Faith

Is Atheism Compatible With Science?

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Much ink has been spilt on the alleged conflict between science and religion — especially between science and Christianity. But what about atheism? Contrary to popular belief, some scholars argue that Darwinistic atheism is actually incompatible with science, because if all human thought is the result of natural laws, a search for truth becomes impossible.

“The reason is that if naturalism is true, then all our ideas are products of forces in nature over which we have no real control (as all is ruled by natural laws),” writes Roger E. Olson in his new book The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality Through the Biblical Story. He argues that the real faith-science conflict arises with atheism, not Christianity.

But is atheism a faith or religion? How can the absence of faith be considered a faith? Ultimately, atheists can no more disprove God’s existence than Christians can prove it. Olson even argues that Western culture struggles with “scientism” — a kind of religion which idolizes science.

The author defines scientism as “an irrational commitment to science as the only reliable path to knowledge and as beyond criticism (except perhaps by scientists themselves).” This approach is “a kind of idolatry of science, at least from a religious perspective. It is putting science on a pedestal where people tend to worship it and judge all beliefs in its light.”

Many atheists believe that God does not exist because they believe science has disproved the supernatural. Specifically, the theory of evolution allegedly explains how apparent design can result from random chance. Thus, many atheists are Darwinists, believing that Darwin’s theory of evolution makes religion unnecessary and therefore demonstrates that the natural world is all there is.

This is, however, a faith claim — it is not actually demonstrated by science. Science, being the explanation of natural phenomena, cannot definitively prove that there is no realm outside of nature. Its purview is limited to nature, so it cannot make supernatural statements one way or the other. Interestingly, it arguably suggests that there is indeed something supernatural.

The very pursuit of truth which is the spirit of all science relies on the idea that there exists an objective truth to be discovered and the human mind can discover it. But if Darwinism is correct, that very idea is a lie.

According to Darwinistic naturalism, “our very thoughts are products of chemicals in the brain,” Olson writes. “Naturalism implies that our beliefs, whatever they are, are controlled by nature, which is a closed system of mathematically describable laws and material-energy forces and phenomena. Therefore, when anyone asserts something as true he or she is not really saying anything other than ‘this is what I think and I cannot think otherwise.'”

Many Darwinists actually accept this, to some extent. Notably, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the human mind is more driven by survival than by truth. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt argues that aspects of the mind such as morality developed from human evolution.

But if naturalism is true and human minds are conditioned by evolution, programmed for survival instead of truth, that poses fundamental problems for science. Olson quotes the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argued “there is a superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.”

“Given that naturalism is at least a quasi-religion, there is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies,” Plantinga declared.

Worse, naturalism also arguably implies nihilism. Olson argues:

If nature is all there is, then there is no real, ultimate meaning in the universe; it is simply an accident and there is no answer to the ultimate question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Nor is there any answer to “What is the meaning of my life?” other than to eat, drink and be merry. Finally, there is no absolute reason why oppressing and taking advantage of people is wrong so long as it does not disadvantage the person or group doing it.

Indeed, atheism is emotionally unsatisfying on multiple levels. “If there is no God as the ultimate moral standard and lawgiver, then why call anything evil?” Olson argues that “when people condemn the Holocaust as evil, they rarely, if ever, mean ‘bad from my culture’s perspective’ or ‘repugnant to my society’s standards of morality.’ They mean something that presupposes a transcendent standard of right and wrong in which genocide is always absolutely wrong.”

“The problem of evil is more of a problem for atheism or naturalism than for theism,” the author concludes. It is hard to disagree with this assessment, especially if naturalism means giving up the ability to condemn the Holocaust as objectively evil.

But what about Christianity? Isn’t the Bible anti-science? Actually, quite the reverse.

Olson argues that the key truths of the Bible cannot be disproven by science. He quotes Emile Brunner, who wrote, “Impossible it is that any essential position of Christian faith should be affected … by changes in the scientific view of the world.” Brunner “was talking about basic Christian metaphysics and doctrine, not the age of the earth, for example.”

Olson also claims that “theology must take into account the material facts of science and not dodge them or deny them. When something is truly a fact of science, such as the sun-centered solar system, theology must adjust to it.”

Indeed, there is a long tradition (including Galileo Galilei) of accepting the truths of the Bible and incorporating the discoveries of science. Galileo quoted Cardinal Baronius, declaring, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Historians like Daniel Hannam have argued that Christian doctrines about God’s rationality and humans made in the image of God actually enabled the birth of science itself. His book The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution explains the Christian influences behind the birth of science and the specific ideas which inspired Galileo.

As for Genesis, Olson explains the ethical point of the creation story, leaving debates about the age of the earth for other scholars. “Ethically, then, the point of the creation story of Genesis and the entire Bible’s witness is the call to care for God’s good creation while avoiding worshiping it,” the scholar argues. He seems to suggest that Christians can believe in an old earth, and perhaps even accept a modified theory of evolution.

Compared to other creation stories at the time, Genesis sticks out in its emphasis on monotheism, creation of the world out of nothing, and call to worship the creator rather than the creature. Whether or not the days are to be taken literally, all Christians can agree on these points.

Indeed, the fundamental compatibility between Christianity and science can be seen in Genesis itself, where God creates everything in the universe — and human beings in his own image. The quest for truth, and the human mind’s very ability to grasp it, is a supernatural gift of God, part of the divine image in human beings.

Rather than a random byproduct of chance, human intelligence mirrors the ultimate creativity which fashioned the universe to behave according to natural laws.

In Darwinistic naturalism, science is a random quirk of evolution, a trick to attract a mate and pass genes on to the next generation. In Christianity, science is literally a miracle of God, where human beings piece together the awesome creativity of the mind behind the universe.