Science or faith…or both?

Science or faith…or both?

A young friend of mine laughed at me the other day. My response to his question about why God doesn’t appear to answer prayer struck him as funny. When I said that God always answers prayers, just that he often responds either ‘no’ or ‘you need to be the person I will work through to get this done’, my friend laughed and said: ‘you mean God delegates?!’ We both laughed at the thought. Bear in mind that my friend is a self-described ‘devout atheist’. Most things to do with God strike him as funny. And yet he keeps asking me questions…

I was reminded of an earlier interaction I’d had with another atheist on social media a few months back. In this case, there was nothing funny about it. Instead, it was rude and aggressive. My correspondent required me to prove to him, using scientific principles and methodology, that God exists. Because I wasn’t willing (or, admittedly, able) to do that in the few lines of a social media post, he considered that to be proof that he was right and I was wrong, and therefore deserving of scorn. The irony that his ‘proof’ didn’t employ the scientific principles and methodology he required of me seemed lost on him.

I am not going to try to prove the existence of God here, except to note that the fact that the question keeps coming up for people, even those who don’t believe in God, is proof of something. Why be preoccupied with such a question if we don’t believe, on some intuitive level beyond reasoning, that it has relevance to our lives? Beyond the innocent fantasies of childhood, we never think about whether or not Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy exist because we know they don’t. And yet, the atheist attempt to dismiss belief in God as being the same as belief in these mythical creatures stumbles at this question: why doesn’t the God question go away if it’s the same as the Father Christmas or Tooth Fairy question? The reason is: it’s not the same and we, atheist and believer alike, all instinctively know it.

The only explanation for the spiritual drive within human beings is not a scientifically verifiable one. It operates at a level that science cannot get to. It can’t be measured, quantified, assessed, put under a microscope or viewed through a telescope. It operates at the level of desire and the search for meaning, something with which humanity has been preoccupied since our first ancestors evolved into being. That the human being has an innate drive towards the spiritual is obvious to anyone who observes human beings, both collectively and individually. That much, at least, is scientifically provable.

I’m reminded of these words from the senior American scientist, Gus Speth. He is speaking to a different point but still related to the whole science-faith question. He notes: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy…and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

When Science Meets Religion

When Science Meets Religion

One book that provides a helpful overview of how people look at science and religion differently is When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? By Ian G. Barbour.

In this book Barbour gives four different models of interaction:

  • Conflict - This model gets the most attention in the media and is usually conducted between young-earth creationists and atheistic evolutionists, despite the many religious people today who subscribe to an evolutionist understanding of earth’s history.
  • Independence – This model takes the view that religious and scientific assertions use two different kinds of language. Science answers the ‘what’ questions while religion answers the ‘why’ questions.
  • Dialogue – This model compares the methods used in each discipline (the similarities and differences) and how they might learn from each other e.g. by using conceptual analogies when direct observation isn’t possible (God or subatomic particles)
  • Integration – This model looks at the different ways that science and theology might come to a common view, e.g. the anthropic principle (the universe is constrained by the necessity to allow human existence), or in the process philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J., the universe is evolving toward a cosmic integration in Christ “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)

Recommended websites that discuss science and religion include Dr Stacy A. Trasancos and Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.

This article is part of Faith Journey, a newsletter from the National Centre for Evangelisation.