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The Belgian priest who invented the Big Bang theory shows up the modern canard about faith and science

The father of cosmology was wedded to science and the Church

By on Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Mgr Georges Lemaître chats to Albert Einstein in California in 1932 (Photo: PA)

Mgr Georges Lemaître chats to Albert Einstein in California in 1932 (Photo: PA)

I have just been reading a very well-researched and well-argued book entitled Heresy by Michael Coren. Coren, for those who don’t know of him, is a Canadian writer, biographer and broadcaster – and a very eloquent Catholic apologist. He has written, among numerous books, Why Catholics Are Right last year (a definite must-read for all sceptical blog posters to the Herald) and this year the book on Heresy, which he subtitles “Ten Lies They Spread about Christianity”. These errors include “All the clever people are atheists, or Christians are stupid”, “Hitler was a Christian”, “Christians and Christianity supported slavery” and “Christians are opposed to science”. All these will be familiar to Catholic bloggers.

I recommend the whole book (especially to all those sceptical blog posters referred to above), but just wanted to draw attention right now to the chapter on science. Coren starts by saying, “The idea that Christianity is somehow opposed to science and that individual Christians cannot reconcile their faith to scientific discoveries, is a relatively modern canard, but successfully and damagingly promulgated, usually by people who know very little about science and its history, or about Christianity and Christians.”

He points out: “The history of Christianity is actually one of great encouragement of scientific research and has been responsible for many of the most important scientific advances.” He mentions Francis Bacon, Keppler, Copernicus and Newton as particular Christians – and scientists – in the early centuries of the development of the scientific outlook; and, among others, Max Planck, Kelvin, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, and Gregor Mendel for the relatively modern period of scientific advance. In other words, there need be no conflict between the Christian faith and science – except, obviously, in the minds of certain modern atheists. (Coren also explains clearly what the dispute with Galileo was all about, but I’ll leave that for another blog.)

I mention all this because I happened to listen to the Heart and Soul programme on BBC Radio 4 last week, presented by William Crawley – and it was all about the work of Mgr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest-astronomer and known as “the father of modern cosmology”. He is also mentioned in Coren’s chapter on science, which is where I first heard of him. It was Mgr Lemaître who first proposed the Big Bang theory. According to Crawley, he showed unusual intellectual precocity as a child and decided aged 10 that he wanted to become a Catholic priest. After fighting in the Great War he was ordained in Belgium in 1923 – and a month later came over to St Edmund’s, Cambridge, to study for a doctorate. Then, after further study at Harvard and MIT, he became professor of physics at Louvain University in Belgium, where he remained until his death in 1966.

According to Crawley, Mgr Lemaître was not happy with Pope Pius XII’s belief that the book of Genesis had been vindicated by his cosmological discoveries, and that “Fiat Lux!” (“Let there be light!”) coincided with his Big Bang theory. This was not because he rejected Genesis but because he felt the two disciplines, theology and science, should be studied separately without requiring mutual confirmation. Lemaître met Einstein several times at conferences, and the latter applauded his lecture at a seminar in California in 1933.

Knowing all this about Mgr Lemaître, I am now no longer stuck when the facetious question comes round: “Are there any famous Belgians?” He is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Somehow I doubt if he would have wanted to join a televised “debate” with our own dubious national treasure, Professor Dawkins of Oxford. A modest man, wedded both to science and the Church, he would have disliked the limelight, repudiated the false dichotomy set up by Dawkins and his pals, and would have felt his time better spent on cosmological calculations.

My own revision of the fatuous slogan that graced the sides of London buses a few years ago would now be: “God is not a suitable subject for atheists. Now stop worrying and start your physics homework.”

  • IntellectGetOne

     Karl,

    Do you also believe there is such a thing as love?

    What is it, then?  Can it be measured by science?  Can it be captured in a bottle?

    Or is it something that falls outside the measurable ability of science much like the infra-red spectrum escaped scientific proof for most of humanity?

    Love is something you know and you experience — and I hope you have and continue to experience it.  But, ultimately, you must feel it yourself or have someone share their experiences with love to make it understandable. 

    But is that enough to say it is real?  Can you touch it?  Taste it? Smell it?  Hear it?

     No.  You cannot. 

    Science fails us in the matter of love and the matter of hate — and, as we are discussing, in the matter of evil. 

    The differences you are missing in the debate on this screen is that some of us believe that just because a thing cannot be measured in a beaker or captured in a photograph — does not mean it does not exist. 

    Your denial that it exists, or more precisely your mocking denial, places your belief system solely in the world of science and the limits of the human senses.  The human mind and the human soul can understand things that fall outside the scope of those — like love, evil and hatred. 

    To deny others their self-knowledge to state a belief in things which do not fit our scientific methods, mathematical models or measuring devices does not make one more clever or honest.  Rather it shows that you have limited your mind to only that which you can fit into those three devices.

  • IntellectGetOne

     Your point is well taken, but actually: 1+1=2 is not absolutely true.

    That was taught to you. 

    For instance, if I say: % ^ * = Orange trees with pink monkeys in them,

    it doesn’t mean that it is true, only that the symbols I taught you represent something that allows us to share information.

  • IntellectGetOne

     Karl,

    You are conflating Karl.  The debate you are having on this page is whether there is a devil and there are demons — or not.  You say no.  Others say yes.

    This is not about explaining human behavior.  Tsk, tsk — it is not very scientific to switch your hypothesis after the fact Karl.

    Do you wish to debate human behavior or to discuss our inability to measure something you claim is not there. 

    As you see above, I believe that simply because you cannot measure it, does not mean it does not exist. 

  • scary goat

     You forgot the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Just wait till Meena gets here….she’ll be burning you at the stake!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    The Flying Spaghetti Monsterists are no more. They conjured him up and he promptly ate them. 

  • Solly Gratia

     If you listen to the radio prgramme indicated, you’ll find out that the term Big Bang was thought up by the BBC continuity announcer before the programme. Research, old chap, research.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Mr Yates says “Our hope truly is in the young”.

    That’s funny. 

    Our hope is in Our Lord Jesus Christ, True God and True Man. And increasing numbers of young people think so too. Most don’t share your cynicism and hopelessness, Mr Yates. 

    Nevertheless, I will grant you that at this moment in history, there is definitely a sorting out going on of the sheep and the goats. 

    To what end, you might ask?

    Ask Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady at Garabandal about that. 

  • TreenonPoet

    There is an excerpt from Michael Coren’s book Heresy on the catholicregister.org site dated June 9. (I will try to link to it in my next comment, but not in this comment in case the Catholic Herald rejects the whole comment as a result.) If that excerpt is a representative sample of the book, then I conclude that the book is the usual collection of fallacies that one expects from certain Catholic columnists.

    In the excerpt, Coren claims that the idea that Christianity is somehow opposed to science is successfully and damagingly promulgated, usually by people who know very little about science. Note the ‘usually’. Coren is implicitly admitting that the idea is also put forward by some who know a lot about science, yet presenting this in a way intended to convey the opposite. He is suggesting that an idea put forward by a scientific expert is discredited because that idea is also put forward by non-experts!

    He continues that this is part of the larger “Christians are stupid” approach. This is an ad hominem attack by Coren on the scientific experts because it suggests that those experts have no good argument and so resort to implying that Christians are stupid.

    He then suggests that this criticism of Christianity is inspired by TV mini-series and novels, so he does not credit scientists with arguing on the basis of science.

    All the above is in the first paragraph of the excerpt. He concludes the paragraph with the quote ”when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in something else, they believe in anything else” which ignores the very reason why some people stop believing in God.

    The rest of the excerpt is similarly flawed, but I can see why some Catholics would lap it up, and will no doubt refer to the book as if it was a reliable source of information.

  • TreenonPoet

    The excerpt that I referred to in my previous comment is here.

  • Brian

    The existance of gravity, life and death, and the warmth of the sun are not beliefs, they’re just facts as plain to see as that the sky is blue. I can’t look outside my window and see the devil though. You may say “well yes, but you can see his works”. However the things that are described as the work of the devil are only evidence of the devil if you start with the assumption that the devil exists. Its circular logic.

  • karlf

    No. I began by asking if whether belief in supernatural fantasies was a hindrance to the understanding of reality. What would your answer be to this question? 

    Clearly I do not believe that demons exist, but you do appear to hold such beliefs. There are many things we cannot see, but we have good reason to believe they exist, and some things we can’t see that we do not know exist. What is your reasoning for a belief in demons?

  • Nesbyth

    Indeed he does!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    I contributed to the Daily Telegraph blog of Damian Thompson for four years. That blog was destroyed by atheists and militant homosexuals, and the lines of attack they used outstripped Michael Coren’s categories in ways one could not easily have imagined before reading them for oneself. 

    An outright and mocking hatred for Christ and for the Catholic Church was on open display daily. Your attempted smear of Michael Coren doesn’t work at all. There are those here on the CH who know he is right. In fact, as I have noted, the reality of the attack is far worse than even he writes. 

  • cudon cunest

    I don’t need scientific explanations to believe in God. God has revealed himself to me when least expected. It hit me like lightning, can happen to anyone even to hardcore atheists. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Spot on, Awkward. There’s every guarantee in fact that they are here simply to cause trouble. They are the devil’s helpers and should be ignored entirely.

  • JByrne24

    Yes, I’m a former Catholic (of over 70 years!), from a large Catholic family which has produced priests, a university professor of moral philosophy (also a priest) and a Vicar General, and still deeply interested in the Catholic Church, although not now a believer in much (most) of Catholic doctrine.
    However I am NOT the person, if such exists, who operates the blog of which you (Benedict C) speak, and I am not an atheist. Nor, incidentally, am I embittered about anything. I love life and people and babies (especially) and know well that my time is nearly up in this vale of tears (and joy!).
    I am also a well educated physical scientist who still takes an interest in his subject.

    One thing I have attempted to do, in recent years, is to prevent Catholics ignorant of science, save for its popular caricature, from attempting to “speak science”. Please, for your own sake (and everyone else’s), don’t do it.
    You have no idea how ridiculous you seem, to some others.

    A proudly proclaimed disinterest in, and ignorance of, science is an increasingly popular position to take in our society – run (incompetently) as it is by PPE and arts graduates – but it displays a profound ignorance and a real and true inability to understand the world,

    This article is appalling enough, but, bearing in mind that it is written by a scientific illiterate, it is forgivable. And when compared with the writings of the masters of self-delusion (like Fr Teilhard), it is trivial. 

  • scary goat

     Yes, similar experience, although my family were not communist, just  atheists varying from the die-hard to the vague.  I try to take the view that they are not all the same, and have tried to engage with a few of the atheists on here, but it’s just same old, same old. Mostly I just give up, but every now and then my conscience pricks me and tells me I have no right to pre-judge them without at least trying. I usually get munched up and spat out for my efforts.

  • TreenonPoet

    Which of my points do you disagree with and why? It is not helpful to dismiss the criticism of an opinion as being merely an attempted smear on the opinion holder – it does not make the criticism any more or less valid. Neither does it help to claim that certain people “know” differently without justifying that claim. What you claim to be their knowledge is what I would guess to be their perception. Is that perception substantiated or misguided? I would suggest that if a book uses fallacies to try to demonstrate that the perception is substantiated, there is probably a lack of real evidence for the perceived phenomenon.

    The basis of Catholicism is unscientific. To push Catholicism on society is to denigrate science. To denigrate science is to harm society. Does that not suggest to you a good reason why there is criticism of Catholicism from sections of society?

  • JByrne24

    “But it doesn’t add anything to Revelation, does it? ”

    If you mean by revelation ‘voices in the head’, then no, it adds nothing to that.

    “Science is a god …. !”   Well, tu dixisti old bean. And of course science isn’t a God.

  • paulpriest

     as explained in James Burke’s Connections [which everyone should watch to understand the modern world - the 3 series plus the later 'the day the universe changed' are incredible!!!]

    James Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’ explains how the medieval world laid the foundations for modern science…a must read for anyone who wants to understand that the Church have fulfilled its stewardship in more ways than we can imagine – and that Dawkins & the infinite monkey cage mob are downright misrepresentative revisionist dolts!!!

  • JabbaPapa

    Same here.

  • JabbaPapa

    To push Catholicism on society is to denigrate science

    What rubbish, from A to Z !!!!

    “push” Catholicism indeed !!! and Catholicism “denigrating” science !!!!

    Did you get these notions from your sky-scientist, or from your flying spaghetti rationalist ?

  • TreenonPoet

     How did you know it was God (and not, for example, the Devil pretending to be God)?

  • JabbaPapa

    I’d prefer it if he took a “gap year”.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    They need to be prayed for, Jabba. Lost without trace otherwise. 

  • JabbaPapa

    Dismissing the scientific or scientifically derived opinions of others on the basis of prejudice, which is what you’re doing, is about as directly unscientific as it is possible to be.

  • JByrne24

    Well, I must not let that comment “go” without SOME response. But because of the need for brevity, and in the almost certain knowledge that you would not understand a fuller response, I fall back on a popular reply of JabbaPappa: “you seem not to have the foggiest idea of what you are talking about”,

    PS: please excuse the bad grammar – it comes with the quote.

  • karlf

    and there are immensely more plausible explanations for those things which are attributed to be the work of the devil and his demon friends.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     ‘was wrong about many things’
    Hi JB. As a matter of discussion what is your model for the creation of the universe considering there is no empirical evidence for supersymmetry?

  • JabbaPapa

    You still haven’t got the hang of the whole business about the “not assuming that your own indoctrinated beliefs must necessarily be true” thing, eh ?

    If you are claiming that your notion that Catholics believe in supernatural fantasies is true, then surely you will be able to prove it ?

    Again — this is YOUR claim — YOUR job to demonstrate its validity.

    Otherwise, you can PROVE that it is the necessary default position.

    Up to you.

  • JByrne24

    ” If you believe in an infinite number of universes, logically you must believe in some sort of God.”

    No, not necessarily. 
    The infinity could be (probably IS, if the hypothesis is sound) a very  small one.

  • karlf

    I have an keen interest in supernatural beliefs and am interested in what people believe and why. How else could I find out about your beliefs in demons unless I ask you directly?
    Where do you stand on the existence or not of demons Benedict? I’d be very grateful if you could explain to me how sound reasoning can lead to the belief in the existence of the devil and his demons.

  • JabbaPapa

    yay you must be real chuffed you managed to sneak that particular cliché into your argument !!!

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s not “reasoned”, it’s just something that you’ve been taught.

  • TreenonPoet

     If a scientific hypothesis is disproven, even by a single contradiction, then that hypothesis must either be modified or rejected. Science does not allow inconvenient contradictions to be ignored. To teach schoolchildren that it is not only OK to ignore contradictions, but morally commendable to have religious faith in the face of ‘testing’ contradictions, is one way that science is denigrated. The scientific approach is therefore portrayed as less moral, if not immoral.

  • karlf

    Yes – one woolly mammoth and another woolly mammoth makes two mammoths. Agreed. But how do you know that the devil is real?

  • karlf

    Please explain to me what you reasoning is for believing in demons.
    “Science fails us in the matter of love” – no it doesn’t. We see similar behaviours in animals such as respect, affection, monogamy etc. all this compounded with human intelligence and self awareness goes a long way in accounting for the existence of that we call love.

  • karlf

    Not this again jabba! YOU are the one making bizarre, unfounded claims that demons are among us.

    OK. If demons exist where do they live? How come they have God like powers to go about unseen and manipulate people’s minds? Why do they never get tired of doing this, even after thousands of years? Why do they like being nasty? Why doesn’t God smite them? What do they look like? Why do they get wrongly blamed for all those things that were clearly the result of other causes?

  • karlf

    Please, please tell me what sound reasoning leads to the belief in the existence of the devil and his demons. No one else here seems willing to attempt this.

  • JByrne24

    There will never be a jbyrne24ian model of creation. Except to remark, in passing, that it (what we call the universe) may be a human creation. I don’t believe this of course – just the purest speculation.
    There are two ways (2.5 in fact) in which this could have happened: one based on the late Prof Archibald Wheeler and the other about what we may get-up-to-with with particle accelerators in the future. But if this HAD happened (by either + 0.5 means) then it would have no necessary purchase/impact/significance in respect of any discussions about religion or God. 

    The current supersymmetry status is an excellent demonstration of how the search for real knowledge of the world is conducted – don’t you think?

  • JByrne24

    “….the term Big Bang was thought up by the BBC continuity announcer before the programme.”

    On the CH website, I’m a bit surprised you didn’t get 100 “likes” for that. (But maybe you will!)

    I’ll give you a “like”, to help you along.

  • maxmarley

    Yes a pearl of great value. And I didn’t need science to find it. Sadly many contributors here celebrate the “great” advance of anti theists. But their rise in prominence comes at a horrible price. Where we had Bach and the great composers, Shakespeare and great literature, Michelangelo and the gifted painters in a time of faith, today we have the moral and cultural nihilists. French revolution, Marxist revolutions, nazi fascism, the sexual revolution all created by nihilists
    The talibanization of western civilisation by Marxists and others has been under way for some time. The catholic church is the last line of defence.

  • JByrne24

    This sort of thing often happens to all sorts of people. But it’s not necessarily God (or Satan, either).
    I’m hovering on the brink of agnosticism at the moment. Some few (about 8) weeks ago I was carelessly thinking about the existence of God and thought of God revealing Himself to me in some way – say (and I don’t mean disrespect) a 20 foot Jesus waiting by my car in the morning. IMMEDIATELY the response came back in my head: “you wouldn’t believe it if you saw this with your own eyes – you would think you were hallucinating”. Dead right!

    This is probably a throwback to, or vestige of, the bicameral mind that humans might have had in ancient times.
    Of course, if it WAS God, my last sentence would just prove His (God’s) point.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Splutter splutter.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Read the other threads and you’ll find out. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    And the Catholic Church will win, as She has Heaven behind Her. But the price will be much persecution and martyrdom. 

  • JabbaPapa

    That’s a tactic of last resort for the Devil — an intervention by the Devil is powerful proof for the existence of God, because it requires that a supernatural order of reality must necessarily exist.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your “comparison” (seemingly of apples with oranges) fails to establish anything of any particular meaning.

    I cannot find it written **anywhere** in Revelation (be it Scripture, the Catechism, the Tradition, or etc) saying anything **remotely** resembling “thou shalt deny scientific rationality and methodology”.

    Why don’t you go and pester some people on their Young Earth Creationist website, instead of coming here with your rather impertinent presumptions ?

  • JabbaPapa

    The mind boggles at the sheer weirdness of your posts ….

  • JabbaPapa

    I have asked you to demonstrate that all of these things that you personally disagree with are “supernatural fantasies”.

    YOUR claim. YOU prove it.

    Otherwise, please demonstrate that the non-existence of God MUST necessarily be universally accepted as the “default” position — on the basis of what empirical evidence do you make such a claim ?

    You see, if you start out by saying something like “assuming the non-existence of God and the supernatural” (which is your a priori indoctrinated position), you will necessarily come to imagine that thoughts derived from that assumption are true — but they are present in the basic assumption.

    All I’m asking is that you demonstrate factually that the assumption must be universally true in every single possible scenario.