Belief in God: Does Science Make This Obsolete?

The Issue as We Find It Today

Some scientists have made the assertion that belief in God has become obsolete in our modern world. But let’s ask ourselves, “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?”  That anyone could take this title question seriously betrays the abysmal ignorance concerning the nature of religious belief that is so common nowadays. Simply googling the question returns over two million hits, most of which reply in the affirmative. My assertion is that no matter what some scientists may say, belief in God is not obsolete.

Science, understood as hypotheses about the nature and workings of the cosmos, couldn’t possibly make belief in God obsolete. The fact is belief in God is an answer to another, and very different, question from those which science asks. Science ought to be defined as asking for the nature and workings of the cosmos.  Religion, on the other hand, is centrally focused on the question of the identity of the self-existent reality on which all else depends. That self-existent reality is what we as Christians call God.

What is Self-Existent?

Think of it this way. The sum total of reality must be self-existent either in part or as a whole, because there is nothing else for it to depend on. But any belief as to what is self-existent is a religious belief, because that is the one thing all religions have in common. What is central to all religions is a belief in a divine reality.  The invariable core meaning of “divine” is the self-existent reality that is the Origin of all else, no matter how that divinity is further described. 

        So if some part (or all) of the cosmos itself is held to be that self-existent reality, that is the religion called “Naturalism.” By contrast, belief in God – the transcendent, personal Creator – is called “Theism.” But both, on this definition, are types of divinity beliefs. 

A Brief Historical Review

        The claim that one or another divinity belief is what is common to all religions is based on an extensive survey the official scriptures or traditions of dozens upon dozens of religions of the past and present. Moreover, the surveying has been done by a large number of highly distinguished thinkers over a period of 2650 years. It was held by virtually every Pre-Socratic thinker after Anaximander, who was the first to propose it around 650 BC. It was also endorsed by Plato, Aristotle, and later by virtually every medieval thinker. It was held by John Calvin in the 16th century and Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 19th century – to name but two of its advocates between the middle ages and the 20th century. In the 20th century it was accepted by: Wm James, Norman Kemp Smith, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Hans Kung, C.S. Lewis, Herman Dooyeweerd, Paul Chenau, A.C. Bouquet, Mercea Eliade, Joachim Wach, Robert Neville, and Will Herberg – to name but a few![i]

Among other things, this definition makes clear why belief in God and atheism are not exhaustive options. Atheism relates to religious belief as vegetarianism does to eating: if I know you’re a vegetarian I know what you don’t like to eat but not what you do like to eat. Likewise, if I know you’re an atheist I know what you don’t believe is divine, but not what you do believe is divine. But the Naturalist who believes that part or all of the cosmos is self-existent has a divinity belief every bit as much as any Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Such a person simply has a different divinity belief, rather than no religious belief at all.

Naturalism’s Religious Basis

Moreover, the fact that what Naturalism regards as divine is also what the sciences study does nothing to make Naturalism itself scientific rather than religious. The claim that Naturalism is somehow supported by science just because Naturalism deifies what science studies, is what is sometimes called in logic a “howler”: a mistake so bad that it provokes laughter and defies being classified as any specific fallacy. In fact, that claim is precisely parallel to claiming that the study of farming must itself be healthy because it studies the production of food.

But no one needs to regard any part of nature as divine in order to study it and/or discover how it works.

There is really no good excuse for missing the religious character of Naturalism, because Naturalist religion has been around for a long time. The belief that matter is the self-existent (divine) reality was widespread in the ancient world, for example. The main difference between modern materialism and its ancient forms (other than the increased sophistication of contemporary physics) seems to be that the ancient materialists admitted it was a religion while their contemporary counterparts claim to oppose all religion. That they are actually opposing all other ideas of divinity in the name of their own divinity seems to go unnoticed.

The Core Misunderstanding

This definition of religious belief, though marginalized in present day religious studies, is exactly what is needed in contemporary discussions of the relation between science and religion. For while there are differences among philosophers and scientists about the nature of the scientific enterprise, there is also a large area of agreement about it. By contrast, there is very little agreement among participants in the science / religion dialogue concerning the nature of religious belief, and the most commonly held ideas about religious belief are patently false. For example, divinity beliefs are not all accompanied by worship, do not all have an ethic associated with them, and do not all result in a cultic organization. Nevertheless, despite the lack of any clear idea of what makes a belief religious, thinkers by the scores plow ahead with their pronouncements about how religion relates to science.

In addition to the prevalent misunderstandings of the nature of divinity beliefs, there also presently persists an equally grievous misunderstanding of the ground on which they are believed. One of the cheapest shots in the entire science/religion discussion is the one that goes: science is matter of observation and reason while religion is blind faith. I call this a cheap shot because it is made in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary.

Blind Faith Disproved

To cite only Christian thinkers (and only a few of them) it is contradicted by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Pascal. How anyone could ignore all of them and still claim to have correctly described the Christian idea of the grounds for belief in God, I do not know. But it is done with appalling regularity by people who hold prestigious positions in major universities, some of whom have notable accomplishments in one or another science. All I can say about that, is to note how often success in one area tempts those flushed with such success to proclaim (with great confidence) the most ludicrous mistakes in other areas of which they know next to nothing. So let’s get this much straight right away:

There is not, and never has been on this planet, a religion whose scriptures asked anyone to believe it on blind faith.

Neither have the scriptures of any religion attempted to prove its doctrines as though they were theories. Rather, every religion that has treated the subject of the ground for knowing its doctrines to be true, has insisted that a person must be enlightened to know the truth of its teachings. That is to say, their truth is to be known by experiencing their self-evidence. Put another way, divinity beliefs are not hypotheses in need of proof, but are experience reports.

For that reason, it is doubly absurd first to mis-describe divinity beliefs as based on blind faith, and then dismiss them as bogus claims to truth unless they are proven. That makes no more sense than it would to demand of logic that it either prove its axioms or admit they are blind faith.

Sense Perceptions are not Blind Faith

Moreover, these twin mistakes are usually conjoined to yet another, namely, the inexcusably false claim that if a belief has no proof then the only alternative is that it must be blind faith. Many participants in the science/religion dialog have asserted this position without noticing that it would not only make the axioms of math and logic blind faith, but also all beliefs derived from normal sense perception. None of these are provable, but they are not therefore blind faith!

Nor do sense perceptions need proof. Nothing believed because it is experienced as self-evident needs proof. And please notice that it will not do to reply to this last point by saying that when it comes to logic, math, and normal sense perception everyone agrees as to what is self-evidently true, whereas the disagreements over what is divine render its alleged self-evidence false. That isn’t even close to being correct. There are as intractable, head-butting, long-standing disagreements about axioms of math and logic as there are about divinity beliefs. This fact shows that self-evidence is a proper ground for belief. I will go on to assert that although it is the ground (and often the only ground) for a belief, it is not infallible.

John Calvin and Blaise Pascal

Lest you think my claim that divinity beliefs are held because they are experienced as self-evident is weird and idiosyncratic, let me add that quite a number of Christian thinkers have held it. There is room here to quote only two of them to demonstrate that point. The first is a Protestant theologian, the second a Catholic scientist.

First, John Calvin:

As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that

        [Scripture] came from God?… it is just the same as

if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish

light from darkness, white from black, sweet from

bitter? Scripture bears on the face of it as clear

evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their

color, sweet and bitter of their taste.[ii]

They who strive to build up a firm faith in Scripture

Through disputation are doing things backwards…

Even if anyone clears God’s sacred Word from man’s

evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their

hearts that certainty which piety requires… unbeliev-

ing men… both wish and demand rational proof that

Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply

that the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than

all reason.[iii]

Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it,

deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but

owes the full conviction with which we ought to

receive it to the testimony of the Spirit of God.[iv]

Just to be sure there  is full understanding here: when Calvin speaks of the testimony of God’s Spirit he is referring to the experience of enlightenment. The New Testament consistently speaks of this. He is not speaking of hearing voices or seeing visions, but of the opening of one’s heart and mind to the light (truth) of the gospel.[v] I recognize he doesn’t use the expression “self-evident” in the quotes above. In my opinion he may as well have done since what he says conveys exactly the same idea. So, too, does the following passage from Pascal’s famous work, Pensees:

portrait of blaise pascal

We know truth not only by the reason but

also by the heart, and it is this last way that

we know first principles; and reason which

has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them…

[For example] we know that we do not

dream… however impossible it is for us to

prove it by reason… the knowledge of first

principles, such as space, time, motion, and

number is as sure as any of those we get from

      reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions

of the heart, and must base every argument

upon them… it is as useless and absurd for

reason to demand from the heart proofs of her

first principles before admitting them, as it

would be for the heart to demand from reason

an intuition of all demonstrated propositions

before accepting them…Therefore those to

whom God has imparted religion by intuition

are very fortunate, and justly convinced.[vi]

It should be obvious that Pascal also appeals here to the idea of self-evidence, but without using the term.

This is not to say that you can’t find any writer who has ever recommended a divinity belief be taken on blind faith. I was careful to phrase my denial by saying that none of the scriptures of the major world religions ever say this. The study of comparative religion will show that they in fact present a different account of the basis for their divinity belief, an account that is inconsistent with blind trust. So I’ve not denied that you can find, say, a Christian fundamentalist who will all too gladly agree with the Naturalists’ accusation that belief in God rests on blind faith. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it excusable for participants in the science / religion discussion to accept that as an accurate account of Christian faith. Attacking Theism’s divinity beliefs by attacking Christian fundamentalists is analogous to attacking science by attacking alchemists.

Stay tuned! We will pick this topic up again next time.

Footnotes

[i]           Varieties of Religious Experience (NY: Longmans Green & Co, 1929), 31-34; The Credibility of Divine Existence (NY: St Martins Press, 1967), 396; The Dynamics of Faith (NY: Harper & Bros, 1957), 12; Christianity and the World Religions (Garden City: Doubleday, 1986), xvi; Miracles (NY: MacMillan, 1948), 15-22; A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Phila: 1953), I, 57; The Reformation (Gloucester: Allan Sutton, 1989), 18; Comparative Religion (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 37; Patterns in Comparative Religion (NY: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 23-25; The Comparative Study of Religions (NY: Columbia University Press, 1961), 30; The Tao and the Daimon (Albany: State University of NY Press, 1982), 117; “The Fundamental Outlook of Hebraic Religion” in The Ways of Religion, ed. R. Eastman (NY: Canfield, 1975), 283.

[ii]           Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.2

[iii]          Ibid. 1.7.4

[iv]          Ibid. 1.7.5

[v]           E.g., Cmp. Rom. 1: 21, 25; 2 Cor. 4: 4-6; Eph. 1: 18, 5: 8-13.

[vi]          Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), 58.

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