This Idea Must Die

Detaching Science from Atheism: Radical Life

A recent compendium of ideas compiled by John Brockman (founder of the mind-blowing Edge.org) asks 175 scientists, scholars and thinkers to answer the question: “What accepted scientific theory must be rejected?” The book, “This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories that Are Blocking Progress,” is a mixed bag of well-worn theories and unexpected pronouncements. One of the most surprising comes from technology theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who states simply that atheism as a prerequisite for science should be set aside.

He goes on to say that the unnecessary requirement for a commitment to atheism has resulted in convoluted explanations of the universe that are “no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of biblical prophecy.”

He concludes, “By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has a purpose.”

Cosmic Light in a Bottle?

Science and religion have not always been on divergent trajectories. Many of the early giants of scientific research were people of faith and saw their investigation into the working of the physical universe as a holy endeavor. In one of his books on the mathematics of planetary motion, 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, “O, Almighty God, I am thinking Thy thoughts after Thee!” Yet in the centuries since, the scientific worldview defaulted towards naturalism: the idea of a universe running completely by natural forces.

For many today, the allure of science comes from its ability to help us understand the world around us, unhindered by supposedly outdated ideas about God. From the weather outside to galaxies millions of light years away, science has demystified the universe. We understand how the universe works. We have captured the cosmic light in a bottle.

But have we?

How and Why

A friend of mine is a quantum physicist with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. I went with him to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee where he was doing research on heavy ions. What a rush! There is nothing more manly than blasting atoms to smithereens in a cyclotron.

My friend is an active Christian and very helpful when I have questions about quantum physics (don’t we all?). When I was writing a journal article on theological implications of quantum physics, I asked him to read it to ensure that I both understood and explained the science accurately. After he read the article he said, “You know, Bill, I don’t think I have ever even thought about the theological meaning of my field.”

This was a fascinating admission from a brilliant scientist. His life study dealt with the building blocks of the material universe, yet he had never thought about what his research implied about the basic questions of life.

At least he was honest about his limitations. Many who attain the highest level of education and experience have only a high-school level of ability to interpret the meaning of their research. People default to their “faith” (atheist, agnostic, Christian, etc.) to explain the implications of the evidence they uncover. And we, dutifully, grant them authority because they have achieved a high level of recognized expertise.

But expertise in a specific field does not guarantee special wisdom about morality, philosophy, theology, or life itself. In the case of science, for example, research can tell us how things work but not why. Physicists can tell us quite a bit about gravity, giving us equations that describe gravity’s effect on physical objects verified by experimental observation. But they cannot tell us why gravity even exists.

As Wittgenstein reminded us in “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus“: “The great delusion of modernity is that the laws of nature explain the universe for us. The laws of nature describe the universe, they describe the regularities. But they explain nothing.”

The world’s most famous scientist today, Stephen Hawking, not long ago concluded in “The Grand Design,” “We are a product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. . . . Because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing.”

Even someone as brilliant as Hawking has fallen into the “How does not mean Why” trap. The idea that gravity pre-existed matter and therefore brought matter into existence seems preposterous to many of Hawking’s critics (and even some of his followers).

Oxford scientist John Lennox responds to Hawking’s claims by drolly stating, “Immense prestige and authority do not compensate for faulty logic. . . . Nonsense remains nonsense even when talked about by world famous scientists.”

A Non-Compete Clause?

Other scientists acknowledge some value in religion but categorically exclude any metaphysical notions from the scientific enterprise. Stephen Jay Gould was famous for his “non-overlapping magisteria”—a belief that science and religion occupy different realms of human endeavor but each has authority only in its own arena. The National Academy of Sciences echoed Gould’s view and claimed that by combining them in any way “detracts from the glory of each.”

In one sense, Gould and the NAS are correct. Sometimes when Christians speak about science, they often display arrogant certainty in spite of a lack of understanding in incredibly difficult areas of scientific research. It is embarrassing and only perpetuates the view that Christians have an agenda that is marked by zeal without knowledge.

But the same can be said about scientists who speak about religion. Their lack of understanding of what Christians believe and why is staggering.

One of my favorite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. Not only did she write cracking good crime mysteries (the Lord Peter Wimsey series, which was adapted for the BBC and PBS), but she also was famous as a scholar and Christian essayist. Once an agnostic scientist asked her to write a letter to his scientific organization explaining her rationale for believing in the Christian faith. Her response is classic:

“Why do you want a letter from me? Why don’t you take the trouble to find out for yourselves what Christianity is? You take time to learn technical terms about electricity. Why don’t you do as much for theology? Why do you never read the great writings on the subject, but take your information from the secular ‘experts’ who have picked it up as inaccurately as you? Why don’t you learn the facts in this field as honestly as your own field? Why do you accept mildewed old heresies as the language of the church, when any handbook on church history will tell you where they came from?

“Why do you balk at the doctrine of the Trinity—God the three in One—yet meekly acquiesce when Einstein tells you E=mc2? What makes you suppose that the expression ‘God ordains’ is narrow and bigoted, while your own expression, ‘Science demands’ is taken as an objective statement of fact?

“You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you know about Christian beliefs.”

Sayers ended her letter with a challenge:

“Why do you want a letter from me telling you about God? You will never bother to check on it or find out whether I’m giving you personal opinions or Christian doctrines. Don’t bother. Go away and do some work and let me get on with mine.”

Only Dorothy Sayers could get away with this challenge. She was well-known for her acerbic wit. And she was not going to get dragged into a letter-writing battle over her faith with those who did not take it seriously.

Restoring All Things to Their Places

There are a growing number of well-trained, well-respected Christians in all fields of science. They can and do represent the Christian worldview exceptionally well. They demonstrate that from the worldview perspective, the scientific enterprise and Christians are seeking after the same Truth. May God continue to grow their numbers and give them gifts of communication and winsomeness.

Lennox uses Newton, the greatest scientist in history, as an example: “Isaac Newton did not say, ‘Now that I have the law of gravity, I don’t need God.’ What he did was to write Principia Mathematica, the most famous book in the history of science, expressing the hope that it would persuade the thinking man to believe in God.”

Image copyright Harper Perennial.

Dr. William Brown is the national director of the Colson Fellows Program and senior fellow of worldview at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. A respected leader in Christian higher education, he is former president of Bryan College and Cedarville University. This article is adapted from his blog post “Quantum Reality?


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  • jason taylor

    One reason is simply that supernatural explanations must be put aside from science not because they are impossible but because they are incalculable. A necessary habit of thought easily evolves into an unnecessary conclusion.