A commonly held misconception about revolutionary scientific theories is that religious authorities oppose them while secular scientists warmly embrace them. After years, sometimes decades, of battling between the two groups, the scientists win out and religion is forced to retreat. This is an oversimplification and sometimes even a misstatement of what actually happens...
This article was first published in the August 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
A commonly held misconception about revolutionary scientific theories is that religious authorities oppose them while secular scientists warmly embrace them. After years, sometimes decades, of battling between the two groups, the scientists win out and religion is forced to retreat. This is an oversimplification and sometimes even a misstatement of what actually happens.
The Big Bang theory is a perfect example. The theory states that the universe had a specific, identifiable beginning to its existence, a scenario that matches the general picture painted by the Book of Genesis. Secular scientists, on the other hand, were staunchly convinced that the universe had no beginning; thus, when the Big Bang theory was first posited, mainstream scientists dismissed it out of hand. Now, many decades later, it is taken as practically irrefutable fact.
Interestingly, it was a religious person who first came up with the Big Bang theory but he sired the theory based not on his religious beliefs, but on the scientific evidence that he had observed. In 1929, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble (after whom the Hubble Telescope is named) discovered that the galaxies of the universe are fleeing from each other at a phenomenal rate. According to National Geographic, this discovery had one revolutionary implication: a moment of cosmic creation. In 1931 the Belgian priest and astrophysicist Georges Lemaître put the fleeing galaxies into reverse and imagined them eons ago merged in a fireball of dazzling brilliance, a 'primeval atom,' as he put it. 'The evolution of the world can be compared to a display of fireworks that has just ended: some few red wisps, ashes and smoke,' wrote Lemaître. From this poetic scenario arose today's big bang.
Many [scientists] were appalled by this concept. 'The notion of a beginning...is repugnant to me,' said British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington in 1931. But evidence in its favor slowly gathered, climaxing in 1964, when scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered that the cosmos is awash in a sea of microwave radiation, the remnant glow of the universe's thunderous launch. Ever since then the image of the big bang has shaped and directed the work of cosmologists as strongly as Ptolemy's celestial spheres influenced astronomers in the Middle Ages (Bartusiak 2005: 117, 120).
Thus, it was a scientist who had been steeped in the Biblical concept of a universe with a beginning that gave birth to the Big Bang theory, while it was more secular scientists who rejected it based on prevailing but unproven theories of the universe's origin. This is quite different from the popular but inaccurate picture of religious people standing in the way of secular scientific progress and eventually being defeated.
Bartusiak, M. 2005. "Beyond the Big Bang: Einstein's Evolving Universe." National Geographic, vol. 207, no. 5.