The Case for a Creator: Why Cosmologists Are Atheists

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 4

Strobel’s next interview is with Stephen Meyer, a philosopher who’s also one of the cofounders of the Discovery Institute. Strobel and Meyer touch on several topics (fine-tuning, irreducible complexity) that will be discussed in more detail in later chapters, so I’ll defer responding to those arguments for now. Amusingly, Strobel also gives Meyer credit for contributing to Of Pandas and People – the textbook which provided one of the crucial pieces of evidence in a court ruling that intelligent design was religion and not science – so maybe we should give him credit for that!

But I want to begin on a different point. In the introduction to this chapter, Strobel tells the story of Allan Sandage, a respected cosmologist raised as a nonreligious Jew who shocked his colleagues by announcing his conversion to Christianity at the age of fifty. As usual, no one can ever convert to Christianity without it being the most stunning and significant thing that has ever happened, which is why Strobel dutifully hails Sandage as “the greatest observational cosmologist in the world” [p.69]. (I have no doubt that if I ever converted to Christianity, I’d immediately be praised by apologists as “formerly the world’s most influential atheist”. Maybe I ought to stage a conversion – I bet I’d get some nice pull quotes for the back cover of my book!)

I don’t doubt Sandage’s scientific achievements (he was a student of Edwin Hubble, and did some crucial work in helping to precisely determine the age of the universe), but I do question if such a title is appropriate for any scientist. Science is by nature a collaborative field, and it’s almost never the case that a great discovery can be credited solely to one person. Every major scientific achievement is made possible by the research of many people and by building on the findings of those who came before – hence, Newton’s famous comment about “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

As far as I can tell, Strobel accurately relays the story of Sandage’s conversion. What he omits, though, is Sandage’s own reasons for why he converted. Sandage himself explains this, and makes it clear that, unlike Strobel and his creationist interviewees, he does not believe the theme put forward in this book, that science points to the existence of God:

Q. Can the existence of God be proved?

I should say not with the same type of certainty that we ascribe to statements such as “the earth is in orbit about the sun at a mean distance of 93 million miles, making a complete journey in 365.25 days”… Proofs of the existence of God have always been of a different kind – a crucial point to be understood by those scientists who will only accept results that can be obtained via the scientific method.

…The Bible is certainly not a book of science. One does not study it to find the intensities and the wavelengths of the Balmer spectral lines of hydrogen. But neither is science concerned with the ultimate spiritual properties of the world, which are also real.

In this essay, Sandage states that science is extremely effective at answering “how” questions, but not “why” questions (i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?), and he finds that theism answers these questions satisfactorily, although it cannot be proved by the scientific method. This is a completely different view than what creationism avers, and it’s small surprise that Strobel doesn’t delve more deeply into Sandage’s actual views.

But there’s a larger context that Strobel avoids mentioning here. It’s the same creationist fallacy that we’ve seen before: take a few isolated, anecdotal accounts of scientists turning to theism, and use them as a basis to claim that most scientists are turning to theism, when the statistics tell a completely different story.

The last definitive survey on this topic was published in Nature in 1998 by the historian Edward J. Larson. Questioning the several hundred members of the National Academy of Sciences, Larson found

near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists [including astronomers —Ebonmuse] it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers.

Eighty percent of NAS physicists and astronomers disbelieve in God – and, as Larson’s paper shows, this number has actually risen over the decades. This is a far cry from Strobel’s misleading assertion that “many scientists are now driven to faith by their very work” [p.71]. The Big Bang and other cosmological issues, clearly, are not perceived as evidence for theism by the very people who study them for a living and are most knowledgeable and familiar with them. (This point is argued persuasively by Sean Carroll in his paper Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists.)

As with Sandage, there are always exceptions. But these cases should be viewed as what they are – rare, unusual holdouts – rather than, as Strobel dishonestly portrays them, the vanguard of a new or coming revolution in scientific thinking.

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