The Supposed March of Science on God

“God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance,” according to Neil deGrasse Tyson. [1] This is a bold claim and many people share the sentiment.  In reality this statement is historically naive, philosophically unjustified, and ignorant of the implications of modern discovery.  In this post I will show you why.

Religious belief has been the motivation for science.

Twelfth century theologians thought of God as loving and consistent, he did not make decisions based on whim.  For this reason they expected the world to work in a predictable way according to laws.  In other words, they did not expect divine intervention at every turn.  They thought of nature as just another way to know what God was like. They did not see nature competing with the Bible, but rather that nature supplemented the understanding they found in scripture. [2]  People around the dawn of science never saw the sort of competition envisioned by men like Tyson. They did not see themselves pushing back against God at all.

bryan-minear-350170-unsplashIn fact, more often they saw themselves pushed by their belief in God.  Far from their belief in God suppressing their curiosity about the world, they saw their faith as the motivating factor behind their work.  For example, Kepler, who discovered elliptical orbits of planets, said, “For a long time, I wanted to be a theologian…now however, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy.” [3]  In Kepler’s day they had a different system for orbits and they used that system to predict a solar eclipse.  Their system got pretty close but it was off by eight minutes, which Kepler could not stand for. As James Hannam puts it, “There was no imprecision about God and he did not make eight-minute mistakes.” [4]  It was because Kepler believed in God, and had faith that the cosmos was designed by him, that he sought out a better model for orbits. Far from the suppressing effect that men like Tyson imagine, Kepler’s faith in God motivated him to further inquiry.

We see the same sort of misunderstanding with Galileo.  Critics of Christianity have claimed that Galileo was persecuted for his scientific beliefs, which shows that religion is opposed to science.  History tells us a different story.  The fact is that Galileo was given a hero’s welcome in Rome in 1611 for his work. [5]  What got Galileo into hot water was not his scientific beliefs, but his open ridicule of Pope Urban VIII. Galileo had discussed his theories with the Pope, to which the Pope expressed his doubts.  Apparently Galileo thought Urban’s reasoning was idiotic as he later published a work titled Dialogue in which he openly ridiculed the Pope by calling him a simpleton.  It was not until this work was published that Urban called Galileo to trial. [6]  Admittedly the Pope should not have used his power to settle a personal score with Galileo, but this is hardly the Faith vs Reason contest that critics make it out to be.  The story of powerful people abusing their power is nothing new.

We see the same story of religious motivations for Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton.  Historically, religious faith has been a starter for science rather than a stopper, despite claims to the contrary.

Science relies on philosophy, grounded in religious belief.

Science does not exist on its own, but relies on certain philosophical commitments in order to operate.  These philosophical commitments are untestable because you have to assume the commitments in order to begin testing.  Two examples are the understandability of nature and the uniformity of nature. [7]  Before you can begin to do science you have to be committed to the idea that nature is understandable (that what I work out in my mind matches what is happening in the real world).  If you cannot trust that what you can work out in your experiments matches the way things really work, then you cannot rely on any scientific discoveries.  But why should you believe that what makes sense to you makes sense of the world?  In the same way, nature must be uniform if we can trust science (the laws of nature must be the same everywhere).  If you cannot trust that what happens in the experiment will match what happens in the same conditions outside of the lab, then you cannot draw any conclusions from your experiments.  But why should you believe that what happens in a test tube will happen in the real world?  Without these commitments, scientific discovery is impossible, and so science itself can never explain why they must be true.  Our own worldview has to do that before we ever start doing science.  As a worldview, atheism does not have the resources to ground these commitments, but must just accept them. Theism, however, can ground them. For God created us to understand the world and a consistent God would be consistent in his creation.  This is not a proof of theism, of course, but it is to say that theism can provide a more complete picture of science than atheism. In other words, theism does not diminish our view of science, it broadens it. It is atheism that must be narrow in the things it can consider.

denied-1936877_640This isn’t the only place that the atheist must narrow his view of the world.  Atheists often claim that there is no evidence that God exists.  This sort of claim is philosophical rather than scientific.  The atheist hasn’t countered all of the evidence that there is for God, but he comes to this conclusion by simply denying evidential status to those things that point to God.  Del Ratzsch explains:

Now the Christian might, for instance, hold that the existence of a world, or the existence of life, or her own existence, or perhaps some sorts of experiences she has had, can best be explained by reference to certain religious principles or a Creator.  She believes that those things constitute evidence for her beliefs. When the religious critic says that there is no evidence, he certainly does not mean to be denying the existence of the world, or of life, or of himself, but is serving notice that he does not accept the background principles that give evidential status to those things.  By claiming that there is no evidence, then, the critic is really saying in effect that the background principles that a believer holds – for instance, that there could not have been a world had it not been for a Creator – are false. It would be interesting to see, for instance, the critic’s evidence that universes could occur independently of being created (And is he not asserting the importance of evidence?). [8]

nashad-abdu-1004-unsplashOn an even more basic level, however, Tyson’s claim that science is filling the gaps that God currently occupies is illegitimate.  He presumes that science and religion are competing explanations for the same things, and so only one can win. To see the problem here, imagine that you have put water on the stove to boil.  The scientist might come along and explain the water’s boiling by describing the transfer of heat from the stovetop to the kettle, and the excitement of the water molecules to result in boiling.  Suppose that you offer a different explanation and say that the water is boiling because you want a cup of tea.  Is the scientist in competition with you? Of course not! The explanation in terms of how the water came to boil is supplemental to the explanation of why the water came to boil.  In the same way, religious claims about God’s action in the universe are simply unchallenged by claims about the physical processes involved.  As Del Ratzch puts it, “If God designed his laws to accomplish his purposes, why should we see him then as being in competition with those laws, so that we have to choose between God’s activities and natural laws as somehow rival explanations?” [9]  In other words, any scientific explanation can at best describe how God has brought something about but it can never challenge the claim that God has brought it about.  The claims of men like Tyson on this matter are simply unjustified.

Science is not a challenge for theists, but for atheists.

Over the past decades we have discovered in no uncertain terms that the universe began to exist, which is evidence for one of the premises in the Cosmological Argument (which I have written about Here).  We have also discovered a remarkable number of constants and quantities that are fine-tuned for the existence of life, which lends credence to the Fine-Tuning Argument for God’s existence (which you can find Here).  Meanwhile there have been no scientific discoveries which have decreased the likelihood that God exists.

None of this is meant to, in and of itself, prove that God exists.  What we can see is that historically, philosophically, and in terms of modern discoveries science and religion are allies rather than enemies.

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[1] 2018, accessed 4/14/2018. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/514667-god-is-an-ever-receding-pocket-of-scientific-ignorance.

[2] James Hannam, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – Kindle (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc, 2011), pg 57-58.

[3] ibid, pg 295.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid, pg 319.

[6] ibid, pg 332.

[7] Del Ratzsch, Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective – Kindle (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ch1, Presuppositions of Science.

[8] ibid, Ch 7, Four Challenges: Religious Belief is Unsupported by Evidence.

[9] ibid, Ch 7, Four Challenges: Religious Belief is Superfluous.


Image Attributions, in order of appearance:

  1. Feature: Anonymous on pixabay.com
  2. Bryan Minear on unsplash.com
  3. tswedensky on pixabay.com
  4. Nashad Abdu on unsplash.com
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