science vs. religion

Science, Religion and Other Crazy Ideas

What do scientists really think about religion?
by T.J. Nelson


L ately I've been seeing a lot of stuff by theologians and religious conservatives complaining about how science is too reductionist and materialistic. Some of this is a reaction to all those nasty anti-religion books and all those atheist groups whose main goal is to expunge every trace of religion from public view. But some of it also shows a misunderstanding of how scientists work and what they think about religion.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think religion and shared traditions are critically important for holding civilization together. Most, if not all, of my colleagues feel the same way. It also seems to me that Christianity, with its tradition of personal redemption, has an enormously constructive way of dealing with faults in human behavior.

And credit where credit's due: our modern sense of ethics—and even our basic sense of right and wrong—are founded on the traditions of Judaism and Christianity. That's not to say we're unique: Eastern cultures developed similar traditions in other ways. God, it is said, works in mysterious ways. Who can say that he's not working with atheists, showing them right and wrong in their own way? Maybe he's even subtly guiding the experiments of scientists as well, leading us into making some ultimate discovery, and this is all according to plan. There's much to be said for the argument that God (if he exists) works from the inside out, not from the top down.

(Before anyone takes me to task for singling out Christianity, let me state up front that I consider Christianity to be a great religion that is worthy of serious discussion. I also consider Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism to be great religions, also worthy of discussion.)

But there is still the matter of the critiques of reductionism and materialism that some philosophers have made against science, and the claim that science leads to atheism. That is the subject of this article.

Science is not atheism

In fact, although many scientists do call themselves atheists, very few would rule out the possibility of a Supreme Being. Our job is to follow the truth wherever it leads. If God is out there, science will find him—but we must understand the natural world before we can know when something is supernatural, or divine, or whatever you want to call it. Until then, it's too easy to get fooled, and we have to put it on the back burner, so to speak.

There's another problem, and it has nothing to do with materialism. The fact is, saying “God created it that way” can be used to prove anything. One could argue, as some have, that God created the universe 6000 years ago, or last Thursday, and he did it in such a way as to make it appear old when it is really not. If we say we remember earlier events, the answer is that God put those memories there. If we ask why a butterfly is orange, the answer is that God made it that way. If we ask how the universe came into being (assuming it's not eternal—which, contrary to what you might have heard, has not been conclusively proved), the answer is God created it. If God is out there, science will find him—but we must understand the physical, material world before we can know when something is supernatural or divine.

That might sound like a pretty convincing answer if you're a creationist (and not all religious people are). But the problem is, it can be used to describe every phenomenon in the universe, while it actually explains nothing, because it does not tell us how or why. It is not knowledge unless you can (a) use it to predict something or explain it in terms of something that's already known and (b) explain in detail how you got the knowledge. Because the existence of God is neither provable nor falsifiable, if God enters the equation, one cannot proceed further. If we accepted it, our quest for knowledge would come to a screeching halt, and we'd be straight out of a job.

But although science shares with atheism a rejection of God as an explanation, it is not the same as atheism, nor does it have an atheist bias—it's just a rejection of unfalsifiable ‘just-so’ stories. Some branches of science have adopted similar stories, and science needs to dispel these as well. It's not easy, because people love these kinds of stories.

One such story is the fine-tuning argument, which says that the physical constants of the universe are too finely tuned to result from chance, so God must have set their values to make life possible.

In fact, science has not yet discovered why the physical constants have certain values. There could be a very good reason for it. To take two trivial examples, we know why the value of pi has to be 3.14159265359. We know why the number of sides on a triangle always has to be exactly three. It's not because God made them that way, but because there's an inescapable mathematical reason for it. Aesthetics plays a role too: triangles would look very funny with four sides.

Scientists are deeply suspicious of what they see as agenda-driven science. We've all seen where it leads. Right now, there's a lot of it around and nobody knows how to get rid of it. The last thing we need is more of it.

This is why science must reject any theistic explanations until there's compelling evidence for them. Much more is needed than probabilistic arguments. Proponents of ID don't fully appreciate how difficult it is to do good science. Their enthusiasm for their ideas is admirable, and hopefully they will soon come up with something more compelling.


I will talk about randomness in more detail here. But, as most people know, quantum mechanics says that at the smallest level of matter and energy, subatomic particles behave randomly, not deterministically.

As a result, religion, philosophy and postmodernism are seeping through these cracks of indeterminacy and using it as proof that scientific knowledge is an illusion. And who can blame them? A whole industry has sprung up with physicists writing popular books claiming that objects don't exist unless somebody observes them, and how there could be an infinite number of universes. A guy named Richard Dawid (author of String Theory and the Scientific Method) is even talking about “post-empirical science.” (Big discussion and critique of Dawid's thesis here). An article in the new-age magazine Explore calls itself a “Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science.” This ‘manifesto’ advocates studying psi-phenomena, seances, and near-death experiences. It says things like “a lived transmaterial understanding may be the cornerstone of health and wellness.” Scientists are all “eeewww” (as the kids say) when they read this stuff, but anti-science bloggers are eating it up.

It might all sound harmless, like the flying saucer shows we get on the History Channel instead of historical documentaries. But it's not. Science is a carefully constructed system. In order for it to work, it must exclude anything not backed up by rigorously applied scientific method. Ironically, this gives science an air of authority, and so we find people claiming to be scientists in order to promote some ideology. If their ideas are not backed up by solid evidence, scientists must continue to be courageous enough to criticize them. It helps a lot when members of the general public back us up.

The basic philosophy of science is that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and discovering it is the highest goal. Religious people should revel in that, because they believe it too.

But truth in science is not given by authority, and that means no rule by consensus, or democracy, or even the authority of a Supreme Being. Some people, like economics professor Peter T. Leeson, have been looking for examples of anarchies that actually work. Well, science is one—and it works mainly because it's an anarchy. So there will always be chaos and crazy-sounding ideas flying around.

But most of these ideas are just proto-ideas, whose purpose is to stimulate thought. If they sound crazy now, hang on—we're just getting warmed up.

mar 01, 2015

See also:

Related Articles

The atheist case for right and wrong
What if our sense right and wrong is determined by reason?

What does science say about life after death?
The Buddhists had a lot to say about the afterlife, but science is starting to catch up.

Intelligent Design: Is it a theory?
What is this all about? Is intelligent design really an alternative to Darwinian evolution?

Indeterminacy in Science
Is the universe really indeterminate at the smallest level?

Book Reviews

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel

The Soul of the World
by Roger Scruton

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
by Christopher Hitchens

Anarchy Unbound
by Peter T. Leeson

The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith
by Peter Hitchens

Religion Without God
by Ronald Dworkin

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins

Some of this article is adapted from my book review of Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case by Frank Turek.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise


to top