Belief in Science and Belief in God 1: One Scientist’s Response

Belief in Science and Belief in God 1: One Scientist’s Response

Albert E+

In this age of modern science, we face the question of whether we need a belief in God for our advancement. In fact, many vocal atheists today—such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, etc.—make heavy use of science to justify their denial of the existence of God.

These are highly intelligent and well-educated people whose statements against religion make the claim that a belief in God is both “delusional” and a “dangerous threat” to the survival of humankind, and that it provides “false comfort” in the face of danger and difficulty. They claim religious people necessarily oppose critical thinking and believe in ideas “without evidence”. A number of them have referred to the religious education of children as “child abuse”. These atheists are especially hostile towards scientists who claim evidence for intelligent design in Nature, and/or those who question whether Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—viewed as an undirected process without a need for God to intervene—can fully explain the diversity of life on Earth. (Or, indeed, explain the beginnings of life on Earth.)

While it is true that a slight majority (60%) of scientists surveyed declared themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic” where it concerns belief in a personal God, many reputable scientists see no conflict between science and religion. Despite this, inflammatory and highly disrespectful language is used in advancing this debate.

An important point to consider in this discussion is that, despite claims to the contrary from atheists, there is a strong faith principle within the scientific discipline that is not well-appreciated by the public and needs to be expounded upon. Current theoretical physics research is undergoing a crisis, where certain physicists—mostly atheists—are  adopting questionable positions about physical reality, while demanding blind acceptance from the public about their beliefs. This is especially prevalent in the areas of string theory and in some very recent origin hypotheses.

On the other side of the equation, some atheists within the scientific community are openly hostile towards colleagues who question the limitations of evolution by undirected natural selection, and those who further suggest evidence for intelligent design  in the Universe. (When I speak here of intelligent design, I do not mean the specifically Christian hypotheses that extends Creationist ideas into the scientific arena, but rather the general concept that there has been some direction in the evolution of life in the universe.)

Human discovery functions best within an atmosphere of open and fearless inquiry, but the new atheists’ indiscriminate hostility and willful ignorance about religion in general (and Islam in particular) impinges on that openness by placing some ideas and dialogue off-limits and by suggesting that there is some knowledge we ought to fear. This, in turn, has the potential to cause harm for religionists who have nothing to do with extremism. I would argue that there exist potential public safety issues if the atheist rhetoric—especially around such issues as the extremist nature of all Islam or the criminality of exposing children to religion—goes unchallenged by reason.

In expounding their views on these subjects, this “new” generation atheist thinkers suggests that there is a type of knowledge that human beings should not give their children—indeed, that religious knowledge should not be considered in making decisions at the individual or collective level. I’d like to speak to that suggestion.

A Bahá’í Perspective on Knowledge and Use of Language

I am a Bahá’í. To counter the new atheist assertion that religion is anti-knowledge, I must observe that the Bahá’í Faith has from its inception valued the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth, making it a key principle of faith. The Faith encourages its followers to achieve excellence in education with humility and respect for others, and for the service of humankind.

Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent.  Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words.  Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world. . . . In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 51)

To counter the assertion that religion and science are natural enemies, I must observe that there is a requirement in my faith for a correspondence between science and religion:

Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond.  Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man.  If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107)

Indeed, the Bahá’í Faith advances the claim that the pursuit of science requires guidance from religion, with serious consequences if the two do not work hand in hand:

If religion were contrary to logical reason then it would cease to be a religion and be merely a tradition.  Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress.  It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!  Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 142)

Atheists, meanwhile, take the general viewpoint that only material processes are “real” and anything with a spiritual dimension is “superstition.”

How are we to resolve these apparent differences and find common ground? That’s what I’d like to explore in my next posting.

Albert E+

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12 thoughts on “Belief in Science and Belief in God 1: One Scientist’s Response

  1. Hi Sandra:

    Thanks for the reference to Shermer. It is excellent.

    We are probably a bit one-sided – and tend too much towards debunking the irrational beliefs of the new atheists.

    But, religion is chock full of irrational belief, and I must admit to being post-religious in the sense that I tend to assume that educated people are aware of religion’s failings and have been for some time. More and more, I’m finding out that this is not so.

    BTW, I think Shermer is by far the most reasonable of anyone in the debunking-of-religion crowd. Here is a quote from him here on why otherwise intelligent religious people fear evolution:

    They’ve been sold a bill of goods by people who like the warfare model of science and religion, particularly fundamentalists and militant atheists. Both sides want to force a choice and debunk the other side.

    But, then he echoes the new-atheist dogma that belief in God is like belief in magic:

    The natural inclination in all humans is to posit a force, a spirit, outside of us. That tendency toward superstitious magical thinking is just built into our nature. … [The impulse to believe in God] is [built on] a similar foundation of magical superstitious thinking.

    In his defense, he understands that there are nuances to this perspective.

    But, the reality is more likely that the natural tendency in all humans is to be aware that they and other people have minds and that these minds have great powers. Ideas of God much more likely come from that. So, this view of his is due for a debunking. (Yes, there is an element of belief in spiritual forces outside of us in religious thinking, much as there is a belief in the magical powers of material objects in modern secularism.)

    Stephen Friberg

  2. Hi Albert E+

    What is your take on recent comments by Tony Blair, former prime minister of the UK, on science and religion, after his recent debate with Christopher Hitchens (see here at the Washington Post for his comments)?

    Faith … is not simply a solace in times of need, though it can be; nor a relic of unthinking tradition; and still less a piece of superstition, or an explanation of biology. It answers instead a profound spiritual yearning, something we feel and sense instinctively. This is a spiritual presence bigger, more important, more meaningful than just us alone; that has its own power separate from our power; and that even as the world’s marvels multiply, makes us kneel in humility not swagger in pride.

    If faith is seen in this way, science and religion are not incompatible, destined to fight each other until eventually the cool reason of science extinguishes the fanatical flames of religion. Rather science educates us as to how the world is and how it functions. Faith educates us to the purpose to which such knowledge is put, the values that should guide its use and the limits of what science and technology can do, not to make our lives materially richer but richer in spirit.

    Stephen

  3. The first principle of the Teaching of Baha’u’llah is: The Search after Truth.

    Scientific inquiry (the unprejudiced variety), if it fails to keep a healthy skeptical balance with observed facts, then it is doomed to become dogma. Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and countless more have been cited above and similar arguments have been made above.

    From the Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah:

    2. O SON OF SPIRIT!

    The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

    The scientific inquiry, as a method and a system of belief, has to be ‘just’ to itself and to this process of enlightenment: for it to be just it has to be independent, honest, and unprejudiced – a state that is very difficult to arrive at since truly objective research and the conclusions they provide are sometimes coloured by various factors and motives.

    1. This is so true, Sam. And it’s something that’s often overlooked in discussions of science and religion. The assumption is made that science is objective, dedicated only to empirical fact. But, of course, though it may be dedicated to determining reality (or truth or fact), and may strive for objectivity, there are, as John Haught has written, no uninterpreted facts.

      Human beings are the knowers, so all knowledge, including that gathered directly through the senses, is unavoidably filtered through human perceptions.

      I think the realization of this is paramount to finding common ground between science and religion—in fact, I’d say the realization that there are no uninterpreted facts would aid in any deliberation, consultation, or dialogue about just about any subject.

  4. Hello friends,

    One area of inquiry would be that since Agnosticism makes it possible to believe in a sort of deistic, pantheistic, or panentheistic God, because no conclusive evidence exists to show that a personal rational God intervenes in physical processes, how would one make that leap from a deistic God to a personal God of one of the traditional Abrahamic religions?

    And how do you reconcile Abrahamic religions with ancient tribal, Eastern-Asiatic, or mystical branches which are more deistic?

    For instance, Dr. William Lane Craig is a leading proponent of Christianity using deistic philosophy. How does Dr. Craig make a leap from deism to a Personal Christian God is beyond me. And if every religion makes the leap from deism to either Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. then we are back where we started with competing religions that believe in separate personal Gods.

    Some argue that atheists and agnostics are really deists or pantheists.
    Others argue that deists and pantheists are really atheists but are dishonest or afraid to admit it.

    And clearly Baha’is believe that all these separate and competing personal Gods are really One God because each religion orients itself to a particular culture, a people, a civilization, and time.

    In a universal world culture and civilization a new personal God that incorporates and transcends the competing religions’ personal Gods would be necessary.

    1. Great questions!

      I’m not sure what you are meaning about Eastern-Asiatic religions being deistic – I spent 11 years in Japan where Buddhism, Shinto, and folk religions predominant, but I’ve never seen them characterized as deistic (which tends to mean God created things and then retired).

      So, what do you mean by deism?

      My provisional answer to your question is that in the same that way science is progressive, moving towards universal principlse that incorporate older points of view and understandings, so to is religion. So, conceptions of God – or perhaps recognition that they are our conceptions – is part of the process of maturation and advancement.

      The personal relationship with God – i.e., the personal God – is, I think, really one with the manifestation of God – Christ, the Buddha, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah – who are the closest that we can approach.

      1. Dear Stephen,

        I have no clue what I was talking about when I refered to deism just as everyone else is utterly clueless. ;-D

        It seems this God character is really good at helping people invent new religions and sects and cults all over the world, regardless of nationality, language, and culture.

        You also stated that the personal relationship with God is one with the Manifestations, but this is clearly almost exclusively a Baha’i belief. The idea of a personal God isn’t really meaningful to Jews, Muslims, JW’s, and maybe Buddhists. Orthodox Sunni Muslims draw a clear and strict line between Allah and his messengers and prophets such that all claims to divinity are considered shirk, like a Jesus’ Sonship or a Hindu Avatar.

        What Dr. Craig attempts to do is use human attributes like goodness, kindness, love, compassion, logic, and other things to project an image of a supernatural God that plays off of our emotions.

        For instance, a common atheist paradox is can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it. To answer this, Dr. Craig states that if we are to think about this logically, then yes, he can make a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it. But that such a being by definition would be beyond logic because he could also lift all rocks that he has created. Now if such a being is beyond nature and beyond logic, then there clearly is no room in science for a supernatural God, for science only concerns itself with nature and the natural world.

        Even in a multiverse scenario using string theory and quantum theory, these other universes are not supernatural because string theory accommodates for them. The particle/wave behavior of photons of like are also by definition not ‘supernatural’ because this is observed in nature.

        1. Hi Ajatheist:

          You wrote:

          “It seems this God character is really good at helping people invent new religions and sects and cults all over the world, regardless of nationality, language, and culture.”

          Good of you to notice!

          You wrote:

          “You also stated that the personal relationship with God is one with the Manifestations, but this is clearly almost exclusively a Baha’i belief.”

          No, definitely not so. You can see it clearly evolving in European painting where the image of Christ changes from the lawgiver of late Hellenistic times to the sufferer on the cross where Jesus shows his love and sacrifice for us. This starts roughly 1000 years ago, and the emergence of pietism and the modern evangelical movement with its themes of love of Christ and being born again in that love look very much as if they are a continuation of the European trend.

          So clearly, in Christianity, it is love of the manifestation. And, as far as I know, this is where this idea of a personal God comes from. Am I wrong?

          Stephen

        2. Re: the God character helping us create new religions. Actually, it’s US that does that all on our own. If you look at the teachings of Krishna or Buddha or Christ or any of the Avatars (if I might be allowed to use that term), they do not demonstrate any consciousness that they are creating a “new” religion, but rather speak as if they are part of a continuum. From Krishna’s “Many times have I come before and many times, hereafter, will I come again” to Buddha’s “”The Buddhas who have been and who shall be: of these I am and what They did, I do.” to Christ’s assertion that if we truly believed Moses, we’d believe him to Baha’u’llah’s clear words on the subject, there is the sense that this Person is not a one time deal. It’s we humans, in our endless quest to be the last, greatest, bestest, onliest of whatever group, that have cast these beings as competitors for our attention and allegiance. In a word, tribalism.

          I must also agree with Stephen that the belief in a personal relationship with God through a Manifestation is demonstrably not merely a feature of the Baha’i Faith. I was a born-again Christian before I became a Baha’i and studied the Hindu and Buddhist writings as well. Some segments of Christianity (the Apostolic movement, being perhaps the most extreme example) have so focused on the Manifestation of God (in this case Jesus) that the dogma insists he IS God in a way that even the Baptist churches I attended did not teach. There are sects of Buddhism for whom the concept of God has been completely subsumed in the Person of the Buddha.

          What I have found to be unique to the Baha’i viewpoint is that a love for the Manifestation and recognition of His being the most of God we can comprehend, is never to keep the believer from recognizing the reflection of the Divine in other Manifestations. While Islam teaches this when it comes to past Manifestations, most Muslims take Muhammad’s words about being the Seal of the prophets (nabi – prophets who reveal future events and guide a community) to mean he is the last of the rasul (prophets who bring a Book and a regeneration of faith for mankind).

          Also, I think there is a vast gray area around the concept of a “personal” God. Depending on how you define it, a Baha’i can legitimately and truthfully say “I do believe in a personal God” and “I don’t believe in a personal God.”

          You also comment that “there is no room in science for a supernatural God”. I would suggest that the opposite may be true—there is no room in science for anything BUT a supernatural God simply because a “natural” God would be subject to Its own laws, which is untenable.

          On the other hand, depending on your point of view, you may be right: There IS no room in science for a supernatural God. So, perhaps science should retire from the discussion, given that it is taking place in a supernatural environment using supernatural resources (the human intellect) 🙂

          On the third hand (just call me Shiva), just because science cannot offer enlightenment or guidance on a subject, does that mean the subject is not important, or relevant, or that it does not exist?

          Most of what human beings deal with on a daily basis is not and cannot be guided by scientific principle. Science can’t tell me how to raise my kids, or how best to love them, or how to teach them human virtues. In fact, science can’t tell me which virtues are the most important. I’m fascinated by quantum physics and evolutionary biology, but neither is capable of guiding my life because they are post-fix processes that can tell me where I’ve been, but not where I want to go.

          The teachings of the Manifestations offer a pre-fix or prescriptive process that deals with life where the rubber meets the road. And I think this is why the two streams of human knowledge—science and religion—can be employed together to elevate humanity in a way that neither can alone.

  5. Another question would be, how does one make the leap from either agnosticism, atheism, deism, and pantheism to the idea that the Christian Bible or the Qur’an are infallible books? Or that Muhammad and Jesus or Moses are infallible persons?

    1. Who says the Christian Bible is infallible? Do you find that claim in any of the 66 – 81 books contained in the different collections? This is a claim made by people who may wish it to be true, but Bible scholars (or anyone who’s read the Bible with an eye to understanding it or extracting knowledge from it) knows that claims of inerrancy and infallibility are not upheld by the books themselves either by claim or by content.

      The same is true of the Qur’an of which multiple readings existed before one was chosen to be considered the most accurate.

      There is a difference between asserting that Christ or Muhammad or Baha’u’llah was infallible when delivering the message of God, and asserting that the human recollections of their words are infallible. This is why, in the Baha’i Faith, a distinction is made between Scripture (which we have either in Baha’u’llah’s hand or that of his amanuensis and approved and sealed by Baha’u’llah himself) and the recollections of his earliest disciples. We have many records from those who were close to Baha’u’llah when he was alive, but their recollections, while valuable, inspiring, and beloved, are the reflection of what that particular soul got out of the encounter and do not inform Baha’i belief or doctrine.

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