Cheap Seats 2016
Science and Religion - 03/30
By Rich Trzupek
Last week I wrote about a topic involving the intersection of science and religion. Many people do not believe that such an intersection exists, believing that one must choose one path or the other because the two are diametrically opposed.
That’s nonsense of course. No church has a perfect record when it comes to embracing science, but most have done much better than advertised over the years. For many of us, church and science must co-exist in harmony because both are essential parts of the world.
In 1987 Pope John Paul II said: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.” That is the essence of the relationship between the two.
An example may help illustrate the point: the Big Bang. Some of my non-religious friends have told me that Christians don’t believe in the Big Bang. This comes as somewhat of a shock, since I am a Christian and I believe in the Big Bang.
They then protest that I am an exception, that the Roman Catholic Church of which I am a part believes in creationism, and Adam and Eve, and the world is 6,000 years old and all that stuff.
Again, I must disagree because that is not at all the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. As a matter of fact, when you consider the actual history of the Big Bang theory, one must draw a much different conclusion.
When Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity one hundred years ago, it changed the way scientists look at the universe forever. It united space, time and gravity in a single, comprehensive theory.
A great many scientific observations started to make sense once general relativity became understood and accepted. The equations found in it could also be used to find the solutions to thought experiments which had previously been impossible to solve, like – for instance – how the universe began.
At the time Einstein, like most scientists accepted the consensus view of a “steady state” universe; a universe that always was and always would be, eternal and virtually unchanging.
In the early twenties two scientists used general relativity to look back in time to the beginning of the universe. Both came to the same conclusion: time and space began with a singularity from which everything that we know as existence sprang forth, an event that would eventually come to be known as the Big Bang.
One of the scientists, a Russian by the name of Alexander Friedmann died soon after working out the solution and sadly his work was largely ignored. The other, a Belgian by the name of Georges Lemaitre submitted the solution as his doctoral thesis at both Harvard and M.I.T. and the world took notice.
Einstein, initially skeptical of Lemaitre’s work, was forced to accept the Big Bang theory when work by astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that the universe was indeed expanding, not steady state, just as Lemaitre had said.
How did the Catholic Church react to this development in the scientific world? They embraced it. It would have been difficult to do otherwise, for Father Georges Lemaitre was an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church after all.
Lemaitre would become a scientific advisor to Pope Pius XII. Pius not only accepted the Big Bang theory, he believed it was entirely consistent with the allegorical description of the beginning of the world found in the first words of the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)
Genesis has God creating light out of darkness. Science tells us existence sprang forth into nothingness. Pius liked the similarity so much that he considered making the Big Bang theory a doctrine of the Catholic faith, meaning that the Church officially declared it to be true.
Lemaitre talked Pius out of doing that. He pointed out that science is always changing as scientists discover more and more about the way the universe works. No scientific theory should ever be considered final and the church should not use its authority to say that one is.
And so, to this day, the Catholic Church has never condemned the Big Bang theory, for it is entirely consistent with our faith, a faith that does not demand a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nor has it declared the theory to be scientific fact, for that is not part of the church’s role, as that unfortunate business with Galileo surely proved beyond doubt. As John Paul II said, science and religion both play important roles in the world and each should respect the other.