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The Scientific Embrace of Atheism

Why shouldn't the scientific community find atheism so attractive a doctrine? It is only sensible for scientists to suggest aggressively that no power exceeds their own.

by
David Berlinski

Bio

April 28, 2008 - 12:00 am

At sometime after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first entered space, stories began to circulate that he had been given secret instructions by the Politburo. Have a look around, they told him. Suitably instructed, Gagarin looked around. When he returned without having seen the face of God, satisfaction in high circles was considerable.

The commissars having vacated the scene, it is the scientific community that has acquired their authority. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Weinberg, Vic Stenger, Sam Harris, and most recently the mathematician John Paulos, have had a look around: They haven’t seen a thing. No one could have seen less.

It is curious that so many scientists should have recently embraced atheism. The great physical scientists — Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein — were either men of religious commitment or religious sensibility.

The distinguished physicist Steven Weinberg has acknowledged that this is what the great scientists believed: But we know better, he has insisted, because we know more.

This prompts the obvious question: Just what have scientists learned that might persuade the rest of us that they know better? It is not, presumably, the chemistry of Boron salts that has done the heavy lifting.

There is quantum cosmology, I suppose, a discipline in which the mysteries of quantum mechanics are devoted to the question of how the universe arose or whether it arose at all. This is the subject made popular in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It is an undertaking radiant in its incoherence. Given the account of creation offered in Genesis and the account offered in A Brief History of Time, I know of no sane man who would hesitate between the two.

And there is Darwin’s theory of evolution. It has been Darwin, Richard Dawkins remarked, that has made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

A much better case might be made in the other direction. It is atheism that makes it possible for a man to be an intellectually fulfilled Darwinist. In the documentary Expelled, one of those curious exercises in which some scientists, at least, say what they really think, Ben Stein interviews a number of Darwinian biologists eager to evade the evidence whenever possible or to ignore it when not. Rich in self-satisfaction, Dawkins appears at the film’s end.

How did life on earth arise?

The question, Dawkins acknowledges, is very difficult.

Perhaps the seeds of life were sent here from outer space?

It could well be.

Or by a vastly superior intelligence?

Well, yes.

Questions and their answers follow one another, but in the end Stein says nothing. There is no absurdity Dawkins is not prepared to embrace so long as he can avoid a transcendental inference.

Beyond quantum cosmology and Darwinian biology — the halt and the lame — there is the solemn metaphysical aura of science itself. It is precisely the aura to which so many scientists reverently appeal. The philosopher John Searle has seen the aura. The “universe,” he has written, “consists of matter, and systems defined by causal relations.”

Does it indeed? If so, then God must be nothing more than another material object, a class that includes stars, starlets and solitons. If not, what reason do we have to suppose that God might not exist?

We have no reason whatsoever. If neither the sciences nor its aura have demonstrated any conclusion of interest about the existence of God, why then is atheism valued among scientists?

It takes no very refined analytic effort to determine why Soviet Commissars should have regarded themselves as atheists. They were unwilling to countenance a power higher than their own. Who knows what mischief Soviet citizens might have conceived had they imagined that the Politburo was not, after all, infallible?

By the same token, it requires no very great analytic effort to understand why the scientific community should find atheism so attractive a doctrine. At a time when otherwise sober individuals are inclined to believe that too much of science is too much like a racket, it is only sensible for scientists to suggest aggressively that no power exceeds their own.

David Berlinski is the author of the recently released The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, as well as many books about mathematics and the sciences. A Ph.D. from Princeton University, he has taught at colleges and universities in the United States and France, and now lives in Paris.

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