Does science make belief in God obsolete?

The Templeton Foundation has sponsored a debate: Does science make belief in God obsolete? They’ve asked 13 scientists, philosophers, and theologians to weigh in on the topic. They’ve written reasonably brief essays on the topic, and are well worth a read.

In my continuing efforts to explore my own spirituality and understand who this God person is anyway, I’ve attempted to distill these essays down to their primary theses for a hard-core comparison.

Steven Pinker PDF

Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral? Yet over the millennia, there has been an inexorable trend: the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God.

Pinker essentially refutes the God of the Gaps as the one being made obsolete by science. Its a fairly straightforward argument–we used to believe in God to fill in for our ignorance, but since we aren’t quite as ignorant as we used to be, there isn’t as much need to believe in God. The more we learn, the less we need God.

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn PDF

…the Nature we know from modern science embodies and reflects immaterial properties and a depth of intelligibility far beyond the wildest imaginings of the Greek philosophers. To view all these extremely complex, elegant, and intelligible laws, entities, properties, and relations in the evolution of the universe as “brute facts” in need of no further explanation is, in the words of the great John Paul II, “an abdication of human intelligence.”

Schönborn argues for an Intelligent Creator God. Unfortunately I think he mischaracterizes science as being willing to accept brute facts, and then stopping. That is far from the truth–scientists weren’t satisfied with the “brute facts” of Newtons Laws of motion. They continued to push beyond those facts (ok, 200 years later) into General Relativity and Relativistic Quantum Mechanics. The more complex, elegant, and intelligble the system, the more deeply and fervently scientists dig into it.

William D. Phillips PDF

…religious statements are not necessarily falsifiable. I might say, “God loves us and wants us to love one another.” I cannot think of anything that could prove that statement false. Some might argue that if I were more explicit about what I mean by God and the other concepts in my statement, it would become falsifiable. But such an argument misses the point. It is an attempt to turn a religious statement into a scientific one. There is no requirement that every statement be a scientific statement. Nor are non-scientific statements worthless or irrational simply because they are not scientific. “She sings beautifully.” “He is a good man.” “I love you.” These are all non-scientific statements that can be of great value. Science is not the only useful way of looking at life.

Phillips is proposing that religion and science should maintain separate areas of expertise. However, I don’t think his analogy works. The statement “She sings beautifully” can discussed and debated by all those who have heard her sing. There may be disagreement or consensus, and falsification isn’t really the issue. But at least there can be discussion among those who’ve experienced her singing, and the method for experiencing her singing is clear. The statement “God…wants us to love one another” can’t really be discussed because there is no clear path to determining what God wants. It can’t be falsified in the same way that “Santa Claus is checking his list” can’t be falsified. We don’t know what God wants and we don’t know if  Santa has a list.

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy PDF

Let’s face it: the day of the Sky God is long gone. In the Age of Science, religion has been downsized, and the medieval God of classical religions has lost repute and territory. Today people pay lip service to trusting that God but they still swallow antibiotics when sick.

But people today don’t believe in a Sky God. They believe in a God of personal inspiration, and mysterious ways. They trust that God has guided them to the doctor, and that God had guided the doctor to prescribe the correct medication, and that God has directed the germs to fall victim to the antibodies, strengthened by the drugs.

Mary Midgley PDF

Belief—or disbelief—in God is not a scientific opinion, a judgment about physical facts in the world. It is an element in something larger and more puzzling—our wider worldview, the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of our world as a whole.

I must admit that Midgley’s essay flummoxed me greatly. I read it through three times and still had difficulty grasping it. I think she’s attempting to say that belief in God is a kind of life-fabric, something that pervades everything we do. Since our entire perspective on everything is formed by that God-based-background, we can’t assess it scientifically. I think that’s what she’s saying. I still don’t get it, probably because I don’t have a God-life-fabric.

Robert Sapolsky PDF

Science is the best explanatory system that we have, and religiosity as an alternative has a spectacular potential for harm that permeates and distorts every domain of decision-making and attribution in our world. But just because science can explain so many unknowns doesn’t mean that it can explain everything, or that it can vanquish the unknowable. That is why religious belief is not obsolete.

I don’t think science ever attempts to vanquish the unknowable, but why should religious belief seek to provide an answer? To assert that something is “unknowable” means either that a) there is a logical conundrum that prevents knowledge, or b) that attaining the knowledge is beyond the value (to anyone) of that knowledge. “What year will I die?” is the first type, and “Why did lightning strike my house?” is the second. I don’t think religious belief helps answer the unknowable.

Christopher Hitchens PDF

Religion, remember, is theism not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious, and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

I’m perfectly content to believe that there might be a diety–its the interactive God that seems most difficult to me. An interactive God feels like an explanation for the unknowable. Unfortunately, I think Hitchens reads too much into the question. I can believe in God (a diety) but not rely on God. Science, then, is the method for discovering all that we can about God’s creation while we still can. Hitchens assumes that belief is the same as reliance.

Keith Ward PDF

It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialist interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support. But science is more ambiguous than that, and modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately “veiled” nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggestive of an underlying cosmic intelligence.

I agree that science doesn’t make God obsolete. But since the God of the Gaps is immeasurably small, and we can pretty much define God in any way we please, I think science has made worship of God obsolete. There may be a great cosmic intelligence, but it has been pretty consistent in completely ignoring our pleas, so there really isn’t any point in worshiping it.

Victor J. Stenger PDF

The universe we see with our most powerful telescopes is but a grain of sand in the Sahara. Yet we are supposed to think that a supreme being exists who follows the path of every particle, while listening to every human thought and guiding his favorite football teams to victory. Science has not only made belief in God obsolete. It has made it incoherent.

Those who believe would argue that God is not for us to comprehend. Just because we can’t fathom paying attention to every particle, thought, and football team, doesn’t mean God can’t. But I think Stenger’s point is sound: we’re either infantile to believe Daddy is watching out for us, or incredibly arrogant to assert that we matter that much.

Jerome Groopman PDF

The truths of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics are different from the truths we seek in human behavior and human choices. The truths of science can be measured and experimentally verified; the truths of a moral life are matters of belief—whether you are an atheist or a religious person. Religion should view science as a way to improve the world; science should see religion not as a threat but as a deeply felt path taken by some.

The truths of a moral life can most certainly be measured and evaluated scientifically. There is no doubt that religion is a “deeply felt path” taken by many. However, that doesn’t make it correct.

Michael Shermer PDF

What would we call an intelligent being capable of engineering a universe, stars, planets, and life? If we knew the underlying science and technology used to do the engineering, we would call it Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; if we did not know the underlying science and technology, we would call it God.

Shermer has expanded on one of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It may seem crazy to imagine mistaking ET for God. But Cargo Cults demonstrate that Shermer’s assertion has already proven true.

Kenneth R. Miller PDF

Science places us in an extraordinary universe, a place where stars and even galaxies continue to be born, where matter itself comes alive, evolves, and rises to each new challenge of its richly changing environment. We live in a world literally bursting with creative evolutionary potential, and it is quite reasonable to ask why that is so. To a person of faith, the answer to that question is God.

To a person of science, that answer continues to be explored in cosmology. The atheist would ask the person of faith “If God made us and the universe, what made God?” Why, after creating the world, does God seem content to leave it well enough alone?

Stuart Kauffman PDF

…we are in a co-constructing, ceaselessly creative universe whose detailed unfolding cannot be predicted. Therefore, we truly cannot know all that will happen. In that case, reason, the highest virtue of our beloved Enlightenment, is an insufficient guide to living our lives. We must reunite reason with our entire humanity. And in the face of what can only be called Mystery, we need a means to orient our lives. That we do, in reality, live in the face of an unknown is one root of humanity’s age old need for a supernatural God.

When Kauffman refers to “co-constructing” he’s referring to a universe created by both us and God. However, he mistakes that reason and science attempt to predict everything that will happen. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quantum mechanics and probability theory fully recognize that nothing can be predicted with certainty. Science does not attempt to predict the future. It attempts to predict isolated events with specific initial conditions. How does God supply us with an answer to the unknown? How does God help us in the face of Mystery? It seems we’ve been left to our own devices.

In conclusion, I’m not terribly convinced that God is relevant. God may yet still exist, but there seems little to recommend that we pay it homage. Science doesn’t disprove Gods existence, and doesn’t really attempt to. Science is content to assume that the world works as if God doesn’t exist until such time as the evidence proves otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”

  1. You say “There may be a great cosmic intelligence, but it has been pretty consistent in completely ignoring our pleas, so there really isn’t any point in worshiping it.” Can you verify that claim in any demonstrable way, Mr. Scientist? 😉

    Think of it this way: if an entity had the power and intelligence to construct the whole of our reality, couldn’t it respond to your pleas in its own fashion, in ways you couldn’t possibly understand? As a poor analogy, consider a chess game: you might be looking only two or three moves ahead, whereas God would be able to see several thousand moves ahead (or, indeed, see every move in every game through all of time simultaneously). God may well be responding to our pleas, we just lack the capacity to see the intervention. Or God may have reasons we can’t fathom for not intervening.

    My Catholic upbringing comes into play during these thought experiments. I was always taught that Faith would not necessarily be responded to directly. Faith in God requires a personal choice, and sometimes a lot of sacrifice. If God proves to you that he exists, then Faith is no longer a choice. If it’s no longer a choice, then (as I was taught) the value of belief is lost.

    As the Catholics taught me, God loves us enough to allow us to make our own choices. One of those choices is whether to believe God exists, and whether or not to honor that belief in any way. If the existence of God is verifiable, then there’s not much choice.

    Think of it from your own experiences as a parent. Do you want your kids to love you because they choose to do so, or do you want them to love you out of some formalized ritual or sense of obligation? Isn’t it much more satisfying to experience genuine love, rather than the motions of love through some sense of duty?

  2. You’re not the only one flummoxed by Mary Midgley’s essay. The little snipet quoted here made some sense, the larger work didn’t.

    I guess my question for you would be… What are you trying to get out of God/religion?

    I wouldn’t consider myself to be an overly religious person, but I would consider myself a moral person. Are you looking to religion / God to be a guiding force? By that I mean, is your under-lying moral code derived from the Bible and/or organized religion? I think that might be Midgley’s under-lying point.

    Our society / culture has a basis in the Bible and Roman law. We have been raised in this society to believe certain things are moral/ethical and other things aren’t. Do you need to be religious to be moral? I would say no, but the under-lying moral code does have Biblical ties.

    What do I think? I think church has its place. It is a place where the kids can hear the message about good morals and how we should treat each other from a source other than their parents. Since we all know how well they listen to their parents. 🙂

    Is there a God? I have no idea. But, I’m Ok with that. I subscribe to the philosophy that everything happens for a reason, just because I don’t know what the reason is, doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. Lessons can be learned both through adversity and (whatever a good synonym for non-adversity would be – I can’t think of a good word right now).

    Do I think God is active in my life? No, at least not in any overt way. Do I think God cares who wins the big game on Saturday? Nope.

    Science and God don’t need to be separate issues, nor do they need to be at odds. Why couldn’t God have started the Big Bang and then just sat back and watched evolution happen? Scientists have theories about how things worked, but do they KNOW how everything started?

    I made the suggestion to friend in college once that, for all we knew, Earth was an intergalactic zoo. The dinosaurs were the first occupants, there was a problem, so the planet got restocked with other species. (I was playing devil’s advocate a bit at the time – but for all we know, that’s what happened.) His response was “I am not a guppy!”

    We don’t know. None of us KNOW. There is only faith. Either you believe or you don’t or you don’t care enough to look at it critically.

    I commend you on your journey. It takes strength to question. The only problem is that there may not be any answers.

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