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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.”

  • Lazarus

    I suspect most of the atheists here are just trolling. But when I was younger and an atheist I also did and said some pretty outrageous anti-religious things, in part, because I had a sense of the importance of the issues.

    So I’m on the side of engagement -although for the good of their souls, that engagement should include a fair measure of ridicule. (Gotta bust through the smugness somehow, you guys! (And Meena.).)

  • Benedict Carter

    I think you would change your mind very quickly if you happened to be present at a major exorcism. 

    Here’s a story. I’d be interested in the quasi-scientific excuses you come up with to rubbish it. 

    I knew a man, an Englishman, who spent his working life as a psychiatrist in California. Indeed, he was eminent enough to be on the State Medical Council main committee. And he was a Catholic. 

    He received a call one day from the Bishop of Bangkok in Thailand. The Bishop had a case he wanted the psychiatrist’s opinion on. 

    My acquaintance flew to Thailand and went from his hotel to the Cathedral on the appointed day. The individual he was to examine was nine years old, a girl from a northern tribal village who had had no schooling of any kind. This meeting took place in a room in the Bishop’s offices. 

    She was calm at first and normal in her behaviour. Then the Bishop and her parents joined them and the group went into the Cathedral itself. The response was very dramatic. She started to swear and curse, using the foulest Anglo-Saxon swearwords, and then began to speak in French and then Latin. She did not know any of these three languages, had never heard them. 

    Her voice changed and became that of a man, deep and snarling, full of hatred. I asked my friend what he did, and he said simply, “When her face changed and became that of a demon, I ran out of the Cathedral as fast as I could, but not before telling the Bishop that this was no case for a psychiatrist but an exorcist”.

    The parents stayed with the girl and the Bishop, who exorcised the poor girl himself, successfully as far as I remember. 

    Think on it karlf. There is far, far more about reality than you can dream of. 

    Lucifer and his demons, pure spirits, exist, and by the million. Their name is indeed Legion.

  • theroadmaster

    The Catholic Church acted as the mid-wive to the development of Science in the West during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, as exemplified in the foundation of universities and the application of logical principles by Churchmen(e.g. Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard), in their theological works concerning the realities of our universe.  There was no unnatural distinctions between Science and Religion in their minds, despite their innate differences.  Dawkins and co will however never concede to this reality and will continue to distort the historical record by referring to such historical cases as  the much quoted Galileo one, to back up their thesis.

  • JByrne24

    The large high energy accelerators, like the well known cern machine, are not, despite their shape, cyclotrons.
    In a cyclotron the accelerating PD is an RF (very high frequency) one applied between the two “Ds”. The basic machine suffers from  relativistic particle mass increase. The synchro and Isochronous types of machine are partial solutions to this problem. There’s another variation too, I think.
    They are used to produce the technicium – 99 isotope for medical imaging and the one at Hammersmith hospital serves several parts of the UK. I know there’s a problem of supply at the moment, but I don’t know why.
    The large cern type machines are best thought of as linear accelerators (using travelling magnetic fields instead of high electrical PDs as in the Van DG), bent in a circle with the ends joined up.

  • JByrne24

    One hears a great deal of nonsense of the kind you have written.
    Natural science, within the modern meaning of the term, is much, much more than mere philosophical speculation. No further comment! 

  • JByrne24

    It would also be degrading for human beings to “decide to believe something” because the Church says they must.  How can anyone do this? 

  • JByrne24

    I was going to say that this is pure hearsay (which it is), but it’s better described as a tale.

  • TreenonPoet

     Reading the Bible, we can see no such thing. You seem to be assuming that the Bible was inspired by God. Why would a perfect God inspire such a flawed document? Wouldn’t a revelation from God dispel the notion that the Bible is true?

  • IntellectGetOne


    You remind me of the story of the jealous young man in a village in China.  The village had a wise old man whom the people would turn to when they needed advice or to settle disputes. 

    This young man thought it was time to unseat the wise old man, so the young man could take his place as the wisest of all in the village. 

    On the day of a large celebration, where the wise old man was to be honored, the young man went out and caught a humming bird in his hand and brought it to the front of the crowd.  Standing before the wise old man he loudly asked the following:

    “Old man,” he said “I have in my hand a bird.  My question to you is simple:  Is it alive or dead?”  And the young man held his hand high above his head for all to see.

    The young man knew that no matter what answer was provided by the old man, he could humiliate the old man.  If the old man said the bird was alive, with a quick unnoticeable squeeze the young man would crush the bird, open his hand and show the bird was dead.  If the old man said the bird was dead, the young man would open his palm and the bird would quickly fly away in a flourish, again proving the old man wrong.

    The crowd turned to the old man waiting for his answer.  The old man looked up at the young man and smiled.  “The bird’s fate is in your hand.” 

    My friend KarlF, the proof of the devil and evil spirits is not our’s to give you.  Nor is it necessary that you ask us to prove it to you.  It is not even our right to prove to you that God exists and loved you into being.  Instead, this is your life.  You hold this bird in your hand and you must decide for yourself what you believe. 

    I wish you well in your decision making.

  • theroadmaster

    One hears the nonsensical counter-arguments such as your’s which thrive on the distortion of historical fact.  Read any unbiased historical work dealing with the Medieval and Renaissance periods and they must just open your eyes and mind.

  • Benedict Carter

    You insinuate that I am a liar. Thus proving the hollowness of your purported adherence to “evidence”. 

    There shall be no further communication between us. I hope you come to a better understanding before your death.

  • Woodie

    Handbags at dawn! But really, I don’t think jbyrne 24 implied that you yourself were lying.

  • TreenonPoet

     JByrne24 did not insinuate that you are a liar (although I may be insinuating that by saying so). That a girl would speak Latin when she did not know any Latin (for example) seems far less likely than that the truth was not communicated to you (for whatever reason). Given that the claim is so extraordinary, you ought to withhold your belief pending more evidence than just hearsay. Religion causes great harm by not only approving, but praising, belief without evidence. It is almost the antithesis of science.

  • JByrne24

    Quite right Woodie (I don’t suppose you are W Oddie, Woodie?), I neither said nor implied this.
    I pointed out that Benedict C heard what his friend or acquaintance said – and then he (i.e. Benedict) said it to us, in his comment.  
    This is the essence of hearsay.

    It is incredibly improbable that he was not told a tale.

  • karlf

    Indeed. It’s like making someone a wonderful sounding guitar, only to find they use it as a percussion instrument.

  • JByrne24

    A nasty remark – and an untrue one.

  • karlf

    I’m not acting out of jealousy or trying to trick all you wise men into anything. The point I made above is indisputable, as well as being straightforward and totally relevant to the subject of Francis Phillips article.

    We cannot choose what we believe simply because we wish it to be true.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian


  • karlf

    If such phenomena actually take place, of course I’d rush to learn more about it and to see the evidence for myself – it would all be wonderful and fascinating mystery. However, if such things actually did take place I would imagine the evidence would be well documented by now.

  • JByrne24

    For a civilised human being there is no question of placing “these animalistic drives first”. We can recognise them for what they are. Humans are primates, and it is this that is probably (largely) at the root of war and many other present and past evils.
    Similarly we have no need to follow the red in tooth and claw dictates of evolution – we can, and I think should, help the “less fit” to live good and equally valuable lives among us.

    We are a very young species and, baring mishaps, have far to go. Children (of humans, or of whatever humans become) in the remote future will be unable to distinguish us (in their minds) from other species of primate – and I think this failure of imagination will go on from eon to eon.
    When our race, and what it becomes, is still quite young, our descendants will know nothing about us, or of the earlier ancient civilisations that presently we know about.

  • Peter

     “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”  
    Indeed, that which is infinite is not subject to change, which rules out universes and multiverses.

    Only God is infinite because he is immutable, and is immutable because he is infinite.  

  • JabbaPapa

    We cannot choose what we believe simply because we wish it to be true.

    You appear to be the living proof that your statement is wrong.

  • JabbaPapa

    “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.

    flabbergasting …

    This is the true mark of modernism in action. Don’t like what you’re hearing ? Then just redefine every pertinent concept into a mush, and then claim this procedure to be “rational”.

    I’d personally call it the exact opposite …

  • Peter

    The Church has for centuries taught that the universe had a beginning in the face of constant opposition from atheist philosophers and scientists right up to the beginning of the 20th century who insisted that it was eternal.

    Thanks to Lemaitre (and Einstein and Hubble of course) , the Church was vindicated.  It turns out the Church was better at science than the scientists.

  • karlf

    Is that your best shot?

  • karlf

    So why haven’t you stepped in to defend the belief in devils and demons? 

  • JByrne24

    In memory of Cambridge University (St John’s College) Professor Sir Fred Hoyle FRS

    who coined the term “Big Bang”

    Lemaitre did have the initial idea, and it is right that he is so credited.
    I doubt that professor Hoyle was an atheist. He once said that “the universe is a put-up job” and his Boeing 747 in a scrap yard idea has merit. It’s now widely suspected that the “universe” of the receding galaxies is in some way only a little part of the full picture.

  • Mieczyslaw the Meerkat

    I totally believe you, Benedict. 
    The biggest idiots are those who are convinced that the Devil doesn’t exist.He does. He’s real. Deal with it.

  • Charles

    Let’s also remember Father Nicholas Copernicus ( founder heliocentric theory), Father Gregor Mendel (founder of Genetics), and Father William of Ockham (Ochams Razor named after his reasoning on scientific simplicity). Some of the greatest scientific minds have been spiritual; the very desire to question existence has no basis in evolutionary biology but rather on God given awareness of the transcendental.

  • Benedict Carter

    Indeed they are. Father Gabriele Amorth has written three books at least on the subject and other exorcists have written books too.

    Read them, if you are serious about learning more. 

  • daclamat

    Bit out of your depth here, luv.Have you checked with CER`N?

  • JabbaPapa

    hmmmm … Occam’s Razor concerns the whole of rationality, not just the scientific.

    That’s just a quibble though — more importantly, the intelligibility of material reality is founded NOT on the transcendental, but rather on the immanence of Creation as an Act of God.

    God is both immanent and transcendental, but science proceeds from our awareness of the immanent.

  • JabbaPapa

    Obviously not.

    My point stands though, that your own beliefs are quite obviously deliberately chosen on the basis of your personal desires of how you think truth should “behave”.

  • JabbaPapa

    An apt analogy for your own attempts to “discuss” spirituality.

  • JabbaPapa


  • JabbaPapa

    that which is infinite is not subject to change

    This proposal is philosophically, logically, and mathematically undemonstrable.

    The reality here is that we do not even understand how Change itself even exists in the first place — except insofar as we know that it is a creation of God.

    Quite apart from which, God is in fact capable of change Himself.

  • Lazarus

    1) Because I’m trying not to get dragged into lengthy online exchanges because I’m swamped with work.

    2) Because I’ve nothing to contribute which hasn’t already been said -and by people who’ve thought about the issues much more than I have.

    3) But to make it clear, I fully accept the Church’s teaching that there are fully spiritual beings: angels and demons- some malevolent, some benevolent. I accept it a) because it’s the teaching of the Church (and some things one does just take on authority, lacking both time and expertise to do much else); and b) it’s been pretty much the unanimous testimony of humankind that such entities exist.

    Your only reason for not believing it is a methodological presupposition: as some sort of materialist, you are signed up to rejecting their possibility. Fair enough. But it’s nothing to do with evidence.

  • karlf

    I, like nearly all other religion disbelievers I would think, am only interested in discerning the truth about ourselves and our universe. We don’t reject the teachings of the CC because we are naughty, or rebellious (it would be far more outlandish for me to be religious these days), or because we think it’s “cool” not to believe. We do not believe because we consider the evidence for is outweighed by the evidence against.
    We cannot choose to believe something just because we are told to, as this goes against our very understanding of what ‘truth’ is.
    If the phenomena described by Fr. amorth actually happen, they could be researched and corroborated to prove that intelligent entities that can invisibly go about invading people’s minds actually exist. Anyone carried out this task would be elevated to an international superstar who threw the scientific community into turmoil and created a massive boost to religious belief.
    Doesn’t the fact that this has never happened tell you something? There are no devils and demons. As with the Muslims’ jinns and Kendoki witchcraft, demons are just primitive attempts to explain undesired aspects of human behaviour.
    If the Church tells you to believe in demons, then it’s a strong indication that it’s wrong about other things too.

  • karlf

    Thanks for replying Lazarus.
    I am not “signed up to rejecting their possibility”. Don’t be silly. My reasons for not believing are that I think there are vastly better explanations as to why people do bad things than the existence of an immortal bogeyman with godlike powers, who’s main occupation and desire, for thousands of years, has been to invisibly manipulate people’s minds all around the world.

  • karlf

     You are confusing personal bias with ‘faith’

  • karlf

    An apt analogy for your “spirituality” would be someone painting a wonderful picture of an imaginary world, and then believing it to be a real place.

  • Lazarus

    OK! I’ll reply to this and then I really am going to switch off the computer and get back to the grind!!

    1) The main explanation for human wickedness is human wickedness. The devil and demons are merely tempters.

    2) Why do you think there are vastly better explanations? Unless you have been beavering away at paranormal investigations (and I don’t mean just watching lots of Buffy reruns) it’s because you’ve signed up to worldview that denies their possibility as a methodological postulate. 

    Frankly, I wouldn’t start by trying to convince a materialist of the existence of demons and angels. (It’s a different matter if you’re talking to someone who’s dabbled in the occult and been badly frightened.) If someone had started talking to me about demons when I was an atheist, I’d have probably sniggered as well. Start with the central points: God, Christ and the Church. (And that’s not dodging the issue: it’s simply an acknowledgment that some Church teachings are harder than others to accept, and what these ‘hard teachings’ are will vary depending on your background.)

  • karlf

    “The devil and demons are merely tempters” ?? That’s not what the other Catholics are saying. But anyway, if that is so, how do they do this tempting? As far as I can see, temptations are usually man made (a better explanation?)

  • JabbaPapa

    I don’t know what that’s supposed to even *mean*.

    Faith is something that you have demonstrated repeatedly as not understanding.

    I take note anyway that you have, again, failed to understand my point.

  • JabbaPapa

    If you’d actually, y’know, listen to what I *actually* say, instead of making up what I’m supposed to “think” in your own little head on the basis of your obviously very, very deep indoctrination, then we might actually be able to have a conversation.

  • JabbaPapa

    karlf :

    the evidence against

    oooh, oooh, so you claim to have “evidence” !!!!

    GREAT !!!

    Let’s see it then !!!!

  • karlf

    You are always dodging my questions jabba. I’ve asked you about your beliefs of demons, but you refuse to answer. I asked you 1) If demons exist where do they live? 2) How come they have God like powers to go about unseen and manipulate people’s minds? 3)Why do they never get tired of doing this, even after thousands of years? 4)Why do they like being nasty? 5) Why doesn’t God smite them? 6) What do they look like? 7) Why do they get wrongly blamed for all those things that were clearly the result of other causes?

    Did you answer a single one of these questions? no you did not.

  • karlf

    Here are some examples:
    When weighing up whether Catholicism is true or not, one has to consider the fact that at least every single religion ever thought up by humankind, bar one, has to be false – hence the general nature of religion is at least 99% + fallacy.
    The Catholic claims of a loving God who helps people in desperate need are completely unfounded i.e. the total lack of evidence is evidence.
    Then there’s this subjective of the existence of demons – no sound reasoning to support these claims either.
    The Bible itself contains nothing that demonstrates it was divinely inspired i.e. it contains nothing that archaic middle eastern men would not have known at the time of writing.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     ‘If the hypothesis is sound’
    This idea is clearly not mine, but was gleaned from an article in the Scientific American that discussed problems with the theory of rapid inflation in the early universe.I can’t quote it as it is archived and I can’t put my hands on it right now.
     The problem with understanding infinity is that infinity can never be small.
    If you are an Atheist its easier to believe that nothing has an inherent property of expansion so an infinite number of universes exist, so that eventually you get the universe we are in now. An unverifiable statement. Sort of atheism of the gaps.
    So there must be a lot of universes in which a god of some sort exists, because you must eventually get some such universes.
     That’s more the point I am making.
     I don’t envy you with your questioning the existance of God, by that I do not mean the god of the mathematical model.
     There is a bit of the subset I would like to share with you in terms of my own path.I note that you think that your conditioning is partly responsible for your decisions about the way god may act.
     The subset is the difference between no god and a god that is totally indifferent to our lives and fate.To me there is no practical difference as far as my life is concerned.
    Discussing the big bang does not resolve this central problem.
    Because you are a physicist may I suggest that you are hard wired to scepticism.Because of this you need not worry too much about any conditioning that the human brain may have, including yours.
     Thanks for your heads up on the cern linear accelerator.

  • Peter

    It is a profound philosophical question whether God is capable of change, because that will mean that God lacked that change before it took place, implying that God is less than infinite.

    A change involves a greater or lesser degree of perfection than before, which means that a changing God would have been either less perfect or more perfect than before the change.  

    A God who is less than infinite and of varying perfection is not the Christian God.