About the discipline
Seeking truth: Religion and physics share in common that in both, practitioners seek to learn what is true, while also dealing with unseen realities whose existence cannot immediately be proved. Existence is often inferred based on effects in the visible world. Whether for a higher power, a deeper understanding of tiny particles or an unseen astronomical object, the search requires a sense of mystery, desire for discovery and belief that there is something to be found. Discoveries or convictions in these fields define our understanding of the origin of the universe and our place in it.
Origin of the universe: Believing in that which is not seen and explanations of the origin of the universe are common in religious ideology. For example, the biblical letter writer in Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Islam’s Koran states: “Then He turned to the heaven when it was smoke … (Koran: 41:11) … Have not those who disbelieved known that the heavens and earth were one connected entity, then We separated them?” (Koran 21:30)
Science and religion: Physics studies the structure and properties of matter and transformations of energy that establish the fundamental laws of nature. Astronomy studies phenomena outside the limits of the Earth, applying physics to interpret observable phenomena surrounding the Earth and the distant limits of the universe. Aerospace engineering often provides ways to further explore these environments.
Theologians and religious believers often infer the existence of God from various facts, affirming that belief because His existence makes sense of their experiences and knowledge. Although they have a different perspective, physicists deal with a similar world of nonvisible (such as gluons or quarks) and possibly non-existent (such as the strings in “string theory”) objects. Neither deals with concrete “proofs” in the everyday world but does try to make sense of events that can objectively be said to have occurred.
People of faith might observe that the laws of physics have remarkably allowed the evolution of intelligent human life in the universe – perhaps too remarkably to not reflect a master creator. Others might argue that scientific discoveries reveal only a fundamental natural law. Yet there is also always much more than meets the eye. Research in quantum physics, for example, has shown that tiny particles behave differently than expected, based on theories from the behavior of larger particles. John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and particle physicist, argues that contemporary research shows the universe to be much richer and less predictable – and perhaps more open to divine influence – that scientific theories suggest.
Some would argue that physics is a religion itself, because of its steadfast belief in the laws and knowability of the universe and its forces. Others would argue that it is the diametrical opposite. One school of thought portrays physics as the universal religion, noting that laws of physics and mathematics are fundamentally the same around the world, while religions vary. Proponents argue that making understanding of the simple and irrefutable laws of nature a worldwide religion would eliminate global religious strife.
Oppenheimer and the bomb: Another religious reference in physics is the oft-quoted citation of the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad-Gita (500 B.C.-50 B.C), by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer upon witnessing the first atomic bomb test. Known as the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer reportedly thought of this Sanskrit verse after seeing the all-illuminating flash of the atomic weapon at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945: “If the radiance of a thousand suns, were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” He said years later that another verse from the Bhagavad-Gita also entered his head at that time. In it, the Supreme Being is trying to persuade Prince Arjuna that he should do his duty. To impress him, he takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer, a 1925 Harvard graduate in chemistry, is best known for his work in theoretical physics and as scientific director of the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons. He also suggested the existence of what we now call black holes. What is less known is that he was interested in religion, learned Sanskrit and read the Bhagavad-Gita in its original text, citing it as one of the most influential books to shape his life philosophy.
Oppenheimer also reportedly gave the Trinity Site its name, based on a set of holy sonnets on the “three-person’d God” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) by English poet John Donne, believing it set a proper tone for the experiment. Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi (1898-1988) said Oppenheimer’s interest in religion “resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe.” Though Oppenheimer saw physics clearly, Rabi said, he also turned “away from the hard, crude methods of theoretical physics into a mystical realm of broad intuition.”
Issues today: Those working in physics face ethical issues over nuclear power, safety, domestic energy, weapons and nuclear buildup. Like the physicists and politicians of the 1940s, they may face tough ethical decisions, such as whether more lives are saved or lost through introducing nuclear warfare; or providing less expensive energy and allowing more customers to afford power in a form less likely to contribute to “greenhouse gases,” but that in an accident could cause more critical environmental and human harm.
Amid wars and threats of war around the world (some with nuclear capabilities, and some with religious overtones), understanding of religion, diverse cultures, beliefs and identities is important when negotiating between nations in which faith plays a strong role. Researchers could study whether and how much religious beliefs impact support for nuclear, physics and astronomy research; how discoveries compare with religious doctrine; or how much religion and science impact people’s view of their place in the world.
From the perspective of astronomy, researchers should be aware that some religious believers adamantly discredit discoveries of other universes, solar systems and planets that may foster life, because of beliefs that God created humans only on Earth. At the very least, the possibility of life on other planets poses challenges to some religious beliefs, and could prompt believers to question whether the same God created all life in all universes or whether those inhabitants have the same opportunities for faith and redemption according to Earthly religious beliefs. There are also religious movements that believe life on Earth is the result of life on other planets, or that religious myths, beliefs and history tell of visits from superior extra-terrestrial beings rather than divine creation and intervention.
Those working in these fields can understand that colleagues may come at the study from religious or non-religious backgrounds, which is especially helpful when working in multidisciplinary teams. Researchers may want to look at whether religious affiliation or type of religion impacts views about these sciences or how they are practiced. Scientists can also study how what they learn changes culture and challenges or supports existing beliefs.
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- Raia, Courtenay Grean. “From Ether Theory to Ether Theology: Oliver Lodge and the Physics of Immortality.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 43, No. 1 (2007): 18-43.
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Codes of ethics
- American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics – Code of Ethics
- American Nuclear Society – Code of Ethics
- American Physical Society – Ethics & Values/Guidelines for Professional Conduct
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Ethics of Outer Space
- Science and Christian Belief
- Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science
- First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life
- The Place of Physics in Religion (NPR)
- Physics and Religion (The Secular Web)
- Physics and Society newsletter “The Physics of Religion”
- Physics of the Holy Qur’an (Islamic Insights)
- The Case of the Christian Astronomer (Gawker)
Professional associations and faith groups
- Affiliation of Christian Engineers
- American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science
- American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin
- Association of Christians in Mathematical Sciences
- Christian Astronomy and Astronomers
- Christian Engineering Society
- Christian Nuclear Fellowship
- Christians in Science
- European Society for the Study of Science and Theology
- Fellowship of Scientists
- International Muslim Association of Scientists & Engineers
- Duquette, Jonathan. “‘Quantum Physics and Vedanta’: A Perspective from Bernard D’Espagnat’s Scientific Realism.” Journal of Religion & Science. Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sept. 2011): 620-38.
- Murphy, Nancey. “Cosmopolis: How Astronomy Affects Philosophies of Human Nature and Religion.” Astronomy and Civilization in the New Environment. Vol. 107, No. 3 (2011): 175-85.
- Caring for Creation: Religion, Physics and the Environment. John Smedley, Bates College
- Origins: A Dialogue Between Scientists and Humanists(.pdf). Richard D. Hecht, Tommaso Treu and Stefania Tutino. University of California-Santa Barbara.