The Belgian priest who invented the Big Bang theory shows up the modern canard about faith and science

The father of cosmology was wedded to science and the Church

By Francis Phillips on Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Mgr Georges Lemaître chats to Albert Einstein in California in 1932 (Photo: PA)Mgr Georges Lemaître chats to Albert Einstein in California in 1932 (Photo: PA)

I have just been reading a very well-researched and well-argued book entitled Heresy by Michael Coren. Coren, for those who don’t know of him, is a Canadian writer, biographer and broadcaster – and a very eloquent Catholic apologist. He has written, among numerous books, Why Catholics Are Right last year (a definite must-read for all sceptical blog posters to the Herald) and this year the book on Heresy, which he subtitles “Ten Lies They Spread about Christianity”. These errors include “All the clever people are atheists, or Christians are stupid”, “Hitler was a Christian”, “Christians and Christianity supported slavery” and “Christians are opposed to science”. All these will be familiar to Catholic bloggers.

I recommend the whole book (especially to all those sceptical blog posters referred to above), but just wanted to draw attention right now to the chapter on science. Coren starts by saying, “The idea that Christianity is somehow opposed to science and that individual Christians cannot reconcile their faith to scientific discoveries, is a relatively modern canard, but successfully and damagingly promulgated, usually by people who know very little about science and its history, or about Christianity and Christians.”

He points out: “The history of Christianity is actually one of great encouragement of scientific research and has been responsible for many of the most important scientific advances.” He mentions Francis Bacon, Keppler, Copernicus and Newton as particular Christians – and scientists – in the early centuries of the development of the scientific outlook; and, among others, Max Planck, Kelvin, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, and Gregor Mendel for the relatively modern period of scientific advance. In other words, there need be no conflict between the Christian faith and science – except, obviously, in the minds of certain modern atheists. (Coren also explains clearly what the dispute with Galileo was all about, but I’ll leave that for another blog.)

I mention all this because I happened to listen to the Heart and Soul programme on BBC Radio 4 last week, presented by William Crawley – and it was all about the work of Mgr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest-astronomer and known as “the father of modern cosmology”. He is also mentioned in Coren’s chapter on science, which is where I first heard of him. It was Mgr Lemaître who first proposed the Big Bang theory. According to Crawley, he showed unusual intellectual precocity as a child and decided aged 10 that he wanted to become a Catholic priest. After fighting in the Great War he was ordained in Belgium in 1923 – and a month later came over to St Edmund’s, Cambridge, to study for a doctorate. Then, after further study at Harvard and MIT, he became professor of physics at Louvain University in Belgium, where he remained until his death in 1966.

According to Crawley, Mgr Lemaître was not happy with Pope Pius XII’s belief that the book of Genesis had been vindicated by his cosmological discoveries, and that “Fiat Lux!” (“Let there be light!”) coincided with his Big Bang theory. This was not because he rejected Genesis but because he felt the two disciplines, theology and science, should be studied separately without requiring mutual confirmation. Lemaître met Einstein several times at conferences, and the latter applauded his lecture at a seminar in California in 1933.

Knowing all this about Mgr Lemaître, I am now no longer stuck when the facetious question comes round: “Are there any famous Belgians?” He is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Somehow I doubt if he would have wanted to join a televised “debate” with our own dubious national treasure, Professor Dawkins of Oxford. A modest man, wedded both to science and the Church, he would have disliked the limelight, repudiated the false dichotomy set up by Dawkins and his pals, and would have felt his time better spent on cosmological calculations.

My own revision of the fatuous slogan that graced the sides of London buses a few years ago would now be: “God is not a suitable subject for atheists. Now stop worrying and start your physics homework.”

Courtesy to