Faith in the Fog: Science, Atheism and the Search for Proof

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This is Part 2 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >


The Fear of Science

One of the biggest steps towards learning to deal with my own crippling skepticism has been to convince myself that Christianity is not irrational.

Deep down I had always feared that if I thought too deeply or learned too much about science, this faith that brought hope and meaning to my life would eventually be exposed as wishful thinking, no more credible than an ancient myth or fairy tale.

You know what I’m talking about.

That nagging suspicion that if the beliefs at the centre of our faith were examined under a microscope for too long they might disappear into nothing, revealed to be unfounded and delusional.

The fear that science might disprove God.

In its more extreme forms, this fear of science leads some Christians to make absurd claims about the historical and scientific accuracy of Biblical texts. They fear that if even one aspect of their belief system is proved to be false, the whole thing might collapse. In the eyes of these Christians, scientists must be either deluded or evil, deliberately trying to distort the truth.

My fear of science came in subtler forms. For example, it concerned me that spiritual experiences and ‘answers to prayer’ could be explained away by psychology and neuroscience. How could I fully trust the Christian story if science was able to give equally, often more credible explanations?

I wanted proof of God’s existence, and science seemed to be eroding all my evidence. Skepticism was gradually gnawing away at my faith.


The Rise of New Atheism

It’s pretty hard to ignore atheism these days. The atheist voice in our culture is loud, angry and very convincing at times. So much so that belief in God can seem a bit silly, like still believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.

This quote is from the British comedian, Jimmy Carr:

“When I was a kid, I used to have an imaginary friend. I thought he went everywhere with me. I could talk to him and he could hear me, and he could grant me wishes and stuff too. But then I grew up, and stopped going to church.”

Ouch! That hurts, doesn’t it?

More and more I found myself wondering if people like Jimmy were right – the whole Christianity thing was one giant hoax, a distraction from reality.

In a discussion between atheists and Christians, I would nearly always find myself siding with the atheists. The thing is, Christians are irrational a lot of the time, and atheists are actually doing important work in exposing the bad side of religion.

I was never really fussed about the finer points of Christian belief. They differ from one denomination to the next, from one church to the next. Heck, for me they can change from one week to the next. I was concerned with the BIG questions. Was the universe designed by a supreme Being? Is there such thing as a spiritual realm? Does life have ultimate purpose and meaning?

(I should mention at this point that I am married to a biologist, who is also a Christian. For him, science and faith are entirely compatible, and atheism is no more rational than Christianity. It is through many lengthy discussions with him, and through reading the work of other like-minded thinkers, that I have been able to come to the following conclusions.)


Science has its limits

Jimmy Carr was brought up Catholic and, like many others, became an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

In this hugely influential book, Dawkins’ argues that:

  • Evolution through natural selection provides evidence against intelligent design by a Creator.
  • We don’t need religion to be good.
  • Religion is bad for the world.
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven and is highly improbable, therefore God almost certainly doesn’t exist.

I actually agree with many of his arguments, and would probably be a convert if it weren’t for the following points:

  • There are a great number of scientists, including biologists, who believe in God.
  • There is some scientific evidence that religious belief can have benefits for general wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that it is definitely a good thing for the planet as a whole, but it makes the blanket statement “religion is bad” scientifically untenable. (Mike McHargue’s Finding God In The Waves explores some of this research in fascinating detail).
  • The God Hypothesis cannot be proven, but neither can the Atheist Hypothesis.

Science is the study of the natural world. It is very good at showing us how things work. But it cannot comment on the why questions. It can tell us how the universe came to be and how complex life evolved through natural selection, but it is not qualified to make statements about meaning or purpose.

The Christian scientists I have come across tend to all say a similar thing: science tells us how life works, faith gives it meaning. They are not in opposition. Christianity and Rationalism are examples of interpretive frameworks or narratives used to explain what we see in the world around us – science itself doesn’t take sides.


The Very Unsatisfactory Conclusion

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that ultimately, none of us can know the answers to these big questions. If we delve as far as we can into theology, philosophy, science, history and any other discipline we can think of, at the centre we find a deep mystery. A fog. We humans just aren’t capable of grasping ultimate knowledge about divine things.

This is very disappointing news for, well, all of us really. It’s not at all fun being in the fog. We want clarity. We crave answers and neat explanations. We long for the power to understand everything and the ability to prove everyone else wrong. We’ve mastered everything else, why can’t we prove or disprove the existence of God?

Because we’re only human, that’s why. As much as we would like to be, we are not omniscient.

This means that whether I believe in God or not, it’s a choice. It takes faith to believe in God, and it takes faith to believe that there is no God. (Any atheists reading this will have smashed their screens by now). I can’t prove it either way, so I make up my mind as best I can based on the evidence I have.

This is bad news for many atheists, for whom getting rid of the fog means wiping out all religion and holding rationalism as the only form of truth. It’s also bad news for many Christians, for whom getting rid of the fog means proving the existence of God once and for all.

We have to learn to live in the fog, which means admitting that whatever our position, we could be wrong.


Reimagining Faith

I remember having a mini-revelation about all this while walking along the canal in my parents’ village one afternoon in late summer. I was grilling my husband (again) about science and faith issues and how we can know we’re not deluding ourselves… when the most blindingly obvious but soul-stirringly profound thought struck me. That’s what faith is. If we could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith.

I longed so much for proof. I felt sure that if only I could know for certain that God existed, I would find assurance and peace of mind.

I have to tell you, figuring out that there are no absolute answers available to me didn’t do much for my peace of mind. But having confidence that to be a person of faith is just as intellectually valid as being an atheist was a good starting point. It gave me intellectual permission to continue calling myself a Christian, and to seek to deepen my experience of life through faith in an ultimate Source and a deeper meaning. It also gave me intellectual permission to read as many “secular” books as I liked without fearing that they might disprove God.

To conclude, we return to the problem I explored in Part 1 of this series, of faith being primarily about intellectual beliefs held as objective fact. If my faith is based entirely on a solid framework of beliefs, then if any of them are challenged I’m in trouble. (Or I can just put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly). My faith has to be based on more than intellectual reasoning. I simply can’t prove my beliefs rationally to anyone else, so I have to hold onto them lightly, respect the views of others and be genuinely open to changing my mind.


< Part 1: Surviving as a Skeptical Christian

Part 3: Faith in the Fog: Making Peace with the Messiness of the Bible >

Read the entire series here.

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  • http://carlitocenteno.wordpress.com Carlito

    I appreciate both of the posts in this series. They describe almost exactly where I’ve been intellectually with my faith. What’s interesting is that I, too, tend to side with atheists.

    I look forward to the next post.

  • http://www.simon-phipps.com Simon

    Another great post. Love the acknowledgement that atheists are highlighting all the bad stuff in religion. Love all the points. Thank you :-)

  • Beau Quilter

    Just keep in mind that atheists do not buy the rhetoric that atheism also requires faith. Atheists don’t presuppose an answer to any question the universe may offer. Unanswered questions about (as Douglas Adams puts it) “life, the universe, and everything”, are prompts for curiosity, study, observation, and research (some of the most joyous endeavors of human existence). “God” is fairly banal and meaningless answer to such questions, especially given than there is very little agreement on even a definition of “God”.

  • http://musicineverysound.wordpress.com Emma Higgs

    Hi Beau,

    As you know, I understand and respect your opinions. But you should also keep in mind that people of faith don’t base their beliefs and hopes on thin air. For us, the “evidence” comes in the form of personal and communal experience, which appears to point towards a deeper spiritual reality. These kinds of experiences can either be entirely discounted in a scientific, reductionist manner, or they can be interpreted as signs of something more, and thus justify pursuit of faith practices. Either interpretation is valid, it essentially comes down to how you would like to see things.

    I don’t discount science at all. But for me science and faith are not in opposition. It’s just that if spirituality and faith are based on some form of truth, by definition that truth cannot be proved scientifically. It’s a different type of truth, a different type of knowing. Not separate from reason, but beyond it.

    One more thought – If you think “God” is banal and meaningless then the God ideas you’ve encountered may well be more limited, narrow and unhelpful than those I have encountered. (That’s not intended to be a criticism).

    Thanks for engaging!

  • Beau Quilter

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t devalue your personal and communal experiences. We all have personal and communal experiences that are valuable to us.

    God is only a banal answer, when people try to assert the notion as something with scientific evidence (which is not just an artifact of history – entities from Creation Science Ministries to the Discovery Institute still attempt to impose their own notions of God into public science curriculums). In scientific terms, it is a bit meaningless to say that neither theism nor atheism is “provable” because nothing in science is “provable” in absolute terms. But scientific theories can dismissed or acknowledged by the scientific community based on the weight of evidence. For many theories, the weight of evidence is quite significant. It isn’t entirely correct to say that God can’t be evaluated by science. Anything that leaves observable evidence can be evaluated by science. Some theologists get around this by simply asserting that God does not leave such observable evidence, which is why the “hiddenness” of God is longstanding theological conundrum, taken seriously by a number of well-known theologians.

    There’s another problem, of course, in trying to discuss evidentiary support for God; there is very little agreement about what God is, even if we limited the discussion to Christian circles. Is God a trinity? Does God have a moral code that everyone can agree upon? Has God prepared a place of eternal torment for all who don’t believe in him, or is God preparing all of creation for eternal glory? From my perspective, it seems that Christians from different sects worship very different Gods.

    However, I do recognize that science isn’t generally what people use to measure what they value in personal abstract terms. For example, I don’t need a scientific reason to pursue my love for live theatre and dance performances, or my love of grabbing an overpriced latte with friends and colleagues!

  • http://contextintn.wordpress.com/ dover1952

    Many are not aware of this, but the grave mistake American Christian fundamentalism made was to incorporate French Enlightenment rationalism into its belief system. It set up unnecessary and unresolvable internal tensions and cognitive dissonances. My Christian faith does not need or require any rationalism. Faith just is. There is nothing rational about it—nor should there be.

    Christian fundamentalism is a unique American invention. Why is there so much of it in England? I am surprised that so many of the British people have fallen for it. How did this happen?

    Historically, in the United States, Christian fundamentalism began in lofty academic places like Princeton University, but ultimately its greatest appeal and largest numbers were counted in…let’s see…Americans do not have classes…how to say it to you…the vast ocean of everyday, rural, crude, stinkard peoples who live in the United States, particularly in the Great Lakes Region (at first), then the American South, and finally California (probably because of the Great Tuberculosis Migration from the the Great Lakes region to Southern California in the early 20th century). I think people on the lower socioeconomic rungs of the ladder needed a faith that made them feel exclusive. “All of you are going to Hell and I am not!!!” The owner of the American coal mine treated his workers like animals fit for the slaughter—and he was Episcopalian. As the workers emerged from the mine at the end of the day, covered in coal dust, the expensive suited mine owner watched from the porch of his office. The men emerging from the mine would see him and think:

    “I’m fundamentalist. You have the upper hand now—but God is on my side alone. You Episcopalians are apostate. That is why you treat me so badly. God is going to get you for this. He’s going to send me to Heaven and send you to Hell because you are not a member of my highly exclusive club. My club makes me better than you”

    American smelly people with ragged clothes needed a religion that would lift them above their oppressors—and Christian fundamentalism and its exclusivist nature filled the order perfectly—at least that is what I think.

    Right now, a Cold Civil War is brewing in the United States. American Christian fundamentalists have turned into purveyors of hatred in the name of Jesus. In addition to the usual cast of characters they hate, they have a particularly powerful hatred for the nonfundie Christians who disagree with them. For many years, we other Christians voluntarily laid ourselves on the ground and played dead in the face of their hatred and viciousness—to keep the peace for Jesus and brotherly love. What did they do? They said :”Look at those fools!!! They’re laying down. The field is ours to take and do as we please, and no one will ever stop us!!! Great evil ensued at their hands.

    Now, we are rising up. We other American Christians are tired of the accusations, tired of the insults, tired of the condemnations to Hell, tired of the hatred, tired of the viciousness, tired of the militancy, and tired of the political extremism. We are now going to fight back with everything we have and rescue American Christianity from this wicked mob of hate purveyors. They are the people who elected Donald Trump and declared him to be “the anointed one of God.” If you thought the religious civil war in Northern Ireland was bad, just tune into an American cable news channel about 15-20 years from now. I am predicting it will turn into a second, full-blown American Civil War—just like the one we fought from 1861-1865—only this time it will be a religious civil war.

    Feel free to visit my blog—one of the many “resistance centers” that are arising now all across the United States. The Christian fundamentalists declared militant war on us in the early 20th century. We are going to finish it for them—nonviolently from our perspective—but I feel certain they will be the first ones to load real weapons and spill blood. Here is the safe link to my Christian blog:

    https://faith17983.wordpress.com/

  • http://www.understandingxyz.com George Lorenzo

    First, tell the designers to move the comments section closer to the end of your column. I really enjoyed part 1 and 2. You definitely have a very good knack for writing philosophically. I could strongly relate and agree with everything you wrote. I have gone through and continue to go through a revaluation of my beliefs, and I have been reading widely. My simple conclusion, at least lately, is that just hoping for something more transcendent and filled with meaning is enough to keep me satisfied and still engaged in the search and the views.

  • Jodi Thom

    Thank you for this series; putting my own thoughts into words! Yes, I have stronger faith now that I hold things more loosely. I’m ok with not knowing and you will get there, too.

  • bobnelsonfr

    Faith and Reason
    We often see atheists/agnostics criticizing religious people for “illogic”… and we also see religious people criticizing atheists/agnostics for obstinately “not seeing”… In fact, the two are speaking past each other, more or less speaking two different languages.
    The English language has a major FAIL, here. The words “I believe that…” are commonly used in two radically different ways:
    – “I have faith that…”
    – “I have seen enough tangible evidence to convince me that…”
    We humans have, in fact, two very different, completely independent thought processes that lead to these two very different forms of “belief”.
    The first (in no particular order ;-)) ) is “faith”:
    Faith is of, and about, the “invisible” world. It needs no physical evidence. It may be sustained and supported by worldly props, like a Holy Book, but since that same Holy Book has no effect on an atheist/agnostic, it’s pretty clear that faith in it is an internal process.
    Faith is “permanent”. It is “true” for all places and for all time.
    Our second human thought process is “reason”:
    Reason is of, and about, the “real” world. Its worldly observations and its conclusions may be elaborated by any “reasoned” person, and will be completely understood by any other “reasoned” person. (Note that the verb is “understand”, not “agree”. Big difference! ;-)) )
    Reason is temporary. It is expected that, eventually, newer and better data will become available, and/or other and better reasoning will be applied… and therefore existing “conclusions” will certainly be refined, revised, and perhaps even revolutionized.
    Our two thought processes are completely independent, but in no way contradictory. A person can — many scientists do — use both. No problem.
    BUT! We must be very careful not to confound the two… Applying the logic of faith to the real world is as nonsensical as applying the logic of reason to the invisible world. A Venn diagram of the two is two circles having no point in common!
    (Note that I said “the logic of…” for both processes. Humans are thinking animals; we apply logic (not always hermetically ;-)) ) to everything that percolates in our brains. Some… many… perhaps most… of the greatest thinkers of our species have applied their intellectual powers to faith, rather than reason.)
    If an atheist and a religious person wish to converse, they must ensure that they are always agreed on which thought process they are using and/or examining, and must both agree to play by the rules of that process. Otherwise, they literally cannot understand each other.

  • jekylldoc

    Once you get that the Bible was not written by people concerned with the issues of belief in the supernatural vs. belief that life is material, (which is a modern issue), you can start asking what faith really means (not to mention what salvation really means.) I gather you have done that in the earlier posts. But it’s worth noting that the faith of the early church was much more about who is Lord (Jesus, who was crucified? or Caesar, who can kill you if you don’t agree?) than about who made the heavens. It changes the whole debate to ask what it means to have faith that justice is not whatever those with power says it is, and how such faith can save us.

    From there, it is even more enlightening to ask whether we are given a self, a soul, by the force of love, and whether love reaches out to us to help us be whole. And if so, what does that tell us about the purpose of life?