Belief in God in a World Explained by Science, part 1
Note: BioLogos Content Manager Jim Stump recently gave a talk on science and religion at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN, the text of which we’re featuring this week. Today’s post is the first in this three-part series.
I’ve grown up and continue to self-identify as an evangelical Christian. I know that label carries a lot of baggage for many people, and the truth is that I often find myself at odds with the mainstream of American evangelicalism regarding politics and economic policies, the environment, music, and movies. So why, you ask, am I still one of them? I’m sure part of the answer to that is my family and community of origin: from them I imbibed the categories through which I view the world. And although I’ve evolved as a person and as a Christian over the years and my community isn’t always so crazy about claiming me, I still claim them and I actively work as only an insider can to help effect positive change in that community.
But beyond that, I believe that I’ve had an encounter with the risen Christ—the Logos—which has rendered me almost incapable of unbelief. I’m sure there are professionals who could perform a psychological analysis on me and quickly come up with other explanations for my religious experience that appeal to nothing supernatural. And I confess that I’m often equally skeptical of such claims when made by others. But my own first-person experience carries a justifying weight to it that requires more for me to abandon it than some possible “just-so” stories.
When I started graduate school, I thought that everyone who didn’t believe like I did must just be stupid, because my beliefs seemed so obviously true. Then I had a course called “Religious Epistemology” that was taught by a fairly well known atheist. It was his goal to show why every religious claim was misguided, and throughout the semester he made a lot of sense in giving alternate, naturalistic explanations for what religious people thought God was responsible for. After being in that environment awhile, I came to see why people found a naturalistic perspective persuasive. It was as though I learned to speak another language and could shift between them. But that isn’t a stable situation for one’s belief system and I could see there was an imminent crisis. Would I continue down the path that saw my faith as the relic of a bygone era, or perhaps double-down and cling to that faith fideistically?
Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was Carl Sagan who helped to save my faith. He had written a novel called Contact which was made into a movie and released that same semester of my religious epistemology course. I had heard that it addressed themes of faith in science and religion, and so one afternoon I left my library carrel and walked to a small theatre in a mall downtown Boston and watched the film by myself. The story is about a scientist in the SETI program who seemingly makes contact with some extraterrestrial intelligence. She has lived her life according to the code of empirically verifiable evidence. But in the twist to the story, her experience with the aliens did not admit of objective verification by others. In the conceptual climax to the film, she is put before a congressional investigation committee, because they have spent billions of dollars with seemingly nothing to show for it. The lead investigator thinks it has all been a hoax and persuasively constructs an alternative explanation for how things might have happened to account for the experience she had. The scientist is somewhat stunned and admits that it is possible she is wrong, so the investigator presses her to give up her fanciful story and admit that it never happened. She says she can’t, because the weight of her own experience won’t allow it.
I sat by myself in that movie theatre and wept at this somewhat silly science fiction story. I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or despair or relief. But in some sense I no longer felt threatened that there were really smart people who thought that my religious beliefs were silly. It wasn’t that I isolated myself from their criticisms; on the contrary, I plunged myself with new vigor into learning all I could about the world. But I saw that the same facts can look very different from different perspectives, and that the perspective of Christian theism had the resources to organize these facts in a way that does justice to them.
If you don’t already believe it, I don’t expect that any of this will convince you that I’m correct in believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that all things were created through him as the divine Logos, that he exists still today as the Cosmic Christ, and that he loves us all lavishly. I don’t think I can prove any of that to you with the methods of science or through philosophical argument. My aims here are somewhat more modest—namely to claim that someone can reasonably believe that stuff even while at the same time believing the findings of science today.
I suppose attitudes toward science can be added to the evangelical baggage I mentioned earlier: we’re too often threatened by what science claims and so we ignore it. But on the contrary, I fully believe that science is good, that an examination and study of the natural world should be encouraged, and that we don’t have to fear what we might find there. I’ll mention some science here, but for the most part I’ll take it as a given that the findings of science are largely correct (and I don’t mean some ersatz science which denies the amply confirmed theories of contemporary cosmology and biology). It is in this context that I seek understanding for the mystery of faith.
So, for my worldview and philosophy of life, I make the daring wager that ultimate reality is personal in nature. This isn’t quite the same as Pascal’s Wager, in which he said we’re better off betting that there is a God than not, since the payoff is way better if there is. I’m not doing that kind of cost-benefit analysis, but I do see like Pascal that the evidence either way from some supposed objective point of view is ambiguous, and it’s possible to construe that evidence for theism or for naturalism without completely flouting our rational duty. From inside Christian theism, though, I find it to be a more satisfying outlook on life, so I’ve committed to it and I’m attempting to work out my faith and come to understand it better from that perspective. It is not a blind leap of faith, since there are confirming evidences that can be produced when things turn out as you’d expect them to if reality is ultimately personal. And it is not immune from disconfirmations and even falsification when evidences are produced that challenge the way you’d expect things to be. I think naturalism works the same way for other people.
What do I mean by saying that ultimate reality is personal? Contrast it to the dominant ancient Near Eastern view that the natural realm was animated by personal beings, but ultimate reality was impersonal. The gods were part of nature and caused the things that we observe in nature, but they themselves were ultimately ruled by impersonal fate. It was the ancient Hebrew people who flipped this picture on its head: in their view there is a personal God who through his own free choice created a natural order that follows reliable laws. And this is what makes science possible. If you believe that the workings of nature are dependent on the whims of the gods, then there is no sense studying nature to try to understand it. This was hugely important as an impetus for studying science and is surely part of the reason why modern science developed in the Judeo-Christian West. But the question is whether science has now shown that there is no sense to positing a personal being at the level of ultimate reality either. Maybe it’s all just impersonal matter and energy. So the big objection to my daring wager of holding on to a personal God is that we no longer need that hypothesis. Here, then, is the central question of this address: if science can explain everything, then why do we still need to posit God? Isn’t God superfluous?
Join us tomorrow for Part 2 of this series!