Is Atheism Rational? A New Book Attempts to Refute That Idea

You can understand why some Christians would feel threatened by the attention given to atheism over the past several years. Atheist authors tend to spawn headlines with every book and we’re quick to respond when religion is found at the scene of societal ills.

In True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism, edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, a group of Christian writers attempt to refute some of the popular claims made by popular atheists.

In the excerpt below, apologist Sean McDowell answers the question: “Are Science and Christianity at odds?”

(Note: Normally, I don’t post excerpts from Christian books — certainly ones that contain ideas I strongly disagree with — but I thought I would make an exception in this case because the editors have agreed to read your comments and respond to them at a later date.)

The conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science. — Sam Harris

Science is at war with religion. The conflict can be traced back to the Dark Ages, a period in which the church vigorously asserted dogma and persecuted anyone who questioned its authority, including scientific pioneers such as Galileo, Copernicus, and Bruno. Fortunately the Enlightenment came along in the eighteenth century and validated methods of acquiring knowledge through evidence and testing. These methods freed scientists to pursue truth without fear of recrimination from the church. Thus the scientific revolution was born. Yet the war between religion and science continues to this day.

If you believe this rendition of history, there’s a good chance you’ve been reading a public school textbook or the New Atheists. The idea that science and religion are at odds is a popular myth in our culture, perpetuated by news headlines like “God vs. Science” in Time magazine. Of the perceived conflict, Christopher Hitchens writes, “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” Richard Dawkins writes, “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise… It subverts science and saps the intellect.”

Although it is widely believed that science and Christianity are at odds, the opposite is actually true. There is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science. We don’t mean to suggest that religious antagonism to science has never existed. It has and does. But the history of science shows that such claims of antagonism are often exaggerated or unsubstantiated. “Once upon a time, back in the second half of the nineteenth century,” says Alister McGrath, “it was certainly possible to believe that science and religion were permanently at war… This is now seen as a hopelessly outmoded historical stereotype that scholarship has totally discredited.”

The scientific enterprise as a sustained and organized movement emerged in Christian Europe. During the sixteenth century, people from every culture studied the natural world, and yet modern science emerged in Europe, a civilization primarily shaped by the Judeo-Christian world- view. Why? Because Christianity provided the philosophical foundation as well as the spiritual and practical motivation for doing science. The Christian worldview — with its insistence on the orderliness of the universe, its emphasis on human reason, and its teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand his creation — laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.

God’s Universe

Most scientific pioneers were theists, including prominent figures such as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and Max Planck (1858–1947). Many of these pioneers intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God. Bacon believed the natural world was full of mysteries God meant for us to explore. Kepler wrote, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” Newton believed his scientific discoveries offered convincing evidence for the existence and creativity of God. His favorite argument for design related to the solar system: “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”

Christopher Hitchens discounts the religious convictions of these scientific pioneers, claiming that belief in God was the only option for a scientist of the time. But this puts Hitchens in a curious dilemma. If religious believers get no credit for their positive contributions to society (e.g., shaping modern science) because “everyone was religious,” then why should their mistakes, like atrocities committed in the name of God, discredit them? This is a double standard. One cannot deny religious believers credit on the basis of “everyone was religious” and also assign blame on the same foundation. To make the case that “religion poisons everything,” Hitchens has to ignore evidence to the contrary. And he is more than willing to do so.

Dawkins accepts that some early scientific pioneers may have been Christians, but he believes Christian scientists are now a rarity: “Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find through the twentieth century.” However, in the same year that Dawkins published The God Delusion (2006), three leading scientists released books favorable to theism. Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich released God’s Universe, arguing that an individual can be both a scientist and a believer in intelligent design. Internationally renowned physicist Paul Davies published Goldilocks Enigma, in which he argued that intelligent life is the reason our universe exists. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, published The Language of God, in which he presents scientific and philosophical evidence for God. Incidentally, President Barack Obama appointed Francis Collins as the director of the National Institutes for Health, one of the world’s foremost medical research centers.

Naming scientists whose Christian worldview motivated their work doesn’t settle the issue of how science and religion relate. Entire books have been written on how science and religion intersect. But we do hope you see that many early scientific pioneers, as well as cutting-edge scientists today, derived their motivation for scientific research from the belief that God created the world for us to investigate and enjoy. These scientists did not view Christianity as incompatible with science.

There you go. Have at it. As I said before, the editors of the book will respond to your comments soon!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X