For most people the word “spiritual” implies a relationship to religion, or feelings of the divine. So whenever people use the term they are usually thinking about experiences that are tied to their particular belief system. Often times, religious people look at the sciences as a cold field of logic and research, devoid of transcendent moments that characterize religious thought.
That is far from reality.
In my (admittedly introductory) studies of physics and science, I have had many “spiritual” moments. These moments have nothing to do with religion. Many people think that for a religious physics student spiritual moments only come from thinking about God in relation to the universe.
But that is extremely limiting. There is no reason to insist that transcendent spiritual experiences must necessarily involve thinking about God. We can look at the universe and marvel at it for its complexity. Instead of forcing a divine framework around it, we can look at the universe and have deep, spiritual experience by just observing what is there.
I had a moment like this when I read about how the elements of our Earth got here. Everything we see here comes from stars. When a star explodes or looses its outer shell to form a nebula, it seeds the universe with heavier elements that end up forming planets and solar systems.
We are made from that material. When you look up into the sky at the stars, realize that you are made of the same stuff that they are, that a star like those you can see provided the raw material for you to exist. As Carl Sagan said:
“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 starstuff.”
Realizing this was a spiritual moment in my life. Suddenly, I got some perspective about my own existence. I realized that I am as much a part of this amazing universe as those stars are. And not only was a part of it, I was made of the same material as the stars were. I was born from the stars, my body came from their nuclear furnaces. Everybody around me is made out of them as well. If I want to interact with the universe, all I need to do is interact with those around me. When it comes down to it, we are not different from each other. We all came from the same place, the same stellar explosion. No matter the differences between us, that fact is indisputable. So what is the point of drawing artificial boundaries between the human race?
The same thing happened when I learned about evolution and really thought about it. There is something amazing about looking at the animals around the world and realizing that you all have the same ancestors. Even though they are a different species, we are more similar to animals than we think. We have the same chemical make up in our body. Not only are we made from the same star stuff, but we are of the same family. we have the same ancestors. We are all Earthlings.
Nothing is more transcendent than realizing your connectedness with the rest of the universe and the other creatures that live here. That is a spiritual experience.
And I so I look in wonder at the cosmos. I wonder about the reality of God, but I also am willing to enjoy what I see for what it is. Just observing the universe that we live in is enough for me. Those are the spiritual moments I strive for.