Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?
Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?
The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, philosopher Alex Rosenberg declares: “There’s so much more to atheism than its knockdown arguments that there is no God. There is the whole rest of the worldview that comes along with atheism. It’s a demanding, rigorous, breathtaking grip on reality, one that has been vindicated beyond reasonable doubt. It’s called science.” 1
One might think that the case for theism is closed if you listened to the media or academia.
MIT professor Jing Kong, who grew up in China and became a Christian when she was a grad student at the University of California, Berkeley, declares: “[My] research is only a platform for me to do God’s work. His creation, the way he made this world, is very interesting. It’s amazing, really.” 5
We will question the common assumption that science points to atheism.
Christianity and the Birth of Science
Historic Christianity prized the life of the mind. Medieval monasteries were centers of academic study. The first universities emerged from a need to train priests.9 Oxford and Cambridge—and later, universities like Harvard and Yale—were founded as explicitly Christian institutions.
Why was modern science invented in Christian Europe?
The first scientists believed our universe was designed and created by God “according to a blueprint that can be discerned by rational creatures like ourselves.”
Just as atheism cannot ground our ethical beliefs, so it cannot justify our science.
Galileo and the Copernican Revolution
The discovery that the earth revolves around the sun is a case in point. Galileo’s condemnation by the Catholic church in 1633 is presented as a win for atheism, when a conception of the cosmos based on a literal reading of Scripture was challenged by brave scientists willing to stand up to the church.
Galileo was a “Christian.”
The prevailing cosmology before this controversy was not biblical but Aristotelian. Aristotle’s model, in which the earth was at the center of the universe with the sun rotating around it, had been the standard paradigm taught in universities for centuries before Copernicus and Galileo rocked the cosmological boat.
A (Very) Brief History of Christians in Science
Einstein kept pictures of three scientific heroes on the wall of his study: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell. Newton (ca. 1642–1727) is one of the most influential scientists of all time, famous for formulating the laws of gravity and motion. While not an orthodox Christian, owing to his denial of the full divinity of Christ, Newton was an earnest believer in God and wrote more about theology than physics. Faraday (1791–1867) is best known for his work on electromagnetism, and his scientific contributions were so significant that he is considered one of the greatest experimental scientists ever. The Faraday constant is named after him, as is the Faraday effect, the Faraday cage, and Faraday waves. Faraday was a passionate Christian, deeply interested in the relationship between science and faith.17 Maxwell (1831–1879) has been credited with the second great unification of physics, bringing together electricity, magnetism, and light. He was an evangelical Presbyterian, who became an elder of the Church of Scotland.
Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), whose name is memorialized in the Kelvin unit of temperature, is another example of scientific excellence and serious faith.
Darwin fluctuated in his own beliefs during his life, apparently progressing from deism to agnosticism. But Darwin’s closest collaborator and “best advocate,” Harvard professor and botanist Asa Gray, was a passionate Christian.
Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was a Roman Catholic
Christian Scientists Today -
Christian professors at MIT:
Ian Hutchinson - nuclear science
Daniel Hastings - aeronautics and astronautics
Rosalind Picard - AI expert
Troy Van Voorhis - chemistry
Linda Griffith - biological and mechanical engineering
Dick Yue - mechanical and ocean engineering
Chris Love - chemical engineering
Doug Lauffenburger - biological engineering, chemical engineering, and biology
Anne McCants - history
Susan Hockfield - neuroscientist and former MIT president (first female president)
They are: 34 percent of science professors at elite universities say they do not believe in God, versus 2 percent of the general population, and a further 30 percent say they do not know if there is a God and there is no way to find out. 26
One of the most influential scientists in America today, who came to faith when he was already a professional scientist is Francis Collins. Collins led the Human Genome Project and now directs the National Institutes of Health. He grew up in a secular home. Religion wasn’t so much attacked as it was irrelevant. As a graduate student at Yale, he shifted from agnosticism to atheism, assuming that belief in God was rationally untenable. But his atheism was challenged during his time as a junior doctor, when the faith of his patients seemed to give them enviable help in the face of suffering. Collins was particularly shaken by one conversation with an older woman suffering from severe and untreatable pain, who shared her faith in Jesus and asked, “Doctor, what do you believe?” “I felt my face flush,” he recalls, “as I stammered out the words, ‘I’m not really sure.’” In his discomfort, Collins realized that he had never really considered the evidence for God. This patient’s simple question set him on a journey of exploration and research that ended in him accepting Jesus as his Savior. He now believes that “the God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.” 31
Does It Mean Anything?
“You are dust,” declares God to the first man, “and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). From a Christian perspective, my daughters are a bag of cells. But they are not just cells. They are dust. But they are not just dust. Indeed, the Bible insists that our dust-formed selves have immense and inalienable value, not because we are not atoms and molecules, bags of cells, or dust, but because we are dust that has been fashioned by God and called to unique relationship with him. For Christians, therefore, the most important question is not What does science say we are? but Who does God say we are?
The scientific method has enabled us to fly planes, clean water, and cure disease.
The facts about ourselves and our world that are measurable by science may be the easiest to verify.
Genesis is not primarily concerned with science. If it were, we would expect the accounts to be teeming with formulas and phenotypes. The God who made the universe must have scientific knowledge as far surpassing ours as a street lamp is surpassed by the sun! But the lack of scientific detail is not an oversight. Rather, it is a deliberate prioritization of a more important message. As a Christian, I believe that every detail of the creation accounts in Genesis is inspired by God and that these opening chapters are the first course in the Bible’s feast of foundational answers to our deepest questions: Who are we? What does life mean? And how do we relate to God and to each other?
Science and Human Value
Richard Dawkins, who describes himself as a passionate Darwinian when it comes to science and “a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct human affairs.”33 Dawkins declares that “evolution gave us a brain whose size increased to the point where it became capable of understanding its own provenance, of deploring the moral implications and of fighting against them.” But within a materialist worldview that rejects any supernatural storyline, there is no reason to think that the moral implications of evolution are to be deplored, or even that there are such things as moral implications. Using evolution to blast theism leaves the secular humanist stunned by the kickback.
If we are no more than the features that can be described by science, and our only story is the evolutionary story, we have no grounds for insisting on human equality, protection of the weak, equal treatment of women, or any of the other ethical beliefs we hold dear. To cite one example among thousands, female primates are routinely sexually assaulted by males.
Christians ground human uniqueness on the biblical claim that we are made in the image of God.
Science can tell us how things are. It can explain why, for instance, a man might have the drive to commit a sexual assault as an effective means of propagating his genes. But it cannot tell us why he would be wrong to succumb to that drive.
But to call rape wrong, we need a narrative about human identity that goes beyond what science or sociology can tell us.
Are Humans Accidental or Designed?
In addition to evolution’s perceived challenge to human uniqueness, another claim by which atheists seek to discredit Christianity is the idea that if you replayed the evolutionary tape over again, the results would be totally different.
Humans are not in any meaningful sense “designed” or intended by God, so say the atheists. Imperfections supposedly discredit the Christian story. But there are two main problems with this argument.
First, you could make the same argument about history. Many events depend on mishap, coincidence, or chance.
Secondly, the replay-the-tape-for-difference claim may not even represent the best science. Simon Conway Morris, who holds the Chair of Evolutionary Paleobiology at Cambridge University, is best known for his groundbreaking study of the fossils of the Burgess Shale. These fossils are evidence for what is known as the Cambrian explosion: the 20–25-million-year period of accelerated diversification that started about 540 million years ago and produced most of the major animal phyla. Conway Morris is a Christian and highly critical of the claim that evolution validates atheism.
In his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, psychologist Justin L. Barrett argues that religious belief is a natural consequence of the kind of minds we have.43 Barrett is widely regarded as the founding father of the field of evolutionary psychology of religion. He argues that the near universal propensity of humans to hold religious beliefs arises from our bias toward imputing agency. To give a simple example, if our forebears saw a shape that might have been a tiger, they were more likely to survive if they assumed it was a tiger intent on harming them than if they assumed it was just a tiger-shaped rock. Expect a tiger and get a rock: no harm, no foul. Expect a rock and get a tiger: game over! Paint that thinking on a larger canvas, so the reasoning goes, and you’ll start seeing gods behind storms and droughts.
Atheists hail this with relief. It helps explain the stubborn refusal of most humans to abandon religion. But Barrett takes a different view. Formerly a senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, and now a professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Barrett sees the human propensity to believe in God as quite consistent with his Christian faith.
Fine Tuning and the Multiverse
The evidence that our universe is minutely fine-tuned for life raises some challenging questions for atheists today. Cosmologists have isolated key numbers that are fundamental to the physical universe. Some are extremely large. For example, N (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) measures the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. Others are extremely small, like Q (0.00001), which represents the ratio between two fundamental energies. 45
Cambridge professor and world-class astronomer Martin Rees explained in his book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe that if any of these numbers were even fractionally different, there would be no stars, no earth, and no life. Rees presents three possible explanations of this apparent fine-tuning. The first is pure chance. This is so incredibly unlikely that Rees does not find it plausible. The second possibility is that there is a God who intended for the universe to generate life (Isa. 45:18). Rees acknowledges that this is a reasonable view, held by some of his colleagues. But he himself prefers to believe that our universe is one among a mind-boggling number of parallel universes, each governed by different laws and defined by different numbers.
“The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”
We forget to marvel at the very fact that laws of the universe are comprehensible to us. Why should the neurons firing in a mammal’s brain relate to the laws that shape the universe? Why should mathematics, which can in its purest form be undertaken in an armchair, relate to the workings of the world in ways that are both discoverable and beautiful to us?
Nobel Prize–winning physicist Eugene Wigner famously raised these questions in an article entitled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Wigner observed that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.” He ends with gratitude: “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” 51. The evidence shows that there is a mind before the math and a mind before the universe. No, science has not disproved neither Christianity nor theism.
Next month: Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?