Opinion Column

Light pollution cause of increased atheism

By Justin Jaron Lewis, Faith

Justin Jaron Lewis is a rabbi and professor of the study of religion, University of Manitoba.

Justin Jaron Lewis is a rabbi and professor of the study of religion, University of Manitoba.

Light pollution is the cause of the increase in atheism.

This is my conclusion after spending some time this summer at cottages and cabins far from city lights. The sight of the Milky Way and all the stars around, filling the sky with daubs of light, filled my heart with wonder – as they would anyone. That kind of wonder has often been expressed in religious feelings and prayers. The Bible tells us that in ancient times the stars themselves were worshipped. In Judaism, the common term for idolaters is ovdei kokhavim, “worshippers of the stars.” Even in Jewish tradition, the stars are seen as alive – as the bodies of angels.

They are the “hosts of heaven” – hosts meaning “armies” or “multitudes” – who praise the Creator and do God’s will. The Christian author C.S. Lewis embraced this vision as well. In one of his stories about the magical world Narnia, the children meet a majestic old man who is introduced to them as a star from the sky. A skeptical child says, “A star is a huge ball of flaming gas!” and the old man replies, “Even in your world, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

Of course, it is possible to think of the stars strictly in accordance with modern science, and still be overwhelmed with awe and delight on seeing them. In many ways, science, especially physics, is the sacred mythology of our era. Scientists tell us wondrous stories of the birth, life, and death of stars and whole galaxies. We are all, they tell us, made of elements that are created inside the burning hearts of stars. Joni Mitchell’s lyric “we are stardust, we are golden” is scientific fact. And the images of stars and galaxies that we can look at in photographs taken by space telescopes are sacred ikons for our time.

But light pollution, the excess of electric light that comes with city living, has cut off more and more people from the power of starlight. From my back yard in Winnipeg I see a star here and a star there. Some of you reading this are blessed to live far enough from a city to see what is really there: a whole sky speckled with stars. For others, like me, seeing the stars that way means travelling out far beyond the city lights. More and more people in Canada and worldwide are city dwellers, including most writers and intellectuals. Many cannot or do not leave the cities to experience a real night sky. Without the window on wonder that starlight gives us, more and more of us live in what the great sociologist Max Weber named a “disenchanted world.”

In a disenchanted world, awe and wonder fade away and people are left with only “the light of reason” – which turns out to be a cold, dim light that further conceals the radiance of the stars. In that kind of world, thinking takes over from feeling, and dogmas flourish. Some religious groups reduce everything to creeds that must be assented to. Some atheists loudly reject anything that cannot be proven. In that kind of atheism, if there is no scientific proof of a Creator, then heartfelt prayer is absurd, the most evocative rituals are nonsense, and gratitude at the beauty of the world is meaningless. Empty of anything that cannot be logically demonstrated, the world becomes a bleak place indeed.

Of course you can be an atheist and still feel awe and delight at the power and beauty of the universe we live in. Atheists who do celebrate these feelings have much in common with religious people, and there is no need for conflict between them. In some religious communities, especially among Buddhists, Unitarians, and Jews, atheists and believers meditate and pray together, knowing that their thoughts may differ but their intuitions are held in common. They are aware that we know very little and that we live in a world unimaginably amazing. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke about the importance of “endarkenment” as well as enlightenment.  Let us all spend more time in dark places, and see and feel the light of the stars.

Justin Jaron Lewis is a rabbi and professor of Religion, University of Manitoba

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