Today I had the pleasure of attending three events with Nobel prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto. Sir Harry is an atheist with a Jewish father, and a friend of Richard Dawkins. He is not afraid to talk about religion as evidenced during his recent interview with Kim Hill and by numerous remarks during the sessions today.
As for me, I’m not an atheist (although I was brought up as such) so it is usually with some trepidation that I attend lectures and talks such as these, just in case my faith  is shattered. Over the years I have been to many university-based science lectures and found this fear to rarely be justified and the challenges to Christianity to actually be incredibly weak. To be fair, I go to such lectures and talks trying to be as open-minded as I can be, and trying to consider the facts presented both in their isolated form and as part of a larger worldview. Sir Harry’s talks however appeared to present little if anything that would convince me to change my mind, although I would love to have had the opportunity to have chatted with him one-on-one (or any another scientist) and let them try to convince me.
On this point, Dawkins and Sam Harris and others have something to gain by converting me. I’m involved in a church with students, and various other activities with friends and family. If they could convince me that I am wrong and that they are right, then I would join them and become an evangelist for their side. I could make new converts within my church friends and stop pestering my family over their salvation and the “hell” word that Dawkins and Sir Harry seem so offended about.
I should spend a moment on this “hell” topic too since it keeps coming up. What I see regarding this is both a double-standard and a straw-man fallacy. Let’s take the latter first.
Dawkins and Sir Harry have both quoted instances of children being scared by such things as “hell houses” or having children scared to the point of psychological damage in some way regarding hell. Yet this seems intellectually dishonest as I think Anthony Flew has pointed out. For example, take 1,000 church kids and (somehow) determine how many of them have psychological damage from their parents talking about hell. I know numerous kids and none of them to my knowledge live in some disturbed state, and nor do my kids, yet I make it no secret that hell is a reality according to the Bible. What the new atheists and Sir Harry appear to be doing is taking the (perhaps) one or two cases per 1,000 and citing these as if they are normal.
As for the double standard, let’s consider what atheists are teaching young people. Young person: you are part of a cosmic accident, a piece of highly evolved pond-scum. But don’t worry, you are good pond scum. And life is good and has much meaning. We don’t know what it is, but fear not for you can pretend life has meaning which should make you feel better and you will have less reason to follow 500 other New Zealanders each year by committing suicide. Yes, we know that the universe began with a big bang and ultimately will end in a whimpering heat death. But don’t worry, you will be long dead before that happens, and your ashes will be part of that (cough) meaningful utopic picture.
This leads on to another point which is the trouble universities are having recruiting science students. I’m not about to suggest that atheism and post-modernism are the reasons for the disinterest in science, but I think they do play a role. Consider, if you live a life that is ultimately meaningless (born, live, reproduce, die, nothingness), then why would you choose an occupation that is hard and doesn’t pay well? Why ought I live for the good of all and work on great science that helps improve lives rather than just live for myself? Of course atheists counter this by saying that they are philanthropic and good people to which I would often agree. But my question is why ought they be like that rather than be selfish and self centered? Christians (and some other) religious people know how they ought to behave, but atheists have to take a pragmatic view on oughts, yet one persons’ ought may differ from anothers’ ought, so which do we choose and why?
I have a lot more thoughts on this topic but will finish on the question of knowledge as this is a biggie when it comes to scientists and their worldviews. As Sir harry pointed out on several occasions, he is not going to believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet this claim is itself self-refuting. Does he have evidence for not believing anything unless it is based on evidence? But I think it is worse that that and I should like to expand on this in another post sometime, but here is an outline.
Scientists often make the claim as Sir Harry does that we should not believe anything unless it is based on evidence. Yet it seems to me that non-religious scientists actually believe everything based on faith. For example:
- Do they know the world was not created 5 minutes ago? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
- Do they use the laws of logic? If so, can they provide evidence that they are reliable? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
- Do scientists believe in the uniformity of nature? Do they believe that the next experiment will behave as the previous one? Will some experiment behave the same in another country, on another planet, in another galaxy, or at another time? If yes, what is the evidence? If no, then it must be taken on faith.
Let me finish now with a few big words and why I believe what I believe.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know, while ontology deals with the nature of existence or being. I fail to understand how the science alone can access reality in any definite way because to do so requires meta-knowledge such as: are my senses are reliable, is nature uniform, am I a brain in a vat, and is the world the creation of a cosmic trickster? Science seems unable even in principle to access such knowledge. Christianity on the other hand begins in ontology with the existence of God and His revelation through the Bible which cuts through the veil and reveals a world created with order and meaning. C.S. Lewis wrote :
Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator. In most modern scientists this belief has died: it will be interesting to see how long their confidence in uniformity survives it. Two significant developments have already appeared—the hypothesis of a lawless sub-nature, and the surrender of the claim that science is true. We may be living nearer than we suppose to the end of the Scientific Age.
I think a nice way to sum this up is to say that to gain certainty, we must begin in ontology as a grounding for epistemology. The law-giving legislator provides this starting point and provides a basis for science. On the other hand, beginning with epistemology as Dawkins and Sir Harry appear to do leads ultimately to total uncertainty because nothing can really be known for sure about anything. I think Rene Descartes realized this long ago. Should someone tell the new atheists?
- In case you are thinking that I am using “faith” as something that is disconnected from reason, I am certainly not. My faith is firmly anchored using a chain of reason to the historical claims of the Bible. These in turn are treated as other historical claims are, and weighed upon available evidence, logic, reasonableness and so on.
- Lewis, C.S., Miracles: a Preliminary Study, Collins, London, p. 110, 1947.
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p.132 has a section “The Regularity of Nature” dealing with the problem of induction, David Hume and Bertrand Russell. Keller says that many scholars have argued in the last decades that modern science arose in its most sustained form out of Christian civilization due to belief in an all-powerful, personal God who created and sustains an orderly universe. I would add that reading for example, Homer’s Illiad, would not provide you with such a view of nature.