Gravitational Waves, Einstein and God
by Saints and Sceptics
The recent detection of gravitational waves has received a lot of media coverage and rightly so for this is a remarkable finding from both an experimental and theoretical point of view. Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time and were predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. According to his general theory of relativity, accelerating massive object would radiate gravitational energy in the form of gravitational waves. However, since the effect is very weak, a very dramatic event is needed if there is to be any chance of detection. In this case it was the merging of two black holes, an event that took place over a billion years ago. Even so, by the time the waves reach Earth the distortion of space-time is less than the width of an atomic nucleus, which highlights just how astonishing a feat this is experimentally. While there had been indirect evidence for the existence of gravitational waves before, this was the first time they had been detected directly. As a bonus, it is also the first detection of two black holes merging and even the first direct detection of black holes themselves.
Does this have any relevance for belief in God? Of course, some people who think that science and religion are always in conflict will see this is another example of that. Science, they will say, can make these kinds of amazing predictions that are later verified by experiment, but religion hasn’t anything like that to offer at all. The suggestion is that science and religion should be contrasted and science chosen rather than religion.
But this is all wrong. It assumes that religion should be like science if it is to be taken seriously and, in particular, that it should make precise predictions that can be verified experimentally. Of course, a rather obvious point is that not all science works like this; but more importantly it is a simple category mistake to think of religion in this way. Treating religious belief as a sort of scientific theory and then showing that it isn’t as good as other scientific theories is just the wrong way to think about it. Disbelieving in God because religion doesn’t make mathematical predictions is a bit like not going to church because it isn’t as entertaining as going to see the latest blockbuster at the cinema. True, no doubt, but completely irrelevant…
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