Science & Religion #7: In The Beginning…By: Mike S
Sometime around 13.7 billion years ago, there was nothing. Not just empty space. Not just a hole. But literally and absolutely nothing. Everything in the universe then appeared, compressed in an infinitesimally small space of tremendous pressure and temperature, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Things rapidly expanded and cooled down. After a few minutes, some of the protons combined with neutrons to form deterium and helium nuclei. It took almost 400,000 years for things to cool down enough for electrons to combine with the bare nuclei to form atoms. In this mass of “stuff”, there were small fluctuations which are the equivalent of sound waves – forming the “sound of the Big Bang“. These pressure waves formed some areas that were slightly more dense than other areas, which eventually led to stars and galaxies and other objects in the universe. As clouds of gas condensed under the influence of gravity, the rotational momentum lead to rotating stars and orbiting planets. And here we are, on a hunk of rock which rotates around its axis approximately every 24 hours accounting for the apparent rising and setting of the sun. The name coined for this process is the Big Bang.
As we talked about in a prior post, the Big Bang is a scientific theory. We obviously weren’t there billions of years ago, so how do we know what happened? The theory started around 100 years ago. As astronomers studied galaxies, they noted that they were “red-shifted”. This is the same principle that makes the sound of a siren get lower in pitch as an ambulance races by. A galaxy that is heading away from us will have its light “stretched out” which will make it trend more toward the red-end of the spectrum. As scientists looked around, they noted that ALL galaxies were red-shifted in every direction they looked. They also noted that the further away galaxies were, the more red-shifted they were. This lead to the theory that the entire universe was expanding – that EVERY part was getting further away from every other part. And this isn’t just the galaxies moving away from each other, but the space itself actually expanding. So, if things are expanding as we go into the future, running things backwards suggests that at some finite point in the past, it was all at one place.
The Big Bang theory lead to several predictions. And according to the scientific method, in time, many of these predictions could be tested. It’s beyond the scope of this paper, but one prediction was that there should be a “left-over” glow from the Big Bang called the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB). This was discovered accidentally in 1964 and it matched the predictions nearly exactly. There was also predicted “lumpiness” to the CMB, which was also recently confirmed. The Big Bang model predicted the relative abundances of hydrogen and helium, which has been found to be correct. Another prediction concerns “evolution” of galaxies, with younger galaxies being different than older galaxies. Because looking further away also looks back in time, we can now see galaxies as they appeared 10-12 billion years ago. These also agree with predictions.
There are many additional questions still unanswered, and many things left to learn, but at this point, the Big Bang theory provides the best explanation for the universe. The theory has made predictions which were ultimately confirmed. It explains what we see in the skies and world around us. So, when the Primary leader suggested that some people believed in a “big explosion” she was right. Millions of people, including me, believe in the Big Bang.
How does this fit with religion? There are a number of philosophical arguments which we can discuss in the comments, but at a basic level, what does the LDS Church teach about God? Joseph Smith taught “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!………..It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God……..yea, that God himself, the father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible…” The scriptures also teach us that God is God of the entire universe. This leads to several conclusions:
- We are taught that God is God of the entire universe
- We are also taught that at some point, God was a man
- Therefore, at some point, when God was a man, this universe didn’t exist
- Therefore, this universe necessarily had a beginning
If this is true, according to LDS theology, what is wrong with a Big Bang? There is necessarily a beginning to the universe. Science can’t tell us how or why the Big Bang started, just that it happened. But having a starting point is essential if we accept Joseph Smith’s teachings that God was once a man. LDS theology is somewhat different from other theologies, which suggests that God is Eternal. We consider God to be Eternal, meaning that during ALL periods of time in this universe He has been God, but some people teach that He has always been God (ie. never a mortal man). This is a bit harder to reconcile with the Big Bang, but still possible. There are also a number of other creation stories / myths from other faiths, but space is limited here to go into all of them.
Another interesting correlation relates to the “sound of the Big Bang”. In Hinduism, the universe is described as coming into being by the sacred sound “Aum/Om” radiating from God, suggesting that through sound, God influenced the formation of everything. Hints of this are in the New Testament as well. ”In the beginning was the Word… Through (the Word) all things were created…” Words can been seen as vibrations containing information, so perhaps this is a similar concept – that God influenced the formation of the universe through sound. Multiple religious traditions, therefore, teach that sound was somehow instrumental in the formation of the universe as we know it.
Overall, while there are many details that will be worked out in coming years, and despite the comments made by the Primary leader, the Big Bang is the best explanation we have of the universe. It also fits with our basic theology that “As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.” Maybe someday we will will each start our own universe. Maybe someday we will each start a “Big Bang” and “sing” a universe into existence.
- Do you personally agree with the principles of the Big Bang theory? Or do think it is misguided and the universe is actually much younger than 13.7 billion years old?
- Do you accept the premise that God was once a man? When asked about the statement that “God the Father was once a man like we are”, President Hinckley replied, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.” Following the logic of the 12-Points, does this change what we think about God not being God at some point?
- Is God the God of the entire universe, requiring that the universe didn’t exist before He became God? Or is God the God over just a portion of the observable universe?
- If God existed before the universe, does He have a physical presence IN this universe or not?
- Could God perhaps have influenced the formation of the universe by the “sound” that resonated through the thick “soup” that existed for the first 400,000 years of the universe?
- How would you have handled the lesson in Primary? Would you have said anything to her (I didn’t)?