Can Science Fill the Spiritual Void?

I was once invited to give a live interview for a radio station in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. The interview took place at rush hour in the city’s very busy bus terminal, where poor workers come in from rural areas to perform all sorts of jobs in town, from cleaning the streets to working in factories and private homes. 

My experience at this interview would mark me for the rest of my life and set a new professional goal that I had not anticipated in my early career, to bring science to the largest number of people.

The interviewer asked me questions about the scientific take on the end of the world, inspired by a book I had the just published, which came out in the U.S. as The Prophet and the Astronomer: Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World. There are many ways in which science can address this question. Starting from the more local, we can see, from the devastating effects of hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, fires, droughts …, that the forces of Nature are beyond our control, even if we pride ourselves of our accomplishments “taming” them.

But the focus of my book was on cataclysmic celestial events and how they have inspired both religious narratives and scientific research, past and present. In particular, note the many instances that stars and fire and brimstone fall from the sky in the bible, both in the old (e.g., Book of Daniel, Sodom and Gomorrah) and the new testament (e.g., Apocalypse of John), or how the Celts believed that the skies would fall on their heads to mark the end of a time cycle.

Back to the interview, I mentioned how the gigantic collision with a 6-mile wide asteroid that hit the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico 65 million years ago had triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. I made a point of explaining how that event changed the history of life on Earth, freeing the small mammals of the time from predator pressure and culminating with the evolution of humans. My point was that there is no need for divine intervention to explain these very essential episodes in our planetary and collective history.

It was then that the hand went up, a small man with torn clothes and grease stains on his face: “So, you doctor want to take even God from us?”

I froze. The despair in that man’s voice was apparent. He felt betrayed. His faith was the only thing he held on to, the only thing that gave him strength to come back to that bus station everyday to work for a humiliatingly low minimum wage. If I took God away and put in the rational argumentation of science with its empirical validation in its place, what would that even mean to this man? How would it help him go on with his life? How could science teach him to cope with life in a world without the magic of supernatural belief?

I realized then how far we scientists are from the needs of most people; how far removed our discourse is from those who do not already seek science for answers, as surely many of you reading this essay already do. And I realized that in order to reach a larger audience, to bring the wonders of science to a much larger slice of the population, we must start from the youngest age with an outstanding science education, filled with wonder and discovery. We have to transfer the passion people direct to their faith to fuel an appetite for wonder about the natural world and our place in it. We have to teach that science has a spiritual dimension; not in the sense of supernaturalism, but in the sense of how it connects us with something bigger than we are.

I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim how much scientists have discovered of the world and how much we can explain to someone whose faith is the main drive behind all that he or she does. “Why should I believe what you are saying about the universe being 13.8 billion years old etc. more than I believe that Jesus is God’s son?” “How do I believe your truth?”

We have an enormous task ahead of us, if we really are going to make scientific education not just informative but transformative. And it must be done in collaboration with the humanities and social sciences, as essential fundamental questions nowadays span all disciplines.

I answered the man, in a shaky voice, that science doesn’t want to take God away from people, even if some scientists do; that science explains how the world works, bringing the wonders of the universe big and small for all to share and appreciate. I went on to explain that scientific research is a very passionate enterprise, one that brings us closer to Nature, to the ongoing mysteries we face as we try to understand more and more of the universe. The man smiled. He didn’t say anything, but I am sure that he saw in the scientific drive for understanding the same passion that drove him toward his faith. 

I left the interview and went for a long walk around a lake, thinking of Einstein and how he believed that the scientific enterprise was the only true religion, as we devote our lives to understand what we can of Nature driven by awe and filled with humility. To me, that walk and reflection was charged with a deep spirituality.