Until the light bulb was invented in the 19th century, the only light that would have been visible at night would have been produced either by a fire, by the sun’s reflection off moon, or by stars that were burning billions of miles away. Without artificial light to interfere, the night sky is ablaze with thousands of tiny points of light. It should come as no surprise then, that every human culture has had some spiritual connection to the stars.
One can imagine the kind of intimacy with the night sky a lifetime of observing the movements of the stars could create. The patterns of movement in the stars may have been as intuitive as patterns in the rise and fall of the sun and moon. That is why every human culture has, at some point, figured out that there is one star in the Northern Hemisphere that does not move. It is called Polaris, the North Star.
This time lapse image nicely illustrates the central importance of this point in space. In fact, there is nothing special about the star; it is not even the brightest in the night sky, contrary to popular belief. No, what’s special is that, from our perspective, it is right at that point in the sky that does not have the appearance of rotating because it is directly in line the Earth’s axis of rotation.
Many people think of Polaris as an antiquated navigational reference. Well that’s all it may be to us, but imagine how important it would have been to the ancient peoples of this Earth; to them, it was the ultimate point of reference – something central and permanent. In fact, the ancient Egyptians revered all the circumpolar stars as “the indestructibles,” and associated them with the afterlife. It has been shown that the Great Pyramid at Giza, the tomb of one of their greatest King’s, was designed to align with circumpolar north.
Of course, if the Earth rotated a few degrees in a different direction, an altogether different star in our night sky would appear to be at the center, and would have been revered by humanity throughout the ages. I suppose that’s the jarring thing about the discoveries of science; human beings have attached supernatural and spiritual meaning to that star for thousands, maybe even millions of years… but now we know that there is actually nothing special about it. It could have been any star. The fact that this particular star lines up with the Earth’s specific axis is random and arbitrary. Sorry humanity, you were wrong.
Well, I suppose if there were still ancient Egyptians around who practiced their religion, they would tell me that the Earth isn’t any other way. It’s this way, and that’s what makes that star special. And you know what, I wouldn’t disagree with them.
Polaris is special, but here’s the kicker: it’s only special to us. It’s not special from the perspective of the billions of other planets that we see in our telescopes. I think that is why human faith is afraid of science: because science has shown us that we are not at the center. This is fundamentally alienating to human beings, creatures for whom the experience of reality and the universe is necessarily centered within. All we can do, as humans, is look out from inside ourselves, and try to find some anchor, some kind of permanence in the chaos.
It’s no surprise, then, that every human civilization has created a god. If you look at the different kinds of gods that have been invented by the human race, there is a staggering degree of similarity: forever living, in the sky, a force of creation and destruction. This being may be understood as a celestial object such as the sun or the moon, or it may be anthropomorphic and understood as a wise-man or deity. The shape we give it is irrelevant; at the core, what we are searching for is some kind of permanence.
Science is disenchanting, for it has shown us that the stars will eventually die, as will the sun, as will the Earth, as will we. There is no escape from the impossibility of permanence. Even time itself (though humanly inconceivable) is now thought to have a beginning and an end. There is no constant by which humanity can anchor himself in the universe, according to the laws of science.
Follow this story through to it’s logical conclusion, and you will see that science will never fulfill the needs of human spirituality. It is too counter-intuitive to human nature. Who knows how religions will evolve in the future, what false prophets will exploit human faith, what kinds of bureaucracies and institutions will edify social rules and uphold moral law in the name of god? It doesn’t really matter. Our concept of religion may one day falter, but the process whereby human spirituality is harnessed for domination and social control – that will likely go on for as long as human civilization exists on this planet.
And if you think that the beliefs of ancient civilizations are silly and outdated, consider the biblical story of the Three Kings. They followed the Star of Bethlehem to Jerusalem on December 25th, the birthdate of Christ. Well, did you know that the “Three Kings” is another name for the constellation “Orion’s Belt” three stars which point to (or follow) the Star in the East (you can see this constellation at night quite plainly). In fact, these stars line up with sunrise on December 25th, the symbolic birth of Christ. Even the most foundational myths still told in modern Christianity evolved from ancient and abstract interpretations of the stars – a connection to our stargazing ancestors lost in the convolusions of histroy and in the countless translations of religious myth.
One wonders, if man might have been better off without the lightbulb. Yes, it has been illuminating – but whithout the night’s sky to guide us, how will we know up from down?