Science and Atheism
Atheists have become more vocal about offering a viable alterative to Christian theism and faith in general. Books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Christopher Hitchens’ How Religion Poisons Everything, and Daniel Dennetts’ Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon are have stirred the debate between atheism and theism. Some of these books by atheists have been best sellers. It should be no surprise that The God Delusion has sold over one million copies.
As I have conversed with a variety of people, I have heard a variety of viewpoints on the Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion. Some people who came from a religious background (but with very little foundation) have found Dawkin’s arguments convincing. These people sometimes veer towards some sort of agnosticism or atheism (possibly strong or weak atheism). On the other hand, I have had atheists tell me they are not thrilled with the rhetoric and arguments of the book.
In relation to Dawkin’s philosophical skills, philosopher Alvin Plantinga said in his review of The God Delusion that, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.” See the entire review here: And on the cover of Alistar and Joanna McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, philosopher and Darwinian advocate Michael Ruse says, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.”
The Scientific Method and God’s Existence
One of the main themes that runs through the latest slew of books on atheism is that faith/theology and science are diametrically opposed to one another. Since science tests the observable, is this the correct way to approach the existence of God? What tends to be forgotten is the insistence that God must be a visible/material object which can be observed with the five senses is to commit a category mistake. A category mistake is to assign to something a property which applies only to objects of another category.
As J.P. Moreland says, “It is a category fallacy to fault colors for not having smells, universals for not being located at only one place, and God for not being an empirical entity. From the Orthodox Christian view, God, if He exists at all, is an infinite Spirit. It is not part of the nature of a spirit to be visibly empirically as a material object would be. It is a category fallacy to ascribe sensory qualities to God or fault him for not being visible.” (Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 227.
In my view, one of the best solutions to handling the issue of evidence and arguments for God’s existence is to utilize what is called inference to the best explanation.
The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. Since we can’t see God as a material object, we have to look at the effects in the world and make rational inferences to the cause of the effect. Hence, we have to look to see if God has left us any pointers that lead the way to finding Him.
Science or Scientism: Philosophical Errors and Presuppositions
In regards to Dawkins, it is no surprise that Dawkins is a strong advocate of what is called “strong scientism” which tends to reduce all legitimate knowledge (epistemology) to the scientific method. Science is a method of gathering knowledge by observation and experimentation. In this sense, the Christian worldview is not opposed to science. But the Christian worldview does recognize the limitations of “scientism” in relation to the discovery of human knowledge. Skeptics such as Dawkins and others who embrace strong scientism believe a proposition can only be trusted if it can be formed and tested by the scientific process. Therefore, strong scientism ends up committing the reductive fallacy by taking one area of study and reduces all reality to this one area alone. Furthermore, for those that assert that all truth claims must be scientifically verifiable end up making a philosophical assumption rather than a scientific statement.
What needs to be remembered is that science is dependent upon certain philosophical presuppositions such as:
1. The existence of a theory- independent, external world 2. The orderly nature of the external world 3. The knowability of the external world 4. The existence of truth 5. The laws of logic 6. The reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth-gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment. 7. The adequacy of language to describe the real world 8. The existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”) 9. The uniformity of nature and induction 10. The existence of numbers (1)
A theist asserts that the physical universe is not all there is. There is an infinite, personal God who created it, sustains it and can act within it in a natural and non-natural way. As I can say without hesitation that I am ignorant about many things, I generally find that many people are generally ignorant about the history between theism and science. In the words of physicist Paul Davies, “Science began as an outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists…..accept an essentially theological worldview.” (2)
Theists and Modern Science
By the way, I am not saying just because there are a group of scientists who believe in the existence of God makes theism true. Anyway, here are some of the scientists (although some were deistic) who believed that God was the Primary cause of the universe (see more below). These men gave birth to modern science:
Johann Kepler (1571–1630), celestial mechanics, physical astronomy Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), hydrostatics Robert Boyle (1627–1691), chemistry, gas dynamics Nicholas Steno (1638–1687), stratigraphy Isaac Newton (1642–1727), calculus, dynamics Michael Faraday (1791–1867), field theory Charles Babbage (1792–1871), computer science Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), glacial geology, ichthyology James Simpson (1811–1870), gynecology Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), genetics Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), bacteriology William Kelvin (1824–1907), energetics, thermodynamics Joseph Lister (1827–1912), antiseptic surgery James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879), electrodynamics, statistical thermodynamics William Ramsay (1852–1916), isotopic chemistry (3)
In Ian Barbour’s book Religion in an Age of Science, Barbour describes scientism’s exalted view of the scientific method. As Barbour says:
“Science starts from reproducible public data. Theories are formulated and their implications are tested against experimental observations. Additional criteria of coherence, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness influence choice among theories. Religious beliefs are not acceptable, in this view, because religion lacks public data, such as experiential testing, and such criteria of evaluation. Science alone is objective, open-minded, universal, cumulative, and progressive. Religious traditions, by contrast, are said to be subjective, closed-minded, parochial, uncritical, and resistant to change.”
In his book The Limits of Science, Nicholas Rescher also offers a helpful comment about this issue. Rescher says,
“The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all –that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it.”
Primary and Secondary Causes
Two of the most crucial principles of science are causality and uniformity. Causality is the relationship between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect). The principle of uniformity derives its name from the uniform experience on which it is based. When I look around the world, I see two kinds of causes- natural and intelligent. I also know that through repeated observation that certain kinds of causes regularly produce certain kinds of effects. For example, wind on sand (or water) produces waves. Heavy rain on dirt results in erosion, and so on. These what are called natural, or secondary causes.
Their effects are produced by natural forces whose processes are an observable part of the ongoing operation of the physical universe. In addition to secondary causes, there are primary/intelligent causes. Natural laws do nothing and set nothing into motion. A “law of nature” is a description of what happens when no agent (whether it be divine, human, etc) is interfering or intervening into the casual order. Intelligence is a primary cause. For example, when we come across a sandcastle on the beach, we never assume that waves and sand did it on it’s own without any outside agency/intelligence.
Likewise, we would never think that a natural law on it’s own would produce the faces on Mount Rushmore. As we know, nature can’t by itself produce skyscrapers or computers. And in an experimental sense, when we see glance inside a laboratory, we also know that nature by itself can’t show how life came from non-life. Nor can we attempt to reduplicate the Big Bang apart from human agency/intelligence. The list goes on.
So convinced are we by previous repeated experience that only intelligence produces these kinds of effects that when we see even a single event that resembles one of these kinds of effects we invariably posit an intelligible cause for it.
So part of the debate over science is about the difference between primary and secondary causes. Biblical theism does acknowledge that while God is the primary Cause of all things, He also works through secondary causes. In other words, God acts in the world through direct intervention (a miracle such as the creation of the universe or the resurrection of Jesus) and natural causes or indirect actions (preservation). If you study the history of modern science, there was a period where the some of the founders of modern science (see above), did not allow for all causes to be explained by natural, or secondary causes. In other words, they allowed for both a primary Cause (that being God as the originator of things ) and secondary causes-the operation of the world.
When Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) corrected Isaac Newton’s misbelief that God intervened to correct the elliptical orbits of the planets, Laplace offered a naturalistic explanation of the development of the solar system. James Hutton (1726-1797) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875) explained geological processes by natural causes apart from any non-natural interference. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) later offered a natural explanation for the emergence of the species. This led to the need to explain the operation of the world instead of its ultimate origin; therefore, the search for secondary causes overshadowed the need for a primary cause. So we see that theism was reduced to deism and then set the stage for atheism. (4) Oh well!
In the world of the New Atheists, science is limited to the following range of concerns: 1. Science only is concerned with the material aspects of the natural world. 2. Science restricts itself to the secondary causes and would forgo consideration of a primary cause (such as a divine/intelligent primary cause) as part of the explanatory structure. 3. Science seeks to reduce the systems observed to their component parts as a way of simplifying observation and explaining the behavior of the higher levels of organization. (5)
So what we see here is that The New Atheists are promoting a view of science that results from the Enlightenment period. It was during that period that the turn to reason is the most reliable form for knowledge of nature, combined with assumption that nature is intelligible, encouraged the development of that method that is now the hallmark of the scientific enterprise. (6)
And in the end, we see the reductionism in this method. In the reductionist model, all natural phenomena can be understood in terms of lower and more elementary levels of existence, all the way down to particle physics (consciousness reduced to biology, biology reduces to chemistry, chemistry reduces to physics, and all physics reduces to the “behavior” or elementary particles and forces. (7)
I do want to mention that the term naturalist is generally thought of in reference to atheists and materialists. This is bit problematic. Many theists have no problem in looking for natural/secondary causes. But the difference is that theists are open to a primary cause as not being simply regulated to natural causes alone.
Don’t Forget Metaphysics
Without metaphysics, one would not be able to construct a worldview. Philosophical or metaphysical naturalism refers to the view that nature is the “whole show.” Naturalism (as currently discussed and advocated by Richard Dawkins, some atheists, etc) is not a discovery of science. It must always be viewed as a presupposition of science as presently practiced. Both Dawkins and Francis Crick both admit that while the world shows every indication it is designed and have purpose, they add one qualification; it only looks that way. In other words, while the design is evident, it can be explained without resorting to any Designer.
Richard Lewontin’s comments in his January 9, 1997 article, Billions and Billions of Demons summarizes how naturalisitc philosophy impacts the entire scientific process: “ Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”
A Final Note
There are scientists that reject the false dichotomy between science/religion. Some have proposed integration models such as Ian Barbour and Rev. John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne is one of the greatest living writers and thinkers on science and religion: a truly world-class scientist turned priest. See his website here:
One of the best books to read about the relationship between God and science is John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Give it a read sometime.
1. Moreland, J.P. The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (Downers Grove ILL: InterVaristy Press, 1994), 16-17. 2. Davies, P. Are We Alone? (New York: Basic, 1995), 96. 3. Geisler N.L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 167-169. 4. ____. Systematic Theology, Vol 2. (Minneapolis, MI: Bethany House, 2003), 509. Filed under: 1 5. Peters, T. and Gaymon Bennett. Bridging Science and Religion (London: SCM Press, 2002), 72-73. 6. Ibid. 7. Scheiman, B. An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than without It (New York: New York: Penguin Group Publishers, 2009), 170-171.