In this article, I will be attempting to unpack some of the key contemporary challenges from modern science to the Christian beliefs. Specifically:
- Are Science and God incompatible?
- Does Religion Hinder Science?
- Is there Scientific Evidence for God?
- How Should Christianity Shape our Science?
1. Are Science and God Incompatible?
In an interview with El Mundo magazine, the late Physics Professor Stephen Hawkins remarked:
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.”1
Many, like Hawkins, argue against Christianity by using the “God of the Gaps” argument. Evolutionary Biology Professor Richard Dawkins describes this argument as his “central argument” in his book “The God Delusion”. And the “God of the Gaps” goes like this:
Human beings used to believe that lightning was caused by God’s anger, disease was caused by God’s judgement on bad behaviour, and biodiversity was caused by God’s creativity. However, now we know that lightning is caused by electron flow, disease is caused by microorganism activity, and biodiversity is caused by evolution. The more science discovers, the less we need God as an explanation. Therefore, why bother believing in God at all?
However, this argument is based on the straw-man claim that Christians believe in the God of “everything science doesn’t know”- i.e. we insert God as an explanation to plug the gaps in scientific understanding. However, according to the bible, God is the creator and sustainer of everything in creation: both what science can explain and what science can’t. Mathematics Professor John Lennox, in “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?”, explains the need to differentiate between “mechanism” and “agent”. The mechanism that explains the movement of a car is the thermodynamics of the internal combustion engine. The agent that explains the movement of a car is the driver (or programmer if the car is driverless). Mechanism and agency are not two contradictory explanations of observations; they are two different levels of explanation. Science studies mechanisms; God is the agent who works through the mechanisms to accomplish His will.
In other words, God usually chooses to work through consistent, observable, predictable mechanisms to sustain the universe. In studying science, we are simply studying the mechanisms of God’s work.
2. Does Religion Hinder Science?
Another common argument levelled at Christianity, is that faith in God hinders scientific progress. As Chemistry Professor Peter Atkins writes: “humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose, and that any survival of purpose is inspired only by sentiment.”2
Dawkins similarly writes, “It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, “mad cow” disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”3
The problem with this argument is what Prof. Lennox terms “the forgotten roots of science”4. The 16th and 17th Centuries saw the disciplines of the sciences explode in terms of new and revolutionary discoveries and progressions, and the birth of the modern scientific method. However, this radical era was not driven by atheistic ideology, but rather substantially by scientists’ beliefs in a creator God, and assumption of the existence of created order to the universe. Towering figures of this era such as Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and Babbage were all theists, (and in fact mostly Christian), and whose hunt for created intelligible order led to the discovery of a huge number of the fundamental laws and principles of nature. And we know this to be the case because of what these scientists said about their own science.
Michael Faraday wrote: “I cannot doubt that a glorious discovery in natural knowledge, and the wisdom and power of God in the creation, is awaiting our age, and that we may not only hope to see it, but even be honoured to help in obtaining the victory over present ignorance and future knowledge.”5
Johannes Kepler, when asked about his world-changing discoveries in cosmology, reputedly replied “… I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after Him”
C. S. Lewis succinctly summarised the case in “Miracles: a Preliminary Study”: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a legislator”6
3. Is There Scientific Evidence for God?
In an interview for CBC’s The Hour, Richard Dawkins said:
“[Religion] is a matter of belief without evidence. And as a scientist and as an educator, I like the idea that we believe in things because there is evidence. There’s such a lot of evidence available now at the beginning of the 21st Century, that it’s a real shame- it’s a tragedy, to base your life upon something for which there is no evidence and never was any evidence”7
In his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, neuroscientist Dr Sam Harris writes:
“Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever.”8
I would strongly disagree with Dawkins and Harris. I believe that there is strong evidence for the existence of God, including strong evidence from science. Below are two brief but, in opinion, compelling arguments from science in favour of God’s existence.
a) The Existence of the Universe: The Cosmological Argument
This argument (sometimes called the Kalam Cosmological Argument) is an ancient one that can be traced in some form, all the way back to Plato and Aristotle9. However, it still remains a hugely popular and, in my view, very powerful piece of evidence in favour of the existence of God. And the evidence cannot be more accessible; it is the simply the existence of the universe.
The argument is based on two premises:
- Premise 1: Everything that has a beginning has a cause
- Premise 2: The universe had a beginning
Premise 1: Everything that has a beginning has a cause
This premise is fairly uncontroversial and intuitive. Our experience informs us that if an object, state or process begins, it always begins for a reason. In fact, this assumption is the foundation of most experimental science, which looks to deduce the causes of observations.
We can also assess this premise by looking at its negation (or alternative). If the negation of a statement is false, it logically follows that the statement must be true. And of course, if the negation of a statement is true, the statement itself must be false.
The negation of Premise 1 would be “not everything that has a beginning has a cause”, or in other words “something can come from nothing”. However this is certainly not a logical thing to say. Nothing cannot create anything, because nothing cannot do anything. To suggest that something can come from nothing is, to put it bluntly, worse than magic. At least when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, we have the magician to posit as the cause (never mind the hat!).10
Therefore, on philosophical, scientific and experiential grounds, most critics conclude that Premise 1 is true: everything that has a beginning has a cause.
Premise 2: The universe had a beginning
Although my field is Human Biology, I find the physics of the start of the universe absolutely fascinating. Over recent years, a huge amount of evidence has come to the fore clearly indicating that the universe had a beginning, roughly 13.7 billion years ago. I shall briefly touch on some of this evidence, which has come from three very different scientific fields: cosmological physics, molecular chemistry and applied mathematics.
18th Century cosmology revolutionised the ancient debate of whether the universe had a beginning or not, with the discovery of the Doppler shift. This was the finding that the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation coming from distant galaxies and stars indicated that the universe is in a state of cosmic expansion. When extrapolated into the past, this resulted in the theory that the universe started with a single “explosion” from an infinitesimally small point. We of course now commonly call this the “Big Bang Theory”. The Big Bang Theory totally transformed cosmology, by switching the mainstream scientific view that the universe was eternal, to that of the universe having a beginning.
Evidence for a beginning of the universe also comes from a fundamental principle of chemistry: the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The 2nd Law states that the magnitude of the entropy (a measure of “disorder”) of the universe is increasing. However, this Law requires there to have been a beginning to the universe a finite time ago, for if the universe has existed from eternity past, the universe would be totally disordered by now. This would produce a universe devoid of any fluctuations of enthalpy (measure of “heat energy”), which is certainly not what we observe today. As Prof. Stephen Hawking remarked:
“it [the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics] indicates that there must have been a beginning. Otherwise, the universe would be in a state of complete disorder by now, and everything would be at the same temperature.”11
In 2003, another weighty piece of evidence emerged from the field of applied mathematics. Leading scientists Arvind Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin mathematically proved that any universe that is in an average state of cosmic expansion cannot be infinite in the past, but must have had a beginning12. Vilenkin’s conclusion was blunt:
“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”13
The volume and breadth of scientific evidence mean that scientists virtually unanimously agree that the universe had a beginning.
Once we have established that the two premises are true, we can then add a conclusion.
- Premise 1: Everything that has a beginning has a cause
- Premise 2: The universe had a beginning
- Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause
The universe having a cause may not seem like a significant statement given the premises, and it certainly does not prove God’s existence on its own. However, we can now look at what a cause of the universe would have been like. From what we know about the universe, we can deduce several characteristics of its cause14:
- The universe encompasses the entire “material world”. Therefore the cause of the universe must be immaterial.
- The universe includes within it all of the spatial dimensions. Therefore the cause of the universe has to be unbound by the spatial dimensions, so must be dimensionless or infinite.
- The universe also includes within it, all of the temporal dimensions. (Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity showed that space and time are actually two components of the same substance, unimaginatively called “spacetime”.) Therefore a cause of the universe has to be unbound by the temporal dimensions, so must be timeless, or
- Finally the cause of the universe must be immensely powerful, to have created all that we see around us in the universe.
So science leads us to look for a cause of the universe that is immaterial, dimensionless, infinite, eternal and incomprehensibly powerful. One does not need to be a theist to realise that this sounds like a comprehensive description of God!
b) The Fine-Tuning of the Universe: The Teleological Argument
The Teleological Argument is potentially even older than the Cosmological Argument, with many believing that it arose with Plato’s teacher, Socrates. The argument can be simply summarised in six words: the universe appears to be designed.
Physics has discovered that the universe is governed by a plethora of universal physical constants and quantities (e.g. the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, etc.). These constants all fall within a literally incomprehensibly narrow range of life-permitting values. I’ll provide two brief examples, but of course the list is very long.
The weak nuclear force is the force that prevents atoms exploding due to the electrostatic repulsion between positive protons in the nucleus. The weak nuclear force is so finely tuned that an alteration is its value by 1 part in 10100 would prevent the formation of stable atoms. This would obviously lead to a universe that does not permit the existence of life.
Another universal constant is the cosmological constant which drives the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. An alteration of the cosmological constant by 1 part in 10120 would cause the universe to expand either too quickly or slowly. Both would prevent star formation and the universe would be rendered life-prohibiting.
As the philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig summarises:
“The range of life-permitting values for the constants and quantities (of the universe) is extremely narrow. If the value of even one of these constants or quantities were to be altered by a hair’s breadth, the delicate balance required for the existence of life would be upset and the universe would be life-prohibiting.”15
Imagine, by some bizarre and worrying turn of events, I was playing a game involving a lottery machine and a handgun. The lottery machine contains 99 identical black balls and 1 white ball, and after jumbling the balls, one is selected at random. If the white ball is selected, nothing happens; however, if a black ball is selected, I get shot. Imagine the ball is drawn and to my surprise and relief, the white ball is chosen. After mopping my brow (and probably changing my underwear), it would undoubtedly dawn on me that the lottery machine was possibly rigged for my survival. I would not be certain, but the improbability of my survival would definitely raise my suspicions of cheating (not that I would launch a complaint on this occasion).
Imagine now, that the game described above was actually 1 round of 100, and each time the process was repeated with 99 black balls and 1 white ball. And 100 times, the lottery machine was jumbled, and the white ball was “randomly” selected. After the 10th time the white ball was selected, I would be pretty certain that the machine was rigged for my survival, and after the 50th round, I think I would probably start to get quite comfortable with the game.
This is the situation we find ourselves in when we analyse the physical constants of the universe. Each constant seems finely tuned for our survival, and the probability of every constant being fine-tuned for permissibility of life is so astronomically small that it seems logical to deduce that the universe has been rigged for our survival. However, in order for the universe to be rigged, it requires a rigger who wants us to survive. A universe rigger who desires our survival sounds very much like the definition of God.16
Before we turn to some common objections to the Teleological Argument there is a point that needs to be made regarding objections.
Imagine that a man and his son are walking down a sandy beach at dusk. There is no-one in sight and all that they can hear is the sound of the waves. They turn a corner made by a little out-pouching of the cliff-face, and they see, written in the sand, the word “sternocleidomastoid”. If you are a biologist, you will probably know what this word means17. However, they, like most people, do not recognise the word. The father and son look at the writing, and start to ponder to each other. What does it mean? Who wrote it? Why did they write it? How did they write it?
However, one thing is unquestionable in the pair’s minds: somebody wrote it. Perhaps someone could argue that it is possible (albeit astronomically improbable) that the word came to be there by the random deposition of sand by the waves that so happened to create a word that means something to a small group of people. This may be possible as an explanation of the word in the sand, but would one really describe it as logical?
Many objections that I have heard to the Teleological Argument stem from the notion that “improbability” does not mean “impossibility”. However, such advocates often find that they are kicking against their own logical mind, in order to avoid what is, in my view, the most logical explanation to the fine-tuning of the universe: a cosmic fine-tuner.
4. How Should Christianity Shape our Science?
Being Christian should shape the way we view and do science in exciting and wonderful ways. Psalm 104 gives us a solid framework on which to build a Christian view of science.
1 Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
4 He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.
5 He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.
6 You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
8 they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.
9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.
10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.
16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.
18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.
19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
21 The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.
22 The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.
23 Then people go out to their work,
to their labor until evening.
24 How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
26 There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
27 All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
28 When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
29 When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
30 When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.
35 But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Praise the Lord.
Psalm 104 speaks of God’s ownership of all creation (v14), which exists to glorify His majesty and facilitate His work. The psalm then goes on to describe God’s role as creator and sustainer of the water system (v5-18), the diurnal system (v19-23) and the ecosystems (v24-30). The Psalm then ends with a call to songful praise (v33), meditation (v34a) and joy (v34b).
When we study science, we get to revel in the creative genius and beauty of God’s handiwork, as it declares His glory.
Medical Professor John Wyatt explains it wonderfully:
“Let me tell you a story. A scientist is working in her laboratory one day. She is a biologist- a specialist in classification and genetic analysis of plants. And as she is working in her laboratory, a plant specimen is delivered. And being a scientist, she immediately beings the work of classification and genetic analysis. Now the point is that her scientific work is absolutely accurate. This is precisely the scientific classification of the specimen she has received. But there is another meaning, a deeper meaning which does not deny the validity of the science that lies behind it. Someone is trying to tell her something. And what the bible and the Christian faith teach us is that the entire cosmos is like a red rose. Someone is trying to tell us something. Yes, we may be pathetic little primates, on an insignificant arm of a galaxy, but someone is trying to tell us something.”18
- Stephen Hawkings, interview with Pablo Jauregui, El Mundo, 2014
- Peter Atkins, Will Science Ever Fail?, New Scientist, 1992, p.32-35
- Richard Dawkins, Is Science a Religion?, The Humanist, 1997, p.26-39
- Prof John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, 2007, 2009, p.20-23
- Michael Faraday, quote by B. Jones in The Life and Letters of Faraday: Volume II.
- C S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 1947, p.110
- Richard Dawkins, interview for CBC’s The Hour, 2007
- Dr Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason
- “Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God”, Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Philosophy(1967), Vol. 2, 232 ff.
- Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, On Guard (David C Cook, 2010), 75
- Stephen Hawkings, The Beginning of Time Lecture (1996)
- Arvind Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete, arXiv: gr-qc/0110012v2 (14th January 2003)
- Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 176
- Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, On Guard, 99
- William Lane Craig, On Guard, 109
- Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, On Guard, 113-118
- In case you are interested, the sternocleidomastoid is a muscle in the side of the neck which contributes to the tipping and rotating of the head.
- Prof John Wyatt, Science Can Explain Everything, sermon at All Souls Church, 21st October 2012