Science and God

Arapahoe Community College 3/7/12

Victor J. Stenger

It is commonly believed that science has nothing to say about God, that it canŐt prove or disprove the existence of God. While itŐs true that we canŐt prove or disprove the existence of every conceivable god, this not the case for a god with the attributes of the Abrahamic God—the God worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Such a God is believed to play such an important role in the operation of the universe, and in the lives of humans, that his existence should have been confirmed by now.

      Even the most pious believer has to admit that thereŐs no scientific evidence for God. If there were, it would be in the textbooks—along with the evidence for neutrinos and DNA. But then they say, ŇAbsence of evidence is not evidence of absence.Ó

      However, this isnŐt always true. Absence of evidence can be evidence of absence when the evidence thatŐs absent should be there. The absence of evidence for elephants in Rocky Mountain National Park (droppings, crushed bushes) can be taken as a good sign that elephants donŐt exist in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Let me cite some examples of the absence of evidence for the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God. If such a God existed, we should see evidence that he answers prayers. Reputable scientists from reputable institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic, and Harvard and Duke universities, have done carefully controlled experiments on the efficacy of prayer and found none. With billions of prayers being said every day, you would think that by now a few would have been answered.

Most religions teach that in addition to our physical senses we possess another ŇinnerÓ sense that provides knowledge of a world beyond the natural world. If God reveals truths by such means, we should be able to verify at least some of those truths. For example, if God inspired the Bible you would think he would have provided it with correct information about the world. In fact, the story of creation in Genesis bears no resemblance to what we have learned from science.

Many people claim to have had religious experiences. If God or the supernatural is glimpsed in a religious experience, we should be able to confirm that by some verifiable fact. For example, someone might return from a religious experience with knowledge of an impeding disaster that no one could have predicted, which then takes place. Nothing of the sort has ever happened. No one predicted the Japanese Tsunami or the recent tornados in the mid-west until some scientific evidence appeared.

One of the major examples of religious experiences for which people claim empirical support is the so-called near-death experience.  This phenomenon has attracted a large number of investigators who have a their own peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Near-Death Studies. Such studies go back 40 years.

By the early 1970s, resuscitation technology had advanced to the point where many more people were being brought back from the brink of death than ever before in history. Perhaps 20 percent of these reported seeing a narrow, dark tunnel with light at the end and feelings of warmth and serenity that convinced them they were experiencing a glimpse of Ňheaven. Ó Many said they met with Jesus (Buddhists met Buddha) and their departed loved ones. No doubt those have these experiences were deeply moved. The reports began to attract the attention of nurses and physicians.

However, after four decades of effort, the near-death experience has been determined fairly conclusively to be all inside the head. Many features of the near-death experience, especially the tunnel vision, can be simulated with drugs, electrical impulses, or acceleration such as during a ride in a centrifuge used for training fighter pilots. In the case of acceleration, the tunnel vision goes away when goggles are worn that apply pressure to the eyes, indicating that the effect is related to the lowering of blood pressure in the eye.

For almost two centuries, scientists have searched for evidence that humans are more than purely material beings. Psychics and spiritualist mediums that claim to speak with the dead or possess other powers, such as ESP or mind-over-matter, have been totally discredited. No properly controlled experiment in psychic research in all that time has ever provided significant, replicated evidence the special powers of the mind that you would expect if mind had some non-material aspect.

On the other hand, considerable evidence exists in support of the hypothesis that what we call mind and consciousness result from mechanisms in a purely material brain. If we have disembodied souls that are responsible for our thoughts, dreams, personalities, and emotions, then these should not be affected by drugs. But they are. They should not be affected by disease. But they are. They should not be affected by brain injuries. But they are.

As brain function decreases, we lose consciousness, as when under full anesthesia. Why should that be if consciousness resides in an immaterial soul? Brain scans today can locate the portions of the brain where different types of thoughts arise, including emotions and religious feelings. When that particular part of the brain has been destroyed by surgery or injury, those types of thoughts disappear.

Of course, if he wanted to, God could appear before us at any time and perform a few miracles to prove his existence. But that would be crass, so letŐs assume heŐs more subtle. He could deliberately hide from us. Some theologians make the argument that God needs to be devious so that we will accept him on faith. Why he would want to do that escapes me. A perfect God doesnŐt need to create a universe with troublesome human beings since heŐs already perfectly content. And even if he did, why would he want to spend eternity surrounded by clueless toadies? If he sought good conversation, you would think he would prefer the company of Bertrand Russell to that of Pat Robertson.

Many historians and sociologists have denied that there ever was a war between science and religion. Some have even claimed that Christianity was responsible for science! But they have twisted the historical facts. Greece and Rome were well on the way to modern science when Christianity interrupted its development for a thousand years. Thankfully, the Islamic empire was able to preserve and expand on scientific teachings while Christendom was mired in the Dark Ages. But Islam and Christianity were both too inflexible to accommodate what followed—the explosion of science. That was hardly a product of religion. The scientific revolution in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe happened only after the revolts against Church authority in the Renaissance and Reformation opened up new avenues of thought.

      I donŐt deny that many contemporary scientists are religious, although they are a clear minority. Only 7 percent of the members of the elite National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God. ThatŐs 7 percent. Believing scientists have compartmentalized their brains into two sections that donŐt talk to each other. They leave their critical thinking skills at the door when they go to church on Sunday. On Monday morning, when they return to the lab, God never enters their equations.

The reason for much of the mistrust of science you find in religious circles is the fundamental incompatibility of science and religion. At least fundamentalists are honest about it. They understand they are at war with science. On the other hand, liberal and moderate believers are fooling themselves if they think they can be both religious and scientific without being schizophrenic.

 Fundamentalists know full well that science and the Bible disagree over the origin of universe, the evolution of life, and other questions. Since to them the Bible is the truth by definition, science is simply wrong and must be Christianized. And there is a strong, well-funded effort going on today in America to do just that.

However, it seems to me that itŐs going to be hard to Christianize the fact that Earth is just a tiny, insignificant planet in a universe that probably has about 10 billion-trillion planets. And this is just the universe within our horizon. According to modern cosmology, an even vaster space exists beyond our horizon, where light cannot reach us in the age of the universe, but still resulted from the same original big bang. The estimate is that this space is 100 orders of magnitude greater than our visible universe.

Furthermore, cosmology also suggests that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of other universes.

Moderate believers do not take the Bible literally and claim they see no conflict between science and their faith. They say they accept evolution. But when surveys ask them what they really believe, virtually all say that evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. ThereŐs no guidance, divine or otherwise, in Darwinian evolution. Guided evolution is just another form of intelligent design. Darwinian evolution is godless. It says humanity was an accident. This is completely incompatible with Christianity, which assumes humans are a special creation of God.

Fundamental to most, if not all, religions is the notion of divine creation, for which there is no scientific basis. At one time, it seemed impossible that the universe could have come into existence naturally. Christians saw the success of the big bang model as a confirmation of the biblical creation story. At least it seemed to prove that the universe had a beginning and it followed, at least by their bizarre reasoning, that the cause of that beginning could only be a personal Creator God.

      Modern cosmology has considerably dampened this hope. It has shown that the big bang need not have been the beginning of space and time. The universe very likely is eternal and composed of an unlimited number of other universes besides our own.

Reputable scholars have published several plausible scenarios for the natural origin of our universe. While we cannot say exactly how the universe came about, these scenarios, which are completely worked out mathematically and consistent with all existing knowledge, at least prove that a divine creation is not required by science.

Many theists have claimed that the parameters of physics are so delicately balanced that if there were any slight changes in their values, life would not have been possible. Therefore, they conclude that a creator must have fine-tuned these parameters so that we, and our form of life, would evolve.

      This claim can be refuted on several fronts. The most popular explanation among most physicists and cosmologists is that many universes exist and we just happen to live in the one suited for us.

      However, even if only our universe exists, adequate explanations within existing knowledge can be found for the values of the most crucial parameters. Others can be shown to have ranges that make some form of life probable.

For centuries, theologians have argued that the observed order we see around us is evidence for divine design in the universe. However, the universe does not look at all as if it were designed by a perfect, all-powerful, benevolent God. It is too imperfect, too filled with evil and suffering. And, as time has gone by, science had provided plausible explanations for the order that exists. Actually, the universe is mostly particles in random motion with only one part in 100,000 showing any structure at all.

Proponents of intelligent design creationism argue that complex structures require an architect and builder, and that natural processes cannot generate increasing complexity. They are wrong. The generation of complex systems from simpler systems can be seen in many physical situations, such as the phase transitions in which water goes naturally from gas to liquid to solid in the absence of heat. In the physical and biological worlds, simplicity begets complexity.

      But even if you grant the fine-tuning and other design arguments, there is no reason the claim that the designer was the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God, or any other of the thousands of gods humans have worshipped. Maybe it was a supercomputer out there someplace. But then, who built the computer? This whole line of reasoning is worthless. It tells us nothing.

In short, the world looks just as it should look if there is no God with the attributes of the God or gods most people worship. True that this doesnŐt eliminate other gods, such a deist god that leaves the universe alone. But no one worships a god who does nothing. We can rule out most active gods to a high degree of probability.

Whether or not gods exist, it is often said that religion is beneficial to both individuals and society. I will not get into psychology but stick to easier subjects. There is no evidence that religious practice has any health benefits that are not already present for anyone with a healthy lifestyle. ThereŐs no smoking in church. Studies that show health benefits of going to church do not include a control sample of non-believers, so there is no evidence that we are seeing an effect strictly resulting from church-going.

      Let us move on the role of religion in society. ŇPeople of faithÓ are commonly treated with great deference. The religious are assumed to be persons of the highest moral standards—exemplars of goodness, kindness, and charity. But why should that be? How does faith qualify anyone for such high esteem? After all, faith is unquestioning belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence. How can one expect such a frame of mind to result in any special insight? How can false beliefs be a guide to life or the foundation for a successful society? Are we not irresponsible to build a society based on faith? Yet here we have one of our two major political parties completely dominated by individuals who want to do just that, to turn American into a theocracy.

      So, the incompatibility between science and religion is real. It would not matter much if it were just an academic dispute between theologians and scientists. Unfortunately, religion seriously hampers science from being put to use for the benefit, indeed the very survival, of humanity. Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. Yet, in America our best biological knowledge is not being taught in many if not most high schools. This neglect is bound ultimately to have a negative impact on human health sciences as well as basic biological research.

      In America, religious groups are being manipulated by corporate interests to work against their own membersŐ best interests, in health and economic well-being. They are being used to cast doubt upon well-established scientific findings in important issues such as overpopulation, pollution, and climate change. This would not be happening except for the opposing world-views of science and religion. In America today, corporate leaders and the politicians they have purchased with their immense wealth are using religion to stifle science.

      When belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society, they hinder the world from advancing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity. We now may be only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems predicted to result from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation.

      Surely, this finite planet cannot withstand a continuation of humanityŐs current exponential growth in population and exploitation of natural resources. Something has to give, and give soon.

The cause of this problem can be laid at least partially at the feet of religion and its unsupportable positions on when life begins, reproductive rights, environmental controls, as well as its general distrust of science. Powerful corporate interests are using religion to cast doubt upon the work of climate scientists and others who are warning us about the dangers ahead. This is dirty politics—not legitimate scientific debate.

      The role of religion in climate change denialism is not widely appreciated. This becomes clearer when you see that the same people who are promoting creationism are involved in global warming denialism. Let me give one example. The Cornwall Alliance for The Stewardship of Creation has issued what they call ŇAn Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming. Ó Allow me to quote from that declaration:

 ŇWe believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by GodŐs intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. . . . We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that EarthŐs climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.Ó

In other words, trust in God. He wonŐt let us destroy life on Earth. Could there be any better example of the folly of faith? Over 500 evangelicals, including many prominent preachers and theologians, signed the statement I just read.

If you are wondering what the religious connection could possibly be between the opposition to evolution and global denialism, they both describe a world that is constantly changing while the Bible and Christian tradition describe a world that is unchanging—that is until Jesus returns. Several legislatures have passed bills requiring teachers to present Ňall sidesÓ of the evidence on evolution and global warming. Now, that would be no problem if the arguments on all sides were presented accurately and honestly. But we know thatŐs unlikely to happen, since the only purpose of these bills is to create the illusion of scientific controversy on topics where, in truth, a strong consensus within the scientific community exists. ItŐs like demanding equal time for flat-earth geology.

In conclusion, it is time to challenge those who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in. We must act for the sake of the betterment of humankind, and the future of our planet. Based on the favorable signs that young people are increasingly abandoning religion, I have hope that perhaps in another generation America will have joined Europe and the rest of the developed world in casting off the rusty chains of ancient superstition that stand as an impediment to human survival. I just hope itŐs not too late.