Big-Bang Theology

Better ideas.
Feb. 12 1998 3:30 AM

Big-Bang Theology

God makes a cosmological comeback.

49000_49072_shaw_bigbangmain

Did God cause the big bang? That is what half a dozen new books about science and religion--whose authors range from a Reagan-administration official to an Israeli physicist to an elementary-particle-theorist-turned-Anglican-priest--are saying. The fact that the universe abruptly exploded into existence out of apparent nothingness some 15 billion years ago, they submit, means it must have had a supernatural creator. A couple of months ago the same claim was enthusiastically aired at a Washington conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center under the rubric "Beyond the Death of God," with eminent thinkers such as Fred Barnes, Mona Charen, and Elliott Abrams in attendance. And the idea received a sympathetic hearing on William F. Buckley's show Firing Line a few weeks ago.

Advertisement

The idea that only God could have caused the big bang is scarcely new. In fact, the big bang is probably the only idea in the history of science that was ever resisted because of its pro-God import.

For much of the modern era, scientists followed Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton in believing the cosmos to be eternal and unchanging. But in 1917, when Albert Einstein applied his theory of relativity to space-time as a whole, his equations implied that the universe could not be static; it must be either expanding or contracting. This struck Einstein as grotesque, so he added to his theory a fiddle factor called the "cosmological constant" that eliminated the implication and held the universe still.

It was an ordained priest who took relativity to its logical conclusion. In 1927, Georges Lemaître of the University of Louvain in Belgium worked out an expanding model of the universe. Reasoning backward, he proposed that at some definite point in the past it must have originated from a primeval atom of infinitely concentrated energy. Two years later, Lemaître's model was confirmed by the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who had observed that the galaxies everywhere around us were receding. Both theory and empirical evidence pointed to the same verdict: The universe had an abrupt beginning in time.

Churchmen rejoiced. Proof of the biblical account of creation had dropped into their laps. Pope Pius XII, opening a conference at the Vatican in 1951, declared that this scientific theory of cosmic origins bore witness "to that primordial 'Fiat lux' uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation. ... Hence, creation took place in time, therefore there is a creator, therefore God exists!"

Marxists, meanwhile, gnashed their teeth. Quite aside from its religious aura, the new theory contradicted their belief in the infinity and eternity of matter--one of the axioms of Lenin's dialectical materialism--and was accordingly dismissed as "idealistic." The Marxist physicist David Bohm rebuked the developers of the theory as "scientists who effectively turn traitor to science, and discard scientific facts to reach conclusions that are convenient to the Catholic Church." Atheists of a non-Marxist stripe were also recalcitrant. "Some younger scientists were so upset by these theological trends that they resolved simply to block their cosmological source," commented the German astronomer Otto Heckmann, a prominent investigator of cosmic expansion. The dean of the profession, Sir Arthur Eddington, wrote, "The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me ... I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. ... The expanding Universe is preposterous ... incredible ... it leaves me cold."

Even some believing scientists were troubled. The cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle simply felt that an explosion was an undignified way for the world to begin, rather like "a party girl jumping out of a cake." In a BBC interview in the 1950s, Hoyle sardonically referred to the hypothesized origin as "the big bang." The term stuck.

Einstein overcame his metaphysical scruples about the big bang not long before his death in 1955, referring to his earlier attempt to dodge it by an ad hoc theoretical device as "the greatest blunder of my career." As for Hoyle and the rest of the skeptics, they were finally won over in 1965, when two scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey accidentally detected a pervasive microwave hiss that turned out to be the echo of the big bang (at first they thought it was caused by pigeon droppings on their antenna). If you turn on your television and tune it between stations, about 10 percent of that black-and-white-speckled static you see is caused by photons left over from the cosmogonic event. What greater proof of the reality of the big bang--you can watch it on television!

Since the '60s, scientists have been busy working out, and feuding over, the details of the big-bang cosmology. But God is not in the details--his existence is deducible from the mere fact that there is a world at all. So goes the cosmological argument, one of the three traditional arguments toward a Supreme Being. (Click to read the ontological argument and the teleological argument.)

The reasoning starts off like this:

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 17 2014 12:27 PM Listen to Our Ultimate Holiday Playlist Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.