advancements of theoretical physics in the 20th and 21st centuries have given atheists more ammunition to counter, and even lambast, the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists who contend that the book of Genesis holds the truth about the beginning of the universe. Clearly, as Charles Darwin and others first posited the theory of evolution in the 19th century, the scientific evidence has been rapidly stacking up against Creationists.
Popular modern atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have found it relatively easy to debunk the belief that the Earth has existed for just over 6000 years, as the Bible professes. Every reputable geologist places the beginning of our planet at closer to 4 billion years ago. Whether it is Jonah living in the belly of a whale for three days, or Abraham living to the ripe age of 175, or Jesus turning a couple loaves of bread and a few fish into enough food to feed 5000 people, the text of both the Old and New Testament makes some fairly remarkable claims in light of what we know about physics, astronomy, geology, and other sciences today.
Back Where it all Began
The predominant theory about the beginning of the universe, commonly known as the Big Bang theory, says that it began nearly 14 billion years ago when a singularity point exploded, causing a continuous expansion of matter that developed into galaxies, stars, planets, and the like.
The New Age Sir Isaac Newton? (Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash)
One of the most profound paradoxes about the origin of the Big Bang theory, however, is that it was first introduced by a man of the cloth — Georges Lemaitre (1894–1966), a Catholic priest and professor of astrophysics at the University of Leuen, Brussels, for over 40 years. In 1927, Lemaitre published a paper in an obscure Belgian academic journal titled A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Growing Radius Accounting for the Radical Velocity of Extragalactic Nebulae.
Thus was born the first major theory about a universe of “growing radius,” at a “radical velocity,” all starting with a cataclysmic explosion, or “big bang.”
Scientific and Religious Development of the Big Bang Theory
The proposition of an expanding universe rather than a static one was at first met with much skepticism, most notably by Albert Einstein. He was intrigued by the mathematics behind Lamaitre’s theory, but found his writing on physics — namely his own work on general relativity and gravity — woefully lacking. Einstein eventually reconciled with Lemaitre, however, and his approval caused Lemaitre’s theory to gain significant traction in academic circles in the 1940s.
In 1951, Pope Pius XII famously declared Lemaitre’s theory as proof for the cosmological argument for the existence of God. This philosophical argument was first espoused by the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas nearly 700 years earlier. Many profoundly important theoretical physicists of the late 20th century, of whom Stephen Hawking is probably most widely known, continued to supply mathematical and cosmological evidence to nuance and expand upon the now prevailing theory about the beginning of the universe.
Today the breadth of evidence supporting the Big Bang theory seems so overwhelming that it makes Biblical tales of Noah’s Ark, Moses parting the Red Sea, and Jesus Christ turning wine and bread into his body and blood seem like fairy tales no longer tolerable by not only scientists, but any ordinary rational human being.
What of the aforementioned paradox, though? How could a Catholic priest be father to the most prevalent theory that challenges the creation of the universe according to the Christian holy book?
Lemaitre himself contended that his work on physics was independent of theology and metaphysics. He argued that his theory could be employed by materialists as a reasonable account of how the universe began; likewise, it could be used by the believer as proof the workings and design of God are far beyond the comprehension and reach of human beings on Earth. “But the designs of God are known,” might an atheist argue. “This very reasonable theory — supported by irrefutable mathematical proof — proves that seven days of creation and the earth preceding the sun is utter crap. Thank you very much, Father Lemaitre, for giving us your theory. Now don’t try to backpedal on us by saying there’s no link between your science and your false God.”
Dad, can you believe what they’re saying about us? (Image courtesy of Pixabay)
A closer inspection of subsequent work in theoretical physics from the nearly 100 years since Lemaitre first proposed the Big Bang theory is critical to understanding how he, and we, can possibly answer this paradox.
Most scientific work requires employment of the scientific method first popularized in the 17th century. Observations of natural phenomena are used to prove or disprove a specific hypothesis, and a more general theory. Scientific theories that have been so overwhelmingly proven by observation as to be undeniable are promoted to scientific laws. No one refers to the theories of gravity and thermodynamics now, though they once were known as such. They are laws of science.
Because theoretical physics and astronomy — the primary sciences that deal with issues beyond where mankind has had a physical presence — are unable to utilize quantifiable data obtained from physically tangible substances, it is very difficult to promote a theory in their purview to a law. Even if our most powerful telescopes can identify galaxies hundreds of light years away, we are so far from actually traveling to one that to assume what we have seen is undeniably what is out there is antithetical to the mechanics of scientific inquiry.
Because of this difficulty, these sciences often use mathematics as the justification for their postulates. One could even say that mathematics, not observational experimentation, has been the driving force behind the evolution of new branches of physics developed in the 20th century. General relativity, quantum mechanics, advanced field theory, string theory — and all other predominant scientific theories that have been used to explain the behavior and existence of phenomena at both the super-terrestrial and subatomic level — derive their conclusions from mathematical models.
Theoretical physicists argue that because mathematical models are successful at explaining the behavior of phenomena in the observable universe, extension of their proofs to intangible phenomena require that the physical universe behave according to their equations. Because the math says so, it must be so, is a simple way to put it.
A not-so-different type of religion
The systematic destruction of theological credibility may have culminated in the late 19th Century. The German professor and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had excoriated Christianity in many of his works, but Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, two of his last, took it to new heights. These works argued that not only is Christianity the greatest lie in the history of the world, but that Jesus Christ was an idiot and despicable person for perpetrating this lie that had poisoned mankind for 1900 years.
Today, credible rational arguments opposing the outrageous claims of Christianity are not only available in academic circles, but widely distributed by “common” people who are far more educated than those of the 19th century. The scientific evidence against water into wine, resurrection, and healing the sick through divine intercession has caused much of the world to collectively declare with scorn “Are you serious?”
Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash
Interestingly, though, it also requires a great deal of faith to accept what the math tells us must be true about the universe. Even though the Big Bang theory is the most popular theory about the beginning of the universe, it is not by any means totally accepted by modern physicists. After all, what caused this spontaneous explosion?
Maybe the most prominent theory, known as plasma cosmology, discredits the Big Bang theory by arguing that relying on hypothetical matter to justify its equations makes it completely unreliable. So-called “dark matter,” “dark energy,” and “energy inflation” are critical to the Big Bang Theory. None of these substances have ever been observed, however. Other theories argue that whereas most explosions cause particles to scatter in a random pattern known as entropy, how could the greatest explosion of them all have expanded the universe in such an orderly fashion?
While these theories deal with phenomena on a grand scale, others have attempted to explain how the subatomic universe functions. The equations and postulates of quantum mechanics, string theory, and others have offered that the universe does not exist in three dimensions, but eleven, and that alternate universes which can be accessed through wormholes are not only possible, but certain.
String theory argues that the smallest particles of the universe are actually strings of energy several billion times smaller than atoms; these are the composition of all matter. In quantum mechanics, it is entirely plausible that a human being can walk into a wall and have its particles seep through it, arriving on the other side in the same form. Before you spend the rest of your life walking into a wall to wow your friends, however, consider that quantum mechanics says such a phenomenon may only be possible every trillion years or so.
No need for this thing… (Photo by Nick Tiemeyer on Unsplash)
Science and Faith
The same scornful attitude toward theological answers to profound questions can reasonably be targeted at modern “science.” Are we to believe that the entire universe is composed of energy strands several billion times smaller than atoms; that beyond length, width, height, and even time, there are an additional seven dimensions which only mathematical equations can (or can’t)explain; that alternate universes accessible by intergalactic tubes composed of a type of matter unknown except on a theoretical physicist’s chalkboard are undisputed? Forget the Gods, prophets, and disciples of the monotheistic religions. Suddenly Apollo’s sun chariot and Zeus throwing lightning bolts at Greek cities out of vengeance don’t seem too crazy.
The paradox of the priest/theoretical physicist has clearly not yet been answered. I’m not claiming that Jesus Christ really did turn water into wine and that Allah came to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave. Just that skepticism of miracles should be tempered somewhat. You could claim that the spiritual energy of Christ was an event horizon of energy strands foisted upon the world. Instead of walking through a wall, he walked on water.
While claims made in religious texts can continue to be debunked through scientific inquiry, it is clear that faith — the oil that makes the squeaky wheel of both religion and modern science turn — is required. Just how much faith versus proof is debatable. As it is likely that mankind will not be able to travel to the planet Neptune, let alone a galaxy millions of light years away, in our lifetime, the war of ideas and beliefs is sure to rage on inestimably.
Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash
Go to the profile of Michael Moan
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