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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.”

  • JabbaPapa

    You’d be better off by examining your own beliefs about the supernatural …

    If you refuse to accept the nature of your own beliefs, you will NEVER be able to understand the beliefs of others.

  • JabbaPapa

    When 1 represents a probability in a range from 0 to 1 (ie 100%), 1+1=1

  • JabbaPapa

    This is a category error — “reason” does not deduce one’s own existence, nor that of the Sun, or the Sky ; reason is instead based on these realities.

    Similarly with one’s experience of the divine order of reality. It very simply exists. It does not obey logic or reason.

    You falsely imagine that Faith is a mental construct, similar to the artificial mental construct in your own mind on the topics of Faith, spirituality, and religion.

    In Catholic theology, this sort of mental approach is termed “modernism”.

  • Benedict Carter

    What are you on about? 

  • Ronk

    To say merely that “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.” is to greatly understate the case.

    If not for the Catholic Church, science in the modern sense of the term would simply not exist.It was created, sustained and enabled to survive only by the Church, by Catholics and to a lesser degree by other Christians, as it still is to this day.

  • TreenonPoet

    Duplicate post removed by author.

  • TreenonPoet

     My point was that, whatever revelation cudon cunest may have had, attributing it to ‘God’ is arbitrary. (My reference to the Devil was hypothetical.) If cudon cunest was from another part of the world, the experience might have been attributed to another deity. Amazing, isn’t it, the geographical preferences of deities when revealing themselves, and the rather private way in which they do it? One would be forgiven for thinking that they wanted everyone else to conclude that such revelations were delusional.

  • JabbaPapa

    He’s just providing us all with some extra details concerning his lurid apostasy.

    Typical same old same old JB24

  • JabbaPapa

    Not really, God is inherently incomprehensible, and is therefore incapable of being anything other than partially understood by us, through the prism of one’s culture and education.

    I certainly did not take it for granted that my own initial experiences proved the truth of one religion over another — but every other religion than the Catholic (and the Greek Orthodox) proved to be inherently incompatible in one way or another with those experiences.

    I arrived at Catholicism after a very long process of logical elimination (first to go were any religions denying a personal quality to God) — though I’m sure if I’d bee a Russian or Greek etc rather than Western European, I would have been happy with the Orthodox.

  • maxmarley

    Mgr Georges was an example of a dignified Christian and science working in harmony.
    Faith and reason are at work in many Christian lives.
    This faith and reason are elevated when we observe the the stupidity and carnage evident in human behaviour in recent history by those who abandon faith and cling to subjective reason instead. Faith is the compass to Truth that reason requires. The believer will be confirmed in Faith in God when confronted with the utter horror and wastelands created by the anti theists that goes on right up to this time.

  • Lewispbuckingham

    Peter, my comment disappeared, but raised a problem with the current theory of an infinite number of universes,and in a sense talks to JB about this.
    I hope it returns.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     Thanks JB. Yes, but making the next cyclotron will be very dear.

  • aearon43

    Your tone here evinces a certain haughtiness. I highly doubt that you would be able to survive a fortweek in a world deprived of scientific-technological niceties. If you could, then congratulations, you’re a bigger man than me. But if not it might be prudent not to bite the hand that feeds you.

  • aearon43

    Reading the Bible, we can see that God often appeals to our own sense of self interest and to our capacity to appreciate beauty. God is the source of life and love. We know God largely through our ability to appreciate beauty. In the Catholic Church, we worship the source of life, love, and beauty. In some sense I suppose it is up to you to determine whether it is God or Satan who is the source of these gifts.

  • aearon43

    Yes, I know what you mean, and I think it’s important to remember that our sensory apparatus is simply something which was evolved for the purposes of survival in the African Savanna. I think a large part of growing in Christian humility concerns the ability to recognize that we are not the center of the universe, that we are animals (although not merely beasts), whose minds are generally attuned toward the satisfaction of evolutionary drives.

    The draw, for me, of Catholicism, is precisely that it is a school of thought that does not place these animalistic drives first. That it gives us a way to move beyond our animal nature and become more like God.

    When I was a young child, the only world I knew was my parents and family and immediate surroundings. As I grew older, I was able to understand a larger and larger radius. It’s primarily the Catholic Church that has helped me to do this.

    Many people ask for signs of God’s presence. But our very lives are the most powerful sign we could ever have. It’s actually all very simple. 

  • aearon43

    Is that helpful?

  • aearon43

    Karl, try to live a life completely without sin. Then you will see that the devil is real.

  • aearon43

    Yes, but you haven’t shown that Satan is, in fact, a superstition. Try again.

  • karlf

    I see – there is no sound reasoning then (quite the opposite it appears). That must be why Benedict refused to answer this question as well.

  • aearon43

    Hi Karl. Yes, we can “account” for affection as an accountant might account for various balance-sheets and so forth. That is not the same thing as explaining love (or Satan).

    You are operating from a very Cartesian sort of third-person point of view. You seem to be assuming that human sensory perception and ratiocination is the ultimate arbitrator of reality.

    If you have the time, please read this article about Martin Heidegger’s philosophy:

    Ok, so do you see what we’re on about? Human reason can solve technological problems related to human needs, yes. Human reason has evolved to exploit the natural world in order to satisfy biological drives.

    Let’s say you wish to choose a bride with whom you would spend your life. One thing you would look at, certainly, is her ability to make “common sense” decisions about work, spending money, maintaining a clean house, and raising children properly. That’s all fine.

    I would assume though, if you are in fact a human being and not a robot, that there would be some less quantifiable thing that you would also investigate. You could call it empathy, or mindfulness, or charity. Or, love. It’s something that differentiates your future spouse from a perfectly efficient robot.

    Love is bound up closely with consciousness, which is something that science has difficulty analyzing. From this Cartesian third-person perspective, we can of course state various properties of physical objects, describe their interactions, and come up with optimally efficient ways of utilizing them. Consciousness, on the other hand, is not amenable to such a third-person perspective.

    Consciousness only exists in the first person. It has a certain “interiority” that one instinctively senses as a human being can not be analyzed directly from a scientific perspective. That is to say, scientists might take measurements of one’s brain to an arbitrary level of precision; that, however, would be something qualitatively different that actually being that brain.

    You and I know what it is to be a conscious being different from inanimate matter. What Catholicism calls us to do is to recognize the consciousness of others and act accordingly — to not see them merely from a third-person scientific inanimate matter point of view, but as brothers and sisters, as children of the greatest Consciousness, G-d.

  • aearon43

    Human knowledge consists of both natural reason and divine revelation. The pagans live in a state of natural reason — not evil, per se, but lacking in a certain final reckoning.

    As you say in your comments above, many (if not all) tribal belief systems incorporated some idea of demons or evil spirits. Although there is, as you say, a great deal of superstition here, I nevertheless believe that religion is in fact the basis of civilization — that evil spirits were the first necessary conceptual step toward any sort of ethical system.

    The Bible works on several levels. Evil spirits are both real, living entities, and symbols of ethical transgressions. (19th c. Germans were the first to do away with the former.) I suppose you can see how they might be symbols of ethical transgressions easily enough.

    But, you ask, are they real, living entities? Although it might strike you as facile, I would ask, why not? Remember that essentially every civilization on earth prior to 19th c. Germany acknowledged the existence of evil spirits. Human beings have souls. Spirits do exist — that is to say merely that higher levels of intelligence exist beyond the human level. Some are good, and some are evil. 

    We cannot directly perceive spirits because our sensory apparatus is too attuned to physical survival. But we know the God of Israel through history, and that Jesus is His Messiah, and that Jesus cast out evil spirits. Ergo, demons exist.

  • aearon43

    How so?

  • JabbaPapa

    Do I think that exposing that man’s willful desire to promote and teach objective heresies to Catholics is helpful ?

    Catechism of the Catholic Church :


    2087 Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith” as our first obligation. He shows that “ignorance of God” is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations. Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him.

    The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with
    prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it.
    There are various ways of sinning against faith:

    Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt
    refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections
    connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If
    deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

    2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is
    the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be
    believed with divine and catholic faith
    , or it is likewise an obstinate
    doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

  • teigitur

    “Hovering on the brink of agnosticism”. Hardly surprising, but almost certainly an understatement, considering some of your posts on here. Of course there can only be room in anyone’s life for one God. Your own self seems to fulfill that role. So it’s no wonder there is no room for the real God. Jew ask for signs…………………

  • teigitur

    Nope, Mr Byrne has never been a help to anyone on here. Consistantly negative.

  • JabbaPapa

    In some sense I suppose it is up to you to determine whether it is God or Satan who is the source of these gifts.

    Good grief !!!!!!

    Do you even *realise* the sheer gravity of this outrageous statement ???

  • Oconnord

    Can you see the problem? You arrived at catholicism, not through evidence to prove the truth of your experience. You looked for “Truths” which would back up and not question your personal epiphany. Your experience was both robust and fragile in negative ways. Robust enough to reject other philosophies which challenges it, but still so fragile that only a limited particular creed would support it.   

  • JabbaPapa

    Don’t be silly — those “scientific-technological niceties” are utterly unnecessary to life.

  • aearon43

    Sorry, I was being a little bit sarcastic there. 

  • JabbaPapa

    oh deary me — the one without sound reasoning on this question is yourself, in your hysterical expectation that metaphysics must obey the methodology of physics.

  • JabbaPapa

    You are operating from a very Cartesian sort of third-person point of view.

    No he isn’t — Descartes taught NOTHING like this karlf person’s approach.

    The Cartesian method is *founded* upon the acceptance of observation as being coëqual with the acceptance of Revelation — indeed, observation is ultimately defined as being informed by God.

    It requires that third-hand reports must be considered as true unless they can be proven otherwise.

    karlf is practicing a radical skepticism, NOT the rationally critical method of Descartes.

  • aearon43

    Ok, well let Karl speak for himself.

  • karlf

     I think that there are vastly better explanations as to why people do bad things than the existence of an immortal bogeyman who’s main occupation and desire, for thousands of years, has been to invisibly manipulate people’s minds all around the world.
    Please tell me why I’m wrong for holding this opinion.

  • karlf

     I’m not skeptical about love Jabba. I’m just trying to understand more about it, without being distracted or misled by folly.

  • karlf

    Jabba – you have just admitted that your reason for believing in demons is simply because the Catholic Church tells you to – even though such belief is totally unsupported by any evidence, and contrasts with all scientific understanding of human mind

  • Peter

    In a way, it is not necessary to invoke Lemaitre to show that the universe had a beginning.

    One does not need science to demonstrate that the universe, or multiverse for that matter, is not infinite and therefore eternal.

    All one needs is basic philosophy.

    If something is infinite it cannot lack anything otherwise it is not infinite.

    If the universe or multiverse expands over time, then it must have lacked the extent of that expansion before it expanded.

    In that case it could not have been infinite in the first place.

    And if it is not infinite, it cannot be eternal.  It must have a beginning.

  • JabbaPapa

    You haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.

    It would *never* occur to me, anyway, to pontificate about the personal experiences of others that I had no direct knowledge of at all, as if I magically knew more about these experiences than they did.

  • JabbaPapa

    you have just admitted that your reason for believing in demons is simply because the Catholic Church tells you to

    No I haven’t.

    You on the other hand have failed to understand my point about reality existing prior to logic or reason, rather than the other way round (as you consistently claim).

  • karlf

     To believe in something simply because the Church tells you to – even when this belief is totally unsupported by any empirical evidence, and contrasts with sound reasoning and scientific discovery (I’m talking specifically about demons and devils here) is the complete antithesis of the scientific method of inquiry.

  • karlf

    What you seem to be condoning here is just a free rein to any baseless nonsense. By your logic we can justify beliefs which waste away our minds on any sort of deluded fantasy.

  • C_monsta

     Well said Karlf. Beliefs we see in action here
    and here
    and there are so many other examples to choose from. Just imaginme what the situation must be like in African and Islamic countries?

  • JabbaPapa

    To believe in something just because karlf keeps on ranting about it online is the height of irrationality.

  • JabbaPapa

    karlf :

    What you seem to be condoning here is just a free rein to any baseless
    nonsense. By your logic we can justify beliefs which waste away our
    minds on any sort of deluded fantasy.

    What a load of rubbish !!!

    That is in fact the exact opposite of what I’m saying — instead, it’s the same old indoctrinated atheistic clichéd worldview you’ve been spewing out in here over the past few months, dressed up to make it look as if you’ve “responded” to my points ; whereas it’s quite clear that you haven’t.

  • karlf

    Yes C, it’s horrific. That’s why I find it so shocking that the Catholic Church in modern Britain shares these beliefs

  • JabbaPapa

    OK fair enough

  • karlf

    Sexual urges are the result of animal instinct which encourages animals to have sex – otherwise they become extinct i.e. it’s not the devil

  • JByrne24

    “All one needs is basic philosophy.”
    I don’t know what “basic philosophy” means. But if we just say “philosophy”, then this statement belongs to an ancient past. We learnt a few centuries ago that we need more than philosophy in order to know anything about the world. But I think you mean logic.
    “If something is infinite it cannot lack anything otherwise it is not infinite.” This is simply your definition of infinite. It means that no change is possible in such a universe – since the newly caused state would already have been contained within it.

    I’m told that we can’t talk too much about our present ideas of infinities other than in terms of strict formal logic or maths. In more careless talk we find it difficult to come to terms with infinities of different sizes (small & large infinities), infinite numbers of events occuring in finite times and so on.But these things exist and the ideas are necessary and real.

    There’s always been a tendency for us to consider some prevailing total view of “what there is” to be the universe. This has been so throughout the ages, from the Earth and the crystal spheres through the Sun centered picture, other stars and the universe of receding galaxies to “Branes” and “The Bulk”,  Brane collisions in anti-de Sitter space and the multiverse. More will follow, I would guess, and one day….?

  • JByrne24

    These claims fly in the face of some facts. 

    The early Christians were not content with abolishing the Olympic games (because some of the athletes were nude) but also closed the Academies of Plato and Aristotle in around the year 530 CE (530 AD, if you like). Free thought and unencumbered discussion were increasingly abolished by the authoritarian Church. Even in our day the Church had an “index” of books that Catholics were forbidden, under pain of mortal sin and eternal damnation, to read. 

    The sheer nastiness and rottenness of the Church took a long time to catch up with it, but the inevitable birth of Protestantism eventually occurred. Around a couple of centuries or so later our modern ideas about how knowledge is to be gained began to emerge. We have not looked back since.

    Had the Church not, successfully in earlier times, sought the destruction of this, we could have enjoyed the advances of modern science perhaps more than a thousand years ago.
    Today there would be no cancer – probably almost no illness – and many of the advances and the knowledge of distant future generations would be with us today.
    Millions upon millions of past and future generations have suffered and will suffer as a consequence – NOT as a result of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but because of the authoritarian Church.  

  • Benedict Carter

    I immediately thought of this after reading the post above.

  • Benedict Carter

    I have lived most of my working life in places the Industrial Revolution barely touched, let alone the computerised world. 

    Your tone here evinces a certain arrogance.