God and the Big Bang
A major scientific breakthrough is being twisted into an argument for
religion. John Gibson and Manjit Singh reply to the mystics
'If you're religious, it's like looking at God', said George Smoot, leader
of the Cosmic Background Explorer (Cobe) research team, unveiling its sensational
findings in April.
Cobe had peered back across the universe to within 300 000 years of creation.
There they had detected the 'ripples' that would one day lead to galaxies
and stars. The discovery was called the find of the century by the scientific
establishment. In the media, it was used primarily to heat up the debate
about the relationship between science and religion.
Time and space
The Cobe satellite was launched in November 1989, after years of delay due
to the Challenger disaster, to investigate cosmic radiation without the
interference of terrestrial phenomena such as man-made radio noise. Studying
radiation gives us a clue as to what the universe was like far back in time,
because it takes time for the radiation to reach us. So, for example, in
looking at the sun we see it as it was approximately eight minutes ago.
By using this method Cobe has managed to look back in some detail to over
14 billion years ago.
In April, eager scientists packed into the meeting of the American Physical
Society in Washington to hear Smoot announce the discovery of 'evidence
for the birth of the universe'. Michael Turner of Chicago University believed
that Smoot's team had found nothing less than the 'holy grail of cosmology'.
They had shown that the 'Big Bang' model of how the universe began is
consistent with the way in which the universe is structured today. (How?--see
box, page 36)
Designed by deity
But 'what caused the Big Bang?' is the obvious next question. And the most
striking feature of the public debate around the latest findings has been
the increased willingness of commentators to invoke God as the initiator.
The Vatican has long argued that the Big Bang was the work of God. In a
sense, the latest findings have added weight to a related 'scientific' argument
for the existence of God: the argument from design.
The shorthand version of the argument goes like this. Of all the unimaginable
ways in which the universe could have developed, it just so happened that
it developed in a way which has led to human life. That is a highly unlikely
occurrence, statistically speaking, according to current theories. This
is taken as evidence that the formation of the universe must have been an
act of design. Top physicist Paul Davies argues the case in his book, The
'The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted
complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness - in
other words, that the universe has organised its own self-awareness - is
for me powerful evidence that there is "something going on" behind
it all. The impression of design is overwhelming. Science may explain all
the processes whereby the universe evolves its own destiny, but that still
leaves room for there to be a meaning behind existence.' (p203)
Elsewhere Davies has gone even further: 'It may seem bizarre, but in my
opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion.' (God and the
New Physics, pix)
Destroyed by Darwin
The argument from design is of course far from new. The most famous example
of the argument in modern times was put forward by the Anglican priest and
naturalist William Paley in his book Natural Theology (1802). Paley
drew the analogy that if you found a watch while walking across a moor,
you wouldn't think it was an accident equivalent to finding a stone. You
would be certain that somebody had made it. Yet everywhere in nature we
see things much more complex than a watch. For example, the human eye. From
this Paley deduced the existence of God, the grand designer.
Charles Darwin destroyed the arguments of Paley and others in the mid-nineteenth
century with his explanation of natural evolution. Darwin established that
chance mutation and natural selection were all that was needed to explain
the complexity and diversity of life on earth.
Darwinism still poses problems for theologians. It asks very difficult questions
about any notion of a personal God, and certainly shatters any claims that
the Bible can be taken as literal truth. But the problems are not insurmountable
for theologians with a creative streak. Since Darwin, supporters of the
design argument have retreated further back in time (and so further away
from anything that can be definitely disproved), in order to defend their
case. And you can't get further back than the Big Bang!
It may seem fantastic that the development of the universe was such that
human life could emerge, but then it seemed fantastic to Paley's generation
that the human eye existed until Darwin showed the way. The development
of science has always tended to explain the fantastic.
Even without the assistance of further scientific advances in cosmology,
however, it is possible to ask which is more fantastic: the fact that we
are here to ponder retrospectively the probability of our own existence
on the basis of natural laws, or the notion that a supreme being outside
of space-time went to so much trouble to create a universe with planet Earth
tucked away in one corner just for us?
For the moment, the beauty of the Big Bang for the theologians is that,
according to modern science, it does not make sense to talk about what happened
before the Big Bang. In scientific terms, it is literally a meaningless
This illustrates that there will always be questions concerned with first
causes which are not susceptible to definite scientific answers. In order
to accept any explanation of such matters, an act of faith is required.
As Paul Davies puts it: 'In the end it all boils down to a question of belief.'
(God and the New Physics) You either believe in God or you don't.
And there, we might think, the issue should rest, to be discussed along
with 'how many angels can you fit on a pin-head?' and other such questions.
But that would be to misunderstand the debate between science and religion
as it takes place in the Western world in 1992. Many believers insist that
only religion, rather than science, can provide a meaning for life. Unfortunately,
in this weary and confused time, they are being taken more seriously than
they might have been in the recent past.
Souls and slugs
According to Rev John Polkinghorne, president of Queen's College, Cambridge,
and a scientist: 'God is not the answer to who lit the blue touch paper
which set off the Big Bang, but why it was lit. He is the answer to the
meaning and purpose of the world. Therefore religion has nothing to fear
from science.' (Sunday Times, 26 April 1992)
In his new book, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern
Man, Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times takes this a step further.
According to Appleyard, all science tells us is that people are 'meaningless
accidents in a cold universe'(p67). In his caricatured account, science
tells us that we are born, we die, and are of no more significance than
a stellar nebula or a slug. For Appleyard, if humanity is to regain a sense
of purpose in life, and so save itself, it must return to the centrality
of religious faith.
There is an alternative view of 'the meaning of life'. In terms of cosmic
evolution, humanity is an accident. This is the unmistakable message of
modern science. But our humanity does not lie in our accidental origins,
our biological make-up. It lies in that which distinguishes us from all
other living things: our rationality, our consciousness, and our capacities
as social, purposive creatures to understand, change, and control the world
Modern humanity is unique in possessing consciousness and the capacity for
rational choice. This capacity separates us from everything else that we
are aware of in the universe. But it is not a result of some divine plan,
nor is it the result of our biology; that last has remained unchanged for
50 000 years and more, during which time mankind's capacities have developed
beyond all recognition.
Instead, human consciousness is a product of our own history, our own development
out of the animal kingdom. This has been the result of a social process
which we are now in a position to begin to understand, and take control
of for the future. Humanity has made itself.
Faith in the human potential, and in our own capacity to make a difference
to the world around us, is the only faith we need. Science is not the answer
in and of itself. But science allied to a rationally organised social system
subject to human control has the potential to transform our lives for the
By contrast, faith in God belittles mankind. It places a barrier to rational
scientific enquiry. It encourages people to fear experimentation, to have
less faith in their own potential.
The current debate about God and the Big Bang raises several important questions.
For example, why are the religious mystics now able to influence the public
discussion of modern science? And why is contemporary culture so suspicious
of scientific advance?
Many scientists are aware that there is a strong non-rational element in
contemporary attitudes to science. A Royal Society working party reported
on this problem in 1985, and this year has brought the launch of a new journal,
Public Understanding of Science. In his article, 'How to think about
the "anti-science" phenomenon', Gerald Holton poses an interesting
'Could it be, at this end of the century, that the widespread lack of a
proper understanding of science might itself be either a source, or a tell-tale
sign, of a culture's decline?'
The more likely answer is that the lack of understanding of science is a
sign of, rather than a source of, our culture's decline. Contemporary society
is stagnant economically, politically and culturally. In such a situation,
science fails to live up to its promise, and fails to excite. It can also
become prey to the irrational interpretations of the mystics.
The dominant attitudes towards science and religion are always decided by
the overall social and intellectual climate of the times, rather than by
scientific breakthroughs in and of themselves. For instance, the challenge
to established religion during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century
did not result narrowly from science. It reflected the wider development
of an expanded sense of what was possible through human reason and action.
Natural science played only a supporting role in the optimistic movement
which dragged society into the modern era. In the nineteenth century, the
profusion of social histories on the role of religion and of radical political
tracts undermined religious faith more than did science in itself.
In the same way, we can see current trends in the discussion of God and
the Big Bang as a sign of our pessimistic, irrational times rather than
a product of scientific discovery.
Faith by default
It is not that contemporary Western society can afford to reject science - any
more than Islamic states can reject banking. But science is no longer seen
as something beneficial with the potential to change our lives radically.
And at a time when society is in decay, but when the old alternatives to
the status quo have become discredited, faiths of one sort or another can
gain support by default. This trend is being encouraged by conservatives
because it is easier to justify the existing social order on the basis of
faith than it is on the basis of reason.
What we are witnessing today in the discussion of God and creation is only
a revival of faith in a negative sense. The key issue is disenchantment
with science and a broader lowering of expectations about the future. This
is the reason why a brilliant scientific breakthrough like the discovery
of the 'ripples' in the universe has sparked off endless articles about
the miracles of God rather than about the wonders of modern science.
The moral of the story is that optimism and enthusiasm for the potential
of science can only develop as part of a wider optimism about the future
of society. Science can knock some holes in the irrational religious interpretations
of the universe. But the ultimate solution will have to be political, not
The briefest history of time
In the 1920s Edwin Hubble found that the light from distant galaxies was
stretched towards the red end of the visible spectrum. This effect, known
as the redshift, was found to be greater the further away the galaxy. The
redshift of light from distant galaxies is evidence that they are moving
away from us. The static model of the universe was now replaced by an expanding
one. Looking backwards, this led theorists to propose that the universe
exploded into being in a Big Bang, from a point known as a singularity,
about 15 billion years ago.
That was the theory. The search for the 'holy grail of cosmology' really
started accidently in 1964, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at the Bell
Laboratories in New Jersey discovered a weakly hissing radio noise wherever
they pointed their telescope. Unable to get rid of it, even after they removed
the pigeons living in their peculiar horn-shaped radio telescope, they had
to conclude that it was a natural phenomenon of cosmic origin. They had
found the 'cosmic background radiation' - the echo of the Big Bang.
One problem remained. The cosmic background radiation was smooth and uniform.
But according to the theory, lumps and holes in the early universe should
have manifested themselves as areas of hot and cold in the distribution
of the cosmic background radiation. They did not. This suggested that matter
in the universe was uniformly distributed after the Big Bang. The fact is,
however, that we exist on planet Earth in a solar system in the Milky Way,
our galaxy. So the universe is not smooth and uniform.
How did galaxies arise if, after 300 000 years, the universe was smooth
and uniform and showed no sign of lumpiness? Gravity would have been unable
to pull matter into the clumpy formations in which it exists in the universe
today, structures which were the precondition for the development of humans
among other things. Cobe's observations of ripples have at last suggested
After the Big Bang, the model predicts, the universe was filled with a hot
'soup' of charged particles permeated by radiation. It was only after 300
000 years, when the expanding universe had cooled sufficiently (to 6000
kelvin), that the atoms of hydrogen, deuterium, helium and lithium were
created. This period is called the time of recombination. At this stage,
the universe is no longer opaque to radiation and light; it is this period
that Cobe has observed. The models had suggested that some areas would be
denser than others, that there would be lumps and holes. The fluctuations
which Cobe was looking for were approximately 30 millionths of one degree
centigrade in the temperature of cosmic background radiation from different
areas of space.
Time was beginning to run out for the Big Bang model. Jasper Wall of the
Royal Greenwich Observatory summed up the situation: 'If Cobe hadn't found
the fluctuations, we would have had to rethink a lot of our basic theories - including
general relativity.' There was enormous relief among astronomers and theorists
when the results from Cobe agreed with the theoretical predictions. These
ripples from the edge of time confirm that 300 000 years after the Big Bang
there existed gargantuan clouds, hundreds of millions of light years across,
from which, over billions of years, under the influence of gravity, galaxies
emerged. And that created the possibility for life to emerge in a corner
of the Milky Way.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992