Many people try to keep science and religion separate. Even believers will compartmentalise their religious beliefs separately from their scientific knowledge. In fact, some theologians see attempts to justify religious beliefs with scientific evidence as a slippery slope. Father George Coyne, for example, warned that scientific knowledge is relative. Conclusions alter as more evidence produces better knowledge of reality. Therefore a theology which justifies itself in scientific terms lays itself open to being proven wrong (see “Scientism” in the eyes of the beholder). Specifically this warning has been made when religious leaders have tried to justify their beliefs using “big bang” cosmology (see Bad science, bad theology).
Mind you – religious apologists who get started on this slippery slope have a solution. Just ignore, or deny, new scientific knowledge. Victor Stenger describes an example of this in his contribution, Godless Cosmology, to the new book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.
He refers to the claim made by some apologists like Dinesh D’Souza and William Lane Craig that “big bang” cosmology shows that the universe, including space and time, started as a singularity. That this must have had an external cause – and you can guess what (or who) they claim for the cause.
Apologists will often quote Stephen Hawking (in particular his book A Brief History of Time as their evidence for a singularity. D’Souza’s quote, in What’s So Great about Christianity, for example, was: “there must have been a big bang singularity.”
It’s always worth checking out quotes used by religious apologists. The full sentence this was taken from reads:
“The final result was a joint paper by Penrose and myself in 1970, which at last proved that there must have been a big bang singularity provided only that general relativity is correct and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.”
But – at the end of the same paragraph Hawking adds:
“It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account.”
So, it was rather dishonest of D’Souza to extract 8 words from the book to give exactly the opposite meaning conveyed by the same paragraph!
Stenger points out that Craig also has not corrected this argument – despite it being explained to him in 2003! And the argument, together with attributions top Hawking and Penrose, is till being used by other apologists. For example Father Robert Spitzer claimed only the other day (see New astrophysical discoveries leave little to no room for Atheism, expert says):
“Every single Big Bang model shows the existence of what scientists call a ‘singularity,’ and the existence of each singularity demands the existence of an external ‘element’ to the universe,” and “every Big Bang theory, including the one known as Quantum theory, confirms the existence of singularities.” Finally, “There is no way to ignore the fact that it demands the existence of a singularity and therefore of a Creator outside space and time.”
Strange! I thought quantum theory was a reason to abandon the singularity concept!
Stenger also deals with this and similar distortions by religious apologists in his new book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Another apologetics claims he considers is that of the fine tuning of the cosmological constant. For more on this have a look at Fiddling with “fine-tuning.”
Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy a the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. I recently reviewed his book Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (see Quantum Gods).
He is a very clear writer and worth reading.