III. Areas of Purported Conflict
If you listen carefully to statements made by prominent atheists, you’ll find that there is not one claimed conflict, but actually several different conflicts. Let’s look at four major categories – definitional, metaphysical, epistemological, and evolutionary – and I’ll show you why I don’t think they’re valid.
A. The definitional conflict
First, let’s look at the definitional conflict between science and religion. Here are some statements made by three of the four horsemen of the New Atheism about religious faith:
“Another meme of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.” – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
“every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence. In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable.” – Sam Harris, The End of Faith
“Religion is poison because it asks us to give up our most precious faculty, which is that of reason, and to believe things without evidence. It then asks us to respect this, which it calls faith.” – Christopher Hitchens, god is not great
Here, the Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all define “faith” as “belief without evidence,” which is a fairly common understanding among the Neoatheists. Unfortunately, these authors have misunderstood the word “faith”, at least in a Christian context. The Bible does not use the word “faith” in this way and this is not how Christians have thought about the concept of faith for thousands of years.
The Greek word pistis which is translated as faith in modern Bibles does not mean “belief without evidence.” In the Bible, “faith” is better understood to refer to “personal trust in God.” Examples can be furnished by any personal relationship. For instance, if I said “I have faith in my wife,” I would mean that I trust her. Now, is that trust necessarily contrary to evidence? Not at all! Over 11 years of marriage my wife has given me plenty of evidence to show me that she loves me, keeps her promises, and is eminently trustworthy. The same is true of God. Faith is not opposed to evidence because our trust in God can be based on evidence that He is good and is worthy of our confidence. So this first idea that “science is based on evidence, while religion is based on faith” is predicated on a faulty understanding of biblical faith and does not represent a real conflict.
B. The metaphysical conflict
Second, let’s look at another claimed area of conflict between science and religion.
“Any account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence… Nature may indeed be broader and deeper than we now know; any new discoveries, however, will but enlarge our knowledge of the natural.” – Humanist Manifesto II
“One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural.” – James Watson, Nobel laureate, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA
“All the biblical miracles will at last disappear with the progress of science.” – Matthew Arnold, 19th century poet
Here, we see the Humanist Manifesto, Nobel Laureate James Watson and poet Matthew Arnold all making similar claims about the nature of reality. They all suggest that science shows – or one day will show- that Nature is all that exists. But does science really show that nothing outside of nature exists? Absolutely not, for at least two reasons.
First, the position that “nature is all that exists” is known as naturalism. But naturalism is a metaphysical proposition, not a physical proposition. In other words, naturalism is not the result of science; instead it is a philosophical assumption that, in this case, is tacked on to the discipline of science. After all, precisely what experiment demonstrates that “Nature is all that exists”? There isn’t one. There is no microscope or telescope or magnetometer which will test the truth value of this statement. If scientific knowledge comes from experimentation, then the statement that “Nature is all that exists” is outside the realm of scientific knowledge.
Second, we need to recognize that methodological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. What do I mean? Methodological naturalism is the assumption that non-natural entities -if they exist- will not interfere with my experiment. In contrast, metaphysical naturalism is the proposition that non-natural entities do not exist at all. Based on our definition of science, science can only address regular, repeatable, empirically testable phenomena because only these can be subject to experiment. Consequently, scientists generally make the assumption of methodological naturalism. But the assumption of methodological naturalism for the purposes of interpreting our experiments in no way necessitates that metaphysical naturalism is true.
To see how this works, imagine I am feeling sick and I’m referred to a toxicologist to determine why I am sick. After many rounds of tests, he cannot explain my illness. So he comes to me and says “I can’t figure out why you’re sick. Your symptoms must be a result of some unknown poison.” I say “Or I suppose my symptoms might not be the result of poison at all. Maybe I have a cold.” Suddenly, the doctor turns red. “Nonsense!” he shouts, “I am a toxicologist. I don’t believe in colds!” You’d probably recognize that the toxicologist has confused methodology with metaphysics. For the purposes of his diagnosis, he assumes that some poison must be the root cause of my symptoms; however, it doesn’t follow that no other causes can possibly exist.
But can’t scientists and non-scientists alike be guilty of the same mistake? When confronted with an incident with no known natural cause, the response is “There must be some unknown natural cause. I am a scientist. I don’t believe in supernatural causes!” So while I agree that there is a potential conflict here, it is not a conflict between science and God. Instead, there is a conflict between a naturalism and theism, two metaphysical positions.
C. The epistemological conflict
Let’s consider a third claimed conflict between science and religion, that of epistemology.
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” – Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist at Cambridge University
“The great conflict of the 21st century will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma.” – Robert Reich, professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley
“Religion is based on dogma and belief, whereas science is based on doubt and questioning.” – Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago
What Hawking, Reich, and Coyne are pointing to here is what they see as a difference between religious and scientific epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know truth. The claim here is that religion and science approach knowledge of the truth in two completely different ways and that the scientific approach is better. The position that often underlies these types of objections is known as scientism, the belief that “science is the only way to know truth.” But is science the only way to know truth?
No. In fact, the statement that “science is the only way to know truth” is demonstrably false because it is self-refuting. Ask yourself: is the statement “science is the only way to know truth” itself true? If it is, how do you know that is true? Certainly not through science! Which experiment shows you that “science is the only way to know truth”? There isn’t one. But if this truth cannot be known through science, then science must not be the only way to know truth. The statement is self-refuting and therefore false.
But what if we make a more modest claim like “Science is the only reliable way to know truth”? Again, do we know that truth reliably? If so, how? Not through science! So this statement is also self-refuting.
I think that the most optimistic claim we make is to say something like “science is the best way to know truths which can be known through science.“ But that is hardly a claim that demonstrates a clear conflict between science and religion.
D. The evolutionary conflict
Finally, let’s consider evolutionary claims of conflict.
“Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” – Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker
“The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism.” – Richard Dawkins, The New Humanist, 107(2)
“Charles Darwin was born in 1809, on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, and there is no doubt as to which of them has proved to be the greater `emancipator’.” – Christopher Hitchens, god is not great
Dawkins and Hitchens claim here that evolution unavoidably leads to atheism. So is that the case?
Here we need to be careful to define evolution before we return to the question of whether and how evolution is incompatible with the existence of God. Modern evolutionary theory is based on three foundational premises: first, that species of life on Earth have changed over the course of Earth’s history. Second, that all species are descended from a single life form, an idea known as universal common descent. Third, that random mutation and natural selection are the primary drivers of modern biodiversity. So which of these premises conflicts with the existence of God?
Surprisingly, the first premise is almost universally accepted, even among young-earth creationists. No one denies that the fossil record shows that the species on earth have changed over earth’s history.
The second premise is a bit more controversial, but there is more agreement than you might think. For instance, creationists accept a limited form of common descent, just not universal common descent. In other words, they would place limits on the amount of change that can occur within a given population; but they would affirm that many distinct modern species shared the same common ancestor. And at least some, though not all, of those in the much-maligned intelligent design community are willing to accept universal common descent wholesale. So they’re in full agreement on this point with what modern evolutionary theory proposes.
So the real source of conflict is the third premise: that random mutation and natural selection are the primary drivers of all modern biodiversity. So has science demonstrated unequivocally that this third pillar of Neodarwinian synthesis is true? No. Let me give you two reasons why: one philosophical, the other scientific.
Philosophically, the crux of the debate is in what we mean by the word random when we talk about random mutations. Scientifically, this word has a very specific meaning; it contrasts Darwinian evolution to Lamarckian inheritance. A random mutation is one that occurs independent of its environment as opposed to a non-random mutation which is an adaptive response to a change in the environment.
This kind of randomness says nothing at all about God’s existence or his interaction with the world. It merely says that mutations appear to occur at a rate and in locations that are independent of their environment. Unfortunately, people sometimes confuse this limited sense of randomness meaning “independent of the environment” with a very different sense of randomness in which randomness means “absolutely uncaused, undirected, and unguided.” It is this second kind of randomness which is problematic for theism, but only because it excludes God by definition – even God cannot cause, direct and guide an “absolutely uncaused, undirected, unguided process.” However, this second kind of randomness is not a scientific description about an event, but a metaphysical interpretation of the event. Once again, we do not have a conflict between science and God but between naturalism and God.
But second -even apart from philosophical considerations- this third pillar of evolutionary theory is the most difficult to prove experimentally. Since creationists are willing to concede at least some degree of biological change within populations, certainly the types of changes we see today in the emergence of antibiotic resistance, proponents of evolution would have to show evidence that large evolutionary changes can be driven purely by random mutation and natural selection. Unfortunately, because macroevolution occurs on geologic timescales of millions of years and usually proceeds in small increments, this type of evidence is extremely sparse. I think both sides of the debate would agree that evidentiary support for this third pillar, the crucial one, the main point of contention between critics and proponents of evolution, is based upon a substantial extrapolation from the current evidence at our disposal.
I don’t have time to delve into a discussion of related evolutionary objections to theism, claims such as “evolution explains morality” or “evolution explains religion.” But I believe that these two objections alone are sufficient to defuse the claim that the current scientific evidence for biological evolution is incompatible with belief in God. For both philosophical and scientific reasons, it is plausible to reject the claim that evolution demonstrates that God does not exist or that he is not the Creator of life on earth, whether through an evolutionary mechanism or not.
So I’ve hopefully shown that some of the main claims of conflict between science and religion are invalid. But is that all that we can say? Even if there is no inherent conflict between science and religion, can science contribute to a positive case for God’s existence? I believe it can and I want to examine that evidence in the next section.