NASA published this stunning image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope to celebrate the first year of remarkable achievements. It is of a star forming region. NASA:
“The subject is the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region to Earth. It is a relatively small, quiet stellar nursery, but you’d never know it from Webb’s chaotic close-up. Jets bursting from young stars crisscross the image, impacting the surrounding interstellar gas and lighting up molecular hydrogen, shown in red. Some stars display the telltale shadow of a circumstellar disk, the makings of future planetary systems.”
Such images must make astronomers giddy. I’m not anything close to an astronomer but this image makes my knees a bit weak.
It raises a bit of a question that I have long contemplated. As a theist and believer in an endlessly powerful deity responsible for the universe we inhabit, my response to this image –– like most everything I learn from science –– is worship. The sheer scope and scale of the universe, vaster than any comprehension, generates a sense of awe in the old fashioned meaning of the word. This is the response to confrontation with that which is so far above and beyond us that Rudolph Otto in his profound book The Idea of the Holy calls the numinous.
My question is this: is it possible that those who do not share my belief in a creator can avoid a similar experience? It is said there are no atheists in foxholes. We know there have been and still are. But, that does not mean they do not pray.
Stuart Kauffman, a leading scientist studying complex systems, emergence and the origins of life, is an atheist. But he believes strongly in the importance of religion. It is how we find meaning in our lives. He recognizes that the physicalist belief system that dominates our science and our cultural education through media and education systems, is a dead end when it comes to meaning. He is clear on the question I just raised: he does not believe in a transcendent God nor a creator in the traditional sense. But he prays. In a 2008 interview published in Salon, he responded to the question posed by Steve Paulson:
“You are Jewish, but you’ve said you can’t accept the God of Abraham. Have there been occasions in your life when you wish you could?