How can a scientist believe in God?
byAlbrecht Moritz (2009, revised 2013)
Often the claim is made that science and religion are incompatible; for a scientist to believe in God is a contradiction, alien to scientific thought. Being both a believer and a scientist myself, I will try to address this issue by answering several common objections and claims. Some of these are also more general objections to belief in God, but since they regularly come up in discussions, I will include them and responses as well.
2. The omnipotence of God is self-contradictory
If God were truly omnipotent, He could create a stone that is so heavy that even He could not lift it – yet then He would not be omnipotent after all. The concept of omnipotence and thus the very concept of God is self-contradictory, so the argument goes.
First of all, since God is not a material being, and ‘heaviness’ is tied to matter, the stone-lifting analogy makes no sense. But that is just nitpicking on the argument, of course. The real issue is whether God can do something that is logically impossible (something never claimed to be tied to the concept of omnipotence). Of course not. Assuming so would be, well – illogical.
3. The creation story in the Bible is meant as a literal, historical account
Literal reading of the creation story in the Bible is completely alien to my experience of religion as a Catholic. Never have I thought of taking the creation in six days literally, and it definitely has not prevented me from becoming a scientist. Also most Protestants and Jews do not believe in a literal interpretation of the story.
A common impression exists not just among non-believers, but also among believers, that a less literal interpretation of the creation story of the Bible was adopted only in the last two centuries, when the facts of science showed a literal reading to be untenable. However, this is false. Already in the fourth century, more than a millennium before the scientific revolution, St. Augustine, one of the most eminent Fathers of the Church, warned against a literal interpretation of the creation story. He held that the six days of creation should not be taken literally but instead formed a framework within which the narrative was told. This kind of literary framework view is shared by many theologians today and has gained wide acceptance (not all of world literature consists of history or fact books!). Also some Jewish scholars had adopted a non-literal interpretation already very early.
The message of the creation story is not how the world was made, but that the world was made by God. It uses the familiar cosmology of its time to express this message. As Pope John Paul II reminded us, "the scriptures do not tell us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven."
The whole topic is simply a non-issue for most informed believers around the world (Bible fundamentalism is, while not exclusively so, mostly a local North American phenomenon). If atheists think that it is essential to religion per se, their thoughts are in a world removed from religious reality, and their persistence in continuing to pound on the topic makes the impression of being an all too convenient excuse for not facing the deeper issues.
Certainly, there is a (possibly substantial) minority of atheists who came from a fundamentalist upbringing and who abandoned their faith in disillusion and anger after discovering that modern science showed that the world is and came to be very differently from what their former religious beliefs taught them. While their strong reactions are understandable, it should also be clear that non-fundamentalist believers, who are the vast majority of believers around the world, simply do not face such problems.
Imagine what would have happened if God would have explained to His people in the creation story of the Bible, a few thousand years ago, what the Big Bang is, what physical evolution of the universe over billions of years is and how biological evolution works: what genes and DNA are, and how random genetic variation and natural selection function. Nobody would have understood anything. God, just like any good teacher, explains in a context, and with pictures, that can be understood at the respective times (see the Appendix below for a humorous commentary on this by Eric Hatfield.) That is why it is a misguided claim that the Bible is false in its account of creation, and thus cannot be God’s word through the human writers inspired by Him.
Furthermore, if God would have revealed Big Bang and evolution in the Bible far ahead of the scientific knowledge of the time, later scientific generations (ourselves thus) would have been forced to say: "Look at this, there was no way that those people could have known all this at the time, the fact that we read it in those old documents is proof that God exists and the Bible is His word!"
Where then would be the choice to believe, intended by God? For faith not just intellectual consent is important, but also consent of the will. Perhaps one might argue that there is enough evidence for those who are prepared to give consent of the will, but that those who decline to do that, or simply want to avoid the issue of commitment, can always find enough reasons as well.
4. Religion competes with science for an explanation of the natural world
This argument is related to the literal reading of the biblical creation story, and is a particularly curious claim. Monotheistic religion never has had as a main focus to provide an explanation of the natural world – the creation story, important as it is, is just a small part of the Bible – or how (in a scientific sense) it came to be. If it were so, where then in the Bible are all the missing chapters on geology, botany and zoology?
In fact, it may well be argued that monotheism allowed for the rise of science, by providing the demystification of nature into mere things (e.g. the sun was not the sun god anymore, but merely a source of light) and the idea that there are objective laws by which all natural things operate. As biochemist, atheist and Nobel Prize winner Melvin Calvin writes in Chemical Evolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 258:
"The fundamental conviction that the universe is ordered is the first and strongest tenet [of science]. As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2000 or 3000 years ago enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely, that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science."
The main focus of religion is the relationship between God and humans. The progress of science has not been a threat to informed religion, but instead has brought a welcome revelation of the grandeur and beauty of God’s creation. That is what the scientists who started the scientific revolution, and who were all believers, aimed for, and what has continued to this day. As Pope John Paul II reminded us of old wisdom, "truth cannot contradict truth" (see also Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina). For an informed believer, religious truth and scientific truth can never contradict each other, because they both come from God, one as divine revelation, the other derived from created nature which science studies.
The ‘conflict thesis’ of science vs. religion is dismissed by most notable historical scholars in the field today, it only lives forth in the popular imagination and in the mind of many non-believers. Contrary to myth, the relationship between science and the Catholic Church has been smooth for the most part. Admittedly, the Galileo affair was a serious bump in the road, but the dispute was as much riddled with politics as it was about science proper. Yet the church was not a priori opposed to the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun. As Galileo Galilei writes in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina:
"They pretend not to know that its author, or rather its restorer and confirmer, was Nicholas Copernicus; and that he was not only a Catholic, but a priest and a canon. He was in fact so esteemed by the church that when the Lateran Council under Leo X took up the correction of the church calendar, Copernicus was called to Rome from the most remote parts of Germany to undertake its reform. […]
"Having reduced his system into six books, he published these at the instance of the Cardinal of Capua and the Bishop of Culm. And since he had assumed his laborious enterprise by order of the supreme pontiff, he dedicated this book On the celestial revolutions to Pope Paul III. When printed, the book was accepted by the holy Church, and it has been read and studied by everyone without the faintest hint of any objection ever being conceived against its doctrines."
And the myth that Giordano Bruno was a ‘martyr for science’ is highly debatable. Rather, he was probably burned on the stake because of the ‘usual’ theological heresies (not that this is defensible in any way), see the article and references therein.
The Catholic Church has also had little quarrel with the theory of evolution. For example, the great Cardinal Newman – considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church – dismissed Paley’s ‘proof of God’ already several years before Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared. And in an 1863 entry in his Philosophical Notebooks, four years after the publication of The Origin of Species, he endorses Darwin’s views as plausible and suggests he might "go the whole hog with Darwin". Newman believed that God let His work develop through secondary causes, and in 1868 he wrote "Mr. Darwin’s theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill." The science of evolution is taught in Catholic high schools. In fact, it appears that in America Catholic high school students typically have the best education in evolution. Recently a conference on Intelligent Design was held in the Vatican – to study its historical and cultural context, not to study it as ‘science’, as which it is not taken seriously by the Vatican.
5. Accommodation of modern science into ancient religious beliefs is a desperate attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable things
As I pointed out, the Bible (and most religion in general) is not concerned with explanations of the natural world – it just holds that God created the world. Yet even though cosmology and other topics like biological evolution are not a direct subject of religion, informed belief will of course be influenced by the findings of modern science. On one hand non-believers praise evolving knowledge, the process of understanding which underlies science, as opposed to the alleged dogmatic rigidity of religion. Yet strangely enough, on the other hand many of them deny such evolution of understanding to religious faith, calling any fusion of modern scientific knowledge with religious belief something like "a futile attempt to reconcile religion with science" or "a desperate attempt to save religion from irrelevance for the modern mind". Evolving scientific knowledge is praised, but evolving religious belief is viewed with suspicion or even as weak watering down. Obviously, we are dealing here with a remarkable double standard of thinking and a lack of logic.
6. It was always believers whose worldviews were confounded by scientific discoveries, never naturalists
It is not just believers who have had to reconcile their worldview with science. History shows that findings of science have confounded atheists too, in particular the Big Bang. Atheists used to believe that the universe simply was, and that it was eternal. The evidence for a Big Bang confounded this worldview dramatically, and lead to such questionable, and now refuted, reactions as the steady-state model by Fred Hoyle, motivated by worldview rather than by scientific considerations. The Big Bang concept also vindicated the theistic notion that time had a beginning (stated already in the 4th century by St. Augustine). Proposals to modify current standard Big Bang cosmology that try to avoid a beginning of time are neither unequivocally successful nor universally accepted (unlike Big Bang cosmology from 1E-43 seconds, Planck time, after the event onwards).
Of course, in the meantime, a few decades later, atheists have become comfortable with the Big Bang model, and believe to even have found a way of getting around the idea of a creation event associated with it. The science associated with this is debatable though, and observational evidence is lacking.
7. Evolution is an inefficient way of creation
Why would God choose such a tedious manner of creation where He has to wait for billions of years until stars and planets form and further, until humans arrive? If there really were a God, he would not have chosen such an inefficient way of creation as evolution.
However, this argument with respect to a ‘waiting’ God is philosophically irrelevant since it ignores the attributes of divine nature; it is based on ill-informed and far too ‘little’ concepts of God.
God is – or from the viewpoint of philosophical concept, has to be – infinite, non-material (i.e. non-corporeal as well) and eternal. He lives outside the dimensions of space and time; after all, He created them in the first place. As a consequence, everything in the domain of time can exist for Him in an instant: God does not need to ‘wait’.
Fine, but why did God not simply put a solar system up there with a nice little Earth, instead of going through all the trouble of physical evolution of a whole universe? Many atheists seem to have in common with creationists, who expect God to have ‘swooshed down from heaven’ in order to tinker with the first living cell, that they see God as an engineer. I prefer to see God as an artist, who apparently found it much more satisfying to let everything develop within a grandiose structure, a vast universe, instead of tinkering around with solar systems and RNA polymerases. A term like ‘efficiency’ does not apply, it only make sense in judging the work of someone who has limited resources at his/her disposal.
8. The vastness of the universe argues against the God of religion
Why should religion assume a small universe, only because it would ‘enhance’ the significance of humans? If it ever did, then only in accord with the cosmological views of the time (for this, however, see the article Size Doesn’t Matter, part 2). Yet already the Bibilical psalmist said "The Heavens, oh Lord, proclaim thy glory", in the knowledge that the starry sky was much vaster than our little Earth. Furthermore, theology has held since ancient time that God is infinite. The revelation by science how vast our universe, God’s creation, really is (and it may be even much larger than what we can observe) gives a limited glimpse to the believer what God’s infinity really may mean. Thus, believers should not be shocked about that at all. Already in the 15th century the Cardinal, theologian and astronomer Nicolas of Cusa claimed that only an infinite universe would be worthy of its Creator. He would have been delighted to see the images from the Hubble telescope.
9. The parochial God
In his discussion with Francis Collins, moderated by Time Magazine, Richard Dawkins says that the Christian God is parochial.
"When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable – but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don't see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."
I agree with Dawkins that the God of many believers is sadly quite parochial, since they do not contemplate the wonders of the vastness of God’s universe but have a rather small view of God’s creation. But Dawkins appears to be unaware that theology has long held a view that fully satisfies his demands. As we have seen, theologians have held since many centuries that God is infinite and omnipotent, and some have suggested that only an infinite universe would be worthy of its Creator. In other words, theologians have held since ages that God is of incomprehensible grandeur indeed.
And I do not think that the God of science-informed Christian believers is parochial at all – quite the contrary. Those believers see an expression of God’s infinity in the universe, yet still believe that God intimately cares about humankind on our ‘insignificant’ little planet circling one of about 300 billion stars in our galaxy, which in turn is just one average galaxy among about 300 billion other ones – so much in fact that He became a human being in Jesus Christ who died for our sins on the Cross. That is a truly mind-boggling concept, but would you not expect God to be mind-boggling, completely beyond human comprehension? It should be expected that God would be so great that He vastly transcends the limited understanding of the small human mind. But in comparison the God of Dawkins appears just great within human understanding and expectations, which would not allow for something as allegedly parochial as the incarnation in Jesus Christ to be worthy of God, the designer and creator of the universe. That would be a God who more snugly fits into the back pocket of the human mind, in terms of being able to be comprehended – but this would make Him a more truly parochial God as well. Thus, the God of Francis Collins or of any other science-informed believer seems the greater one.
10. The size of humans makes them insignificant, pointing to a godless universe
Atheists argue that humans are too insignificant in the context of the entire universe, a purported insignificance related to their size as compared to the vastness of the universe. So how can believers be so parochial to think that there might be a God who cares about us, and given the insignificance of humans, how can we even start to believe that our existence is on purpose? Does it not all suggest a pointless, godless universe?
There are several issues here:
1. Not just atheists, also believers have wondered about the significance of man in the grand scheme of things. Already the psalmist in the Bible exclaimed "When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" Does that seem parochial to you? I don’t think so.
2. How can believers claim the universe was made just for us? Well, I don’t and there are probably few religions that do. I have never heard my Catholic religion claim that the entire universe was exclusively made for humans (perhaps some fundamentalist Christians do).
In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear about that (paragraph 293):
"Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: "The world was made for the glory of God." St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and communicate it", for God has no other reason to create than his love and goodness."
What would show the glory of God better, a vast universe or a small one? Rather than to claim that God created the universe for humans, it would thus probably be more accurate to say that God created the universe with humans in mind.
3. Does it make any difference for the value of human life how large humans are? The pursuit and attainment of happiness, knowledge and an intellectually fulfilled life, moral virtues, love, interpersonal relations, beauty in art and nature, adventure in life, creativity, fulfillment of our positive capacities, needs, desires, interests and purposes – is all this dependent on our physical size? Would all this be diminished if we were 100 times smaller than we are? I don’t think so. Yes, we might not be able to play guitar or piano, but this holds just as much if we were 100 times larger than we actually are. Would our lives be any more significant or valuable if each us were the size of Jupiter? Hardly. It is just that we would not have any air to breathe or anything to eat, and we would collapse into undifferentiated mush under our own gravity (in the core of Jupiter, hydrogen is crushed by gravity into a high-pressure metal-like state). We are apparently just the right size for what we are by nature.
4. If humans cannot get so much larger, how about a smaller universe to "raise our significance"? It turns out that this does not work according to physics. As physicist Stephen Barr writes in his essay on Anthropic Coincidences about age and size of the universe:
"It turns out that the very age and vastness of the universe may have an ‘anthropic’ significance. Life emerged in our universe in a way that required great stretches of time. As we have seen, most of the elements needed for life were made deep in stars. Those stars had to explode to disperse those elements and make them available before life could even begin to evolve. That whole process alone required billions of years. The evolution of human life from those elements required billions of years more. Thus, the briefness of human lifespans and even of human history compared with the age of the universe may simply be a matter of physical necessity, given the developmental way that God seems to prefer to work. It takes longer for a tree to grow to maturity than the fruit of the tree lasts. It took much longer for the universe to grow to maturity than we last.
"Physics can also suggest why the universe has to be so large. The laws of gravity discovered by Einstein relate the size of the universe directly to its age. The fact that the universe is many billions of light-years across is related to the fact that it has lasted several billions of years. Perhaps we would be less daunted by a cozy little universe the size, say, of a continent. But such a universe would have lasted only a few milliseconds. Even a universe the size of the solar system would have lasted only a few hours. A universe constructed in such a way as to evolve life may well have had to extend widely in space as well as in time. It may well be that the frightening expanses that are so often said to be a sign of human insignificance may actually, like so many other features of our strange universe, point to man, as they also proclaim the glory of God."
Thus, neither can humans be much larger than they are, nor can the universe be much smaller than it is, given the developmental manner in which it was created. Rational analysis shows that the argument for the insignificance of humans based on size, in relation to the sheer vastness of the universe, is merely an emotional argument.
The famous astrophysicist Martin Rees makes a more rational argument in an interview, when asked if he does not feel an infinitely tiny speck of no significance:
"I don't because the earth, though small in the cosmos may still be a most important part of it. It may be the only place where there's life like us. And so what makes things fascinating is how complicated they are and not how big they are. And for all we know the earth, tiny though it is, could be the centre of the cosmos in terms of complexity."
And this complexity, and life in general, would not be possible without an extraordinary, extreme fine-tuning of the laws of nature that allows for it (as also acknowledged and even highlighted by agnostic or atheistic cosmologists, even though they have a different philosophical interpretation of it than theists do). The fine-tuning phenomenon squarely points to design; naturalistic explanations all fail as alternatives. While the putative multiverse, a favorite of cosmologists, might explain the fine-tuning of our particular universe, it only shifts the fine-tuning problem to a higher level and thus also solves nothing in terms of being an alternative to design. For all this, see my article Cosmological arguments for the existence of God. Therefore, instead of being disturbed by this vast universe of ours, I feel comfortably at home in it as I see in its design the intention of a loving Heavenly Father.
[While I believe in design of the universe as a whole, I reject biological so-called ‘Intelligent Design’, and I even have written an overview article on the origin of life by natural causes for Talkorigins.org, a leading evolution website. As a scientist I embrace well-founded observational science, which includes evolution; things like the multiverse on the other hand are mere speculation, not backed by any observational evidence. And as already mentioned, the multiverse does not even fundamentally solve a design problem, whereas evolution clearly does.]
11. The compartmentalization of the believer’s mind
Most atheists that I have encountered appear to think that science-informed or scientist believers can only intellectually survive because they put their science into one compartment of their mind, and their faith in God into another. Only in this way they avoid an intellectually lethal conflict within themselves.
I do not compartmentalize, nor do I for a moment believe that any other informed theist does. Most of the time that I recite the creed in church, I also think about the sheer vastness and physical evolution of the universe and about biological evolution. My thinking is one.
12. Belief in God is driven by fear of mortality
I doubt that this is true for most believers, and it certainly is not for me. I lead a great life that is intellectually and emotionally fulfilling and which I am happy with, imperfections included. If atheism would convince me, I could easily envision there to be no life after this one, without undue fear of death. Rejecting atheism is for me a purely rational choice into which considerations of life after death simply do not enter. Yet of course I am delighted and thankful to God for His promise of an eternal afterlife in His glorious presence.
13. Belief in religious dogma conflicts with the scientific mindset
Why should the scientific method be suitable for anything? If you are in a relationship and love that person, you trust him/her that the love is reciprocal. How can you scientifically establish that this person really loves you wholeheartedly like you think s/he does? And even if you could (think of potential future analyses of brain circuits), would you think that to be appropriate? And if you would be suspicious and devise all kinds of ‘tests’ that the love is real, would you feel that this is appropriate? Of course not, no sane and psychologically stable person would. You simply trust without ‘scientific verification’. The more this should hold with belief in God – and God’s entirely non-material mind could never be probed scientifically anyway. If you are in a relationship with God or want to enter such a relationship, you trust God’s word and God’s love. And how appropriate would it be to question articles of faith (dogmas) if you trust that God has revealed them to you through the religious institutions and/or sources like the Bible that, after rational consideration, you believe He has established or inspired?
Science is the best method that we know of to investigate the natural world. To the believer, religious dogma comes from God and is to be trusted as such, since He is the ultimate authority. There is nothing to ‘scientifically investigate’ about divine revelation, since it is not part of the natural world which science studies. The methods of acquisition of knowledge through science and through religion are simply different. To maintain that they are in conflict with each other is a confusion of categories, and alien to proper analytical thinking.
14. Belief in miracles is unscientific
Science studies the laws of nature. The scientific method depends on the reproducibility of experiments and observations. Miracles with physical manifestations, if they occur, are one-time events that suspend the laws of nature. Since they are one-time and not reproducible events they fall outside what science can investigate, particularly if they do not leave permanent traces that might be accessible to scientific investigation. For example, a presumed miracle healing does not leave researchable traces about a process from disease to health, since the healed person simply is at once healthy and thus indistinguishable from a person that was never sick to begin with. Science can say nothing about such a situation, except that there is no scientific explanation for the healing. Thus, the issue of miracles simply lies outside science. This is completely different from it being ‘unscientific’. Unscientific means holding opinions that are disproven by science. While some alleged miracles have been disproven by science indeed, others have not – and phenomena that are considered true miracles by many believers generally are not disproven by science. In extension, belief in miracles simply touches questions outside science, rather than being ‘unscientific’. That is one way to answer the objection.
Yet, the atheist might claim, it is unscientific to even believe that the laws of nature may be suspended at certain moments. If you are a scientist or have your worldviews governed by scientific principles you are obliged to assume that the laws of nature always hold and are never broken. This is false since:
a) All the first scientists that started the scientific revolution and established the scientific method of observation and experiment either in practice (e.g. Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton) or by outlining of principle (e.g. Francis Bacon) were Christian believers in God, and thus highly likely to believe in miracles, at least the miracle of the resurrection of Christ. But they also believed that in ordinary situations God governed His creation by laws of nature which they studied (the term ‘law of nature’ has religious origins, pointing to a lawgiver). So when the individuals who were instrumental in establishing science, and its rules of observation and experiment, believed in miracles, how then can such belief be ‘unscientific’?
There will be those who say that our knowledge advances and science has proven that the dead do not resurrect from the grave – today’s scientists would not believe in such things. Well, for that knowledge science was not needed: even the ancients knew that the dead do not resurrect from the grave, and if they do, this would most definitely be a miracle and not a normal occurrence. If it is a miracle now, it was a miracle then – the progress of science has nothing to do with that.
b) Such a claim confuses the method of science with philosophical views that may be extrapolated from science but are not part of it. Science (the natural sciences) is bound by methodological naturalism, i.e. it always has to assume natural causes for any effect that it studies. This does not mean that it always can find natural causes or that all events are reproducible (again, miracles as one-time events are not).
Distinct from this is philosophical naturalism which implies that, since the natural world is all that exists, everything always obeys the laws of nature or is caused by natural causes – without any exception. Philosophical naturalism may be deduced from the findings of science, but it does not follow from them by necessity. Therefore, conflating methodological naturalism with the atheist’s position of philosophical naturalism is flawed analytical thinking or simple lack thereof. The methodological naturalism of science does not imply with necessity that miracles do not happen.
Obviously, any scientifically informed believer or believer scientist will appreciate that miracles do not occur regularly, in everyday life. Claiming that "there is magic everywhere" would indeed contradict what we know from science. But one does not need to assume a priori that miracles never occur.
Yet there are even those that claim that God Himself would act ‘unscientifically’ if He would, once in a while, suspend the laws of nature. Pardon me? How can God, if He is the one who freely created the laws of nature in the first place (without whom there would be nothing for science to study), not be equally free to suspend them once in a while if He wishes to do so? The argument thus does not make much sense.
It was once suggested in a discussion that as a theist I might believe that God may miraculously intervene into my experiments in order to create a favorable result. My response was that neither do I expect that, nor do I wish for it, since my experiments must be reproducible as being scientific (a miracle, on the other hand, is a one-time event, see above). Furthermore, my experiments have been shown to be reproducible by others as well. The objection was raised, but perhaps God would then favorably steer these results of others too.
Yet if that were the case, all these results would have other abnormal results as a consequence, which again would have yet other abnormal results as a consequence and so on. This chain reaction would eventually require, just because of this putative initial intervention, that God would have to permanently alter at least some of the laws of nature. Thus, upon closer consideration, the argument quickly disintegrates into complete absurdity.
15. Atheism is more scientific than theism
Atheism often presents itself as a scientific worldview. An atheist may argue that his/her positions are scientific and objective, since they are an extrapolation from what science tells us about the world. This, however, overlooks the fact that this extrapolation, while it may claim to be based on science, is a philosophical extrapolation, not a scientific one, since it transcends the realm of strictly scientific knowledge. The atheist’s position is no less philosophical than the theist’s position – which, when it comes to a cosmic designer, can also be, as in my case, an extrapolation from what science tells us about the world (again, I am not talking about the Intelligent Design position that denies the science of evolution).
We already discussed the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Atheists usually follow philosophical naturalism, and commonly reject the consideration of any supernatural forces, not just the monotheistic God. With this, they need to assume that not just everything that happens within the natural world has natural causes, but also that nature itself (our universe) has been created by natural causes (a wider universe, eternal matter or eternal fields, see Cosmological arguments for the existence of God). A naturalistic origin of our universe, however, can neither be scientifically proven (see there) nor is it a dogma of science. Yes, it is a dogma of philosophical naturalism, but science proper is silent on that philosophical stance. Therefore, atheism cannot be claimed to be more scientific than theism, and just like theism, atheism that embraces naturalism does make positive claims that go beyond science proper.
Science studies natural causes within nature. Whether nature itself is created by natural or by supernatural causes is outside of the realm of science to test. Even if a wider universe, eternal matter or eternal fields exist that caused the universe, science can also not prove that these themselves do not have supernatural causes.
In a 1998 statement titled Teaching about Evolution and Science, the American National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said:
"At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing. Religions and science answer different questions about the world […] Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral."
(This is not ‘accomodationism’, an accusation leveled lately against the NAS, but correct philosophy of science.)
The two scenarios of a world created by God or by natural causes are indistinguishable from a scientific point of view (as outlined above, the rare, occasional miracle that happens in a theistic world cannot be properly tested by science).
As Ken Miller, one of the most prominent defenders of evolution today (he was also one of the star witnesses in the Dover trial against Intelligent Design), writes in an article for the Templeton Foundation:
"The categorical mistake of the atheist is to assume that God is natural, and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. By making God an ordinary part of the natural world, and failing to find Him there, they conclude that He does not exist. But God is not and cannot be part of nature. God is the reason for nature, the explanation of why things are. He is the answer to existence, not part of existence itself."
(This should be self-evident if God created nature – then He stands outside nature.)
Even though Miller’s statement should be clear and is logically irrefutable, I have found that, whenever I quote it in discussions, atheists tend to strongly resist it. Thus, I will try to come up with an analogy that hopefully should make it even more clear.
Miller explains that God is not an ordinary part of the natural world and thus cannot be found there and cannot be investigated by science. Imagine a human being making pottery. Is that person detectable anywhere in the pottery? No, not at all, you can look whatever you want, you will never detect the human being that made it within that pottery. Yes, you can detect the human being’s design in the pottery, but not the human being itself that designed it. Similarly, you can believe to detect God’s design in the universe (in the exceedingly special laws of nature that are necessary to allow for self-organization of the universe by physical, chemical and biological evolution; see Cosmological arguments for the existence of God), but you cannot detect God Himself in the universe with the scientific method.
But, the atheist may object, and I basically quote what I once read in a discussion, "God is supposed to be big, I mean really big – more like an elephant in a porcelain store", so "it would be odd not to see him in this world" – well guess what, God is so ‘big’ that as an alternative to God the Designer of the laws of nature many atheists feel compelled to believe in trillions of trillions of trillions of universes other than our own in order to side-step a theistic solution to the cosmological fine-tuning argument, and not even a single one of these extra universes can be observed (see discussion in Cosmological arguments for the existence of God).
Atheists say that theists abandon scientific empiricism by the inclusion of a supernatural entity to explain what we see. Yet the same holds for atheism as well: atheists abandon scientific empiricism when it comes to ultimate questions, in favor of an evidence-less assumption that the natural world has a natural cause. Certainly, many atheists appear to think that mathematical models developed by scientists which describe putative events ‘pre-Big Bang’ are science enough. They are not: science is founded on observation and experiment. Hypotheses may lead to these, but without confirmation by observation no valid scientific claim can be made. Nor would such putative events ‘pre-Big Bang’ be sufficient to establish an ultimate natural cause for the universe or a wider universe.
A humorous interpretation of God trying to teach creation to Moses
By Eric Hatfield, reprinted from a discussion site with permission.
Moses: Hey Aaron, how do you spell "quark" in Hebrew?
Aaron: No idea. What do you want to know that for?
M: It's Yahweh again. Keeps telling all this strange stuff about strangeness and charm and spin, and quarks and gravitons and dark matter. I don't mind not understanding, but I need to know how to write this stuff down.
A: Tell Him we're just stone-age goat-herders living a subsistence existence, and you're the only one who can read and write. Ask Him for something simpler, like why does the sun rise every morning?
Moses goes away up Mt Sinai, and returns 3 days later.
M: He says the sun doesn't rise in the morning, it’s the earth moving.
A: I've felt the earth move once or twice (snigger), but not usually in the morning!
M: Nothing like that bro', we live on a giant ball, and it goes round and round on its axis, and that makes the sun look like it's moving.
A: What's a ball?
M: Dunno, bro', I asked Him that and He started to talk about radii and something called a pie, and the number 3.1412, but then He said "forget it!" and muttered under his breath about next time I'll just say 3.
A: Did He tell you anything else?
M: Two more things. One was that when He said we came from the dust of the ground he meant we had gradually evolved for billions of years.
A: What's billions?
M: Dunno mate, but I think it's a number greater than two.
A: What does evolved mean?
M: He says it actually took Him more than 6 days to make all this. I told Him I didn't really care how long he took, I wasn't in any hurry.
A: What was the other thing you learnt?
M: He said that one day people would find it easier to believe all this came about by chance than believe in Him. I said, no, I was willing to believe all the other crazy stuff about quarks and pie if He said so, but I couldn't come at that!
A: What did he say then?
M: He said, let's start again. Just write this down: "In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth" And I said, "that's more like it, now you're talking my language!" He just smiled and said, "thanks"