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How Religion Supports Science, But Atheism Doesn’t

August 20, 2019


I have spoken with several scientifically minded people recently who’ve reported a conflict between the religious and scientific worldview. Most of these people are not actual scientists (a few of them are), but nevertheless, they seem to appreciate what science has done for the world, and generally enjoy the musings of those engaged in it. Fair enough: science has done a great deal to improve the priorly squalid conditions of our human experience, and conjectures among scientists are of often enormous intrigue, especially those which can make for a good sci-fi. But is there really a conflict between the scientific and religious worldview? Is it irrational to be a person of faith and lover of science?

Here is what I would maintain. There are, admittedly, among certain, specific religious affiliations, real and obvious conflicts between what some particular religions say, and what some particular scientific endeavors teach. No person of faith should deny these apparent face-offs. (Here, something like young earth creationism comes to mind, or the denial of the efficaciousness of penicillin.) But at the same time, no person of faith should concede that just because there are some conflicts with some religious viewpoints and the mainstream scientific consensus, that the religious worldview, broadly construed, is in anyway incompatible with the enterprise or results of science itself.

We can defuse this so-called conflict hypothesis, first by taking the most general religious stance possible: that God exists. In other words, there is not a being, but a foundation to being itself, or an ultimate, self-sufficient answer to the question of “How come anything?” Across religious traditions—from Christianity to Hinduism—this foundation is believed to be a mind, or at least something mind-like: unified, perfect in its understanding, and capable of relating all real and really possible ideas. This ground of being—this Godhead—therefore, is unlike anything else and is the reason for everything else. Because of this, the best and perhaps only way we can approach God intellectually (apart from specific revelation) is by a slow, philosophical process of stripping away all the things God is almost certainly not, like a being in time or space, or composed of parts, matter, etc. Classical theism, then, says God is the power behind all powers, the fully knowing, fully inclusive reality which, because it exists through itself, continually donates being to everything existing apart from it.

Back to the original point: Is such a belief inconsistent with science? If so, the conflict is not easily apparent. We’ll need to investigate.

Science is the study of physical things, or to be precise, how one physical event causes or leads to another physical event. Science, then, is etiological rather than ontological. It assumes a physical reality and goes from there; science cannot answer why there is a physical reality to start. This is the first distinction a person should make, and once a person has this distinguishing feature clear in their mind, it becomes quite understandable why science has very little to say about God. Science is definitionally and practically restricted to studying God’s creation but cannot in principle have anything to say about the Creator—who is not a limited, physical thing—himself.

Here is a simple way of thinking about it: Science works within the book of physical, interactive life. It can tell us that Jack laughed because Susy told a joke. But clearly there is another, higher up, and further out, explanation to be found. For is it not equally true that Jack laughed because the author made Susy to be funny, and Jack susceptible to jokes? And so, we can see there is a proximate answer, which science deals with, but also an ultimate answer, which is left to philosophy and theology and all the like. The proximate answer is both true and insightful, yet all proximate answers within the book depend ultimately on there being an author. And so, who is the author, we would like to know? And why did he or she bother writing the story to begin with? These are legitimate questions—perhaps the most legitimate we can ask—and they are all legitimately unanswerable through the empirical enterprise.

The question of why any story of life has been put to paper to begin with, which is the all-too-familiar but far from insignificant realization that anything exists instead of nothing, is a question that science cannot attend to, but philosophy and theology, on the other hand, can. If God did not exist—that is, if there were not a necessary, self-sufficient foundation to reality (that which in principle does not, and could not, be caused)—it is hard to see how anything could exist. Everything about physical reality is conditioned; there are a confluence of causes to explain the things which constitute the world we live in, from galaxy formation to fermions and bosons and so on. But reality in total (whatever that is) cannot be the sort of thing in need of an outside explanation, since nothing could stand outside of reality to cause it. So there must be a part, a layer, or a foundation, of reality beyond the realm of created, physical things—beyond time and space and matter and energy—to answer the most interesting and important question of all: “How come anything?”

But we can, and should, go further. God supports science in other ways yet unmentioned, and often unrecognized.

If, for example, God exists, then we might expect to have been formed with generally reliable faculties. We can trust that however God brought us about (evolution or otherwise), he did so with the intent of having us discover real truths about the world—mathematical, logical, moral, etc—and that our cognitive faculties are not just a jumble of useful but false beliefs suited for the proliferation of genes. If, however, God did not exist, then we have no strong reason to expect our beliefs, or our belief forming mechanisms, to be aimed accurately at discerning reality. Any theory of unguided evolution, after all, does not care about truth, only that some such species remains a going concern, and these two things—truth on one hand, the propagation of DNA on the other—are not necessarily, or even probably, related. Delusions (like, according to Richard Dawkins, belief in God would be, or objective morality) could lead to survival just as well as truth, and in some respects, maybe even more so. But if this is the case, then we have reason to be skeptical of all beliefs formed through our evolutionarily mechanisms, and this includes our beliefs in evolution and naturalism (naturalism being one of the strongest forms of atheism). The position then is self-defeating. To accept both (evolutionary theory and naturalism) is to have to reject both. Theism, on the other hand, offers ample epistemological support to evolutionary theory, since we can trust that God providentially guided the process leading to rational, reasoning animals like us. (For more on this line of argument—that is, how evolutionary theory undercuts belief in naturalism, but can be supported by theism—see here and listen here.)

We also might expect that if God exists, the world would be orderly and intelligible—and, indeed, the world is orderly and intelligible, magnificently and exquisitely so. Also—amazingly enough—the world is stable: yesterday was pretty much like today in terms of physical laws and causal processes, and we expect tomorrow will probably be the same. Why should any of this be the case, if God did not exist? That anything exists at all, that there exist people to understand and ask questions about existing things, and that our existing physical laws are generally unchanging and susceptible to understanding, is, to be frank, a miracle beyond the reach of any purely naturalistic explanation. Given the existence of God, however, all this is just the sort of thing we’d expect. Even if we could not predict the way God would do things (for that, we’d have to be God), the existence of God makes sense of the way things have actually been done. God makes sense of science and everything science assumes: logic, mathematics, and the moral realm. Theism provides a solid foundation to all of these in the existence of a nonphysical, foundational mind. Belief in God makes science both rational and reliable. Rejection of God makes science a bizarre mystery, if not a ludicrous leap of faith. In this sense, we are all believers in something. The only question is where do we draw the line?