The priest and the Big Bang
We felt that George Lemaître, who featured on the Google Doodle for his 124th birthday, really demanded our attention this week. Lemaître was a Roman Catholic priest, but also the scientist who came up with the Big Bang theory, and the idea that the universe is expanding. In our generation, these concepts are not just the bread and butter of physicists, but have made their way firmly into realms of popular culture. Shortly before his death, Lemaître also discovered the existence of background cosmic radiation. A pretty outstanding set of achievements by anybody’s standards.
In a world where religion and science are so often presented as opposing perspectives, it is refreshing to be reminded that this is far from the case. Many high-profile scientists, both contemporary and historic, have been people of faith. It is misleading to suggest that individuals have to choose between rational and critical thought on the one hand, and being religious on the other. For very many people, these aspects of their worldview and identity sit comfortably side by side, often moving in tandem. Of course, it’s fair to say that some atheists find this compatibility strange, but ultimately, that is their subjective response to someone else’s experience.
In a global society which is increasingly divided along ideological lines, it is important that we don’t erect artificial barriers between groups, or make individuals feel pressurised into choosing a side, and sacrificing a part of themselves in the process. Moreover, it is wise to avoid making assumptions about where other people might be coming from. One recent case illustrates our point. An Anglican priest was recently doing some church activities with children, talking about ammonites and making some models. From the accompanying narrative, it should have been obvious that the priest concerned fully accepted evolution, and was as enthusiastic about dinosaurs as the five year olds they were talking to. Nevertheless, an adult who was present failed to pick up on any of this, and revealed in conversation several days later that they assumed that the cleric concerned was a creationist, because ‘well, vicars are’.
Stereotyping all people of faith as rejecting science is, in and of itself, an irrational stance, given that it cannot be reconciled with the evidence of thousands of men and women in universities, hospitals, laboratories and elsewhere making a massive contribution to society and science whilst being Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian or Pagan, etc. The flip side of this reality, must be confronted in relation to making concessions towards religious groups who oppose some aspects of scientific theory and teaching. Our general protection of religious freedom cannot, and should not include, insulated people from scientific thought. Therefore, at present, legislation allows parents to withdraw their children from Religious Education classes, but not to prevent them from learning about evolution and genetics in science lessons. Furthermore, if schools are in receipt of state funding, they may not put forward Creationism as a scientific theory (although there are concerns about the effectiveness of policing this policy). Equally, if adults opt to study scientific courses at university level, they should expect to have to engage with the currently accepted theories within their field, regardless of their personal beliefs.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that all religious people should be required to accept evolution, the Big Bang or any other theory. There are undoubtedly those who do not, and this should be respected in any democratic society. Nevertheless, freedom to reject a belief or scientific theory does not equate to the right to be protected from having to hear about it, or even understand it for the purposes of public examinations. After all, very few people would be sympathetic to an atheist student who refused to study the Early Modern Period, asserting that they should be excused from learning about doctrinal debates between Protestants and Catholics in the era of Reformations. It goes without saying, it is impossible to study this period of European history without understanding a number Christian beliefs and the sometimes intricate distinctions between them. Equally, learning about biology in the twenty-first century without engaging with the theory of evolution is simply not a viable proposition.
As an interesting final note, there is some evidence from recent research undertaken at University College London, suggesting that both Muslims and Conservative Christian Evangelicals are actually more likely to accept evolution if they have attended faith schools. Although those behind the study acknowledge that the picture is complex, and there is more work to be done, the conclusion which appears to be emerging is not so surprising. If individuals feel themselves to be in an oppressed minority, and in the position of having to defend their identity, they are less likely to adopt an open and questioning approach, and more inclined to resort to a tribal ‘them and us’ stance. All in all, figures like Lemaître, who remind us that there is no necessary ‘them and us’ between religion and science, are much needed heroes in the current world.
George Lemaître: Who was the Belgian priest who discovered the universe is expanding? The Independent (18/7/18)
Muslims and Evangelicals are more accepting of evolution if they attend faith schools UCL: Institute of Education 17/10/17
How to write about foods you can’t stomach: a cucumber-hater’s lament The Washington Post (6/8/15)
Creationism still taught in faith schools despite government funding threat The Telegraph (2/5/15)
Creationism banned from UK Schools Huff Post (25/6/14)
Muslim Medics boycott lecturers on Darwin and evolution The Times 17/11/11