Atheism & Science: Does Science Make One An Atheist?

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Some people suppose that if one does science, or if one is a practicing scientist, he or she will likely end up an atheist. Generally when people think of the term “scientist” or “science” they usually contemplate the likes of a biologist or a physicist working in a lab somewhere. This is not an incorrect view although it is certainly a limited one. My hope with this essay is show to why the claim that “Science makes one an atheist” is based on a misunderstanding of science, is misleading, and is often not the case. 

As a theist, I would find it hard to dispute that this is sometimes the case. After all, all one need do is look at the likes of Richard Dawkins (who admittedly is a brilliant scientist) and the late William Provine to make the case. Obviously other examples exist of atheists who are scientists, and who tend to claim that their science is the reason behind their adoption of atheism. By atheism I mean the view that God and the supernatural does not exist.

However, any observer should note that such a deduction is not strictly a scientific one as opposed to feeding in scientific data and theories into a philosophy already held by the atheist (mostly materialism or naturalism, and seldom, but sometimes, nihilism) or person in question. Dawkins, for instance, puts particular emphasis on evolution as being the knockout blow for belief in God as well as the uniqueness and significance of human beings. This would be a view shared by arguably most atheists. However, views such as these have not gone unchallenged by other scientists and academicians in other fields of expertise. An increasing number of theists, many of whom are scientists themselves, have argued that atheists drawing such conclusions hold to irrational philosophies like naturalism and determinism, and that evolution need not be a disproof of God, or lessen the probability of God’s existence and/or involvement in the development of biological life on the planet. A good example of scientists promoting this view can be found at BioLogos, the theistic evangelical think tank of Francis Collins, a former atheist himself.

A devout geneticist and evolutionary biologist such as Collins would look at the exact same data that Dawkins does but draw significantly different conclusions. They really do. According to Collins,

“If humans evolved strictly by mutation and natural selection, who needs God to explain us? To this, I reply: I do… Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates” (1).

Now consider Dawkins’ conclusion,

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (2).

Irrespective of whose deduction is correct, we can note that none of these are scientific statements and that they are in fact entirely philosophical. Collins and Dawkins, both brilliant scientists, are examining the exact same data and coming to different philosophical conclusions.

Theistic philosophers have too engaged this question in some depth. William Lane Craig has argued that evolution, given the immense improbabilities involved, should be considered evidence for God’s superintendence, whereas Alvin Plantinga has formulated the evolutionary argument against naturalism which presupposes the truth of Darwinian evolution and that it actually undercuts atheism. Should Plantinga’s argument follow, it would be the ultimate blow to atheists given how significant evolution is to them, almost like the Holy Koran is to the Muslim.

Nonetheless, without becoming sidetracked, the point I am trying to make is that an individual’s philosophy on which she interprets other sources/domains of information (including the sciences, metaphysics, epistemology etc.) is the real determining factor of whether or not she will believe in God or not. Science can play an influential role in this process, but it is not the science that determines it. This is why atheists, usually of the internet variety, who respond to the questions as to why they do not believe in God by saying “Because science” just seem so naive and uninformed about the topic. This is just the truth, not an attempt for me to sound pejorative or condescending towards atheists.

I also think that the explanatory scope of the hard sciences should instill humility in atheists and scientists who are atheists for far too often they tend to dogmatically assume the irrational and self-defeating position of scientism. This is the philosophical view that we should believe only what can be proven scientifically. In other words, science is the sole source of knowledge and the sole arbiter of truth.

Chemist Peter Atkins is a good example of overestimating science’s explanatory scope to include phenomena beyond science’s ability to explain. Why? Because science, operating on methodological naturalism, methodologically deals with the natural world, natural explanations, and phenomena. Anything beyond this, which includes huge domains of knowledge in the philosophies (think epistemology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy) and spiritual domains (theological truths, the existence of gods, God, and supernatural entities and realms), among others, are beyond science’s scope. That’s not me making this up, this is just the way science is. But if we were to go on the claims of some atheist scientists we would have to do away with entire domains of knowledge many of which not only seem obvious (i.e. metaphysical beliefs such as that the external world exists, that other minds exist, that animals and other human beings have conscious experiences etc.) but also of which science itself requires to operate (which is one of several reasons why scientism is self-defeating). The result of this would be an incomprehensible and reductionist existence of which we would likely be unable to live consistently with on both an experiential and logical level.

Note that none of what I have just stated here would be controversial to most scientists. This is because what I have stated is not an assault on science or on the scientific enterprise, rather it is a critique of self-defeating philosophical deductions from science that most scientists, in my experience, do not hold to, and that are clearly mistaken.

But let’s move beyond the framework we’ve just outlined above and to the work and research of Dr. Elaine Ecklund, a Professor of Sociology at Rice University, who has produced findings that challenge the idea that it is necessarily the science itself that makes scientists atheists. She examined the religious views of elite scientists from top U.S. research universities, and suggested that “for the majority of scientists I interviewed, it is not the engagement with science itself that leads them away from religion. Rather their reasons for unbelief mirror the circumstances in which other Americans find themselves: they were not raised in a religious home; they have had bad experience with religion; they disapprove of God or see God as too changeable” (3).

In yet a further study by Ecklund, alongside colleague Christopher Scheitle, she questioned 2198 faculty members from a variety of academic disciples, including those within the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology, from 21 elite American research universities (4). Overall, 75% of professors contacted by the pair of researchers completed the survey, and it was found that among the different disciplines, disbelief in the existence of God was not correlated with any particular area of expertise. The study suggested the following (the percentages represent atheist representation):

  • Physics: 40.8%
  • Chemistry: 26.6%
  • Biology: 41%

Total = 37.6%

  • Sociology: 34%
  • Economics: 31.7%
  • Political science: 27%
  • Psychology: 33%

Total = 31.2%

These figures seem to be more or less the same as those found in a 1969 study, the Carnegie Commission National Survey of Higher Education: Faculty Study, which suggested that only approximately 35% of scientists did not believe in the existence of God. Going on those statistics it would seem that disbelief in God among scientists hasn’t changed all that much despite many scientific developments since. Ecklund’s study nonetheless found that several other factors played a role in disbelief, for example, scientists who were immigrants disbelieved in God to a greater degree than those who were born and raised in America. The study also found that scientists come disproportionately from non-religious or religiously liberal backgrounds compared to the general population. This suggests that at least some part of the difference in religiosity between scientists and the general population is probably due to religious upbringing rather than scientific training or institutional pressure to be irreligious.

In a further study by the Pew Research Center results suggested that:

  • 33% of scientists believe in a personal God.
  • 18% believe in a higher power.
  • 41% don’t believe in God or a higher power.
  • 7% don’t know

This would suggest that 51% of scientists believe in some form of a divine being or higher power whereas 41% do not. This indicates that atheists do not command the majority of scientists. Again, 41% could be considered in the neighbourhood (although a slight increase) of the results of the 1969 study by the Carnegie national survey.

A third, and final reason, one could challenge the science=atheist notion is that many scientists actually base their belief on their science, or suggest that it is their science that has enhanced their faith in God. Consider the words of Darrel Falk, a professor of biology, who argues that nature and biological development testifies to “God’s masterful plan and ongoing activity” (6). Again, this is not a scientific statement by any means although it does show how two people can look at the same data and come to different conclusions. Many other scientists such as Alister McGrath, John Lennox, Neil Shenvi, Dana Oleskiewicz etc. would likely argue similarly. Moreover, this fact is not a proof of the theistic position, or a disproof of the atheistic view, but what it is a disproof of is that doing science will always result in converts to atheism, a point succinctly put by  Lennox himself when he noted that “Atheism is not the automatic default position for all thinking people who hold science in high regard” (7).

Thus, I think that the science=atheism view must be challenged. Why? Well, because the evidence demands it.

References.

1. Collins, F. 2008. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

2. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden. p. 131–132.

3. Ecklund, E. Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. p. 17.

4. Ecklund, E. 2007. Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics. Available.

5. Pew. 2009. Scientists & Belief. Available.

6. Falk, D. 2011. NPR’S Adam and Eve Story. Available.

7. Lennox, J. 2011. Gunning For God. p. 15.

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10 responses to “Atheism & Science: Does Science Make One An Atheist?

    • Religionerased, you’re here too? Have you ever asked God those questions? Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” There are some things God won’t tell us because we don’t need to know, however there is a lot He will say, you just gotta seek Him and ask.

      • I have asked and he doesn’t answer, just because Deuteronomy says that doesn’t mean it’s true!
        ‘You have got to seek him’ is a phrase that is really starting bug me now.

        • You seem angry here, and on your own post (Boring!). Calm down bro, no one is attacking you or what you believe. I simply said you if want answers, ask the author of it all. You know I don’t agree with those who put the burden of seeking on the unbeliever, I even commented on your own site saying I agree with you about that. However, as you are seeking religion and answers, I suggested to seek the one who made it all. To those who want nothing to do with religion (to either prove nor disprove it), the burden of seeking isn’t on them. I should have been more clear in my words in the above comment as there is more to it than that, but I’ll get to that further down.

          Firstly, if the phrase is beginning to bug you and you are against it, why are you seeking Him and religion (and religious blogs)? “It’s bad enough being told to convert, but then to be told to go out of our way and find God ourselves? Crazy.” If you’re going to hold to this, go all the way with it. I understand the motive is to disprove religion, but it’s still seeking it out. I mean, this blog is nothing but religion. Again, I’m not attacking, just pointing something out here.

          Now on to why hasn’t He told you. This is where I should have been more clear. God won’t answer the questions of an unrepentant heart. Why? Atheists ask for evidence so they can believe in the truth to fulfill their desire to be right, even if it’s against their favor. You said this yourself as you’d be disappointed if God was real, yet you’d believe as that’s what you pride yourself on. God won’t come down and say “Here I am!” because there is no repentance and surrender. When you realize you’re broken, a sinner in need of a savior, and willing to take the path away from sin, lust, greed, pride, hate, and destruction, He will come for you. It’s at that place where you say, “God, I need you to save me from what I’ve become, show me you’re there.” He won’t answer a prayer to affirm one’s own self-fulfillment of being right, because He knows they won’t lay down their sinful desires to serve Him and follow His will. It’d be pointless and would only hurt the person more. Would you give your will to God if He revealed Himself to you? Would you live for Him past simply believing He exists? If not, evidence or answers are not going to be revealed to you. Christianity is a life of sacrifice, nothing less, and for those honestly seeking Him and willing to follow, He will reveal Himself. However, as long as pride and self-fulfillment fuels the desire to seek for evidence and truth, the blind will always be unable to see the light in front of them. That’s all I’ve got to say. Does this apply to you? I don’t know, but I would suggest you think on these things.
          Blessings.

          • Apologies if I seem angry 🙂 and thank you for your in depth comment.
            You state that you don’t believe the burden should be on the unbeliever, which is great, however the latter half of your comment says that I need to put the effort in with God for him to reveal himself. By surrendering or admitting I live a life of sin, I am assuming a God exists. And with this, the burden of proof is now with the unbeliever.
            I am sorry, but I am not going to confess to being broken or a sinner because I am not one. I have more pride than that, and that isn’t a bad thing.
            Do you really want to please a God that gets his kicks by making people beg for his love? Ironically we are greedy, selfish, egotistical and proud, yet to be saved we need to surrender to a God that shows the exact same characteristics.

            • No problem, we all get angry. I have myself on many occasions, not that it’s something to be proud of 🙂 I was going to leave with my last comment, but it fills me with anguish when I see the world with a misconception of God, so if I may say this one last thing. It may be long…..
              So is God a god who commands us to worship Him and love Him? This comes with a religious view of Christianity (Christianity is of course a religion, but not in the organized sense of the word). Christianity is a relationship. Something my mother said was, “Worship is love responding to love.” And so Christ first loved and pursued us, worship is a natural response in the same way buying flowers for your spouse is a result of loving her.
              With all respect, to say you’re not a sinner is to say you’re perfect in every way. Sin is not just murdering, stealing, etc, but everything we do that is not righteous or good: lying, hating, lusting, and all the above factors I listed before like greed. These may not seem like big things, but Christ looks at the heart of man, and He said, “He who looks at a man with hate, has already committed murder in His heart.” This song by Anberlin has really shown me who we are in Christ’s eyes (don’t worry, it’s not a mushy gushy Christian song haha): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYMjRCDcFPA
              As said before, the burden to seek isn’t on the unbeliever, as God seeks and pursues us, however it’s up to us to take His hand. Does this mean we must assume God’s real? I can’t say it does, we simply have to want Him, and He will reveal Himself because. Wanting something is not the same as believing something is real, as I want to fly, but it doesn’t mean I can.
              I think the above song can also bring a new perspective of God’s character. God is anything but selfish as seen with Jesus. “You give me your life, and I’ll give you mine,” said Jesus. He took the life of a lost cause and gave me everything He had. On greed, Jesus desires an intimate relationship with us, and to give us everything He has, as a man would to his wife. On God being egotistical, Jesus lowered Himself to our level and became a servant to us. I know my egotistical self doesn’t want to serve those below me 🙂 God warns us of being egotistical as it leads us to destruction and loneliness. This song by Needtobreathe examples this further :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHaq4GJfjlM. On being proud, God certainly is proud. He’s proud of His creation and His works. He’s proud of us, however I must add, He isn’t pleased with what we’re doing.

              While I have you, I’d like to go off track and ask a question no Atheist has answered for me yet (they always ignore me when it comes to this question). On your post “What do you feel in a church?” you observed this couple living in a sanctuary, in peace. You say science is more important, but the question I have, what about death? Is it important then? Atheists believe there’s nothing after death, so wouldn’t it be better to live in that peace then to live without it? I watched a video of this Atheist’s opinion on death and one comment said, “Well, this hasn’t helped my depression.” A lyric by Anberlin that has stuck with me is, “I’d rather be a hopeless lover than to be cursed with disbelief.” I don’t know man, but if truth and science leads to nothing but, well, nothing anyway, I think I’d rather live in the fantasy and leave a legacy by living the life of Jesus has commanded me to live. A life of loving others more than myself.
              Thanks for listening bro. Blessings 🙂

              • Worship is not ‘love responding to love’, it is love responding to a lust for attention, surely. And to go from saying if I’m not a sinner I am stating I am perfect in every way is a huge jump. I don’t think I am perfect, far from it. But it doesn’t mean I am therefore immoral.
                In the latter half of your comment the question as to why I live a good life if we die… Is that what you meant? I have a big desire for the truth, I cannot live this short life we have in a fantasy. An equally good quote I heard was ‘I would rather be hurt by the truth than satisfied by a lie’. Although I feel this isn’t everyone and I do feel this is a huge factor in many peoples belief.

    • Thanks again for taking the time to comment 🙂 This will be my final comment as I will contain an urgent warning.
      You believe worship is love responding to a lust for attention, but that isn’t what worship means. It’s simply an act of honor. We could only desire to worship because He loved us first. These lyrics describe worship perfectly, “You fill my soul till I overflow and pour it all back out to You, so I’ll sing with You.”
      Now, you can choose to reject what I’m about to say and call me liar, you are free to of course, but this is my warning for the comment on not being immoral: We’ll all stand before the judgement seat of Christ and give an account for the things we’ve done and said. I know you don’t believe in sin, but think of that act you’re ashamed of. Are you prepared to answer for it? To face the King, the righteous judge of truth and justice? Can you stand before Him confidently? What will you offer Him? Another argument, good deeds? We all feel shame, and we all cover it with a false sense of “I know best.” As I said, if we’re sinless and self-sufficient, we should be able reach perfection. However, we can’t, we need the blood of an innocent one to free us from our slavery. This world is burning away, breaking at the seams. Our sin is killing us every day, and we’re sitting down pointing our fingers to the sky as if we, the ones who murder, covet, lust, fornicate, curse and hurt with our words, who pervert love and love perverse things, have grounds to judge God on what is right and moral. Our deepest desires are moved by sin, and even our good deeds are tainted by selfish and petty thoughts. God is not pleased with us, yet because of His immense mercy, He’s made a way to salvation. A way to escape the coming wrath. Jesus took our punishment upon Himself to cover for our sins. “I will trade you. You give me your soiled, filthy, stench-ridden rags, & I’ll wear them. & I’ll give you my sinlessness, my holiness, my righteousness, & you can wear that. I will gladly trade you, your life for Mine,” says Jesus. You are the beloved. You are loved beyond measure.

      My friend, I believe the Gospel to be the truth. We’ve rejected God, have called Him our enemy and have fought against Him, but has it done us any good? Look at us. Have we accomplished anything by saying God doesn’t exist? One Atheist, Hemant Mehta, said, “If God didn’t exist, the world would probably look exactly the same as it does now.” He’s right, we’re causing earth’s destruction, however mercy is waiting. Come on friend, there is light. There is life. Come while there’s still a chance.
      Blessings to you my friend 🙂

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