Gravitational Waves: The Final Nail in God’s Coffin?

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Artist's depiction of the effect of two black holes colliding and the resulting gravitational waves. Image credit: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL/NASA
Artist’s depiction of the effect of two black holes colliding and the resulting gravitational waves. Image credit: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL/NASA

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called “Why Atheism Requires More Faith Than Christianity.” If you missed it, click the link and have a look. In that post I argued that it can require a lot of faith to believe some of the assertions of science regarding the origins of the universe. I deliberately didn’t include any in-depth discussion on the various scientific theories on the subject because I didn’t want the post to be too long! Instead, I thought I’d tackle some of these questions in more detail in subsequent posts.

A couple of weeks ago I was in my favourite coffee shop, down the road from my church. I was reading a book called God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? by Professor John Lennox. The cover of the book caught the eye of a man across the room, who commented to me about the recent discovery of Gravitational Waves in outer space, “That’s just the final nail in the coffin for religion, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” I replied. He assured me that this discovery proves General Relativity.

“Excellent,” I said, “But I’m not convinced that General Relativity disproves God.”

Earth warping space-time, as explained by General Relativity. Image credit: physics.stackexchange.com
Earth warping space-time, as explained by General Relativity. Image credit: physics.stackexchange.com

General Relativity

General Relativity is Einstein’s masterful theory, building upon his theory of Special Relativity from which we get the famous equation E=Mc2. Einstein determined that the source of gravity is the mass of planets acting upon the space-time continuum, warping it in the way a bowling ball would warp a trampoline, creating what is called a ‘gravity well’. He also theorised the existence of gravitational waves, which are the effects of significant events in space, such as the collision between two black holes, or the Big Bang. If these phenomena exist (and it has just been proven that they do) then it is theoretically possible for us to discover gravitational waves from the Big Bang itself, and therefore trace them back to the origin of the universe; the moment of the Big Bang.

My temporary companion in the coffee shop believed that the proof of Einstein’s theory amounted to a disproof of God. Sadly, we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss this further, as his wife called him back to their table in a way which suggested that had she not done so he would have kept me company for the rest of the day having this debate. I admit that I have mixed feelings about this. I would have loved to continue our conversation, but not if it made me late for dinner!

Creationism

It seemed that the statement which initiated our conversation was based on the assumption that the Big Bang theory is incompatible with belief in God. I happen to disagree. Creationism has come to be understood in terms of Young Earth Creationism (the belief that God created the world in six 24-hour periods as described in Genesis 1-2, and that the earth is about 6,000 years old), an argument which is greatly ridiculed by some atheists – Stephen Fry made a joke about it at this year’s BAFTA ceremony, listing it among other ideas he considered to be the utmost foolishness. Young Earth Creationism is merely one school of thought among the Christian community. The broader term of Creationism refers to the belief that God created the universe. How He achieved this feat is much debated by theologians and scientists alike.

The reason I responded that I didn’t believe General Relativity disproves God is that I firmly believe that God created the universe, but I am open to the possibility that His means for this creative act could have been a Big Bang like event. The Big Bang theory is a compelling idea about the possible origins of our universe, but even this recent discovery of gravitational waves in space can only lead us to the event itself, not the moment before. General Relativity, excellent theory as it is, cannot show us the initial cause of the Big Bang.

“God of the Gaps”

Several prominent atheists would argue against what they see as the “God of the gaps” argument, which is the notion that whatever cannot be explained by science must therefore be an act of God. While this idea is consistent with my beliefs about God, I concede that it is not logical to expect someone who does not believe in God to accept a “God of the gaps” explanation for the otherwise unexplainable. However, some atheists go too far the other way and choose to reject even the idea that there are things which cannot ever be explained by science. Bertrand Russell wrote, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar addressed this attitude in his book Advice to a Young Scientist:

“There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions which do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or “pseudo-questions” that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer. The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as: ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

The discovery of gravitational waves in space is a massive advance for science. I look forward to reading about further discoveries in this field as teams around the world join together to explore the cosmos for more examples of these waves. To claim, even on a theoretical level, that their discovery is proof that God does not exist is not something which can be supported by General Relativity as my coffee shop acquaintance stated. Furthermore, it is not disrespectful or belittling to science to accept that there are questions which cannot be answered by the scientific method. As John Lennox says,

“There is clearly no inconsistency involved in being a passionately committed scientist at the highest level while simultaneously recognising that science cannot answer every kind of question, including some of the deepest questions that human beings can ask.”

What do you think? Do you believe God created the universe, or that it came about by means of the Big Bang, or somewhere in between? Let me know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Gravitational Waves: The Final Nail in God’s Coffin?

  1. That’s good… Open – and acknowledging God works as He chooses.We may never fully know the details of how He made all that is made (or keeps it all together now) but we know He did.

  2. Love this post! Also encouraged to know we are on the same wavelength (see what I did there) about creationism….I think it’s a huge taboo topic in the church and it simply shouldn’t be. A lot of Christians I know have a blinkered view of creationism.

    Many scientific discoveries were inspired by the quest (of Christians) to know more about God’s creation – I have no doubt that science will continue to fill the gaps about what we do not know about God and His creation, rather than the other way round!

  3. Thanks for this. I agree whole heartedly and as a “former” scientist (you can take the scientist out of science but not the science out of the scientist!) and now a pastors wife in the USA (where Creationism is very black and white and a make or break doctrine for many), this is a helpful view I’ll be sharing.

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