Monday, 26 November 2007

god and science

Atheism has become more militant in the last decade or so, particularly on the part of scientists who believe science, and not religion, has the answers. Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous scientist-atheist, and possibly the keenest mind, but there are many others.

But perhaps one surprising outcome of this surge in anti-theism has been a scientific reaction to the more extreme anti-religion rhetoric. Dawkins and others claim that religion has been responsible for some of the worst evils in history, and in the world today, and that belief in God is almost like a virulent virus that should be eliminated as efficiently as possible.

Of course this analysis is one-sided, and ignores all the well-documented evidence that much good is done in the world by believers, but neither is the argument without some basis. But now some scientists are contesting the view on other grounds.

An example is a recent (October) conference (if that is the correct word) in the US, Beyond Belief (Enlightenment 2), a follow-up to a similar conference last year. It brought together some of the top thinkers in the sciences and social sciences, and its aim was to discuss how to extend the exercise of reason in all aspects of life (and hence extend the gains of the eighteenth century enlightenment).

Enlightenment 1 was reportedly a bit of an "atheist love fest", but last month's discussion was more broad-minded. Included in the program were a number of speakers expert in the study of religion from an evolutionary viewpoint. If you ignore for the moment the question of whether God actually exists or not, you can discuss how religions arise in the evolution of societies, and what benefits, or not, they bring. And the conclusion of many is that religion brings many benefits to societies and individuals, and not only might it be unhelpful to try to eliminate it, but it may even be impossible.

Naturally, the more militant atheists present, including famous names like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Peter Atkins, disagreed with many of these proposals.

Part of the argument concerned the place of reason. Some scientists believe reason should be the basis of everything; some believe science should be the basis of everything and discard even philosophy. But others argue that science will never be able to assume such an all-embracing role, and that many important aspects of life, including ethics and emotions, cannot be explained by rationalism alone.

Although I didn't see anything about the event in the normal press here in Australia, it has certainly made a big splash among people sympathetic to the ideas. The "war" between science and religion, no longer so much of a big deal among most believers, is gaining traction among non-believers. They believe reason is on their side, and they increasingly want to stamp out the superstition they believe religion to be. (To be fair, I think for many of the general populace, such events may serve the purpose of shoring up their shaky "faith" in non-theism more than setting them marching.)

As an interested layperson, I have a few concerns about all this:

  • The arguments get so complex, and are based on such detailed research, that most of us will never be able to grasp them fully, and are largely excluded from the debate. Thus these scientists become the new "high priests", qualified and on a mission to help the rest of us poor non-scientists get our thinking "right". This is an especially worrying thought when you hear a scientific zealot like Peter Atkins. Alister McGrath and others have pointed out that many scientists supported and participated in some of the grossest excesses of recent Nazi and Stalinist regimes, and that their science does not necessarily provide them with the wisdom and basis to make ethical judgments - in fact, atheistic science is still grappling with the question of what ethics are. Of course, it may be that these questions may remain merely discussion points by erudite boffins closeted away from the public, but I think their views will inevitably affect all of us.
  • The discussion of the evolutionary origins of religion does not address the issue of whether God actually exists. That question is generally assumed to have been answered in a resounding, and obvious, negative, when in fact it is still an open question. But the more we concentrate on the mechanics of the sociology of how religion may arise naturally, the easier it is to ignore the larger question of what is the truth, and even think that it is unimportant or already answered.
  • There is one aspect of these scientists' view of theistic belief I find especially troubling - their oft-stated assertion that belief in God is firmly in the realm of "faith" whereas science deals with "facts", with the undemonstrated assumption that believers lack any reason behind their beliefs. For example, one commentator, Professor P Z Myers, wrote: "the majority of people on the planet are practicing really bad science, because they don't recognize that their very first premise, that a god exists, is false". Of course the two modes of thought have differences, but this dichotomy is too stark. There are many matters which scientists believe to be true which cannot be proven in the same way that gravity can be demonstrated - the origin of life is one example, because we cannot experiment on the past and demonstration can be little more than "feasibility studies". So science is not 100% reason. And theism is not 100% non-reason either. Such an assertion is contradicted by the number of eminent scientists (John Polkinghorne comes to mind) who are also theists, and by the fact that most of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are based on observable facts, even if the "proof" from there is not scientific. I just wish the new scientists, from Dawkins down, would stop making such outrageous statements about faith, and accept that theists can be rational, albeit they believe them mistaken.

But I can't see these objections being heard, let alone adequately addressed. If theists are "irrational" by definition, why even engage with them?

So I believe we are in for some dark and dirty days. If the militant atheists are right, the superstition of religion may be better eliminated, or at least understood for what it is - although I fear for the sort of society they will bring in its place. But if, as I believe, there is a God, those of us who persist in believing are in for ridicule at best, and quite likely something worse. C S Lewis predicted it half a century ago. It will be unpleasant, but I suppose at least it won't be boring.

If you want to read more:


  1. It sounds like you should have been at that conference. You have inspiring faith for someone who truly examines all sides with such an open mind. I believe in God, but I also think faith fulfills a basic human need. And while I appreciate what science has to offer, reason will never be the basis for everything as long as humans are involved. Emotions are part of our nature.

  2. Thanks for the compliment, but I'm not sure I have great faith. I think rather that I really try to make everything I believe hang together.

    It is easy to find reasons to doubt the existence of God or to find difficulties in christianity, or any other belief. But when I consider the really big picture issues (like the existence and design of the universe, and human ethics, reason, choice and value) I can only conclude that the God explanation fits the facts far better than any other.

    So while some people concentrate on the problems of belief, I feel they can't properly explain the bigger picture, which is more fundamental - as the saying goes, they can't swallow gnats but can swallow camels!

  3. smart people enjoy patting themselves on the back about how smart they are.

    what would the world do without all of these smart people?

  4. Thanks for posting on these topics, uncle e.

    Let's hope these bigots temper their anti-religious ideology with some commonsense.

  5. Paul

    Thanks for dropping by, and for your positive comment.

    I guess we can hope many things about those we disagree with, but it might be more important to make sure we don't react wrongly, denigrate our "opponents" and fall into the same trap we feel they may be falling into.

    It's a big challenge!

    Best wishes.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.