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Do the Natural Sciences Disprove Religious Belief?

It has become increasingly more prevalent in Western societies that advancements in the natural sciences undermine or disprove religious belief, many of the proponents insisting that religious beliefs are primitive explanations for what we now understand were natural phenomena. Even amidst this growing belief that religious beliefs are unnecessary or even damaging in the modern scientific era, many of the great natural scientists of the world are theists. If religious beliefs really are unnecessary or damaging for people to hold in this scientific era, why do so many great scientists maintain their theism? To answer that, we must first examine some of the problems cited by those of this persuasion.

One of the weaker objections is that since natural science has uncovered and demonstrated the vastness of the universe, the spatial insignificance of Earth undermines any religious belief that a supernatural being created and cares for what happens on our planet. However, it does not follow that spatial insignificance necessitates spiritual insignificance. It could also be true that God has created other beings in other locations throughout the universe and is concerned with them just as he is with us on Earth and that Earth is simply but one of many spatially insignificant locations where life exists and is important to him.

Though this objection is faulty and weak, this is not to say that particular religious beliefs are not in conflict with particular tenants of science, but the topic at hand is whether the natural sciences in general undermine religious belief. Particular religious beliefs can sometimes be irreconcilable with tenants of natural science, such as the Christian belief that the universe had a beginning being incompatible with the steady-state cosmological theory which says that the universe never began to exist but has always been in a steady state of existence. For this reason, critics of theism sometimes overstep in saying that natural sciences disprove or undermine religious belief in general when considering particular tenants of natural science and theism being incompatible.

One such popular critic is evolutionary biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has risen in popularity over the past few decades because of his outspoken criticism of creationism and intelligent design. In 1997, Dawkins had this to say concerning science discrediting religion:

“More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A Universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.”

 From Richard Dawkins, “Science Discredits Religion,” Quarterly Review of Biology 72, 1997: 397-399.

Dawkins is convinced that science and religion are overlapping disciplines that make the same sorts of claims (particularly existence claims), and that because of the successful advancements of the natural sciences in recent centuries, religion (and religious belief, sometimes known as theology) and science are incompatible. However, Dawkins makes quite an error in assuming that all existence claims are scientific. For example, “there exists a prime number between 7 and 9” is an existence claim, but it is clearly not a scientific claim since the number in question (8) cannot be scientifically examined or demonstrated to exist; and in the context of Dawkins’s objection, the existence of God, immaterial souls, love, etc. are also unable to be examined or demonstrated to exist or not exist by science. This claim, just like the claim that an immaterial God exists, is a metaphysical claim, not a scientific claim, and can only be explained and defended by philosophical arguments, not scientific ones.

Perhaps Dawkins intended to communicate that if God did exist, his existence would have effects in the world, but Dawkins has already dismissed that possibility. In his view, miracles (effects of God’s existence) are incapable of proving God’s existence because miracles are only “scientifically observable” if they are able to be reproduced in a lab rather than capable of being observed by one or more persons in the world on an occasion. For this reason, Dawkins, and others like him, load the dice against theism by saying that God’s existence must have scientifically observable effects but that these effects must be capable of being reproduced in a lab, completely ruling out the possibility of divine agent causation.

A better understanding of science and religious belief is to keep them separated as Dawkins seems to think they cannot be. Science tries to tell us what happens and how it happens, whereas theology (religious belief) tries to tell us why the whole thing happens and what stands behind it. Theology need not be interested in the exact processes of nature because theology sees the laws of nature as descriptions of the orderly processes that God built into the universe and maintains; theology aims to answer the question of why anything in nature exists at all, not how it operates or the processes involved in its operation. Therefore, science and theology are not rivals because the explanations they offer are not of the same type; one seeks to answer what happens while the other seeks to answer why it happens.

We can conclude, then, that science and religion do not conflict in general, though again, particular tenants of science and particular tenants of religion may be incompatible, so clashes between science and religion will continue to happen in the future as they have in the past. However, this does not mean that one ought to consider his or her religious beliefs to be false because they disagree with particular tenants of natural science or that holding such beliefs automatically makes one irrational, but it should motivate him or her to consider the relevant scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments on the subject until an adequate conclusion is drawn.

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