One popular meme amongst atheists which frequently pops up in their arguments against Christianity and religious belief is the idea that because science has been regularly successful in explaining certain natural phenomena through natural mechanisms, it is reasonable to expect that every phenomena in nature has a naturalistic (that is through unguided mechanical processes without intentional design or purpose) explanation. As atheist Jeffrey Jay Lowder founder of infidels.org states it in his Cumulative Case for the Nonexistence of God:
The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for atheism and against theism.
The way atheists will often phrase this argument is something like this; “People used to explain lightening by saying it came from the god Zeus throwing lightning bolts in anger. As scientific knowledge progressed, we came to realize lightening could be explained through wholly naturalistic mechanisms. Thus there is no reason to invoke supernatural explanations when considering other phenomena, like the origin of living organisms, or humanity.”
Such a statement in many ways depends on conflating the old pagan religions and animisms with the Abrahamic religious beliefs. This isn’t difficult for New Atheists who relegate all non-materialistic beliefs to mere superstition, but for those who understand religious distinctions and who don’t wish to engage in historical revisionism there is a clear distinction between those who believed in the old gods and spirits, and those who held to the Judeo-Christian notion of a transcendent and eternal Creator God. As much as this is understood, it can be seen that what ended the attribution of supernatural causes to natural processes wasn’t the advent of rationalism through the science but the spread of Christianity and it’s adherence to a transcendent Creator God who acted uniquely in history to create a universe that acted in accordance with certain laws and principles. To see how this is so requires understanding certain things about history and theology.
Previous to the spread of Christianity, with the exception of Israel, the world was dominated by various polytheistic pagan beliefs. Whether one speaks of the Greeks, or the Romans, the Egyptians or Persians or the Vedic, Nordic and Germanic peoples, the one common idea was that the world is the product of the will of various deities, whose actions were the causes of natural events. As atheists rightly point out the gods were often invoked as an explanation for observable natural phenomena – lightening was produced by Zeus, the storms on the sea came from Poseidon, and the writhing of Loki caused earthquakes. From the perspective of gaining knowledge, the disadvantage of such beliefs systems is that they are ad hoc, and unpredictable. If lightening is merely the result of the whims of a god’s anger, then there is little reason to believe one could systematically study it or understand it – thus, in a very real way those beliefs undermined the ideas of observation, theory, and experimentation we utilize today to understand the natural world. The supernaturalism of old was in fact antagonistic to scientific understanding; atheists are absolutely correct about this.
Where atheists are often wrong is in claiming that science somehow systematically replaced those pagan beliefs. That is historically incorrect; what replaced those pagan beliefs over a period of centuries was Christianity. And the fact that it did so was instrumental to the later ability to study nature by the means we are accustomed to today. In short, science would not exist had it not been for the advent and spread of Christianity.
Unlike the previous pagan religions, Christians, having adopted the Jewish view of creation, did not see nature as being subject to the vagaries of various pagan gods. The natural phenomena Christians observed weren’t the emanations of a god’s current inclinations or emotive state, but were firmly founded in a series of uniquely historical events. For the Christian all extant phenomena hearken back to that which started “In the beginning” – the origin of the universe, the origin of our uniquely inhabitable planet, the origin of life and it’s essential forms, the origin of humanity and it’s unique cognitive and spiritual attributes. This distinctive laid the groundwork for the idea that the universe operates in accordance with certain ongoing laws and principles – the creative event is over, God rests and his creation unfolds according to its initial trajectory. In this idea is the root of Western science, the notion that that we can observe nature, understand its foundational principles, and make predictions that are in accordance with those fundamental principles. Rather than a superstition which impedes science, Christian theology is the truth which allowed it to come into being.
But what of atheism, and the metaphysical naturalism on which it is ultimately based?
Interestingly, naturalistic atheism seems to be more like the paganism of old than modern science. Unlike Christianity, there is nothing in naturalism to suggest any aspect of nature must be uniquely historical. Indeed, much of modern science is devoted to demonstrating that life is the product of ordinary chemistry, and could just as well have arisen on other planets. Our universe isn’t necessarily or even probably unique, but perhaps part of a ‘multiverse’ or one of series of other universes beyond our measure. That our thought processes emanate from some property of our brain chemistry or wiring which escapes measurement. And yet these explanations defy direct observation and study – there are no experiments which can be devised to test these claims of naturalistic atheism. The events in question must either be as Christians claim, uniquely historical or they are forces which aren’t amenable to scientific observation.
If the latter is true, then the metaphysics of atheistic naturalism is as arbitrary as the old pagan beliefs in fickle gods and atheism doesn’t lead us back to reason, but away from it.