And then I wrote… In 2017 I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book called Theism and Atheism: Opposing Arguments in Philosophy (which came out finally in 2019) by my friend, the late Fr. Joe Koterski SJ, one of the editors of the book and a philosophy professor at Fordham. The chapter is long, so I have broken it into six parts. This is the last part; click here for part 1 , here for part 2, here for part 3, here for part 4, and here for part 5. If you want to see the whole thing, why not check out the book itself?
Science as Common Ground
Perhaps this desire for science is a common ground where we can meet. A couple of years ago, the Vatican Observatory hosted a group of scholars from Iran. This followed a visit that our director at the time, Fr. José Funes, had made to Iran. Even though our approaches to science and religion questions are different, the simple fact that these meetings took place points out a fundamental fact: among people of different religions (and no religion), our common love for science is a place where we can begin to engage one another, to learn to understand, trust, and eventually even like one another. As astronomers put it, we all live under the same sky.
People of every religion love science. They recognize the same joys we do at the beauty of a nebula in a telescope or the intricacy of a living cell, but they want to be able to learn science from people who do not threaten their core identity. Let us face it, most of the public faces of science on TV or the other media are also publicly atheists, who often express specific hostility against religion.
Neil de Grasse Tyson is my friend. Stephen Hawking was a friend of the late Fr. Bill Stoeger, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory—they had worked together at Cambridge—and he was a proud member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. These atheists are not evil people. If they have naive views of religion and philosophy, well, so do most people. (Professional theologians would say the same of me.)
But all too often the way they present science looks like an attack on religion. No wonder the fundamentalists do not trust them. On such matters, I do not trust them either. Opposed to such a point of view, I guess I am on the same side as the fundamentalists.
The Fundamentalist Fallacy
I admire the faith of the fundamentalists, the commitment that they have to hold fast to their faith in the face of strong societal pressure. Those are admirable traits. So why do I not join them? Why am I not a fundamentalist?
It is not that fundamentalism is provably wrong. Science is not in the proof business (a point both fundamentalists and atheist scientists often forget). A thousand years from now, some new way of understanding the laws of physics may suggest that the world is just six thousand years old. It is not likely, but I cannot rule it out. Even if that were to happen, it would not mean that the fundamentalists were right.
The problem with fundamentalism is not that it gets this fact or that fact of science right or wrong. I get various facts of science wrong all the time. That comes with being a scientist. Rather, the real fault in fundamentalism is that it insists that its set of “facts” is unassailable, and unlike real science it leaves no room for growth. We return to the fallacy of the two big books.
Science must always say, “I may know nature pretty well, but I can always know nature better.” Religion must always say, “I may know God pretty well, but I can always know God better.” Both require the ability to admit the need to grow. Both require the strength to admit when we are wrong—or, more commonly, when we were right but we had only part of the story.
The problem with fundamentalism is not that it is wrong; I am used to being wrong. The problem is that it is certain it is right, and certainty is the opposite of faith.
Yet fundamentalists have great confidence in their religion because, in their day-to-day lives, it works. It describes right and wrong, good and evil, how to live and how to die, far better (in their opinion and mine too) than our modern penchant for making it up as we go along, taking our cues for life from pop music and Hollywood movies. They have no reason to doubt it any more than we have reason to doubt conservation of energy.
When they hear things from us that attempt to challenge those beliefs, we are the ones who have the burden of proving both that what we say about Creation is true and that it in no way violates what scripture says about Creation. Scripture says, in many different ways and in different books written at different times that God created the universe. We need to remember that and remember to say that our science merely tells us (in many different ways and in different theories devised at different times) how he did it.
Question Authority? Says Who?
A fundamentalist relies on authority, but so does science. We cannot possibly derive every equation, produce every data point, define every term anew by ourselves. (I would not trust my own work enough to even try.) We trust the giants upon whose shoulders we, like Newton, must stand. Those of us in science are familiar with authority, and we respect authority precisely because we are authorities ourselves. It is an attitude familiar to us from the story of the centurion’s servant, as told in Matthew:
A centurion came up to Jesus, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. (Matthew 8:5–13, NIV):
It is a lovely illustration of how someone who is used to authority can understand and appreciate authority in others. Jesus teaches with authority, we are told in many places in the Gospels. That understanding of authority is a common ground between Jesus and the centurion.
He speaks to the centurion in a different way than he speaks to the scribes and Pharisees. He does not cite scripture or argue points of theology. He also does not reject the centurion just because he is a Roman. He takes the centurion for who he is; meets him where he lives; and, indeed, even literally offers to go to where the centurion lives.
Notice also, once again, how Jesus is aware of both the person to whom he is talking and the audience that is overhearing them both. He uses the opportunity to teach the crowd, making it clear that outsiders like the centurion are closer to the kingdom than the self-righteous in the audience.
That is something for us believers to think about; it may well be that our closest allies in the long run are the skeptics and the atheists. (Also notice one last but important thing. In all the teaching that Jesus does at the moment, he does not ignore the concern at hand—he does get around to curing the centurion’s servant.)
The Foundation of Atheism
When it comes to understanding atheism, I rely heavily on the work of Fr. Michael J. Buckley. At the Origins of Modern Atheism is his great work, widely read and widely quoted and justly so. One of Buckley’s key insights is that “a bond of necessity stretches between [theism and atheism]: atheism depends upon theism for its vocabulary, for its meaning, and for the hypotheses it rejects” (1987, 15). In other words, to be an atheist one must have a clear idea of the God one does not believe in.
I remember seeing a photograph of one of the world’s most famous atheists, the elderly British biologist Richard Dawkins, posing with a smirk on his face in front of the advertising he had put on the side of London buses as a publicity stunt a few years back. The sign on the bus read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” To show what he meant by enjoying life, he had an attractive young woman draped around his shoulder; her T-shirt bore the same slogan.
Notice the idea of God that he assumes. To Dawkins, God is primarily a source of worry, someone who would get in the way of our enjoyment of life. Also notice that his idea of enjoying life is to have a “babe” on his arm; meanwhile, her idea of success is having a famous sugar daddy. There is more than one bit of advertising going on in this photo.
Why does the popular culture, which Dawkins and his friends embrace and exploit, equate science with atheism? After all, while Kepler and Newton had pretty odd ideas of theology, neither one of them would have accepted or appreciated being called an atheist. Both were strong believers in their own versions of God.
God of the Gaps
Buckley attempts to answer that question historically. He argues that modern atheism can be traced to the very attempts to use the new certainties of modern science (the stuff we now recognize is not so certain) as a means to prove that God indeed does exist.
For example, Newton laws of motion and gravity described the motions of the planets around the sun in a way no one had ever been able to do before, but Newton could not explain why they did not disturb each other with their own gravities. Instead, he used the obvious stability of the solar system as evidence of God’s benevolent interference. When the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace developed a far more advanced mathematical description of planetary orbits, a hundred years later, that “proof” of God’s action was made moot.
Likewise, when Aristotle argued that motion in the universe demanded a prime mover, theologians identified that prime mover as God. Newton happily kept that idea, insisting only that once the universe was set in motion, its laws inexorably described its future course. Such a picture of God, the deist view, no longer saw God personally involved in the lives of individual humans but rather as merely the prime mover and someone responsible for bridging the gaps in our understanding of physics.
This God of the Gaps, Buckley argues, is precisely what led to atheism. If our proof of God is the existence of such gaps, then once the gaps are filled by natural laws, we wind up showing that there is no need for God after all. Thus, atheism. Notice that the god that was lost was not much of a god; he had already been reduced to just one force alongside all the other forces in nature. Rather than being supernatural—outside space and time, existence before the beginning, before the “before”—this kind of god went back to being a sort of pagan nature deity.
The Foundation of Theism
If most scientific atheists have rejected a deist god (which is far from the Christian God in any event), we can ask, what is religion to a skeptic? Does one of my skeptic friends have it right when she says that religion is just a behavior-modification system to persuade people to be good?
My experience with my techie friends suggests that this idea of religion, defining it in terms of its function, is much more widespread than outright atheism. This idea assumes an axiomatic kind of agnosticism. Those techie friends assume that they can never find the truth about whether or not there is a God, and so to them the only honest response is to throw up their hands and move on. The absence of evidence may not be evidence of an absence, but it surely is no proof of a presence either.
We who live in contemporary Western culture are all scientists now. Even the fundamentalists claim to be scientists. We all look for evidence for everything. The fundamentalists fall back on all the bits of science that they cannot understand (how does life evolve?) as proof of the need of God; the skeptics rightly reject such arguments as a God of the Gaps.
I am neither a skeptic nor a creationist. What is the evidence on which I base my faith? It is not the orbits of the planets or the position of the sun or the moon. It is not the authority of ancient sages, either saints or scientists.
The Problem of Holiness
Instead, in a later book, Denying and Disclosing God, Buckley suggests a different sort of evidence that brings people to religion. He quotes a twentieth-century philosopher, Raïssa Maritain, who came to Christianity late in life. She encountered, in her study of history and in her own life the lives of saints. The essential data point for her was what she called “the fact of sanctity” (2004, 129).
Holiness exists. Any theory of the universe that fails to take into account that existence is incomplete. Joy is a sign of holiness; joy is why we do science. Holiness goes beyond joy. When I spoke to the student in South Carolina who wanted to know how to tell his mom that he would be studying geology, we both came to the conclusion that no sound bite would do the job. Instead, if he was going to be a geologist, he would also have to be a good, upstanding person—a holy person. That, of course, would be the effort of a lifetime, but only that would convince her.
How did Jesus convince people? I doubt that any of his clever arguments changed any minds among the scribes and Pharisees. No one has ever been converted by a syllogism. Instead, consider how Jesus converts the woman at the well, described in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. It starts when Jesus makes the first approach to the Samaritan woman, asking as a supplicant for a cup of water from her. He soon offers her the “living water” of eternal life.
As the conversation proceeds, more about this woman’s life comes out, and it is clear that Jesus knows the worst about her. Though she is a Samaritan and someone who has been married five times, she is overcome by the fact that Jesus knows all about her and still loves her. She is moved by who Jesus is, what he tells her about herself, his obvious sanctity. That makes her start to question the cosmology that up to now she has lived inside. It is the first step toward conversion.
What Is Success?
This leads me to ask, finally, just what kind of success is it that we hope to accomplish in our conversations about science and faith? What conversion experience do we hope to trigger? Once more we return to the Master in this final Gospel story, from Mark:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28–34, NIV)
Once again, Jesus succeeds by changing the ground of the discussion—in this case, from law to love. For once, he gets the scribe to agree with him, but the story does not end there. In fact, the final success occurs when Jesus agrees with the scribe. We know we have won the argument when we can acknowledge that the other side is right.