Monday, May 19, 2014

The Pope and the Big Bang

Something caught me ear, so I briefly interrupt the series on fundamentalists:

I heard a Hitchens clip this weekend about the history of the term “Big Bang”. He said, when the theory was first proposed, the Pope liked it and offered to make it dogma, so everyone would have to believe it. Fortunately, the cosmologist who proposed the theory said ‘no thank you’. As Hitchens said, ‘that would be missing the point’. This was told as a joke, but looking into the history, it’s pretty accurate.

Edwin Hubble laid the groundwork for the theory. Georges Lemaitre proposed a more complete theory in 1927. He was a cosmologist and had once been a Roman Catholic priest. This minor factoid is often mentioned as proof that science and religion are compatible. In 1949, Fred Hoyle used the term “Big Bang” as a pejorative, he preferred the steady state theory. In 1951 in a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Pope Pius XII endorsed the theory, and connected it to the correctness of the Genesis account,

"…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies."  

And, to make sure no one missed the point,

“Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.  Hence, creation took place.  We say: therefore, there is a Creator.  Therefore, God exists!”

After hearing the Pope’s speech, a friend of Hoyle’s commented to him, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.”  

Lemaitre and the Vatican’s science advisor saw the problem here. If the Pope were to go beyond a mere mention of this theory, and make any more official statements about its relation to the proof of God or accuracy of the Bible, it could lead to problems in the future if the theory had to be amended. Theories of course are amended all the time. Changing Pontifical proclamations is not so easy. We only know that the two scientists spoke to him in private and he did not make any more comments on the matter.

Publicly, Lemaitre was as delicate and conciliatory as can be,

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

As we have seen since, despite silence from the Popes, and explanatory notes from the scientists, this idea of “creation took place, therefore God exists”, lives on. It’s as if any science since 1951 never happened. It’s the easy explanation that gets transmitted, not the hard work of collecting real evidence and holding on to what might have happened while experiments try to confirm what did happen.

In “A Brief History of Time”, Stephen Hawking tells of his audience with the Pope. He humorously notes his trepidation with such an audience, given past encounters with scientists and Popes. Although disputed, he claims the Pope told him to stay away from commentary on the moment of creation. Since then Hawking has made statements about the lack of need for a creator.

For me, I’d rather live in the world where scientists can be scientists, and not take orders from Popes or any other religious leader. Pope Pius XII tried to take the latest evidence and make it part of his religion. Popes have been doing that forever and getting away with it because most people are unaware of the evidence of their time and even less aware of earlier evidence and why the one trumped the other. Lemaitre knew all this and knew the difference between science and dogma. That he wanted to be respectful of the Pope doesn’t say anything about the debate between science and religion. 


  1. Thank you for that synopsis. You have presented the history well and it is fascinating. Have you read David Kertzer's new book?

  2. I haven't, but thanks for the suggestion.