When people ask me what my religion is, I usually respond with just one word: astronomy.
The initial reaction to my response is usually a loud laugh followed by something like, “But that can’t be a religion.”
I used to be offended by this response. I feel such a deep connection to the night sky that it angered me when someone would tell me it was crazier than believing in talking snakes or men living in the bellies of whales. I suppose in a traditional sense, it isn’t a religion, but if you broaden your definition of religion, it can be. And it is for me.
When I was growing up, my mom was Methodist, and my father was Catholic. Religion was never forced on me, but we did go to church every Sunday, and my brothers and I attended Sunday school. At school, we would read biblical stories and discuss them, but I always questioned them more than I believed in them. These classes tried to build my faith in a God I did not believe in. I listened to the stories and tried to take away something meaningful from them, but I never felt any deep connection to Christianity. I was prepared to admit defeat and come to terms with the fact that I was an atheist until I discovered astronomy.
I was about 11 years old when I first watched the movie Contact and I became obsessed. The film centers on a young girl, Ellie, who is filled with curiosity and a need to explore. She grows up, becomes an astronomer, joins SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and uses radio telescopes to make contact with another life-form. Like me, as a young girl, Ellie was curious and wanted to not only contemplate why things happened, but she wanted to know how they happened. She was my inspiration and I began reading every astronomy book I could find. Most of it was way beyond my 11-year-old brain, but I looked up words I didn’t know and kept pushing myself until I had a better understanding of what our universe was and how it came to be. I bought star charts and would lie outside at night for several hours at a time, trying to learn the constellations and identify stars and planets. I built my own telescope and would take it to the darkest sky I could find to look at galaxies, binary star systems, nebulas, star clusters — anything I could spot through my scope. I couldn’t get enough of astronomy. I was hooked, but I didn’t know why… yet.
I was watching an episode of Carl Sagan’s series, Cosmos, when he said something that was about as close to a religious epiphany as I was going to get: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”
For the first time I felt it — that deep connection that my Sunday school teacher was always telling me I would find in the Bible. But I didn���t find it in the Bible; I found it when I looked up at the night sky and realized that the atoms that comprise my body come from stars.
If you break down a human’s composition, you will find that we are mostly made of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Those elements don’t just appear out of thin air. They come from somewhere and we can trace their beginnings back to dying stars.
When high-mass stars reach the end of their lives and go unstable, they collapse and then explode, dispersing their chemically rich guts throughout the galaxy. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen — the elements that comprise almost every form of life on earth, scatter across the universe and form into gas clouds. Over millions of years, those gas clouds condense and expand, eventually forming solar systems. Those solar systems are full of stars and planets that, thanks to their ancestors, now have the ingredients to create life.
While others have faith that there is a higher power looking out for them, I have faith that I am connected to something mind-blowingly enormous, beautiful and powerful. The universe is capable of incredible things and that power lies within me. Isn’t that what religion is ultimately about? Feeling connected? Feeling that you are not alone in this world? Some people look up at the sky and feel alone. We don’t know if other life is out there and it can be a terrifying thought to think we may be completely alone in something so huge. Looking at the stars has the opposite effect on me. I do not feel alone, I feel surrounded by the creators of my body and being.
When I look up at the night sky, I find comfort in knowing that not only are we a part of this universe, but also that this universe is in us. The universe is us. The atoms in my body come from the stars in the sky and I cannot fathom a deeper connection to anything than that.