Science and Religion

Teaching astronomy, one will inevitably encounter issues such as the Big Bang that may run contrary to your student’s religious beliefs. How to deal with such a situation? Two things I attempt to do in my class is to distinguish between religious studies and science as well as provide proper historical context of the conflict between the two areas.

The first rule of thumb is not to discuss your own religious beliefs (or lack of any) in the classroom. Besides the obvious constitutional issues, it brings the same bad vibe in a classroom as when a teacher uses a course to push a personal political agenda. My own personal experience as a student is I want to be evaluated on my knowledge of the subject matter, not how well I imitate the teacher’s personal viewpoints.

An exercise I like to try is to drop a book to the floor and have the students measure its acceleration. All the measurements should be 9.8 m/s2. Then ask the class if the measurements were impacted at all by their religious beliefs. The hallmark of science is observations that can be independently verified by others. This differs from other disciplines that can be subject to what is known in academic circles as reader response theory. This theory holds that a reader’s life experience and values will offer different interpretations of the same work.

An (rather simple) example of reader response theory that can be presented to the class could be a movie. For older students, Titanic might serve as a good example. Some students will remember a disaster movie, others a romance (the pros and cons of the movie are not important for the point to be made). For younger students, a movie like The Dark Knight might fill the bill. The important point is to understand how the same piece of work will offer differing perspectives to different individuals.

In the case of the Bible, the pre-Civil War era provides a stark example of contradictory interpretations of the same work. For example, the Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union states the following:

“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations.”

That was not an aberration. The Confederacy often invoked religion to justify slavery. At the same time, Abolitionists often used the same Bible to advance the cause to eliminate slavery. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by a former slave trader turned abolitionist. While this is an extreme example of opposing interpretations of the Bible, it drives the point home. The class can be asked at this point, can the scientific measurement made of the falling book offer such differing interpretations?

At this moment, the class should be ready to examine the historical conflict between science and religion. Most famously, there is the case of the Catholic Church against Galileo. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the church for, among other things, predicting planets orbited stars outside the Solar System. Today, controversies surrounding evolution and the Big Bang theory highlight the clash between science and religion.

Conflict is the centerpiece of drama, and because of that, we tend to focus on conflict when examining the relationship between the two topics. But is that the whole picture? It is difficult to imagine now, but the Big Bang theory was originally criticized as having religious overtones as it presented a timeline of the universe with a discrete starting point. Why is that? The first person to conceptualize the Big Bang was Georges Lemaitre, a highly talented mathematician…and a Catholic priest.

Lemaitre deduced the universe had a discrete starting point not from the Book of Genesis, but by examining Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Models of static universes using general relativity are unstable. That is, they cannot stay static and begin to expand or contract. Lemaitre proposed the universe began as a compact “primordial egg” and expanded throughout its lifetime. Most astronomers rejected this concept at first, including Einstein who told Lemaitre, “Your grasp of physics is abominable.” Conventional wisdom among scientists at the time was the universe had no beginning or end.

The turning point in this debate was the work of Edwin Hubble at Mt. Wilson. A survey of galactic red shifts indicated that galaxies were receding from each other. The universe was expanding! The priest and his scientific work were vindicated*. The measurements conducted by Hubble, like the measurements of the falling book, provide the same result regardless of who is measuring and what their religious background is. That included Einstein who seeing Hubble’s work, after a lecture by Lemaitre in 1931, stood up and said, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

The lesson here that to appreciate and perform high-level scientific work does not matter what your religious views are or are not. What is important is to understand, as Lemaitre did a century ago, the key differences between the two and not to conflate one with the other.

*Lemaitre’s original primordial egg model of the universe has since been replaced by inflationary models of the Big Bang starting with a singularity. However, the expansion of the universe with a discrete starting point of creation still stands

Often, when I introduce Lemaitre to students, there is an assumption as a priest he relied on the Bible in some manner to conceptualize the Big Bang. No way, a cursory glance at his work will indicate it is all science.

Another interesting juxtaposition of science and religion is the famous Apollo 8 Christmas Eve telecast below:

Image on top of post is George Lemaitre teaching at the Catholic University of Louvain.  Photo:  ARCHIVES GEORGES LEMAÎTRE/CATHOLIC UNIV. LOUVAIN/TECLIM

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