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Physics, Religion, the Media, and the Face of Modern Idolatry

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I have always had a fascination with astronomy, particularly with new discoveries in astrophysics. I watch all the astronomy programs shown on the Science Channel and read the popular Astronomy magazine. Generally speaking, the TV programs deal with recent astronomical discoveries and the interpretation of observed phenomena. I find these programs stimulating.

Occasionally, such programs cross scientific and philosophical lines and make pronouncements which in other fields would be considered religious. In an episode of “Wonders of the Universe,” astrophysicist Brian Cox, while standing on the banks of the Ganges River in India, discusses how religions have attempted to answer the question of the origins and end of the cosmos. He suggests an alternative vision to the one provided by the world’s religions, “one entirely based on physics.”

In commenting on professor Cox’s programs, the BBC 2 website says: “Professor Brian Cox reveals how the fundamental scientific principles and laws explain not only the story of the universe, but also answer mankind’s greatest questions.” A physicist offers an alternative meta-narrative to creation and telos, which relies completely on the four fundamental forces of the universe (gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces) and other laws of physics. Thus comes the “Brave New World” of Aldous Huxley, where God, if not absent, is irrelevant.

The “assured results” of science, however, are sometimes anything but. There are questions about the interaction of all four fundamental forces, and at least one of them, gravity, has no satisfactory scientific definition or explanation.

Especially troubling are the meta-narratives regarding the birth and end of the cosmos—what happened in the first minute after the big bang? Will the cosmos end in a big crunch or a big freeze?

Furthermore, 95% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy, which have not yet been observed directly, their composition unknown, and their effects imperfectly, at best, understood. Ninety-five percent of the cosmos is essentially unknown, and its birth and end are matters of disagreement and speculation. Yet the god “Science,” and its attendant deity “Physics,” are thought by some physicists, their interpreters, and the media to prescribe a cosmic, explanatory narrative, to which we must bow the knee, and this narrative is every bit as faith-based and “religious” as the systems they seek to replace.

How can physics, in the minds of some, serve as functional replacements for religion and religious explanatory narratives, with their own attendant priesthood and devotion?

I will engage now in my own, non-scientific description, based upon my observation of physicists who elevate the study of physics to a pseudo-religion.

First, a religion needs a deity (or at least a deity-like force, goal, or state). In antiquity, natural and social forces were personified, made into images, and worshipped. We call these idols. Functional idolatry is apparent in the modern day when Nature is appealed to as a force or goal. Physics, as I mentioned above, can become a functional idol when it is appealed to as the ultimate force and the laws which bind together the cosmos and is, in fact, equivalent to “God” (see below). This deity inscribes in cosmic history the meta-narrative which gives coherence and meaning to the story of everything.

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Second, religion requires priests or prophets who teach and interpret its tenets. Science as a faith system most definitely has its high priesthood of luminaries. First is Carl Sagan, who believed that God is the set of physical laws which govern the universe, but did not discount the idea of God entirely.

 

 

Photo: Carl Sagan

Neal_deGrasse_Tyson.jpgEqually famous is Stephen Hawking, who has stated that God is in the laws of nature, but more recently has declared himself an atheist. Neal deGrasse Tyson, acclaimed astrophysicist and cosmologist, believes that many scientists’ belief in intelligent design is detrimental to their research and to the advance of science. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is an outspoken atheist and opponent of religion. To these prophets of Science, the material cosmos is all there is, and humanity is well-served by worshipping at its altar.

Photo: Neal deGrasse Tyson

Finally, religion deals with the nature of the human, the problem of evil, the pursuit of the good, and the hope of the soul. Modern physicists have replaced “he has made us a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8) with “we are insignificant specks on a pale blue dot” (Carl Sagan). Some of these physicists have said that religion detracts from our ability to be truly human, to enjoy, explore, and know our true place in the cosmos (i.e., insignificant; Sagan). Others have said that the kind of “God” reflected in the universe is simply a set of laws, uncaring and unmoved by human experience, but which nevertheless gives us a sense of awe and humility, which they term “spirituality” (Tyson, Sagan).

I am reminded of the emperor cult in the late first century Roman Empire under Domitian. The emperor was to be worshipped as a god. This cult had its priesthood and its rituals. The false prophet was the one who propounded this cult and proclaimed “Caesar is Lord,” in direct contradiction to the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Who could doubt, in the late first century A.D., that the Roman Empire was destined to last forever, and that the empire and its emperor were touched with divinity?

In the same way, the modern proponents of Physics as a faith system, with its laws, its meta-narrative, and its prophets, would have all people bow the knee to an abstract set of personifications and declare, “Physics is God.”

As in the first century, the Church has an opportunity today to declare “only Jesus is Lord,” in contradiction to the modern face of scientific idolatry, and call people to worship the one who came from the Father, who created all things, including the laws and principles of physics, by which he causes the cosmos to run.

 

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

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