Lesson 6: Atheism and Science

Lesson 6: Atheism and Science

One of atheism’s strongest claims is that science has eliminated the need for people to believe in God. Today, the “assured results of science” give us a natural explanation for virtually all phenomena; everything that occurs has a natural explanation. Thus, no “gaps” are left for God to fill in, according to atheists. “God is dead” because He is no longer needed.

This lesson will examine some atheistic claims related to science and how Christians have replied to such claims.

  1. Historically, science and Christianity have enjoyed a constructive relationship.

    1. Many of the great scientists of the Enlightenment era were professing Christians, e.g., Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle, Pascal, Newton, Faraday, Mendel, Bacon, Pasteur, Maxwell, Planck, etc.1 A good number of early scientists were also clergymen (e.g., Mendel was a monk). Many of the great names in science saw no contradiction between faith and reason.

    2. The early scientists in western civilization were attempting to understand the universe because they believed an orderly God created it, and man, because he was made in the image of God, was able to understand it. Christianity set the stage for scientific progress. Without a Christian worldview, there is no particular reason to believe that the universe makes sense or that humans have the capacity to understand it.

    3. Science arose in the West, in a Christian civilization, because Christianity emphasized the importance of reason. The university system arose in Christian Europe in the middle ages, offering teaching in both theology and the sciences. Many of America’s first colleges and universities began as Christian institutions. Christians invented modern science.

  1. Since the Enlightenment, natural sciences were seen as liberators of humanity from the oppression of traditional religious thought and structures, particularly the RCC.

    1. Thomas Huxley: “[Darwinism] occupies a position of complete and irreconcilable antagonism toward that vigorous and consistent enemy of the highest intellectual, moral and social life of mankind—the Catholic Church.”

    2. Religion, and the Roman Catholic form of Christianity in particular, was seen as the opponent of learning and scientific advancement. Historically, the Church was the dominant voice in Western culture. After the Enlightenment, culture took a more secular turn, forcing religious ideas out of the public arena and into the realm of private affairs.

    3. Science, mathematics and other “hard” sciences were provable and their results certain. Religion lacks such certainty. One may be free to hold any religious ideas he wants, but he should not consider them to be “true” in the same sense that science is true.

    4. Science works better than religion. In the past, we might pray for someone’s healing. Today, science has developed treatments that can actually save lives. Science offers liberation from bondage to a superstitious and oppressive past.

  1. Atheism and scientific “proof”

    1. Atheists boldly assert that they require proof before they’ll believe anything. Science is based on evidence and proof; faith is belief without proof. Atheists claim that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” We are under an absolute obligation to believe only what may be rigorously demonstrated by the strictest criteria of truth. Belief must be warranted. (William Clifford)

    2. However, scientists find themselves having to believe some things they know will later be shown to be wrong. History shows a pattern of the abandonment of previous theories as better approaches emerge. History also shows a reluctance to believe new theories. For example, many astronomers did not believe in the Big Bang theory when it was first published, although it is now almost universally held as true today. Einstein’s theory of relativity was widely criticized until proven by experimentation. Einstein himself did not believe that the universe was expanding and offered a theory to disprove it, which turned out to be wrong. The “steady-state” theory of the universe was commonly held by scientists until the 1960s. Another example: geocentrism vs. heliocentrism. Thus “proof” can often lead to believing untrue things.

    3. The natural sciences offer what they believe to be the best possible explanation of things, but are perfectly prepared to abandon or modify this in the light of additional information. It is simply not true that scientist believe theories because they have been “proved.” They believe them because they represent the best explanation of what may be observed.2

    4. Ironically, atheism cannot prove the assertion that it is wrong to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. What proves that statement? It’s a statement of opinion, not of fact. Further, atheism itself cannot withstand that level of proof; it cannot be demonstrated to be true. And atheism cannot prove that God does not exist. Agnostic writer Thomas “Darwin’s bulldog” Huxley admitted that it is impossible to arrive at any degree of certainty when it comes to the existence or non-existence of God.

  1. Atheism and Darwinism

Scientists usually maintain one of two viewpoints regarding religion: compatibility or incompatibility.

    1. Some strongly assert that religion is simply incompatible with science. For them, real scientists must be atheists. Those scientists who retain any commitment to religious belief simply cannot mean it; they must be joking or perhaps are temporarily insane. Evolutionary theory leads inevitably to a godless, purposeless world. All life can be understood entirely in natural and material terms. Evolution demands atheism in this view.

      1. The natural sciences, and especially evolutionary biology, represent an “intellectual superhighway” to atheism. In the mind of some atheistic propagandists, science is the supreme champion of atheism. Evolution is the “engine” of atheism.

      2. Richard Dawkins has argued consistently and vigorously for an atheistic worldview through an appeal to the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology. Science, Dawkins asserts, proves things; it establishes its theories with certainty. Religion, on the other hand, deliberately asserts falsehoods that mislead, seduce, and oppress people. Science is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith, belief without proof.

      3. Before Darwin, people thought that the evident design in nature pointed to a designer. Darwin asserted that the appearance of design can arise naturally through the pressures of chance and survival. Natural selection is the “blind watchmaker.” It provides atheists with an alternative explanation for how the complexities of nature arose.

Carl Sagan: As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do…. Whatever it is we cannot explain is attributed to God…. And then after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm.”

      1. Darwinian evolution insists that the universe has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. For Darwinism, everything is accidental. Darwin destroyed the credibility of Christianity for many atheists.

      2. French atheist and philosopher Jacques Monod offers the following:

Change arises by chance and is propagated by necessity. It is utterly impossible to speak of “purpose” within the biological world. Evolutionary theory demands that we realize that our own existence is an accident…. The natural sciences disclose a purposeless world, in which we must create our own values and beliefs. Nature has nothing to offer us as a guide….Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor his duty.

      1. Those who oppose the assured results of evolutionary science on the basis of the Book of Genesis are intolerant, backward, and ignorant fools who stand outside the mainstream of American culture.

      2. Science is the only reliable tool that we posses to understand the world. It has no limits. We may not know some things now—but we will in the future. It’s just a matter of time. Science will explain everything.

      3. Science has disproved God, wrecked faith in God. Atheism is the only option for the serious, progressive, thinking person. Religious belief should be relegated to the scrap heap of history. Science and religion cannot coexist. If one is true, the other must be false.

    1. For some, religion is compatible with science. Atheists commonly deny that one can be both a scientist and a believer in any religion, and especially not in Christianity. However, many scientists are professing Christians, and many hold other religious views.

      1. Some scientists deny that science has anything to say about religion. For example, Stephen Jay Gould,3 one of the most popular advocates of evolution, denied that science and religion are contradictory. “Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists…. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.” Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God.

      2. According to a poll of scientists conducted in 1916 and repeated in 1996, about 40% of scientists admit some form of personal religious belief.4 Surprisingly, no significant reduction in religious belief among scientists has occurred in the twentieth century. Statistics contradict the idea that science and religion are incompatible, at least in the minds of many scientists.

      3. There is no consensus in the scientific community regarding the place of religion in the life of the scientist. Some Darwinians are theists and others are not. There is no valid means of settling the issue on scientific grounds. The theory of evolution does not necessarily lead to or require atheism. The suggestion that the Darwinian theory of evolution is necessarily atheistic goes way beyond the competency of the natural sciences and strays into territory where the scientific method cannot be applied.

      4. Why are so many scientists religious? Because the world can be interpreted in a number of different ways—atheist, deist, Christian, etc. Nature is open to many different interpretations, but it does not demand to be interpreted in any of these.

  1. Christian responses to Darwinism

Christians have responded to the claims of Darwinian evolution in the same two ways that science responds to religion: compatibility or incompatibility.

    1. Some Christians hold that Christianity can import the findings of evolution into the Christian system. Evolution, they suggest, is the means by which God guided his creation to its present state. They see no necessary contradiction between evolution and the Bible. Of course, this requires a major reinterpretation of large segments of the Scriptures. But some are willing to modify their doctrine to accommodate the “assured” findings of science.

      1. For example, distinguished American botanist Asa Gray (1810-88) believed it was perfectly possible to reconcile evolutionary theory with faith. Instead of seeing God as the creator of fixed species, Gray pictured God as the designing power behind evolutionary change. Even renowned biblical scholars like B.B. Warfield (Princeton Seminary) and J.I. Packer (Regent Seminary) seemed to accommodate evolutionary ideas into their theology. Many professing Christians hold this view and it is taught at many evangelical colleges and seminaries. It is the official position of the RCC and even many Protestant denominations.

      2. Some Christians hold that Darwinism has no bearing on the existence or nature of God. If Darwinians choose to pontificate on matters of religion, they stray beyond the straight and narrow way of the scientific method, and end up in the philosophical badlands. The natural sciences may lead some away from God and others to god. But to say that they must do one or the other is to move beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method.5

      3. The relationship between science and religion is a complicated one, but it is historically incorrect to say that science and faith are at war, in this view.

    2. Some Christians hold that Christianity cannot import the findings of evolution into the Christian system. There exists a permanent, essential conflict between the natural sciences and religion. Science is at war with religion. Oddly enough, both conservative Christians and staunchly atheistic scientist hold this same opinion—science and religion are at war, both viewpoints cannot be correct, and one or the other must be proved to be wrong.

      1. The implications of Darwinian evolution sent shock waves throughout Christendom when Darwin first published his ideas. The assertion that humans evolved by natural selection from the animal world lay the axe at the very root of religious belief. Darwinian Theory represents a frontal attack on Christianity, and Christians must respond by disproving Darwinism. There is little doubt that the theory of evolution provided a massive thrust for ousting God from the paradigm of origin and existence.6

      2. One of the first to defend traditional Christian teaching on origins was William Paley (1742-1805), who wrote several works defending the Genesis account. Paley’s primary argument centered on intelligent design.7 He’s responsible for the famous “watch-maker” argument—nature was like a sophisticated mechanism, and such mechanisms require an intelligent designer and creator. Paley produced an immense array of observations, from the intricacy of the human eye to the arrangements of the seasons, which pointed to the entire biological world’s having been planned by a benevolent deity. Each aspect of the natural world seems to have been designed for its specific purpose. More than that; they interlocked with one another, as if the entire assembly appeared to have been put together with a definite purpose in mind.8

A recent argument along the same lines is called the Anthropic Principle. Scientists have observed that the fundamental constants of physics and chemistry are just right or fine-tuned to allow the universe and life at we know it to exist. The Anthropic Principle says that the seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common—these are precisely the values needed for human life. The universe gives the appearance that it was designed to support life on earth.9 For example, if the force of gravity, the forces holding atoms together, or the ratios between electromagnetism and gravity were any different, human life would not have been possible.10 The universe is specially and finely tuned for life because it is the creation of a Creator who wills that it should be so. Atheists, of course, have creative ways of denying the implications of the Anthropic Principle.11

      1. Darwin himself initially found Paley’s design arguments very persuasive, but he eventually rejected them. Paley argued that God had made everything in its present form, perfectly, without any evidence of change or development. Darwin’s study of nature led him to a different understanding of how biological life developed and changed. It became clear to Darwin that the foundations of Paley’s arguments for the existence of God had been shattered.

      2. Darwin wavered between agnosticism and atheism.12 But it seems unlikely that his rejection of Christianity had much to do with his theory of natural selection. Rather, he had a visceral distaste for the “damnable doctrine” of the eternal punishment of unbelievers. Many in the Victorian era (mid-1800s) rejected Christianity for the same reason—they hated the “fire-and-brimstone” preaching popular among evangelicals at that time. Further, the tragic death of his daughter wrecked his belief in divine providence.

      3. Other arguments brought by Christians seeking to defend the biblical account of creation:13

        1. The cosmological argument considers the fact that every known thing in the universe has a cause. Therefore, it reasons, the universe itself must also have a cause, and the cause of such a great universe can only be God.

        2. The ontological argument begins with the idea of God, who is defined as a being “greater than which nothing can be imagined.” It then argues that the characteristic of existence must belong to such a being, since it is greater to exist than not to exist.? ?

        3. The moral argument begins from man’s sense of right and wrong, and of the need for justice to be done, and argues that there must be a God who is the source of right and wrong and who will someday mete out justice to all people.

  1. Atheistic responses to Christian claims

Atheists are well acquainted with Christian arguments against Darwinism, and they have responded to typical arguments Christians use to defend the Genesis account of creation and to counter Darwinism.

    1. The teleological (design) argument: Responding to Paley’s watch-maker argument, Dawkins asserts that the appearance of design can arise naturally within the evolutionary process. Natural selection is the blind watchmaker. Given enough time, even the most sophisticated systems will arise naturally. Further, there is no “watch” as creationists commonly think of nature. Instead, the species arose out of struggle for survival, with only those best adapted moving ahead. Nothing in nature is perfectly formed; everything shows evidence of imperfection, mistakes, and dead ends. Even things that seem to be irreducibly complex, like the human eye or flagella, developed slowly over vast amounts of time. Evolutionists totally disavow any idea of design or purpose in nature.

    2. The cosmological argument: Atheists assert that if all things had a cause, then God Himself must have a cause. Of course, Christians deny this, believing that God is the great un-caused cause. Causation applies only to effects; all effects must have a cause. God is not an effect and thus does not need a cause. Further, God’s existence is not limited to this universe; God is spirit, not physical. Atheists typically maintain that matter is eternal, or that the singularity of the Big Bang arose spontaneously, out of nothing, simply popping into existence. Many scientists refuse to speculate as to where the singularity came from or why it came to be. It just did. In effect they must affirm exactly what the Bible teaches—creation ex nihilo.

It’s worth noting that earlier atheists denied that the universe had a beginning. The “steady-state” approach posited that the universe was eternal, thus not needing a beginning. An eternal universe needs no creator. Scientists today universally acknowledge the Big Bang, and thus they must admit that the universe had a beginning. It is certainly an effect that calls for a cause, and that cannot be denied. If they deny it, they must affirm that at least one thing that had a beginning did not have a cause, which is absurd.

    1. The ontological argument: Atheists typically dismiss this argument as irrational.

    2. The moral argument: Atheists argue that morality is nothing more than a human invention that became necessary as tribes of humans came into close contact. Commonly agreed upon moral standards helped the species to survive. Atheists adopt their own forms of morality based on what they think will be most beneficial to them and to society. They deny the idea that morality depends upon the existence of God. They are just as moral, if not more so, than many professing Christians, in their opinion. (more on the weaknesses of atheistic morality in the next lesson)

Conclusion: We must acknowledge that both Christianity and atheism are systems of belief that require faith (Heb 11:6). Both atheism and Christian faith lie beyond absolute proof. Christians don’t believe the claims of atheism, and atheists don’t believe the claims of Christianity because neither is able to absolutely prove their case.

Everyone has the same facts with which to work. Christians approach the facts with a biblical worldview, and many scientists approach the facts with a secular, anti-biblical worldview. It is no wonder, then, that Christians and atheistic scientist reach different conclusions.

We must admit that science presents great challenges to those who believe the Bible. Atheists contend that science debunks the Bible, while Christians assert that the Bible discredits junk science. If the Bible is true, there should be no contradiction between it and any other source of truth. Atheists overstep when they allege that science and religion are incompatible. On the other hand, theists may write off science too quickly without considering how science and the Bible may be able to coordinate. In any case, where scientific pronouncements and the Bible truly contradict, we must maintain our loyalty to God and His Word. Scientific theories come and go, but God’s Word is eternal, unchanging, and forever “settled in heaven” (Ps 119:89).

1 This is not to assert that such men were all orthodox, conservative believers. All professed Christianity, but some were quite eccentric in their beliefs (e.g., Newton denied the Trinity). Nevertheless, they all espoused a Christian worldview.

2 McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.

3 Gould described himself as an agnostic leaning toward atheism.

4 About 40% admit no belief, and about 20% are agnostic.

5 McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.

6 Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism.

7 The teleological (design) argument focuses on the evidence of harmony, order, and design in the universe, and argues that its design gives evidence of an intelligent purpose (the Greek word telos, means “end” or “goal” or “purpose”). Since the universe appears to be designed with a purpose, there must be an intelligent and purposeful God who created it to function this way. Grudem, Systematic Theology.

8 McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism.

9 http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/rossuk/c-anthro.htm.

10 One example: the value defining how firmly atomic nuclei bind together is .007. If this number were .006 or .008, humans could not exist. See Martin Rees’ book Just Six Numbers for a fascinating discussion.

11 For example, some suggest that many universes may exist, and we just happen to inhabit one in which the laws of physics allowed mankind to evolve. Other universes may be different if they have a different set of laws.

12 There is no truth to the legend that Darwin recanted the theory of evolution on his death bed.

13 Grudem, Systematic Theology.

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