Can we believe in God in the scientific age?

This page in brief ….

So far in this 6 Reasons to disbelieve in God series, we have looked at the problem of evil, and the so-called hiddenness of God (if he’s so hard to see, maybe he’s not there).

This post we examine the thought that religion is the way a bygone age thought, but now we have science we know better. Has science proved religion to be wrong? Is religious belief based on unjustified faith rather than hard facts?

I have found half a dozen ways in which science might seem to have made religion unbelievable. Let’s look at them.

Religion is old-fashioned

The church and christians appear so old fashioned. Church buildings are often old, dim and in need of a make-over. The Bible is an ancient book. Hymn-singing is old hat. Priests and pastors talk in funny language. Christians are more likely to be old than young. And it is easy to picture God as an angry old man in the sky. Christianity seems out of touch with the modern world of the internet, stem cell research, space travel, computer games and dance parties. Who would want to be part of something so daggy? (note 1)

This is hardly a factual or science-based reason to disbelieve, but, let’s face it, things like this can easily colour our feelings and play a large part in determining our views. And let’s admit, many of these observations can be true of too many christians and churches. How to respond?

  • Some people like the old and familiar. Retro can be fashionable.
  • Many churches these days are unrelentingly up-to-date, with modern buildings, hip pastors, state-of-the-art music, lighting and video, even smoke machines (yes!). Not everyone likes that either.
  • Some people experience christian gatherings as a haven from the pressures of the modern world, an oasis of personal relationships among the rush of postmodern life.
  • While christian teachings and practice are often expressed in old-fashioned ways, they can be expressed more progressively too. There’s a choice.

For me, the non-contemporary aspects are mostly about the church, and I align myself with those who press for appropriate changes in church. I see belief in Jesus as being ageless rather than either old-fashioned or modern.

Religion opposes science

Religion is always opposed to science because science challenges religious beliefs. The church persecuted scientists in the Middle Ages and held back science for a millennium. Think of the mad christian mob burning the library at Alexandria and killing the scientist Hypatia, the church silencing Galileo and burning Gordano Bruno. Think of the opposition to Darwin and evolution that continues right up to the present. Think of opposition to stem cell research and climate science. Science and religion are on a collision course, and we know science is winning.

At first glance, this seems to be a more substantial objection. We can readily see the opposition to evolution and climate science, and we can see that it isn’t based on fact, but rather on prejudice, misinformation and dogma.

But the historical basis for this argument is actually untrue, even though often claimed by educated sceptics. Historians are quite clear that the church supported the growth of science in many ways although it also opposed it on some occasions. Many of the stories of violent opposition (like those in the paragraph above) are exaggerated and misunderstood, if not outright unhistorical.

And the conflict isn’t inherent. Christianity is an adaptable religion. While some christians try to hold to a perceived constant belief in the Bible, in reality the way the Bible is interpreted has changed right through two millennia of christian history – e.g. Augustine (4th & 5th centuries) urged christians to adapt their interpretation of creation to the known natural world. We no longer believe the world is flat or the centre of the universe and we intepret scripture accordingly.

In the present day, there are many scientists who are christians. Organisations like BioLogos and the Faraday Institute synthesise science and christianity. While the majority of scientists in the western world are not believers, the majority of Nobel Price laureates have identified as religious.

So science is in conflict with some forms of conservative christianity, but embraced by many christians. Science isn’t in itself a barrier to belief in God.

Faith vs evidence

Religion’s all about faith, isn’t it? And faith means believing things for which there’s no evidence. But science is about basing your conclusions on the evidence, and withholding judgment until the evidence is there.

This argument depends on a definition of faith that christians generally don’t accept. For christians, the essence of faith is trust in God. Most christians believe they have good reason to trust in God; for some their reasons are based on personal experience, for other it is based on external evidence. But it is all evidence. Sceptics would argue that the evidence is insufficient, but it remains true that faith isn’t opposed to evidence, but builds upon it.

We all have faith/trust in this way. Anyone who enters into a close personal relationship, whether as a spouse/partner or a close friend, cannot be absolutely certain the other person is trustworthy. Instead, we build the relationship on imperfect knowledge of the person and trust based on that.

Of course there are some christians (and believers in other religions too) who believe dogmatically and are totally closed to any evidence that counts against their belief. I cannot say what percentage of christians are like this, but there are many who are not. We should judge God-belief by those whose belief is most reasonable, not by those whose belief is unreasonable – otherwise we could judge non-belief to be just as dogmatic.

So faith and evidence need not be opposed, and so neither need science and religion.

Who needs God? Science explain everything.

Belief in a god was understandable when the human race had little scientific understanding, and was at the mercy of natural disaster, weather and short lifespans. Having a god to appease and worship gave life meaning and a sense of stability. But we don’t need that any more. Cosmology explains the mystery of the universe, evolution explains the mystery of life, medicine can keep us well and education can open up the world to us. We don’t need God.

Read almost any science and you’ll find that every time science resolves some question, it opens up another one. This isn’t just a trick to get the next research grant, but is a reality. For example:

  • Cosmology explains the big bang and the processes that led to our present universe, but that only raises questions like: What caused the big bang? and How did our universe beat the odds and be so scientifically orderly? and What are dark matter and dark energy?
  • Evolution has explain the process by which life developed from single cells to complex humans, but that raises questions like: How did the first living cell, with all its complex DNA, come into existence? and How did humans come to be conscious of ourselves?
  • As science and mathematics have developed, things like randomness, turbulence and chaos remain difficult to explain scientifically.
  • The theory of relativity and quantum physics have enlarged our understanding of physics, but understanding quantum effects and a theory of quantum gravity remain elusive.

I imagine scientists who know about some of these “problems” will feel confident that one day they will be understood, but then of course new questions will have emerged.

So there are some things science is currently unable to explain. And more importantly, there are some things that it cannot really attempt to explain or even address – questions related to ethics, value, purpose and meaning …. and God.

If God exists, then many of these questions have answers. And studies show that religious believers generally have higher levels of health, wellbeing, altruism and prosociality, the the religious answers seem to work. So the question is NOT whether science has replaced religion, but whether any religion is actually true.

Miracles are unscientific

Religious people believe in impossible things like healing and resurrection and miracles of all different types. But science has proven that these things can’t happen. Dead men don’t come back to life, sick people don’t recover for no reason, and animals can’t talk.

This objection is based on an overstatement. It is true that dead men don’t normally come back to life, healings from severe illnesses and disease don’t normally happen, and medical science can explain why. But science hasn’t proven that they can’t happen, only showed that they don’t normally happen.

And christians agree – these things don’t normally happen. They wouldn’t be called miracles if they were normal occurrences. In the end, either God intervened in the normal pattern of events, or he didn’t. Science can’t tell us which of those possibilities is true, although it may be able to help us decide.

Some non-believers say that the physical chain of events cannot be interfered with from outside, but that is a philosophical question, one in which either answer is possible.

So there isn’t anything unscientific about believing that God has intervened. The question is, is there any evidence that he actually did? This question can be examined by looking at the evidence of whether an unlikely recovery occurred, and whether there was prayer for that recovery immediately beforehand.

Religious belief is just the result of a mental illness

We understand so much about the brain now, and so we know that religious experiences are caused by mental illnesses. For example, schizotypal disorder is known to lead a person being relatively high functioning, socially detached and exhibiting “magical thinking”. This description fits many religious “gurus” and teachers. Religious people believe strange things and religious fervour has many things in common with mental disorders. It all adds up. Religion is a delusion. Science has proved it.

This is another argument that is simply not supported by the evidence (a bit surprising since its proponents are generally arguing that religion involves lack of evidence!).

Psychiatrists have long since found that religious people have generally better mental health than average. For example, there are lower rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, and substance use among the religious, while religious faith and practices have been found to have beneficial effects in the brain.

It is admittedly sometimes hard to distinguish a religious behaviour from a mental illness. As this psychiatrist explains, there are few objective tests for mental illness, and most have to be diagnosed by assessment of behaviour. And behaviour that may be normal in one community may be abnormal in another. So psychiatrists are generally unwilling and unable to describe religious belief as a mental illness.

Conclusion

It is obvious that some religious believers are antiscientific, though they are not alone in this. But religious belief isn’t necessarily inimical to science, and many christians accept science or work in the sciences.

This is not an argument against belief in God, but it may be an argument against some forms of belief in God.

Read more

I have analysed this question in more detail in The conflict between science and religion.

Note: For those not familiar with the term, “daggy” is an Aussie word, “an affectionate insult for someone who is, or is perceived to be, unfashionable, lacking self-consciousness about their appearance and/or with poor social skills yet affable and amusing.” (Wikipedia)

Photo: Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan in 2015 with Russion, US and European astronauts on board, and headed for the international space station (NASA). The first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin reportedly returned from his short trip to report that he didn’t see God up there, though it appears this was probably propaganda rather than his actual words. But it illustrates the supposed conflict between science and religion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *