Astrophysicist Rejects Science-Religion Animosity, Says Science is Spiritual

Mar 24, 2019

Astrophysicist and cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser is this year's Templeton Prize winner.
Credit Dartmouth College-Eli Burakian

The Templeton Prize is sometimes described as the Nobel Prize for spirituality. It was established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton to honor “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Past recipients include Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, but also a substantial list of physicists and cosmologists.

This year’s winner falls into that latter category. Marcelo Gleiser is an astrophysicist at Dartmouth College. He contends that science and religion are not only compatible, but that science is spiritual. For him, the two realms have always been intertwined.

“I’m Jewish by upbringing. And for my bar mitzvah, which is a celebration when you turn 13, I got this gift which was an autographed photograph of Einstein,” Gleiser explains.

A distant relative of Gleiser's had hosted Einstein when he visited Rio in 1925, and the photograph remained in the family for decades.

“I got it because I was already thinking about it and I had a fascination with the universe and with the big questions,” Gleiser says. “Once I got it I actually read a couple of popular books by Einstein - his autobiographical notes and a book called Evolution of Physics - and I really fell in love, not just with the physics he was talking about, but with the way he engaged science as a bigger questioning of humanity.”

Gleiser’s own research sits – as he describes it – at the intersection of the very, very large and the very, very small. He’s interested in reconstructing the history of the universe, and understanding how complexity arises.

“In cosmology, we look out into the universe for fossils of the very, very far away time in the past, so that we can tell this story for everyone,” Gleiser explained. “That story - the story of the universe - is in a very real sense our story too.”

Gleiser is clear that there are limits to science, and we will mostly likely never know the whole story of our universe. But he says it is the asking that is important – and deeply spiritual.

“When we are doing the kind of science that I do, we are asking these very deep existential questions about the origin of the universe, the origin of matter, the origin of the sun and the planets, the origin of life,” Gleiser said. “These questions are questions which are much older than science itself.”

Gleiser says science is one part of the tripod of human questioning, and that philosophy and religion have asked these same questions for far longer than science has existed. The answers those different disciplines yield may be starkly different, but they are parallel pursuits.

And science has its own way of connecting to our spiritual side.

“In a sense, science he's really a flirt with the unknown. And because of that, it connects us with the mysterious dimension - with the dimension which I would call the mystery of who we are,” he said. “Once science reaches into these sorts of existential questionings, it is serving to amplify our spiritual connection with the world and with the universe.”

Gleiser says that he thinks the world would be a better place if more people, including scientists viewed science in this light. If nothing else, it might foster a more constructive conversation between science and faith.