debate has materialized uniquely in his past few years of research.

Windhorst's latest contribution to astronomy and cosmology is his work with the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, the most distant ever taken of the universe. The image is actually a composite image, which Hubble took 400 orbits to complete and is comprised of 800 exposures, or a total of over 11 days' viewing time. Through this image and the tricks of light travel, he has been able to see a timeline of sorts, dating back to when our universe was only one-twentieth its current age, a virtual toddler.

"The Hubble really changed everything," he says, leaning back as if gazing through his office walls at the stars. He unrolls an oversized poster, weighs it down with a magazine and some office supplies - and morphs into galactic-guide, time-traveling mode.

"Essentially what you have here is a timeline of our universe," he says. He points to an image that could be any picture of a star-filled night sky. Upon closer inspection, every one of the approximately 10,000 dots is itself an entire galaxy, each containing billions of stars.

"Everything here is houses and neighborhoods at the distant horizon as if you were driving on the cosmic freeway," he adds. "So everything is a galaxy, and a galaxy is an island universe like our own that easily contains between 10 billion and 100 billion stars."

In the face of such daunting structure - and more aware than most of the enormous scale of the universe - many may be tempted to view humanity's own existence as small and our habitat intimidating. Not Windhorst. Many Christians are threatened by scientific explanations of how the universe was created.

Many scientists prefer to avoid the topic of religion, to steer clear of divisive conversations or lines of thought irrelevant to their own research.

For Windhorst, modern science - and astronomy in particular - has revealed a structure for the universe that is surprisingly compatible with the biblical account of creation.

"I think they do intersect - philosophy, religion and science do have areas where they overlap. For instance, philosophy will ask the question, 'Where do we all come from?' and of course they can't answer the question. And I don't mean to be arrogant here, but science does the same thing," he says.

For Windhorst, the critical moment lies in the tiniest fraction of a second after the Big Bang: "I look as far back as I can, and physics allows me to believe in a creative force during that (instant). From there, I just reason that I know there is right and wrong, good and evil in the world," he says. His leading example is the attacks of Sept. 11.

"There's no way you can tell me that wasn't evil. Maybe a few individuals viewed it as good, but from any objective viewpoint, it was evil," he says. "And for it to make sense - for there to be a good and evil - the God of the Christian Bible makes the most sense for me."

Whether they agree with his beliefs or not, Windhorst's colleagues respect his views and his passion for science.

Massimo Stiavelli, with the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore, headed the "home team" on the Ultra Deep Field study and is working on the James Webb Space Telescope with Windhorst.

"He shows his experience and his great passion for the work. Rogier is an enthusiast," he says.

He also agrees with Windhorst about astronomy's relationship with religion. "Science and religion are compatible. Even the Pope has declared that the Big Bang model is a viable model of the universe," he says.

He also feels religious texts such as the Bible were written to include symbolism, and were designed to be easily understood by the readers of the time.

"Clearly if the Bible discussed Planck times, Robertson-Walker universes and Darwinian evolution it would have been a bit hard to read for the times. The language had to be adapted to the epoch when it was written so that people could understand it," he points out. "This doesn't detract from its value."

Andrew Bunker of Exeter University, in the United Kingdom, also led a team studying the Hubble UDF data. He disagrees with Windhorst and Stiavelli about the possibility of a harmony between astronomy and religion.

Because they "try to answer the same questions very differently," he concludes, scientific study and religious belief are inherently incompatible.

"But I know a large number of scientists who I greatly respect who are religious," he adds.

"I think the winning aspect of science is that it never says it is right - it is constantly striving to improve understanding, and get a more accurate picture of what is going on," Bunker says.

"It is this questioning methodology which is at the core of science - the idea that any good theory should have predictive power and so be testable," he concludes.

It is in this aspect - constantly learning - that Windhorst excels as a scientist. Windhorst has been enthralled with the cosmos since childhood, and sees science as "an unending quest" for answers.

"I think I was 10 years old when in a science class at school, somebody mentioned that there were neutron stars out there in the universe that had a density so high that one cubic centimeter would weigh as much as several thousand railroad trucks full of iron," he said. "I didn't believe it."

He soon became a believer. At his home in the Netherlands, he built a telescope with his father when he was 14 and began studying the solar system.

His decision to study astronomy after high school was perhaps a bigger leap of faith than any religious belief system required of him. Cosmology was still a fledgling field at the time, and Windhorst says his father worried he might not be able to make a living in such an esoteric area.

While he believes that his academic pursuits and beliefs are intertwined, Windhorst emphasizes the need to test and examine scientific evidence.

"At their core, they both look at the same thing," he says of cosmology and religious beliefs. "But you have to examine the evidence. If you were to say the Earth is flat, or only 6,000 years old, that's just ignoring the evidence we have."

Oddly, it is often from other Christians - not secular scientists - that Windhorst receives the biggest challenge. "Some Christians try to say that the Earth is only 6,000 years old," he says. "That's just like if we were to say that the Earth is flat - the evidence simply doesn't support it."

Windhorst has been with Hubble since its rocky start in 1990, has discovered several galaxies and has earned a reputation as an accomplished astronomer both in the United States and internationally.

"Everything in the early '90s really set me off for a real career in cosmology and astronomy," he says, adding that it was in these years and the time since that he "spent a lot of time thinking" about the intersections of science and belief in a higher power.

Jonathan Lunine, astronomer and planetary science professor at the University of Arizona, feels his own beliefs are not important to the practice of science, but is nonetheless excited about a University of Arizona program to explore the interface between astronomy and religion. The U of A and the University of Southern California were selected from 200 institutions worldwide to develop dialogue about astronomy and religion, focusing on astrobiology and the role of humans in the universe as scientific knowledge increases.

Lunine will join other university faculty members on the project.

"My own religious persuasion is not relevant," Lunine says. "Speaking as an individual is not nearly as important as speaking as an astronomer. The exploration of the issue is exciting - but it's not an issue that needs to be resolved. Science and religion will always interact, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict."

"Because it deals with the structure and origin of the universe, astronomy certainly does have areas where it intersects with religious viewpoints," he says.

However, Lunine notes astronomy does not draw as much attention from religion as some other scientific pursuits, such as evolutionary theory.

"You don't get the same level of conflict with astronomy as you might in biology. You're not going to get some mother refusing to take her child to school because of an astronomy lesson," Lunine points out.

Windhorst says there is not usually the same level of conflict, but he thinks the infancy of the universe is a central issue for both religion and astronomy. In this way, he says, astronomy sometimes tends to have a higher concentration of believers - or at least scientists who are open to the idea.

"It tends to attract people who ask the fundamental questions," he says. "You might find some atheists in the physics and astronomy departments, but maybe not quite as many as you'd find elsewhere. Even though we've understood a lot, we've come to realize how small we really are, and what the limitations of our methods are."

José Funes sees a trend of intersection between astronomy and theology, but emphasizes that while connected in subject matter, they are "different areas of knowledge."

He should know. Funes sees nothing incongruous about a marriage between astronomy and theology. He has devoted his life both to service to God and to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Funes, as a Jesuit brother and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, specializes in extragalactic astronomy. His studies include supermassive black holes and their host galaxies as well as galaxy formation and evolution.

The Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world, is the only research group directly supported and endorsed by the Holy See (the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church).

The church gives the Vatican Observatory about $1 million a year. The observatory is run by the Jesuits, a religious order whose "charism" - or special gift to the church - is scholarship.

Ten Jesuit astronomers split their time between Italy and Tucson, Ariz., where they have offices at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. In collaboration with Steward, the Jesuits built the 70-inch Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham, 75 miles northeast of Tucson.

"Scientific knowledge, with the scientific method, is very precise and is accepted by the scientific community. And theology is another kind of knowledge, with its own rules," Funes says. "There are certainly points where they intersect, such as when we look at the beginning of the universe."

Science and religion thriving side-by-side is no aberration, according to Funes. "There are many of us working on science and religion, and we're very active," he says. "I think there are many astronomers who are believers, probably more than a lot of other areas. People who look at the universe tend to make those conclusions."

"There is definitely an intersection," says Guillermo Gonzalez, a research professor of astronomy at Iowa State University.

"You can see it in both astronomy and physics, though perhaps more in astronomy," he says. "Astronomy and cosmology bring up the origin of the universe, and that leads to a ton of important theological implications."

One of the most important of those implications, according to many astronomers, was the discovery of support for the Big Bang theory. Windhorst points out: "If there was a beginning point, instead of the universe just always existing, then our universe had a birth - there was nothing, then there was something."

"There are a lot of believers (in a creative power) who are in astronomy," Gonzalez continues. "Other scientists certainly have religious faith, but I think the number of believers tends to be higher in the physical sciences than in the 'softer' sciences." He cites one recent poll of scientists, which shows a sharp difference in religious individuals in physics and astronomy versus those in anthropology and psychology.

"I think astronomy attracts more believers," he says. "It certainly is the most beautiful science. You just look up at the night sky and you're inspired. I think it has that quality of early inspiration that a lot of the other sciences don't."

Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross spent several years researching quasars and galaxies as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology before founding Reasons to Believe, an organization with online and television outlets that examines the link between scientific discoveries and religious beliefs - in this case, belief in the Christian God. He has also written several books on the subject, focusing both on theological and scientific aspects of our world and universe.

Ross admires the work of scientists like Windhorst. He has spoken at ASU, and has worked with Windhorst on a few occasions. Ross' goal is to "help the specialists integrate their discoveries."

"Often the astronomers and theologians aren't even aware of the issues - I try to help bridge that gap, dispel the myth that they're disparate," he says.

"I see that discoveries of science and theology as virtually overlapping," he adds. "They intersect and come to the same answer." According to Ross, the scientific method as we know it today draws heavily from a Christian theological perspective.

Ross says he receives "good receptivity" at most campuses he visits, and has been well received throughout the country.

"There are many Christians in astronomy," he adds. "I've talked to a lot of astronomers about their beliefs. A lot are deists." Deism is the belief in a god who created the universe and at that moment ceased to intervene supernaturally, essentially leaving the universe to its own laws and devices. For deists, reason and belief are one and the same.

"The next biggest group is theists," he says. Theism is belief in the existence of a god or gods, including one who created the universe and may or may not intervene in its "upkeep."

"Then there are many Christians - and the smallest group is the atheists," Ross says. Regardless of particular persuasion, he says, the majority of astronomers make room for a supernatural intelligence. That disposition is growing with each scientific discovery, according to Ross.

"Every day there's a new discovery that puts faith to the test, and it's becoming clearer each day that the two are answers to the same question, and are very compatible."

He added that among scientists who do not believe in God or who do not examine the issue, he thinks it is often "because the research itself is just so captivating and interesting; they don't focus on anything else."

Ross believes the "young-Earth versus old-Earth" controversy that has reigned in many Christian circles in recent years, and the cosmological questions and "science versus religion" debate it engenders, will be resolved.

"People who think that Christianity demands blind faith and an anti-intellectual bias can be better persuaded by Christians who are well prepared to discuss and demonstrate, based on facts, why they believe what they do," he notes.

"Learning how to resolve conflict matures us and prepares us to recognize and deal with problems in ways that the world needs to see," he writes in the conclusion to his most recent book, "A Matter of Days."

"Controversies like these help us clarify science as well as belief," he adds.

Jane Maienschein, director of ASU's Center for Biology and Society, is an expert in the history of scientific research and the changing social, political and legal context in which science is practiced.

While her specialty is biology, Maienschein has worked with scientists in several disciplines, including astronomy.

"I think in general astronomy and physics tend to have higher concentrations of believers in some higher power," she says. "Those disciplines tend to be more philosophical, more esoteric." Her area of expertise - cloning issues and the definition of human life - asks some of the same questions, from a biological perspective.

Windhorst pulls out the galactic poster once more, and produces several smaller glossy replicas. He points out the most distant galaxies again - perhaps forgetting he has already pointed them out, but more likely too enamored with the subject matter to resist another trip back in time.

"There's about 1080 particles in our universe - and I'm not talking about the other universes that you can't say anything about other than that they're possible," Windhorst points out, displaying a thinking capacity that goes far beyond "big."

"We're in the golden age of astronomy and cosmology, and I think we're still going to be in the golden age for quite a while," he adds. "And that's because there are so many aspects of the universe that are so complicated. There's so much still to discover."

Windhorst passionately believes that scientific study and religious devotion are compatible. He has been alternately discouraged and uplifted by recent debates and discussions over religion, science, ethics and politics, and holds firm views in most issues - as long as he has researched them. Not many people are likely to agree with all of Windhorst's views, but most respect the careful consideration he gives to any area of his life, and are likely to agree that he is a passionate, honest seeker of both personal and scientific truths. For Windhorst as for many others, studying the heavens and studying Heaven enjoy a profound union.
The Experts

Rogier Windhorst, ASU astronomer and observational cosmologist. Professor of physics and astronomy and scientist working on Hubble Ultra Deep Field and James Webb Space Telescope. E-mail:, Phone: (480) 965- 7143.

Massimo Stiavelli: astronomer with Space Science Telescope Institute, led a team studying Hubble UDF data. E-mail:

Andrew Bunker, team leader for recent Hubble UDF data study, professor in University of Exeter's School of Physics. Phone: +44(0) (139) 226-4118; E-mail:

Jonathan I. Lunine, U of A astronomy, physics and planetary science professor. Phone: (520) 621-2789; E-mail:

José Funes, Vatican Observatory astronomer. Phone: (520) 621-7855; E-mail:

Guillermo Gonzalez, research professor of astronomy at Iowa State University. Phone: (515) 294-5630; E-mail:

Hugh Ross, astrophysicist, author and evangelist. Phone: (626) 335-2073. (Only by appointment; e-mail is only for general organizational matters and setting appointments.)

Jane Maienschein, ASU School of Life Sciences Regents professor and director of the Center for Biology and Society. Phone: (480)965-6105; E-mail:

Powered by Frankly
All content &copy; Copyright 2000 - 2019. All Rights Reserved. <BR>For more information on this site, please read our <a href="//" >Privacy Policies </a>, and <A HREF="//">Terms of Service</A>.