Sermons & Interesting Articles

Don’t confuse science with atheism

By Justin Brierly.  

I’ve always been struck by a question that the sociologist Charles Taylor asks in his book A Secular Age (2007): ‘Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?’ Part of the answer is science – or at least, a particular way of reading science.

Does scientific training lead people to atheism?

There’s no doubt that our culture has turned towards an atheistic way of thinking. I was a product of that culture when I went to university to study biochemistry as an undergraduate. As a confirmed atheist myself, I believed that science and atheism went hand in hand. However, when I took the trouble to investigate the history and philosophy of science, I quickly discovered how shallow that view was. Science simply sets out to try to offer an explanation of the natural world on its own terms. It’s not atheist, or anti-theist; it’s just nontheist, in the sense that it leaves God out of things as a matter of principle.

That’s not really a problem. Christian scientists can easily put God back into their picture of the universe, arguing that this makes much more sense of things than non-theism. If we can only think in terms of natural answers, our best scientific answers to questions about the universe will ultimately reduce to this: ‘That’s just the way things are.’ There is no reference point beyond nature, such as that provided by God.

I was converted to Christianity from atheism because I believed – and still believe – that it makes much more sense of our world than its alternatives. There’s a danger here, of course: my faith could easily become a form of rationalism. Dorothy L Sayers, who was delighted with the way her faith made sense of things, once expressed a fear that she might just have ‘fallen in love with an intellectual pattern’.

I know what she means! Happily, Christianity allows us to link these ‘intellectual patterns’ with God – as in these helpful words from the theologian William Inge (1860–1954): ‘Rationalism tries to find a place for God in its picture of the world. But God…cannot be fitted into a diagram. He is rather the canvas on which the picture is painted, or the frame in which it is set.’ 

Is God a valid explanation for the universe?  

Does God explain things? The Harvard psychologist William James suggested that we could think of religious faith as ‘faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found and explained’. Of course, there’s more to faith than this – but it’s still a great starting point  

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics…and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature - Fred Hoyle

God…cannot be fitted into a diagram. He is…the canvas on which the picture is painted - William Inge

They used to say that if Man was meant to fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to - Captain Kirk

There’s a naivety in just saying there’s no God - Brian Cox  

Faith is about recognising a ‘big picture’ that allows us to make sense of our experience in much the same way as a map makes sense of a landscape. It allows us to see things more clearly, and grasp how they are connected together.

Explaining generally means two things. First, it’s about causes. To say that A explains B means that A causes B. So how do we explain the existence of the universe? That’s very difficult scientifically. The most we can really say is that from the standpoint of science, the universe came into being by processes we don’t really understand, and have no way of checking out. We can’t go behind the ‘big bang’. But you can see how the Christian doctrine of creation fits into this, giving us an explanation of why the universe is there, not just an account of how it happened.

But second, it’s about providing a framework that allows us to see how things interconnect with each other. To explain something is to see the ‘big picture’ – something that brings things into focus, so that we can see how they hang together. That’s what CS Lewis was getting at in his famous remark: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’

Do we invent or discover meaning?

One of the things that science has made very clear is that human beings actively seek meaning in their lives. That’s just the way we are. For Christians, it means we possess a ‘homing instinct’ for the God who created us, and wants us to come home to him.

But is this just wishful thinking, as many atheists would claim? Do we invent meaning, because we need consolation in a meaningless universe? I don’t think so. The human quest for meaning is just like the quest for food. We need food to survive, and there is food out there waiting to be found. It’s the same with meaning. Our very hunger for it suggests that it is ‘out there’, ready to be discovered. We need a ‘big picture’ to make sense of ourselves and our world.

Christianity makes much more sense of our world

than its alternatives

The great British biologist Sir Peter Medawar wrote some words that seem really important here: ‘Only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on.’ My own view, which I explore and explain in my new book Inventing the Universe, is that we need both science and faith to help us to make sense of who we are, why we are here, and what we ought to do. Christians don’t think that we invent meaning to cope with a meaningless world. We discern meaning in a world that is created and loved by God. And we need that rich vision to enable us not merely to exist but to live.  

Justin is senior editor of Premier Christianity magazine, group commissioning editor at Premier and presents Faith Explored on Saturday afternoons which includes the debate programme Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio.

Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

By Maria Popova

In the autumn of 1911, just as the dawn of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity were unsettling our understanding of existence, some of the world’s most influential physicists were summoned to Brussels for the Solvay Conference — an invitation-only gathering that would become a turning point for modern physics and our basic understanding of reality. The conference was such a towering success that it became a regular event, with twenty-five installments over the next century. The most famous was the fifth, convened in 1927 and chaired by the Dutch Nobel laureate Hendrik Lorenz, whose transformation equations had become the centerpiece of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Of the 29 attendees that year, 17 would become Nobel laureates; Marie Curie, the sole woman since the inaugural gathering, would become the only scientist to win two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines. (It was at the first Solvay Conference that Curie had met Einstein — the inception of a lifelong friendship in the course of which he would buoy her during a crisis with his splendid advice on how to handle haters.)  

One evening during the 1927 conference, some of the younger attendees — including twenty-seven-year-old Wolfgang Pauli, who was yet to co-invent synchronicity with Carl Jung, and twenty-six-year-old Werner Heisenberg, who had just published his revolutionary uncertainty principle earlier that year — stayed up at the hotel lounge and launched into a swirling conversation at the borderline of physics and metaphysics, ignited by the young physicists’ unease about Einstein’s views on God. (Three years later, Einstein himself would traverse that borderline in his historic conversation with the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, the first non-European to with the Nobel Prize.) They collided with the difficulty of reconciling science and religion, some adamantly insisting that the two were simply incompatible, for religion is a vestige of a pre-scientific world of superstition, while others suggesting that science can never supplant but can only complement the essential moral guidance by which theology strengthens society. The unresolved question stayed with Heisenberg. After the conference, he recounted the conversation to quantum theory founding father and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr (October 7, 1885–November 18, 1962). Bohr surprised him with a nuanced and uncommonly insightful take on the subject, which Heisenberg recounts in Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (public library) — part of the pioneering World Perspectives series envisioned by philosopher Ruth Nanda Anshen as a canon of books by the world’s great “spiritual and intellectual leaders who possess full consciousness of the pressing problems of our time with all their implications,” with a board of editors including Robert Oppenheimer and Bohr himself.  

Bohr tells Heisenberg: We ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.

With an eye to the monumental impact of Einstein’s relativity and to the profound shift in thought which quantum theory’s notion of complementarityintroduced, Bohr adds: That is why I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as “objective” and “subjective” are, a great liberation of thought. The whole thing started with the theory of relativity. In the past, the statement that two events are simultaneous was considered an objective assertion, one that could be communicated quite simply and that was open to verification by any observer. Today we know that “simultaneity” contains a subjective element, inasmuch as two events that appear simultaneous to an observer at rest are not necessarily simultaneous to an observer in motion. However, the relativistic description is also objective inasmuch as every observer can deduce by calculation what the other observer will perceive or has perceived. For all that, we have come a long way from the classical ideal of objective descriptions. In quantum mechanics the departure from this ideal has been even more radical. We can still use the objectifying language of classical physics to make statements about observable facts. For instance, we can say that a photographic plate has been blackened, or that cloud droplets have formed. But we can say nothing about the atoms themselves. And what predictions we base on such findings depend on the way we pose our experimental question, and here the observer has freedom of choice. Naturally, it still makes no difference whether the observer is a man, an animal, or a piece of apparatus, but it is no longer possible to make predictions without reference to the observer or the means of observation. To that extent, every physical process may be said to have objective and subjective features. The objective world of nineteenth-century science was, as we know today, an ideal, limiting case, but not the whole reality. Admittedly, even in our future encounters with reality we shall have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective side, to make a division between the two. But the location of the separation may depend on the way things are looked at; to a certain extent it can be chosen at will. This, Bohr notes, is why the language of objectivity doesn’t belong in religious rhetoric — religion and its pluralities are best understood, and best applied to human life as an instrument of moral enrichment rather than one of dogmatic constriction, through the lens of complementarity: The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order. Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

A quarter century before mathematician Lillian Lieber demonstrated how mathematical abstractions like infinity, which have no correlate in physical reality, offer an analogue for moral questions, Bohr considers whether or not the tenets of religion can similarly offer useful abstractions, even though they are not to be taken as objective truth: In mathematics we can take our inner distance from the content of our statements. In the final analysis mathematics is a mental game that we can play or not play as we choose. Religion, on the other hand, deals with ourselves, with our life and death; its promises are meant to govern our actions and thus, at least indirectly, our very existence. We cannot just look at them impassively from the outside. Moreover, our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society. Even if religion arose as the spiritual structure of a particular human society, it is arguable whether it has remained the strongest social molding force through history, or whether society, once formed, develops new spiritual structures and adapts them to its particular level of knowledge. Nowadays, the individual seems to be able to choose the spiritual framework of his thoughts and actions quite freely, and this freedom reflects the fact that the boundaries between the various cultures and societies are beginning to become more fluid. But even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures — consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he’s chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life. Epistemological sophistries cannot possibly help him attain these ends. Here, too, the relationship between critical thought about the spiritual content of a given religion and action based on the deliberate acceptance of that content is complementary. And such acceptance, if consciously arrived at, fills the individual with strength of purpose, helps him to overcome doubts and, if he has to suffer, provides him with the kind of solace that only a sense of being sheltered under an all-embracing roof can grant. In that sense, religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set. Physics and Beyond, though out of print, is a fascinating read in its totality and well worth the search for a surviving copy. Complement this particular portion with pioneering nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, on our conquest of truth, Carl Sagan on science and spirituality, Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality, Simone de Beauvoir on the moral courage of atheism, Alan Lightman on transcendent experiences in the secular world, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.

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