In the popular psyche today, the “Big Bang” is remembered as another triumph of science over Christianity, because it confirms the age of the universe and offers a scientific explanation for its beginning. But the history of science tells a different story.
Firstly, a Christian played a pivotal role in the science of the Big Bang. A Belgian Roman Catholic priest called Georges Lemaître argued that the universe had begun at a single point of infinite density and heat, and that it has expanded into its current state over about 14 billion years. Along with a Russian physicist called Alexander Friedmann, Lemaître worked out the math that would go with that model.
Today, the Big Bang is seen as established science, but when Lemaitre first proposed it, the theory was strongly opposed by some in the scientific community – in particular, by scientists who didn’t believe in a creator God. Stephen Hawking explains it like this:
“Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention… There were therefore a number of attempts to avoid the conclusion that there had been a big bang.”
One of the scientists who opposed the big bang was atheist physicist Fred Hoyle. In fact, Hoyle actually coined the term “Big Bang” in a radio interview, where he compared the notion of the universe emerging out of nothing to a “party girl” jumping out of a cake: in his view “it just wasn’t dignified or elegant.” In line with the scientific consensus of his day, Hoyle preferred the “steady state” theory, according to which the universe had always existed.
With the steady state model, it is easier to avoid the idea that anything outside the universe brought it into being. But the startling conclusion of the Big Bang theory is that 14 billion years ago, the entire universe exploded out of a single point, that was unbelievably dense and energetic, sounded for many people rather too like God creating the universe out of nothing. NASA scientist and popular science writer, Robert Jastrow, famously described the discovery of the Big Bang like this:
“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Philosophically, it is hard to conceive of something having a beginning but not having a cause. Far from being yet another victory of science over theism, the Big Bang turns out to be something of a win for the theistic point of view, which is founded on the idea that God created the universe ex nihilo – out of nothing.