One of the more popular atheist memes is the idea that ‘science and religion aren’t friends’. The basic notion is that there is a fundamental incompatibility between science and faith, that both ideas cannot be held by individuals or a society; one must be accepted and the other rejected as one advances the other must necessarily retreat.
The first problem with this idea of course is that it completely ignores the history of the matter – not only did the first scientists see science and their Christian faith as compatible, they frequently saw them as interdependent. One need only consider the men who formulated the essentials of modern science, men like Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, and John Ray. Each of these men was integral to the formation of modern scientific thought, and they were invariably men of faith – frequently they wrote not only of the sciences but extensively on theology as well. Robert Boyle, considered the Father of modern chemistry wrote at length in A Christian Virtuoso about how scientific thought affirms rather than contradicts the Christian faith.
So as much as Jerry Coyne and other New Atheists claim an antagonism between science as a methodology and the Christian faith, they propagate historical ignorance.
But I think the source of their error goes deeper than mere ignorance of history – indeed it goes to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the original purpose of science was, and what the New Atheists have perverted it to be.
In its original inception science was considered to be a methodology or means of understanding the natural world. It wasn’t considered the sole or primary means of gaining knowledge or an end in and of itself, but part of an intellectual toolkit that included philosophy, revelation, historical knowledge and personal experience. The ultimate purpose of such knowledge in the Western world was to further the pursuit of truth or more particularly to understand the nature of God and the place man played in the universe God created. The originators of science considered it an extension of knowledge gathering methods they already possessed and a gift from a Creator who wanted relieve men of ignorance and superstition.
However for the New Atheist science is not a method or a means to gain knowledge, but an end in and of itself. The purpose of gaining knowledge about the natural world is simply to gain more knowledge – our existence is inherently purposeless and ultimately without meaning but we can find meaning in understanding the universe in which we live. In this sense science becomes something other than a tool – it becomes a metaphysical pursuit, a spiritual quest.
I think no finer example of this can be the recent video, produced by a New Atheist for other New Atheists, called ‘Science Saved My Soul’ (warning – a bit of explicit language here)
We can overlook for the moment the fact that the main theme of the video is inherently contradictory – if atheism is in fact true then we have no souls to be saved. And we can also disregard the straw man caricature of Christianity presented by the narrator as we have dealt with that previously in this article. What is notable is the reverie with which the speaker presents the subject matter. He is in effect describing the experience of the numinous C.S. Lewis spoke about; that is the overwhelming sense of the presence of Divinity.
It is telling that the only way in which to describe that which is truly great or meaningful is to invoke the spiritual. His characterization is not surprising to the Christian since Scripture affirms in Psalm 19 that, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” Despite himself, the narrator is experiencing this glory as he observes the universe and understands its vastness – this is itself evidence for the universe’s Divine origin, not a contradiction of it. The problem with ascribing such meaning to scientific knowledge is that in and of itself such knowledge conveys no actual meaning or purpose or significance. If the universe is all there is, then how we regard it is completely irrelevant, even to our own existence.
I think a brief thought experiment will help here to understand why this is problematic.
Imagine for a moment sometime in the future where scientific knowledge is ‘complete’. We have the capability to trace the trajectory of every particle from its original form and location to its final destination. We understand how every element interacts with every other and all forms of physical interaction are chronicled and understood. We understand how fundamental forces work and are related, and can manipulate them at will to suit our needs. We have a complete history of the universe, life, and mankind. Imagining this future, we can ask a few questions – for example, what then? How does such knowledge change who we are as human beings? How does such knowledge give us more purpose or meaning? How are we different than we are right now? Will it help us treat each other better, be more happy, more committed or loving? Though it could conceivably make us healthier or longer lived, there is no reason to believe such knowledge would in and of itself alter our fundamental experiences as humans, lessen our suffering or cause us to treat each other better since the current knowledge we have hasn’t necessarily done so. In short, science by itself cannot give us the truth we need to save our souls as the video suggests. It cannot imbue us with meaning or bring us joy.
So while science is a useful methodology and important tool for gaining knowledge, it can never replace actual sources of life and joy giving truth, chief among them being the knowledge of Christ. Science is an important means, but ultimately knowing God is the only worthwhile end of man.