An editorial today from The National Catholic Register on The Six Myths of Atheism (post edit: open-access text available here) has them throwing down the gauntlet – apparently it’s “much harder to remain an atheist when you actually have to explain your position”. Don’t you just know you’re going to be in for an interesting ride when you hear that? Three out of the six myths relate to science (hooray!) and – would you believe it – they’re about as trivial as the other three. Here’s my quick rebuttal – but I’m sure there are better and swifter ones.
Myth: Science makes God obsolete.
There is a widespread assumption that somehow the progress of science has challenged, or will challenge, the reasons that previous generations had for believing in God. But why should it? Imagine if human beings were the size of microbes and lived on a tuna noodle casserole instead of our current size on the earth. Imagine we became so scientifically advanced, we identified all the different constituent parts of the casserole we lived on, and even started to explore the vast kitchen outside the casserole. It would be ridiculous for us to claim that, since we know the ingredients so well, there must not have been a cook.
This is your vanilla ‘designer’ argument (nothing exists without a designer, we exist, therefore…). So let’s be clear here. Science does not and cannot prove that god(s) does not exist – a god (being invisible, omnipotent, and willing to hide) is the ultimate in untestable hypotheses. But what the scientific method shows us is that god is, indeed, redundant. Of all the many and varied scientific theories that have been developed, not one can be improved by adding a god to the mix. God does not help us understand anything, and this isn’t coincidental. It’s a direct consequence of the fact that the ‘God Hypothesis’ untestable.
Why? Because for a hypothesis to be testable, it must make predictions about consequences (i.e. if A then B), and those consequences must be observable. In order to hide from science, god has been defined by believers in such a way that it’s impossible to tell the difference between a universe in which god exists, and a universe in which god does not exist.
Myth: Science is a reliable guide for us.
In fact, if you look at the history of science, you don’t see the history of an infallible learning method slowly but surely widening our understanding of the universe. Science is an excellent instrument for fact-finding, but one that has been wrong about fundamental things at every point in its history. Theories of spontaneous generation seemed entirely reasonable at the dawn of science. Paul Ehrlich’s theories expecting mass famine due to overpopulation seemed plausible at the beginning of the 1970s. What theories of today will prove just as false? Scientific knowledge at any stage of its history is merely tentative, and new discoveries are continually refining or discarding previous theories.
No atheist claims that science is infallible. In fact, the attraction of science is that it is fallible. When you get better evidence, you change your mind. That’s why science is the best guide for us – in fact, in terms of understanding the world around us, it’s the only guide.
Incidentally, the NCR has confused untested hypotheses with scientific fact. Spontaneous generation was hypothesized, then Pasteur tested the hypothesis and proved it wrong. Ehrlich hypothesized a resource crunch. That hypothesis was tested, and found to be wanting (in some regards). The sum total of human knowledge increased (even though these hypotheses never became scientific fact)
Myth: Religion and science are incompatible.
Often, fans of this myth will cite Galileo as proof that religion and science are opponents in a contest that often appears to be a death match. The Galileo incident is actually a good example of the real relationship between science and religion. Search for Galileo at Catholic.com, to learn how the incident is widely misunderstood. Galileo’s theory that the earth travels around the sun and not vice versa was not unique to Galileo. Others held it, and the Church didn’t suppress the idea. Instead, Galileo’s personal animus toward the Pope forced the two into a showdown. The moral of the story? Real religion and honest science are certainly compatible: Religious people and scientists, however, sometimes fail to be.
Religion and science represent fundamentally different world views. Religion relies on revelation and supernatural explanations. Science relies on theory testing and assumes naturalism. They don’t necessarily come into conflict. But they do every time religion tries to claim it helps us understand the real world – rather than the make believe one.