Astronomy and Religion
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Astronomy and Religion

Astronomy and religion have long been closely intertwined, particularly during the early history of astronomy. Archaeological evidence of many ancient cultures demonstrates that celestial bodies were the subject of worship during the Stone and Bronze Ages. Amulets and stone walls in northern Europe depict arrangements of stars in constellations that match their historical positions, particularly circumpolar constellations. These date back as much as 30,000–40,000 years.[1]

In many ancient religions, the northern circumpolar stars were associated with darkness, death and the underworld of the dead. For the Aztecs, the northern stars were associated with Tezcatlipoca. In Peking, China, was a shrine devoted to the North Star deity. Such worship of the northern stars may have been associated with time keeping, as the positions of the stars could identify the annual seasons. Likewise, as agriculture developed, the need to keep accurate time led to more careful tracking of the positions of the sun, moon and planets; resulting with their deification when they became inextricably linked with the means of survival.[1] In the ancient Egyptian calendar, the date of the annual flooding of the Nile was predicted by observing the heliacal rising of a star. Indeed, the belief in a strong association between the events on the earth and in the heavens led to the development of astrology.[2]

The first recorded conflict between religious orthodoxy and astronomy occurred with the Greek astronomer Anaxagoras. His beliefs that the heavenly bodies were the result of an evolutionary process and that the sun was a great burning stone (rather than the deity Helios), resulted in his arrest. He was charged with contravening the established religious beliefs. Although acquitted, he was forced to go into retirement.[2]

As science began to develop during the Middle Ages, conflict arose between the orthodoxy of the Catholic church and the secular beliefs of scientifically inclined investigators. Examples of such conflict include Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the pope on suspicion of heresy. However, many astronomers were also highly religious and attempted to reconcile their beliefs with the discoveries they made following the invention of the telescope.[3]

See also


  1. ^ a b Makemson, Maud W. (July 1954). "Astronomy in Primitive Religion". The Journal of Bible and Religion. 22 (3): 163–171. JSTOR 1455974.
  2. ^ a b Fitzgerald, A. P. (September 1951). "Some Aspects of Primitive Astronomy". Irish Astronomical Journal. 1: 197. Bibcode:1951IrAJ....1..197F.
  3. ^ Ballhausen, Louise E. (December 1940). "Astronomy and religion". Popular Astronomy. 48: 418. Bibcode:1940PA.....48..418B.

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