Why Strict Atheism Is Unscientific
By Ross Pomeroy
Do you believe in God?
If a cadre of outspoken, strong atheists wrote a litmus test for scientists, that might very well be question #1.
Ross Pomeroy RealClearScience
“Scientists, if you’re not an atheist, you’re not doing science right,” PZ Myers — a well-known blogger, biology professor and atheist — regularly preaches.
But if this is true, then as many as half of scientists are doing science wrong. A 2009 study from the Pew Research Center polled members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Fifty-one percent of respondents reported a belief in a higher power. Does this mean that it’s too late for science? Has religion already pillaged the minds of researchers worldwide? No, of course it hasn’t.
“It seems to me that we as a society have lately been caught in this false dichotomy where it’s either God as the guy with the beard on the cloud or nothing at all,” neuroscientist David Eagleman told Discovery News.
Staunch atheists often falsely characterize followers of religion as being “all-in” with their beliefs, opining that they ascribe to the whole creationist, woo-y shebang. “Where’s your evidence?” atheists mockingly question. “You can’t prove that God exists!” they accuse (correctly). Yet, hypocritically, strict atheists are guilty of the exact same crime: belief without evidence.
“We know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. [But] we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story,” Eagleman said.
Just as it’s a leap of faith for a religious person to assert that God incontrovertibly exists, it’s an equally large leap for a strict atheist to declare, without question, that God does not exist. As Carl Sagan eloquently explained:
“An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed”.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As this statement applies to science, so does it apply to religion. History is replete with signs that an all-powerful deity may not exist, but such substantiation is nowhere near tantamount to proof — especially, as Albert Einstein said, in a universe as incomprehensibly vast as our own:
“The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly.”
Ultimately, the key is not to be swayed to one extreme or the other — fundamentalist religion or strict atheism — but to walk a reasoned middle path. Eagleman believes that path is “possibilianism,” the concept of holding multiple beliefs or hypotheses whilst exploring new ideas.
“The goal is to avoid committing to any particular story,” Eagleman told Discovery News, “whether that’s religious fundamentalism or strict atheism. The goal of possibilianism is to retain the wonder that drives us all into science in the first place and to avoid acting as though we know the answers to things we can’t possibly know at the moment.”
Strict atheists do the world an incredible service by promoting the scientific method, skepticism, and critical thinking. But they do a disservice by campaigning against religion or touting — as pure truth — the non-existence of God, for those actions (especially the latter) are just as unscientific as a blind belief in all aspects of religion.
In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.
Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.
With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.
What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.”
As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.
Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.
Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?
There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.
Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?
Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.
Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” ( Dutton Adult, 2014).