Michael Gerson: Our beliefs don't always follow science
WASHINGTON -- In the late 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble established that the light we detect from galaxies is shifted toward the redder colors of the spectrum, indicating that they are moving away from us at enormous speeds. And the farther away galaxies are, the faster they are fleeing. Rewinding that expansion through mathematics—dividing distance by speed—indicates that something extraordinary happened about 14 billion years ago, when the entire universe was small, dense and exceedingly hot.
Scientists such as Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaitre had anticipated the big bang—which Lemaitre described as a “Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of creation.” Others theorized that such an event would have left a detectable residue of hydrogen plasma, grown cold over time. In the 1960s, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson duly detected it—finding microwave background radiation in every direction they pointed their telescope. The whole sky glows faintly at a temperature of about 3 degrees above absolute zero. Part of the static between channels on broadcast television is an echo of the big bang.
These are some of the most regularly confirmed, noncontroversial findings of modern science. Yet a recent poll found that a majority of Americans is “not too” or “not at all” confident that “the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang.”
Some of this skepticism, surely, reflects the inherent difficulty of imagining unimaginable scales of time and space. And some fault must lie with American scientific education, which routinely transforms the consideration of wonders into a chore and a bore. But the poll also found that confidence in the big bang declines as belief in a Supreme Being increases.
Which is not easy to explain. The predominant cosmological picture that predated the big bang—a static universe without beginning or end—would have pleased the ancient Greeks, who preferred their cosmos orderly and eternal. People influenced by the book of Genesis should feel more at home in a universe with a dramatic, cataclysmic beginning. Lemaitre, in fact, was a priest, who some suspected of sneaking theological assumptions into his science. He didn’t, and carefully (and correctly) insisted that the big bang is consistent with both materialist and religious convictions. But the idea of a universe that began in a flash that flung stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies across the vast canvas of space is, to put it mildly, compatible with Jewish and Christian belief: “Let there be light.”
So why this theological resistance to scientific assertions that are intuitively consistent with Christian theological views? The polls don’t settle this question, but I can hazard a guess. Many conservative Christians equate modern science with materialism—a view conditioned by early 20th century debates over evolution and human origins. Science is often viewed as an alternative theology, with a competing creation story. Some religious communities define themselves by resisting this rival faith—and filter evidence to reinforce their identity.
This approach raises two protests. First, it will eventually fail. It is a deep weakness for any theology or ideology to be wrong about the scientific nature of the universe. The children of believers are presented with a cruel and false choice: In order to accept the scientific method, they must abandon the beliefs of their community. And many will naturally choose science. If theological conservatives define themselves by their skepticism about the (marvelous, breathtaking, compelling) findings of modern science, they will eventually lose—not only in public debates but in the minds of their own children.
Second, this strategy is completely unnecessary. The scientific method is the proper way—actually the only way—to understand the physical universe. There is no philosophical or theological method to study the structure of a star or a starfish. But this does not mean that the knowledge revealed by the physical sciences is the only valid type of human knowledge. There is ethical reasoning. There is also theological belief—involving the possibility that the Creator might suspend the laws of nature in certain circumstances, such as the parting of the Red Sea or the Resurrection.
The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge—reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.