Recently, the famous British physicist Stephen Hawking stirred up religious communities with his statement “There is no Heaven, it’s a fairy story”. I am not going to cover Hawking’s interview with the Guardian once more, as it has already been done many times, but I would like to discuss the relationship between astrophysics and religion, or God.
First, I would like to say a few words about the picture I chose for this article. While most of you will have recognized Einstein, you might wonder who that priest standing next to him is. Georges Lemaître was a priest, a cosmologist and a professor of physics. His contribution to physics has been extremely important, and he was a pioneer in applying Einstein’s general relativity to cosmology. His most famous contribution is probably his theory of the primeval atom, today known as the Big Bang theory. Yes, you read correctly: the Big Bang theory was proposed by a scientist who was also a priest.
Let’s take a quick look at History. There has been a few clashes between science and religion, especially between astronomy and religion. The most famous conflict between them is probably the trial of Galileo Galilei. Because of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, he was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Inquisition. He remained under house arrest until the end of his life. Interestingly, it is the Catholic Church that got interested in Galileo’s claims, not the contrary: Galileo never involved religion in his work, but the Catholic Church judged heliocentrism contrary to Scripture. If Galileo stood by his claims in spite of their implications regarding the Church, it is because science doesn’t need religion, there is no way to integrate religion into science.
After Hawking’s interview, when observing people’s reactions, it is pretty easy to realize once again that there are still a few prejudices around. For many people, being a scientist necessarily means you’re either an atheist or a skeptic. As I’ll explain later, it is not necessarily that obvious, and definitely not true.
Astrophysics is a field of science, among many others. By definition, science (coming from the latin “scientia”, meaning knowledge”) is knowledge attained through testable explanations and predictions about the world. Clearly, God is totally dismissed in such a definition: you can try as hard as you want, there is no evidence, no possible test, to attest the existence of any God. Astrophysics doesn’t need God.
So, is that it? Not exactly. Because astrophysics doesn’t need God doesn’t mean that some astrophysicists, or scientists, don’t need God either. As I said previously, Lemaître for example, was both a man of science and a man of faith. And there are many other scientists in this case. Although most of the astrophysicists I met were atheists or agnostics, some of them also believed in God. Some others also believed that something was responsible for the existence of the Universe, but not in the form of a supernatural creator, rather as something abstract and impersonal. Whatever their beliefs were, they always kept it separate from science.
How is that possible? Scientists have shown, through various studies, that our brains are wired to believe. In other words, believing in God or the supernatural would be an inborn tendency. Education also probably plays an important role. On some occasions, because a scientist cannot find any satisfactory explanation or reason to our existence, they might also turn to a spiritual conception of our origins.
In the end, some will choose to believe, others will choose not to, and look for verifiable answers.
So, finally, is there a place for God in astrophysics? No. But somehow, sometimes, they find their way to coexist.