Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Monday, 9 March 2015

Science, Religion & Atheism

This essay will argue that contemporary atheist accounts of the relationship between science and religion are unsatisfactory and unconvincing. By referring to the writings of contemporary atheists, and a selection of their arguments, this piece of writing will highlight particularly common features of their arguments which make their accounts unconvincing. Firstly, the failure to recognise both science’s limits, and the contribution of religion in humanity’s quest for truth and meaning; and secondly the misrepresentation of religion, through extreme examples which are far from the reality of mainstream religious faith. Furthermore, I will present examples of how Christianity, and religion in general, undoubtedly fulfil the deeper needs of humanity, responding to the questions which often arise out of scientific discovery, but which cannot be answered by science. Discussions on the different roles of science and religion will inevitably lead to the proposal that contemporary atheism should not dismiss religion, but acknowledge its importance, its contribution today and throughout history, for the good of humanity. 

It is important to remember that science seeks to describe the forms and processes of this world. However,it refrains from (or perhaps cannot) make observations on issues of value and meaning. Thomas H. Huxley, a supporter of Darwin, makes this very point long before the writings of contemporary atheists, declaring that science ‘commits suicide when it adopts a creed.’ This means that if science is taken over by fundamentalists, whether atheist or religious, its very principle is overthrown, with its authority and credibility compromised. The experimental method, notably comprised of the accumulation of evidence through observation, must be blind to, and unconcerned by race, gender, or religion - particularly with regards to its researchers.   

Contemporary atheists do not see compatibility between science and religion. Their view is that science can only look down upon religion, as a multifaceted phenomenon, from its soaring heights of knowledge and rationality. Science can observe religion, explaining this ‘psychological state’ which believers appear to be in, along with their ‘drug-induced hallucinations’ and ecstasy. This attitude of superiority over religious faith is found throughout the writings of contemporary atheists -conveying religion as childish and unintellectual. Richard Dawkins for example argues that recent scientific discoveries shatter the illusion of created design, and that these discoveries are in fact alternatives to inferior religious thoughts and ideas, rather than compatible. When posed with the question ‘how did life get here?,’ Dawkins argues that one should choose the intellectual path of science, reason and evidence to answer this question; pointing to natural selection. For him, natural selection is the only workable solution to this question, with the argument from design being simply too improbable, and in fact refuted by Darwin’s discovery. In his book ‘The God Delusion,’ Dawkins states that as science continues to advance  and break new boundaries, religion will have no part to play in answering such questions on existence, with the idea of God eventually ‘having nothing to do and nowhere to hide.’ Therefore, religious belief desperately grips onto the small gaps of knowledge which limitless science has still to discover and explain. This is not remotely convincing, as the world’s ‘actual and observable’ not only define science, but also define its limitations . Although Dawkins, in ‘The God Delusion,’ is quick to question religious morality and its fruitfulness he contradicts himself by stating ‘science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.’ On the other hand, Sam Harris argues that science and rationality alone can solve ethical problems, as long as we agree to morality being a question of happiness and suffering. He suggests we use a scientific method when faced with a ‘right or wrong’ dilemma, based on our intuition. There is indeed a moral code engrained in each person, acting as a guide,  which Christians would refer to as our ‘human conscience.’ However the issue with Sam Harris’ approach, as he suggests himself, is that our human reasoning and intuition has ‘been known to fail.’ This is perhaps where contemporary atheists such as Harris could acknowledge for example, the contribution being made by the Christian Church, in its effort to guide human conscience and intuition towards the good, with its goal of preserving life and love.

It is quite clear that science alone simply cannot answer some, if not many of humanity’s questions, specifically with regard to morality. It is easy for Dawkins to say that humanity can easily live harmoniously without the idea of God, or without religious moral guidance. However one of the fundamental principles of natural selection is the survival of the fittest. In practice, this could mean feeding yourself instead of your weak neighbour, or making sure you alone are financially stable, rather than sharing your possessions with people less fortunate. This mentality clearly goes against our human conscience, as well as the basis of Christian life. Love, humility, charity and compassion are virtues we could scientifically survive without - but we generally strive to keep these self sacrificing, arguably spiritual attributes of man, as we realise they benefit the human psyche and society. 

Dawkins seems to hold the view that questions such as ‘why does anything exist?’ or ‘why are we here?’ are rather inferior and childish, and science has no part to play in answering such questions. Perhaps this is precisely the point. Science clearly has its limits. This appears to be the main issue concerning contemporary atheist accounts on the relationship between science and religion. They appear to dismiss the basic premises which are the foundation for the arguments of the opposing (religious) group. No one can deny the profound spiritual and religious need, thirst and fulfilment of humanity, whether one believes in, or approves of it or not. There are around 2.2 billion Christians in the world, and many more religious believers, living and experiencing their faith - this must not be dismissed. For contemporary atheists, and particularly for Dawkins, the disciplines of philosophy, theology and psychology, which clearly answer questions the natural sciences cannot,  are at the best of times secondary, if not useless. ‘If you are not a scientist who never bothers to ask the reason for the existence of anything, from the beauty of the universe to the sheer evil that men do, you are an idiot.’ Contemporary atheism insists that we only discuss God’s existence on the basis of science, however questions concerning our Creator and religious life are metaphysical. If atheism concentrates solely on science in the quest for knowledge, then metaphysical discussions will certainly be dismissed, along with religious experience and teaching. This yet again points to the difficulty in finding atheist accounts convincing - they refuse to accept or contemplate anything which is seen as revelation, divine presence, or religious experience. In fact, Dawkins claims that humanity’s spiritual and religious tendencies are an accident - a natural characteristic gone wrong. Perhaps this ‘accidental by-product,’ or the ‘misfiring of something useful,’ is actually a natural gift of spirituality granted to humanity for a divine purpose and meaning. There is no scientific evidence for either position, however they are both equally valid points of view. It is this lack of consideration, and bias orientation which seems to be held by Dawkins and his fellow contemporary atheists, which causes their accounts to be rather unconvincing.

Christopher Hitchens uses extreme examples (mostly islamic fundamentalism and Catholic  teaching) in order to convey his view that science and medicine oppose religion. The writer of ‘God is not Great’ does this by highlighting that as modern medicine advances, miracles can be scientifically explained. Hitchens’ aim is to emphasise the inferiority of religious belief in opposition to medicine and science. Although he clearly sees religion as unhealthy, as opposed to medicine which clearly promotes good health, he dismisses the abundance of care which religion offers society, and its individuals. Within Christianity for example, the mystery of confession is proven to release psychological tensions, decrease the likelihood of depression, and create a pastoral oasis in the faithfuls’ day to day struggles. Just as science contributes to the wellbeing of man, religion does likewise and in addition offers guidance and compassion. Similarly, in the writings of Sam Harris, the profoundly pastoral and caring contribution of religion to society is masked by extreme examples of the holocaust and terrorism. These are clearly not representative of mainstream religious faith. Such arguments prove ineffective and unconvincing, due to the use of rare cases of violence. The same style of argument could easily be made against atheism, with the soviet authority’s attempt to eliminate the entire Christian community between 1918-1941 in an atheist pursuit - but it is clear this is misrepresentative of atheism.

Alister McGrath, (the renowned scientist and theologian) in his latest lecture on ‘God, Science and faith’ in Edinburgh, states that scientific facts about the world induce metaphysical questions, which can only be answered by other disciplines, and in particular religion. Science, particularly biology, can be rather mechanistic, however it is clear that as the natural sciences discover how wonderful the universe appears, ‘a religious type of emotion is liable to be aroused.’ There are various layers of questions that one can ask, and a great number of existential questions cannot be answered within the realms of science. For example, when discussing who we are and what we are doing on this earth, both biology and chemistry would be able to give us answers - but there are deeper answers, which we as human beings look for through philosophy, theology and spiritual life. These questions may not interest Dawkins and other atheists, but they certainly do interest most human beings; seeking true meaning behind the physical realm of reality. We are able to explain why we instinctively make a cup of coffee, and eat (due to our chemical need for ‘fuel’, our desire and will to survive). However, it is rather difficult for science to explain why many will decide not to eat, in order for someone else to have food. This is the self-sacrificing love we find in the poetic psalms, in the Gospel, and within examples of Christian lives. Contemporary atheists, in keeping with their own line of argument, reject the divine essence of Christ’s Gospel, however it would be encouraging if they were to acknowledge its revolutionary, loving nature - taking human being’s worth and potential to renewed and great heights. Christianity today, just as it always has done, brings something rather special to society - good acts and a positive vision, without precedence.


This essay has shown why contemporary atheist accounts of the relationship between science and religion are unreasonable, insufficient and unconvincing. To conclude, this piece of writing highlights the different goals which both religion and science have; with contemporary atheism dismissing this deeper meaning and understanding of the world. These deeper meanings, concentrated on the inner man, transcend scientific methodology,  so it does seem unfair for atheism to compare science with religion on the same level. Spiritual and religious life is central to humanity’s understanding - and this should be positively considered by atheists in relation to science. 



Bibliography :

Dawkins, R 2003, A Devil’s Chaplain, Boston : Houghton Mifflin, p.34.
Dawkins, R 2006, The God Delusion, London : Black Swan, p.139-151, 188.
Dennett, D 2007, Breaking the Spell, London : Penguin, p.29.
Fraassen, B 1980, The Scientific Image, Oxford : OUP, p.202-203.
Gauch, H 2003, Scientific Method in Practice, New York : CUP, p.1-110.
Harris, S 2004, The End of Faith, London : Free Press, p.170-184.
Hart, D 2009, Atheist Delusions, Michigan : Yale, p.45.
Huxley, T 1893, Darwiniana, London : Macmillan, p.252.
Hitchens, C 2007, God is not Great, London : Atlantic, p.43-48.
McGrath, A 2007,The Dawkins Delusion, London : SPCK, p.48.
McGrath, A 2011, Why God won’t go away, London : SPCK, p.72.
Papavassiliou, V 2013, The God Debate is Over, but no one has noticed (Online Article)
Smart, J 2003, Atheism & Theism, Oxford : Blackwell, p.11.

1 comment:

  1. I have been interested in science from a young age and later in life came to the Orthodox faith. It has struck me in reflection how now and in the past scientists from their own belief systems. 60 years ago it was claimed that the earths continents were static, now it is plate tectonics which prevails. In the early 80s were to expect an new ice age now we have Global warming. In space we can identify at best 10% of what exists. We are advised that there must be Dark Matter otherwise the universes would fly part. We are also advised that there must be a mysterious force because instead of gravity slowing everything down it appears to be accelerating with is coined as Dark Force and Energy as in the case of things in the night sky going in the “wrong “ direction. The universe cannot be the size it is unless it rapidly expanded at some point and then for no reason decided to slow down again. No provable explanations is offered for this in the scientist world. Rather we are asked to believe that it is so and that maybe one day they will come up with an answer.

    Science has its own “Orthordoxy” which It jealously guards against any who question it as truth, that is until some inconvenient fact is found and a new scientific orthodoxy is adopted. To take a leaf from the scientific logic “There is no possible experiment that a scientist could do that would prove or disprove the existence of God” Therefore a scientist would have to accept the possibility of a God otherwise he or she is not being scientific.

    ReplyDelete