The 19th century thinker Ludwig Feuerbach promoted atheism by claiming that he had “modern science” on his side and that he was advocating “the science of reality in its truth and totality” (2). Likewise Adolf Hitler, though not an atheist, would agree with Feuerbach by claiming that “The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science” (1).
The irony of this all is that many people wouldn’t agree with these views; views that are essentially saying that “belief in the supernatural is an intellectually unsustainable position for well-educated adults in a scientific age.” Here atheists would define “intellectually sustainable” and “scientific” to exclude any explanation that is incompatible with their naturalism. In this way an appeal to science is nothing more than a rhetorically powerful way to assert that theism is, as Antony O’Hear writes, “intellectually unsustainable” (3). However, we need to remember that this is just an assertion that the atheist makes and such “Confident assertions” are, according to Nigel Warburton warns, “no substitute for argument…”’ (4).
Philosopher John Gray is on point telling us that “Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill were adamant that religion would die out with the advance of science. That has not come about, and there is not the remotest prospect of it happening in the foreseeable future. Yet the idea that religion can be eradicated from human life remains an article of faith among humanists. As secular ideology is dumped throughout the world, they are left disorientated and gawping. It is this painful cognitive dissonance, I believe, that accounts for the particular rancour and intolerance of many secular thinkers. Unable to account for the irrepressible vitality of religion, they can react only with puritanical horror and stigmatize it as irrational” (5). And far from religion dying out especially in our modern scientific age where it continues to grow and prosper.
Atheist Kai Nielson, in similar fashion to Ludwig Feuerbach, states that “for someone living in the twentieth century with a good philosophical and scientific education, who thinks carefully about the matter . . . it is irrational to believe in God.” (6)
This is a very odd claim for it is obvious that there are many contemporaries with a good philosophical and scientific education (and who do think carefully about the matter) that do not think it is irrational to believe in God. To this Nielson’s claim the world renowned Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga explains:
“Very many well-educated people (including even some theologians) understand science and history in a way that is entirely compatible both with the possibility and with the actuality of miracles. Many physicists and engineers, for example, understand ‘electrical light and the wireless’ vastly better than Bultmann or his contemporary followers, but nonetheless hold precisely those New Testament beliefs Bultmann thinks incompatible with using electric lights and radios… there are any number of… contemporary intellectuals very well acquainted with science who don’t feel any problem at all in pursuing science and also believing in miracles, angels, Christ’s resurrection, the lot” (7).
I think that the atheist falls short here for several reasons. As I’ve outlined before I think there are good grounds for rejecting naturalism as a worldview, and that naturalism and science are not the same thing. I also think that science opens up and continues to affirm belief in God rather than to negate his existence; as in the words of philosopher of science John Lennox ”Far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise is validated by his existence” (8). It is also true than many gifted intellectuals in the realms of philosophy, science, and history believe in God, and that they find their careers affirming such a belief – to claim the antithesis is clearly wrong. But rhetoric can only take the atheist so far; Philosopher Paul Copan:
“… the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician. The Neo-atheists are often profoundly ignorant of what they criticize, and they typically receive the greatest laughs and cheers from the philosophically and theologically challenged. True, they effectively utilize a combination of emotion and verbal rhetoric, but they aren’t known for logically carrying thoughts through from beginning to end” (9).
1. Adolf Hitler quoted by John Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel (2007), p. 88.
2. Ludwig Feuerbach, quoted by Luis Palau, Is God Relevant? (1997), p. 62.
3. O’Hear, A. 1997. Beyond Evolution. p. 201.
4. Warburton, N. 1998. Thinking: From A to Z. p. 19.
5. John Gray, ‘Sex, Atheism and Piano Legs’ in Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004), p. 46.
6. Nielson, K. 19993. Does God Exist? p. 48.
7. Plantinga, A. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. p. 405.
8. Lennox, J. 2009. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? p. 210.
9. Copan, P. 2011. Is God a Moral Monster? p. 16 (Scribd ebook format)