In this article, Fr Paul Robinson summarizes material that is found in chapters 7 and 9 of The Realist Guide to Religion and Science.
When Albert Einstein proposed his general theory of relativity in 1915, he was ushering in a new era of science. By means of his theory, scientists could, for the first time, construct physical models for the universe as a whole. Newton’s universe was infinite and the infinite cannot be measured. Einstein’s theory, however, required a finite universe, a universe that could both be tracked in its history and undergo mathematical modeling.
The Theory of Relativity quickly received several empirical confirmations, one being that it could calculate the orbit of Mercury around the sun with perfect accuracy, whereas the same calculation using Newton’s theory of gravitation contained statistical error. The most important confirmation of Einstein’s theory was Sir Arthur Eddington’s observation of a star shift during a solar eclipse in West Africa in 1919, a shift predicted by the theory of relativity.
These predictions, however, seemed minor compared to one remarked by a Catholic Belgian priest, Fr. Georges Lemaître. In a paper published in 1927, he pointed out that, if Einstein’s theory were correct, then heavenly bodies are technically not moving in the universe, but are rather moving the universe. In other words, the universe is expanding when heavenly bodies move farther and farther away from one another.
Lemaître went further in a book he published in 1931. If the universe is expanding, he reasoned, then to go back in time is to go back to a more contracted state of the universe. If we continue going back in time in this way, then we will eventually reach a point wherein all of the matter in the universe is compacted into a single point, something Lemaître referred to as a Primeval Atom, a phrase which he made the very title of his book. In this perspective, the entire matter/energy of our present universe started off in an enormously dense state at a single point and from there expanded over a long period of time up to the present day.
Lemaître’s idea was met with mixed reactions. British astronomer Fred Hoyle, for one, dismissed it out of hand, referring to it jokingly as the Big Bang Theory. Hoyle was the champion of a rival theory, called the Steady State Theory, which held that the universe is eternal and largely unchanging. Others took up the Big Bang Theory and tried to provide it empirical support.
Our objective in this multi-part article is to explore the attitude of three sets of people to Lemaître’s Big Bang Theory: atheist scientists, fundamentalist Protestants, and mainstream Catholics. After observing their reactions, we will consider whether there is solid empirical evidence for the theory.
Whenever we look at the reaction of this or that person to a certain event, we have to remember that it is impossible for any one of us to avoid bringing some personal bias to a given situation. If humans were mere intellects, raw thinking machines, then we could reasonably expect all of our reactions to be entirely objective. But humans are much more than what they know. They are also what they want and what they feel. Their reactions, therefore, are always some combination of intellect, will, and emotions.
It is our reason which helps us distinguish whether objectivity or subjectivity predominates in the reactions of those around us. The person reacting with rational argumentation is more objective and less biased, while the person reacting with emotional outburst is less objective and more biased.
All of this is by way of preface to considering the reaction of atheist scientists to the Big Bang Theory. They were an up and coming intellectual class starting with the wave of rationalism sweeping through the Western world in the 19th century. That wave was largely fueled by an explosion of scientific discovery. The rapid casting out of old and long-standing scientific errors worked like swelling agent on man’s all too easily inflated pride. Purely naturalistic explanations of everything under the sun—like the sun—became the rage. Many began to believe that science would eventually be able to explain everything in the universe, and do so without ever having recourse to the causality of God. The Holy Grail for unholy science soon became the goal of accounting for the existence of everything in the universe by mathematical laws alone.
Thomist philosophers know immediately that such an enterprise is doomed to failure, for the simple reason that mathematical laws do not explain the existence of anything; they only describe what things do, how things act. By and large, however, modern scientists do not understand this, for one characteristic that seems to dominate their tribe is a complete lack of philosophical knowledge. The reader does not have to rely on me for this statement; he can safely consult Einstein saying that “the man of science is a poor philosopher.”
Despite the fact that science can never even speak about the existence of things, much less assign a cause for their existence, atheistic scientists generally believe that they can use science to prove that the universe is the ultimate reality. When they embark on this quixotic enterprise, they understand that, to make the universe the ultimate reality, they have to endow it with the attributes of God. What are the attributes of God? God is eternal, He is unchanging, uncaused, infinite. That, then, is what the universe must be if it is to pretend to be a God substitute. But does science show that we live in such a universe?
The idea that the universe is infinite in space and time gained traction in scientific minds since the great Isaac Newton had put his weight behind it in the 1600s. There were, however, two strong scientific arguments against a universe without a beginning and without boundaries, both arguments being framed in the form of a paradox:
Fr Stanley Jaki notes with amazement in his book on this particular topic, The Paradox of Olbers’ Paradox, that the majority of scientists still maintained blind faith in the infinity of the universe in space and time, despite such solid arguments against it.
So far, so bad. Both reason and science indicate that the universe cannot be infinite. But how, one may ask, could a scientist maintain that the universe is unchanging? Well, clearly, he can’t without falling into utter absurdity. The best he can do is depict a universe that is unchanging in an approximate sense. This is what Fred Hoyle and his Steady-State crew did. They proposed that:
Clearly, such a universe is a poor substitute for God. Evidently, however, it was enough of a substitute for those who wanted it to be God, for the Steady-State Theory maintained a reputability in scientific circles long past its used-by date, which turned out to be extremely limited in time.
I could continue in this vein by speaking of other attempts by scientists, and especially the atheist types, to erect a scaffolding around the universe in order to hold up the divinity they wished to confer upon it. There is no need for me to do so, however, for the main point that I wish to make can now be made with reasonable clarity, and that is that the Big Bang Theory makes all of the scaffolding come crashing down.
If the Big Bang Theory is true, the universe is finite in time, because it began with the initial burst of energy.
If the Big Bang Theory is true, the universe is finite in space, because it began at a single point and has since been expanding.
If the Big Bang Theory is true, the universe is forever in a state of change, because it is continually getting bigger, cooler, and less dense.
If the Big Bang Theory is true, the universe is surely caused by God, for what could possibly initiate a universe in such a way other than a Being of immense power that is outside of space and time?
This last point especially stuck in the craw of scientistic atheists. They knew that Christianity had long held to the belief that the universe is not eternal, but had a beginning in time. The last thing that they wanted to see was all of their efforts in science, their discoveries, their formulas, their experiments, and so on point ultimately to a dogma of the Christian faith, held on the basis of religious belief. No one has expressed the disappointment more aptly than the late NASA astronomer Robert Jastrow:
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."
Later in this article, we will see that even atheist scientists had to accept the evidence for the Big Bang—though of course that did not convert many of them to God—but for now we just register their reaction to the theory: a reaction of intense dislike followed by an attempt to discredit and destroy the theory, and finishing with a begrudging acceptance.
We have just seen that atheist scientists were biased against the Big Bang Theory because it lent support for a dogma of Christianity. We will now see that fundamentalist Protestants are also biased against the theory because it does not lend support to that dogma in the way that they would like.
Under the Big Bang scenario, the development of the universe from an initial point of immense energy to a diverse collection of galaxies, stars and planetary systems takes many eons of time. While the theory indirectly implies that a being outside of space and time was at the origin of the universe, it directly asserts, by scientific argument, the precise conditions under which the universe had to develop. One of those conditions is a time period in the billions of years.
Fundamentalist Protestants, meanwhile, hold as dogma not just that God created the universe with a beginning in time, but also that He did so 6000 years ago and in a period of six, twenty-four hour days. For them, the time and the way that God created are just as dogmatic as the fact of God’s creation. This position today is commonly referred to as Young Earth Creationism (YEC).
The YEC stance stems directly from the fact that Protestantism is a text-based religion and not an institution-based religion. Protestants do not start with a divine institution that informs them on the supernatural truths that are necessary to reach salvation. They rather start with a text (compiled and transmitted across the centuries by Catholics) and seek to derive a set of revealed truths from that text.
They see that text as the only means which God has established to communicate saving truths to believers. This perspective is sometimes referred to as ‘biblicism’ because it makes the Bible the be all, end all source of religion. The Bible is made to play for Protestants the same role that the Church plays for Catholics. Just as the Church is the living voice of Jesus Christ for Catholics, so too the Bible is that voice for Protestants.
Those who over-divinize the Bible in this way tend to:
Protestant biblicism sets fundamentalists on a beeline collision course with the Big Bang Theory. It leaves them with only two choices: reject all evidence for the Big Bang Theory or reject the Bible and Christian religion. An article from a 2013 issue of their Creation magazine sums it up this way:
"The timescale in and of itself is not the important issue. It ultimately comes down to, 'Does the Bible actually mean what it says?' The issue is about the trustworthiness of Scripture—compromising with long ages severely undermines the whole Gospel."
It undermines the whole Gospel IF you believe that a young age for the universe is part of the Gospel. And you believe that a young age for the universe is part of the Gospel only if you take your revealed truths from the Bible alone rather than take your revealed truths from Jesus Christ’s divine institution and then find them in the Bible.
This brings me to the Catholic reaction to the Big Bang Theory. I have already mentioned that the theory originated with a Belgian Catholic priest. Neither to him nor to the other Catholics of his day did the theory seem to violate any teaching of the Catholic faith. A short history of Catholic exegesis will help us understand why.
For the Fathers of the Church, the first rule of Biblical interpretation is to maintain the literal sense unless it is shown to be false. When that happens, it becomes obvious that the literal sense cannot be the sense intended by Scripture, because Scripture is the Word of God and so without error.
This rule teaches us that reason can be used to clarify the true meaning of Scripture. When the rule is followed, faith and reason, Bible and science, do not come into conflict. When the rule is not followed—when one is so attached to the literal sense that he clings to it in the face of contrary evidence—religion becomes unreasonable and subject to the mockery of the learned.
The two greatest thinkers in Christian history—Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—sternly warned Catholics not to interpret Scripture against reason. Here is St. Thomas summarizing St. Augustine in the Summa:
"Since Sacred Scripture can be interpreted in many ways, one must not hold so firmly to a given interpretation such that, once that interpretation is clearly shown to be false, he presume to assert that the false interpretation is Scripture’s meaning, lest, by doing so, he expose Scripture to ridicule by non-believers, and close off for them the path to belief."
There have been many Catholic Scripture scholars in Church history who have interpreted Genesis 1 in a literal sense. They did so, however, in the spirit of the primal interpretational rule. As such, they were willing to cast aside a strictly literal sense if strong evidence was found to contradict it. They understood that certain supernatural truths of Genesis were non-negotiable—one God as creator of everything from nothing, creation in time, the direct creation of man, the unity of the human race, man’s superiority over other creatures on earth and over the heavenly bodies, man’s state of original justice and his fall, etc. Natural truths not underpinning those supernatural truths, however, were negotiable.
The time in which God created the universe and the way He had it develop are certainly among the negotiable truths, since whether God created in a long period of time or a short period changes nothing of the Catholic Faith. It was for this reason that the Fathers were fairly unanimous on the religious truths taught by Genesis 1, but were quite varied in their opinions on the scientific truths taught by the same.
St. Augustine’s opinion, the one favored by St. Thomas, was that God created everything at once, not in a period of six days. For him, the six day description was a teaching tool used by the sacred author to communicate religious truths in the most effective way possible.
In our age, a series of Popes have written encyclicals on Scripture clarifying the relationship between the Bible and science. Leo XIII was particularly clear on this question when he wrote the following in Providentissimus Deus:
"[T]he sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Spirit ‘who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.’ [St. Augustine, De Gen. ad litt., i., 9, 20] Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science."
In the end, Catholics have freedom to embrace or reject the Big Bang Theory, for the Church considers it to be a question of science, not of religion. No doubt, most Protestants hold the same opinion. The difference, however, is that Protestants consistent with the spirit of their religion will read the Bible as a science book, while Catholics consistent with the spirit of Catholicism will not. The savvy Catholic exegete, on the contrary, will be careful to protect both faith and reason in his interpretation of the Bible, in order to avoid portraying religion as an exercise in irrationality.
None of this, of course, is an attempt on my part to encourage Catholics to embrace the Big Bang Theory. It is rather an attempt to encourage them to reject theories that can only appear irrational in the face of today’s scientific knowledge.
Since the Big Bang Theory is a scientific theory, it needs to be considered on the basis of its scientific merits. We will do this shortly, but only after first mentioning that Pope Pius XII openly endorsed the theory and considered it to provide support for the opening words of Genesis 1. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1951, he examined four pieces of scientific evidence pointing to a 5-10 billion year age of the universe. Then, he stated the following:
"Although these figures may seem astounding, nevertheless, even to the simplest of the faithful, they bring no new or different concept from the one they learned in the opening words of Genesis: ‘In the beginning . . .’, that is to say, at the beginning of things in time. The figures We have quoted clothe these words in a concrete and almost mathematical expression, while from them there springs forth a new source of consolation for those who share the esteem of the Apostle for that divinely-inspired Scripture, which is always useful ‘for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for instructing’ (II Tim. iii, 6)."
Einstein did not perform any experimentation in order to propose his Special and General Theories of Relativity. He rather started with the hypothetical situation that the same physical laws hold true in relation to every possible observer in the universe, no matter his location or state of motion. From there, Einstein determined in detail what sort of universe that would be and how measurements of motion should take place in such a universe. But it remained to be seen, through experimentation, if Einstein’s hypothetical universe is the one in which we actually exist.
We already noted two confirmations of Einstein’s theory in part 1 of this article. But they did not concern that aspect of the theory predicting that the universe is expanding. Experimental confirmation for this had wait for the work of Edwin Hubble. In the 1920s, he was spending many nighttime hours seated in a wicker chair, peering into a new 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. What he discovered revolutionized our view of the universe.
The light traveling so fast, so far, and so long through space to arrive at the eye of an avid astronomer carries with it precious information. The most important quality of the light is its wavelength, which is either stretched out or compressed. If the light is stretched out, it is said to be red-shifted, because the light has a wavelength closer to the red end of the visible spectrum of light. If the light is compressed, it is said to be blue-shifted, because it has a wavelength closer to the blue end of the visible spectrum.
When an astronomer detects red-shifted light in his telescope, he knows that the heavenly body emitting the light is moving away from the earth. When he detects blue-shifted light, it is because the star, galaxy, or whatever is moving towards the Earth.
Hubble, after carefully observing numerous heavenly bodies, was able to draw the following conclusions:
Hubble was not just able to establish the expansion of the universe and, to a certain degree, the rate of that expansion. He was also able to peer into its history. Looking into a telescope is like looking back in time, because we are really seeing planets and stars at the time that they emitted the light that is reaching us, not as they are at the present moment. For instance, it takes light from the sun eight minutes to reach Earth, and so we are seeing the sun eight minutes in the past whenever we look at it in our backyard telescopes. By observing thousands of space objects, Hubble was able to see stars and galaxies at different stages of development and, ultimately, the universe itself at different stages of development. From this data, he was able to construct a famous ‘tuning fork’ diagram to classify different types of galaxies. Two other astronomers named Hertzsprung and Russell developed a diagram tracking the life cycle of stars, according to their color, brightness and temperature.
By the 1940s, Hubble’s empirical evidence was strongly swaying scientific minds towards acceptance of the Big Bang model. Some dyed-in-the-wool universe-deifying types, however, were still desperately supporting the Steady State model. Fred Hoyle and his cohort now had to admit that the universe was expanding and so noticeably unsteady in its dimensions. But they would not admit that the total matter of the universe was thinning out. They were sure that the density of the universe stayed the same, even with the universe expanding. As a result, they assisted the universe to be steady by claiming that one hydrogen atom per cubic meter of the universe is being created from nothing every 300,000 years and so the density of the universe always remains the same. When they said ‘created from nothing’ here, they were not saying created by God from nothing. They were saying that nothing created something—hydrogen atoms—from nothing. It was an act of scientistic ideological desperation which I did not think could possibly have a parallel until I read Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe from Nothing.
Regardless, the atheist scientists were clinging so desperately to their fideistic religion that the Big Bang really needed some explosive evidence in order to permanently steady the fate of the Steady State Theory in a state of oblivion. Such evidence came in 1964, but before getting to it, we have to first backtrack quickly to Fr. Lemaître.
Around the time the Belgian priest was speaking about the possibility of the universe starting as a primeval atom, he suggested that there might be a way of empirically checking his theory. Some of the energy of the Big Bang would form into stars and galaxies, but surely not all of it. Where would the rest be? It would simply be in the space between the stars and galaxies. In other words, if there was a Big Bang in the beginning, then we would expect there to be leftover radiation from the Big Bang pervading all of space, to this day.
The radiation that Fr. Lemaître predicted, today called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR), was discovered at Bell Labs in New Jersey, when technology was just becoming sufficiently advanced to do transcontinental television transmissions. Two scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were testing a microwave receiver which they were pointing at the sky to receive the transmissions. No matter which direction they pointed the receiver, however, they noted some interference, a faint microwave signal that sounded like a hiss in their earphones. After looking high and low for the source of the problem in their device—and not finding it—they went down the road to Princeton University and were told that, in all likelihood, they were listening to a very distant echo of what once was a big bang.
The little whimper from the Big Bang—and the subsequent mapping of the CMBR by three different satellite probes—was like the tolling of a death knell for any and all theories trying to deprive the universe of a beginning or of change. It did not, of course, signal the end of scientistic atheists; it only forced them into deeper recesses of irrationality. As it were from a cavern of darkness, in sharp contrast to the bright light of the universe’s birth, they spout out the theory—no, the hallucination—that universes spontaneously pop into existence without a cause. They seem to find that idea more comforting than that supremely sane and certain sentence, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”