July 10, 1998

(Astronomy magazine had a contest, part of which was to write an essay on the question: Can one believe simultaneously in God and the Big Bang? Here is my answer.)

A Matter of Belief

I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.

Peter Medawar(1915-1987)

Each of us comes into the world hard-wired for a large number of functions. We come into the world hungry and knowing how to digest what we take in, as well as what and how to eliminate. As we grow, we learn to walk, babble and run; something that we would learn even if there was no one to teach us. Much of the rest is learned, mostly from our parents. Along with language and a vast amount of useful and useless information, we also acquire a set of beliefs. Many of those beliefs have been passed down from generation to generation for millennia. Some of the things that many people are taught, such as a belief in the omnipotence of parents and in Santa Claus, are expected to be modified as a child matures. Others are expected to persist.

What those beliefs are will depend on the particular culture that we have been reared in. For Jews, it involves a belief in a single omnipotent God. For Christians the central figure is Jesus, for Muslims, Mohammed, for Buddhists, Buddha. Some believe in a heaven, some in reincarnation. Some even believe that when you die you go nowhere; that you simply, as they say in Star Trek, "cease to exist."

Some families have developed an abiding faith in Science. And why not? All around us we see the miracles that science and technology have wrought. Not only can astronomers predict, with pinpoint accuracy, the position in the sky of every heavenly body in our solar system, but they have even created telescopes that will take you to any star or planet at the push of a button.There is a telescope in space, moving at high speed that is taking pictures of heavenly bodies with amazing clarity and exploring objects that have been previously inaccessible to earth-bound telescopes. There are machines that can do amazing things. True wonders abound. It is no longer reasonable to say, as Solomon did in Ecclesiastes, that "there is nothing new under the sun." Science has wrought miracles. True, they don't hold a candle to the miracle of life; but compared to what existed at the turn of the century, these man-made miracles are almost unbelievable.

As far as we know, the great scientists of the past were brought up in the traditions of their cultures and their times. Whether or not they truly believed in the gods of their parents, we can never know. We can be sure that they lived well within the traditions of their cultures, and that they paid proper respect to those traditions. Coppernicus was a canon of the Roman Catholic church, and Galileo a practicing Roman Catholic. Their religion didn't interfere with their science, although their church did; leading Copernicus to delay publication of his best work, and Galileo ended up under house arrest for defending the Coppernican heliocentric theory of the solar system. While many scientists are atheists, many are not and there seems to be little relationship between a scientists religious beliefs and his contribution to science.

It is safe to say that, of the many scientific theories that have been propounded, many of which were universally accepted in their time, only a few few have stood the test of time.

Seventy years ago, Einstein's theories of relativity were considered far out. The Nobel committee felt that it was on safer ground giving him the prize in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, rather than for his controversial theories. Then there was a period where relativity was heavily discussed and outlandish extrapolations were made, as expressed in Prof. Buller's limerick in which a woman who travelled faster than light "Went out one day in a relative way, and returned the previous night." Now general relativity seems to be gospel and is cited as evidence of the truth of things cosmological.

When Edwin Hubble discovered that the farther away that a galaxy was, the more its spectrum was shifted toward the red, most astronomers assumed that this was due to the Doppler effect and that it meant that the galaxies were all receding. This led to the theory that the universe was expanding, which quite naturally led to the idea that there was a time when the whole mass was all together and it exploded in one Big Bang. The universe is thought, by most cosmologists, to be still expanding.

For people reared on the Old Testament, the Big Bang theory provided a different ending to the statement in Genesis that "In the beginning....." Most cultures have an "In the beginning...." myth. The idea that everything has to have a beginning and an end is very appealing to we humans, who do have a beginning and an end. If you consider the concept of the continuity of the germ plasm, our own beginnings and ends may not seem so definite. We could, if we wished, consider ourselves as immortal as the ameba.

So now the Big Bang appears to have gained almost universal acceptance. So much so, that an astronomer who sets out to disprove the theory would have difficulty getting funds or facilities to do his work. This has happened to one astronomer that I know of.

If enough scientist say something, the public will believe it, and those true believers who believe in Science will believe what the "important" scientists say.

Those of us who are aware of the history of science are also aware that the majority is usually wrong.

So, to answer the question posed by the editors of Astronomy magazine, "Can one believe simultaneously in God and the Big Bang?" The answer is clearly "Yes." There are many people who do believe in both, which proves unequivocally that it is possible. That would be expected because the process that leads to belief is the same for God and for the Big Bang. The fact that both are capitalized indicates their similarity and the reverence for both concepts.

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