Last Sunday’s magazine in The New Statesman was about religion, and contained a long piece in which Andrew Zak Williams asked 25 prominent people to explain why they believed in God (or a spiritual God-equivalent). I’ve been waiting patiently for the piece to come online, but I don’t think it will. (UPDATE: Alert reader Egbert has found the responses online here; Andrew Zak Williams’s analysis of the responses is here.) Fortunately, I have a transcript of the article (some of us are participating in a future counter-piece explaining why we are atheists), which looks like this:
You can see in the picture some of the notables interviewed, but I was particularly interested in the eight scientists. I’m always curious why someone would devote their working lives to accepting only things supported by evidence, but then reject that stance in their “spiritual” lives. I’ve gone through all the 25 answers, and found that their reasons for belief fall into seven categories:
- The design in the world (including the “fine tuning” of physics) testifies to a god
- I was taught there was a god
- I had a revelation that there was a god
- Christ’s life proves that there was a god
- Religion gives me tremendous consolation
- Morals and purpose testify to a god
- The world makes sense to me only if there was a god
The two most common answers are #4 and #7. I can at least sympathize with the “it makes sense of the world” explanation, but not so much with the “Christ’s life” explanation. After all, there were also Mohamed, Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard.
Here’s Denis Alexander, biochemist and director of the Farady Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge (also a member of the John Templeton Foundation’s board of trustees), deploying answers 3, 4, and 7:
I believe that the existence of a personal God. Viewing the universe as a creation renders it more coherent than viewing its existence as without cause. It is the intelligibility of the world which requires explanation.
Second, I am intellectually persuaded by the historical life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that He is indeed the one He claimed to be, the Son of God. Jesus is most readily explicable by understanding Him as the Son of God.
Third, having been a Christian for more than five decades, I have experienced God through Christ personally over this period in worship, answered prayer, and the personal experience of His love. These experiences are more coherent based on the assumption that God does in fact exist.
He doesn’t pull any punches. But several of the other scientists are more cagey, trying to circumvent the obvious contradiction between their evidence-based science and their faith-based religion. Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University and well known opponent of creationism, had the longest response, adducing reasons 4, 6, and 7.
I regard scientific rationality as the key to understanding the material basis of our existence as well as our history as a species. That’s the reason why I’ve fought so hard against the “creationists” and those who advocate “intelligent design”. They deny science, and oppose scientific rationality, and I regard their ideas as a genuine threat to a society such as ours that has been so hospitable to the scientific enterprise.
There are, however, certain questions that science cannot answer — not because we haven’t figured them out yet (there are lots of those), but because they are not scientific questions at all. As Greek philosophers used to ask, what is the good life? What is the nature of good and evil? What is the purpose to existence? My friend Richard Dawkins would ask, in response, why we should think that such questions are even important. But to most of us, I would respond, these are the most important questions of all.
What I can tell you is that the world I see, including the world I know about from science, makes more sense to me in light of a spiritual understanding of existence and the hypothesis of God. Specifically, I see a moral polarity to life, a sense that “good” and “evil” are genuine qualities, not social constructions, and that choosing the good life (as the Greeks meant it) is the central question of existence. Given that, the hypothesis of God conforms to what I know about the material world from science, and gives that world a depth of meaning that I would find impossible without it.
Now, I certainly do not “know” that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason why religious belief is called “faith,” and not “certainty.” But it is a faith that fits, a faith that is congruent with science, and even provides a reason why science works and is of such value — because science explores that rationality of existence, a rationality that itself derives from the source of that existence.
In any case, I am happy to confess that I am a believer, and that for me, the Christian faith is the one that resonates. What I do not claim is that my religious belief, or anyone’s, can meet a scientific test.
By now we know what to make of this. The “there are some questions that science cannot answer” tactic has several responses, including a) there is no externally imposed purpose to existence, b) some questions are amenable to rational and empirical exploration, like “what is the nature of good and evil?”, and c) finding some questions that aren’t amenable to scientifically-based answers does not show that religious answers are correct. (By the way, I seriously doubt that Dawkins would consider questions like “What is the good life?” unimportant.)
Note that Miller starts off by establishing his bona fides as a scientist and creationism-battler (and indeed, he’s been great in the latter role), but then admits the disparity between evidence-based science and revelation-based faith: “Now, I certainly do not ‘know’ that the spirit is real in the sense that you and I can agree on the evidence that DNA is real and that it is the chemical basis of genetic information. There is, after all, a reason why religious belief is called ‘faith,’ and not ‘certainty.'” But yet Miller acts as if he does know that the spirit is real: he’s described himself as an “observant Catholic”, presumably agrees with some of the Church’s doctrines, like the Resurrection, and has based his life on the assumption that these notions are true. After all, if you’re doing things to assure that you’ll spend afterlife in Heaven, you can’t be in grave doubt about them. No, it’s not the firmness of belief that’s at issue here, but the basis for that firmness of belief.
The other reasons are familiar: morality has no explanation except for God (Miller sees morality as an objective phenomenon, presumably easily discerned from faith), and that God explains why science works (but if science did not work, that is, if there were no regularities to existence, we wouldn’t be here, for our bodies couldn’t evolve and function). Let us also note that if science did not work—that is, if “laws” were sporadically interrupted by miracles, so that, for example, a few people could raise the dead or cure the blind with a glob of spittle—that would also be evidence for God.
Finally, the idea that religious ideas are true because they “resonate” or “give the world a depth of meaning that one finds impossible without them”, are quite common among believers, but of course aren’t good reasons to believe in anything. The idea that Jodie Foster was his soulmate really resonated with John Hinckley, Jr., and presumably gave his life a new depth of meaning, but of course the man was delusional. The Manson Family found deep meaning in accepting Charlie as a guru—indeed, as a sort of deity. All manner of things resonate with people and give their world deep meaning, but what those things have to do with truth?
Miller demonstrates here the real difference—and incongruity—between faith and science. The former is based on wish-thinking, the latter not only explicitly rejects wish-thinking, but is structured to prevent it. (Double-blind experiments are one of the best things ever invented.) Why? Because science recognizes the strong human motivation to believe what we want to be true, and that that drive is a serious impediment in finding out what really is true.
More scientists tomorrow.