The conflict between science and God

Unthinking faith is a curious offering to be made to the creator of the human mind. – John A. Hutchinson

This is the first of six parts of my critique of religious belief.

My current views on religion stem from my experiences as a scientist, and the conflict I perceive between science and religion. The method of critical thinking espoused by science is, to my mind, incompatible with a belief in God. In this part of the essay (and in Part 3), I attempt to explain this incompatibility. I begin with a definition of critical thinking.

Critical thinking

It is sometimes claimed that science is an alternative belief system, that scientists are believers who believe in a certain set of principles, just like Christians, Buddhists, Jews, or Hindus might believe in a set of principles. However, science is a method, not a set of beliefs or principles. Indeed, as students are taught in schools and universities everywhere, the foundation of science is the scientific method (or methods), a problem-solving technique which can be briefly encapsulated as follows:

1. Consider the problem to be solved. Suggest a theory that might serve as a solution.

2. Test your theory against evidence obtained through observation and experiment.

3. If the evidence indicates that your theory is wrong, discard the theory completely, or change those parts of it that are erroneous.

4. Test the new or modified theory against the evidence.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until your theory fits with all of the available evidence.

A central tenet of the scientific method is that theories must be discarded (or at least modified) if they conflict with observations. Another tenet is that we cannot ever have exactly 100% confidence in any theory: there is always some probability, however small, that a new piece of evidence will come along that shows the theory to be incomplete.

This does not, however, mean that theories are useless. Countless theories are used on a daily basis to make successful predictions about the world we live in. Indeed, our entire civilization, including its architecture, technology, and medicine, is built on the backs of theories. But no matter how attached we become to these theories, we are compelled to modify them if new evidence arises that they cannot explain. For example, if irrefutable evidence against the theory of evolution were to arise tomorrow, scientists would be obliged to discard this theory like the proverbial hot potato. (As it happens, every new piece of evidence brought to bear on the theory of evolution over the last 150 years has confirmed it, and it now ranks as one of the best supported scientific theories ever postulated.)

I now define critical thinking as the application (sometimes unconsciously) of the scientific method to everyday problem solving. For instance, when we move to a new town, we formulate a theory about which route will get us to work the quickest (usually by looking at a map). We test it out on the first day of work. We also try alternative routes. If we find a route that is shorter than the first one, we immediately adopt it, and abandon the original. Perhaps the best known applications of the scientific method outside of academia are in detective work, law, and medicine.

Critical Thinking and Faith

In order to demonstrate the relationship between critical thinking and religion, I consider the key phenomenon that sets religion apart from other disciplines: the supernatural. The supernatural in most religions consists of one or more deities who occasionally manifest themselves in the physical world, often through miracles.

Because miracles are physical events, their veracity should, in principle, be verifiable through the scientific method. However, because the miracles of the monotheistic traditions are so old, no scientific evidence remains to support their authenticity. Indeed, no such evidence was even collected at the time most miracles occurred. For the miracles of Christianity, in particular, we do not even have relatively weak forms of evidence like eye witness accounts. Furthermore, the accounts we do have in our possession may have been substantially modified over their long history of transmission – we simply don’t know if they are accurate, and have no good a priori reason to believe they are.

It is a fact, then, that no miraculous religious claim from the monotheistic traditions has any chance of being shown to be true (or false). That ship has sailed.

There is an even deeper problem with miracles. Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This raises the following question: surely miracles reported in ancient religious texts could, if they actually occurred, be explained by the work of an advanced technology that, to the people of that day, would have been indistinguishable from magic? The idea of aliens visiting the earth is usually one reserved for science fiction novels, but it requires no greater leap of the imagination than the idea of an invisible supernatural deity with superhuman powers. Indeed, alien civilizations could be entirely accounted for by mundane, natural physical laws. How, then, do we distinguish an event caused by an advanced alien species from one caused by a deity? I’m not sure there actually exists a solution to this problem. If an event seems to contradict the laws of nature, there always exists the possibility that our limited powers of observation have been fooled by an advanced technology of some kind.

We therefore find ourselves with unreliable claims of miracles which, even if they really did occur, could not – even in principle – be shown to be caused by a god. Only a leap of faith, therefore, allows miracles to be accepted at face value.

If such a leap does not, at first glance, seem hard to make, then consider the cultural context of early Christianity (for example). At this time there were many gods and there were also preachers, such as Apollonius of Tyana, with similar life stories to Jesus’, replete with miracles and heavenly assumption. There is also a rich history of figures thought to have risen from the dead, including many people who supposedly rose as a result of Jesus’ own death (Matthew 27:52-53). Asclepius, the Greek God of Healing, is purported to have healed all manner of ailments over a much longer time period than the life of Jesus.

The readiness (through no particular fault of their own) of people in Biblical times to leap to false conclusions about the existence of gods is demonstrated in the Bible itself (see this essay by Richard Carrier). Paul supposedly heals a lame man, and those who observe the healing immediately assume that he and his fellow traveler Barnabas are Greek gods:

“In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, ‘Stand up on your feet!’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.” (Acts 14:8-13).

Also in Acts is a description of Philip, who supposedly performed all kinds of miracles much like Jesus did, and another man called Simon who was a magician, and who apparently garnered an enormous following of people who believed he had divine power:

“Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” (Acts 8:5-13).

Modern miracles

What about today, though? Do miracles occur today, and might we verify them scientifically? Certainly there are occasional claims of miracle healings and, more frequently, of prayers being answered. Characters of questionable repute, such as Sathya Sai Baba in India, claim regularly to have performed miracles. However, none of these claims has stood up to scientific scrutiny. Indeed, the scientific testing of miracles is invariably frowned upon by people claiming the miracles, much as clairvoyants avoid scientific analysis of their predictive powers. Prayer, on the other hand, has undergone some testing, and appears to be largely ineffective, or worse (see Part 3 of this essay).

The scientific method has also failed to turn up any support for the existence of the supernatural deities responsible for miracles. Claims supporting the existence of deities cannot be shown to be true or false because deities are not generally purported to exist within the physical purview of the scientific method. (Indeed, gods that were once thought to occupy physical locations, such as mountain peaks and the “heavens”, were quickly shown to be absent as soon as such places were investigated by explorers.) Even the implication that there exists some realm other than the physical is, itself, speculative, and can be shown to be neither true nor false. Indeed, many people now believe, as I do, that the entire concept of the supernatural is logically incoherent, a view sometimes called theological noncognitivism.

Faith

I am thus led to the conclusion that no believer is likely to find support for his/her basic religious beliefs using evidence. Instead, as many believers will freely admit, belief requires faith. To find out how believers explain this, I conducted an informal poll on two Facebook discussion groups, asking believers why they considered faith to be important and, more specifically, why it was good to believe things when there was no (or contradictory) evidence supporting them. Some of the responses, paraphrased for brevity where needed, follow:

1. Faith is needed to enter the Kingdom of God.

2. Without faith, you don’t believe in God.

3. Without faith, we can’t please God.

4. “Faith is surrendering our own righteousness, along with our own attempts at reaching God through our own natural abilities, whether moral or intellectual. Faith is of such tremendous value to God because it is the pure, selfless admission of God’s supremacy. One cannot see God; he must have faith in Him. One cannot understand God’s judgements; he must have faith in them.”

5. If you don’t have faith in anything, you will be depressed and your life will be bitter.

6. Faith is a future hope in something.

7. Faith turns belief into reality. [This respondent did not explicitly extend this idea to belief in God himself, but to concepts such as love and forgiveness.]

8. Faith is belief based on intuition.

9. Sometimes it’s all you have left.

10. I’m not totally bent on backing up every darn thing I believe. Here’s why:  it’s exhausting; it’s limited; there’s a point where one must say ‘ya know, i just don’t know!’

It is notable how some respondents admit, without qualms, that belief in God cannot be arrived at through rational deliberation. Other respondents suggest that faith is required to maintain a pre-existing belief in God, or to please God. Some respondents regard faith as important because it’s good for us, because it makes us happier. The final respondent seems to rely on faith because using an evidence-based approach is simply too much trouble.

Based on this poll, it seems there is a general failure to recognize that the act of faith – of simply trusting a claim is true – is not in itself a demonstration of the truth of that claim. I get the feeling that many Christians have been convinced, for reasons they may no longer recall, or perhaps for emotional rather than logically sound reasons, that God exists, and now feel that faith must be employed to stave off doubts. Believers therefore consider faith to be justified and virtuous. As I see it, though, it can be a roadblock to the development of one’s beliefs.

Interestingly, most believers practice a skeptically balanced degree of trust and hope in other areas of life. For instance, we would probably all agree that it is usually commendable to trust our friends and family, and to trust ourselves and our abilities. However, we trust the people around us because we know by observation and experience that they can, indeed, be trusted. Conversely, we put less trust in those we have never met. In short, trust is earned. Surely, then, it must be folly to trust absolutely in a being whose very existence is uncertain, and whose character is not obviously trustworthy (see this essay’s discussion of biblical morality)?

Which god?

Perhaps the biggest problem with taking a leap of faith is deciding which god to leap toward. This is a profound conundrum. If there is no convincing evidence of any god, and one must believe by faith alone, then how does one decide which of the world’s myriad gods to believe in?  One way to choose is to make critical comparisons, weighing the pros and cons of each god. However, this use of reason comes too late, because the starting assumption – namely that one (or more) of these gods actually exists – cannot be made through reason. One might as well use reason to decide whether the orange or the apple is a better vegetable, even though they are both fruit.

In the real world, of course, many believers never get as far as conducting a careful comparison of the gods – they choose their god for very different reasons (see the next part of this essay). I am a case in point: the first time I really became aware of other religious traditions, and started investigating them, was in my mid to late twenties.

Perhaps believers look to personal revelation, but how can they be sure which god is revealing him- or herself? Isn’t it suspicious that most people claim to have experienced the god that happens to belong to the most popular religion in their community? (Charle de Montesquieu said that if triangles made a god, they would give him three sides.) Furthermore, once a believer accepts her personal revelation of god as valid, she must recognize that the personal revelations of other believers may also be valid, even if these believers worship a god diametrically opposed to her own. In other words, the believer is obliged to acknowledge the possible existence of multiple gods – a view that is taboo for many religions.

Alternatively, the believer could conclude that only one god exists, but that this god offers different (and sometimes conflicting) teachings depending on who believes in him. Barring this view, the only remaining option is for the believer to insist that her revelation experiences are genuine, while those of believers in other faiths are not. But on what basis can she make such a claim, if she has no direct access to others’ experiences?

In the end, the believer seems to be left with no valid, self-consistent way of choosing the “right” god. Practically, as hinted above, this decision is usually made by nothing more profound than the accident of the believer’s place of birth, and therefore involves no objective comparison of belief systemsr.

Finally, a significant problem in the relationship between critical thinking and faith is that the believer feels free to choose whichever approach best suits him for a given purpose. For example, critical thinking is permitted when trying to relate Jesus’ parables to our everyday lives, but is often considered disrespectful when applied to the study of Jesus’ miracles. Sermons during Christian services typically employ rational thinking in an attempt to relate scripture or religious doctrine to the lives of the congregation, yet such thinking rests on fundamental assumptions that can only be reached by faith. This selective application of critical thinking to suit the whim of the thinker is unjustified.

Inconsistencies and contradictions

A lack of critical thinking is not entirely limited to deities and miracles. It is also needed to accept the many contradictions and inconsistencies in foundational religious documents. Scriptures such as the Bible are full of contradictions that are frequently forbidden territory for critical thinkers (for examples, see this link and references therein, and this one). Even the Bible itself admits that scriptures may have been “handled falsely” by lying scribes (Jeremiah 8:8).

Religious apologists make careers out of their attempts to explain biblical inconsistencies, but their solutions never seem to reach appreciable consensus among believers. Furthermore, apologetics is an infinitely malleable exercise that can be employed to explain just about anything away. I have no doubt that apologists, if they so desired, could do a fine job at making biblical inconsistencies and contradictions worse rather than better. This is because apologetics does not rely on the available evidence but on creative rationalizations.

Perhaps most important among biblical inconsistencies are those to do with the central doctrine that defines Christianity. This doctrine is encapsulated in what is probably the most quoted text from the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The idea behind this doctrine is that we have all sinned against God, but that instead of punishing us for this sin, God sacrificed his only son in our stead, that we may be spared. I see at least two major problems with this doctrine.

The carpenter and the table

The first problem arises from the Christian belief that God created man. (The degree to which this idea is metaphorical varies from believer to believer. For instance, the Vatican concedes that humans arose through evolutionary processes, but that each person’s soul is inserted into the body by God at some critical moment after conception.)

If God created man, then he created us with the ability to sin, since that is what we do. If our fall into sin came as a surprise to God, this suggests that he is not all-powerful or all-knowing as many Christians posit, but this is not important for the point at hand. Whether planned or not, our propensity to sin is ultimately the consequence of God’s handiwork, and thus it is our creator, not ourselves, who should bear the responsibility for that shortcoming.

(It should be noted that even if our ability to sin came after our creation, by eating fruit from a special tree, for instance, then God must still be held accountable for placing curious people next to a tree with delicious-looking fruit and telling them not to eat it. Just about any parent in the world would tell you this is begging for trouble!)

The creation problem can be thought of using the following analogy. Imagine a carpenter who makes a fine wooden table, but fails to fashion all four legs to precisely the same length. The table is sold, but after installing it the new owner notices that it wobbles. When the carpenter hears of the wobble, he wishes to punish the table for its flaw. Although this makes little sense, it is essentially what Christian doctrine advocates: our propensity to sin arises from our design, yet our designer holds us responsible for that imperfection and its consequences.

The teacher’s son

The second problem with Christianity’s central doctrine concerns the death of God’s son.

Another analogy serves to illustrate the problem. Imagine a teacher who has a class of students that includes his own son. One day, the teacher is busy explaining a concept to the class, and one of the students (not the teacher’s son), starts talking to a friend, distracting his classmates. The teacher notices the student talking, but instead of assigning him detention, or some other punishment proportional to the crime, he punishes his own son instead.

Not only that, he inflicts the worst punishment in his power: he arranges for his son to be expelled from school. All the while, his son has done nothing wrong – in fact his son is easily the best behaved, most attentive student in class. When his son has packed his things, emptied his locker, and left the school for the last time, the teacher looks to the rest of the class, and tells them that they are forgiven for any bad behavior, both past and future, because his son is paying the price. Furthermore, he suggests that his students be grateful to him from this point forward, and behave as well as they can, so that his son’s suffering is not endured in vain.

I think most people would agree that the teacher’s approach to punishment is far from just. Indeed, it’s patently manipulative. Instead of meting out proportional punishment to those who deserve it, he inflicts extreme suffering on the one person who is completely blameless. So it is with the Christian doctrine. And this approach becomes even more puzzling when remembering the first point above, namely that the sin itself is ultimately the fault of the creator (the teacher in my analogy), not the human race (the students).

There are additional problems with the John 3:16 message, including the implication that if love drove God to punish his son instead of humanity, then presumably he loves us more than he loved his son, which seems odd.

God moves in mysteriously illogical ways

One of the common responses to people who point out logical inconsistencies in religious doctrine is that God’s methods do really make sense, but are simply beyond the limited grasp of human comprehension. However, God is presumably aware that in this world of con-artists and schemers it simply doesn’t make sense for us to throw logic out of the window and accept, at face value, an apparently inconsistent set of beliefs.

Even if it is the case that there is a god with a higher plan that we do not understand, it is a statement of fact that this plan includes genocide, starvation, rape, murder, and death by uncontrollable natural disasters, often on a daily basis. How could a benevolent god incorporate such things into a grand plan for the universe and still be called benevolent? Indeed, how can anyone maintain their integrity by claiming, without hesitation, that a loving, benevolent ruler who has the power to stop suffering instead allows it to continue unabated, and sometimes even commands it? The King James Bible even states that God himself created evil (Isaiah 45:7), not the sort of thing one expects from a benevolent being. For an excellent treatise on this “problem of evil” as it is known, including refutations of the few solutions (theodicies) offered by religious apologists over the ages, I refer the reader to an essay entitled “All Possible Worlds” by Adam Lee at the Ebon Musings website.

Returning briefly to the idea that God’s message is incomprehensible, I note that some of the obvious alternative attempts to justify this problem do not flatter God much. For instance, if the overall message of the Bible is too complex for our understanding, then perhaps the book is not intended for human consumption, in which case it should be of no interest to us. However, if it is intended for our consumption, but is impossible for us to fully understand, then there are at least three possibilities: 1) God knew we wouldn’t understand his plan but, for some reason, he proceeded to produce an incomprehensible explanation of it anyway, 2) God was entirely unaware that we would find his plan incomprehensible (i.e., he misjudged his audience), or 3) God’s message is, in fact, comprehensible to the human mind, but he has deliberately obfuscated it.

Next part of this essay.

Introduction to this essay.

Figure credits:

Scientific method: http://kentsimmons.uwinnipeg.ca/cm1504/introscience.htm

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One Response to The conflict between science and God

  1. Favorite part: “One might as well use reason to decide whether the orange or the apple is a better vegetable, even though they are both fruit.” haha

    Very thought-provoking and interesting! I can’t wait to read the rest of the essay 🙂

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