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‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 29, 2008 | 9:39 am

The Templeton Conversation has returned, this time asking major scientists the question posed in this headline: “Does science make belief in God Obsolete?” As expected, there was not a uniform answer. Some said “yes,” others “no, and yes” and two “of course not.”

One of the “of course nots” is from Ken Miller, whom I have quoted here before. Here’s what he told Templeton:

Science itself does not contradict the hypothesis of God. Rather, it gives us a window on a dynamic and creative universe that expands our appreciation of the Divine in ways that could not have been imagined in ages past.

As an outspoken defender of evolution, I am often challenged by those who assume that if science can demonstrate the natural origins of our species, which it surely has, then God should be abandoned. But the Deity they reject so easily is not the one I know. To be threatened by science, God would have to be nothing more than a placeholder for human ignorance. This is the God of the creationists, of the “intelligent design” movement, of those who seek their God in darkness. What we have not found and do not yet understand becomes their best–indeed their only–evidence for faith. As a Christian, I find the flow of this logic particularly depressing. Not only does it teach us to fear the acquisition of knowledge (which might at any time disprove belief), but it also suggests that God dwells only in the shadows of our understanding. I suggest that if God is real, we should be able to find him somewhere else–in the bright light of human knowledge, spiritual and scientific.

Jerome Groopman, a medical professor at Harvard whose recent book I finished last month, told Templeton “no, not at all.” I like his explanation:

As a physician and researcher, I employ science to decipher human biology and treat disease. As a person of faith, I look to my religious tradition for the touchstones of a moral life. Neither science nor faith need contradict the other; in fact, if one appreciates the essence of each, they can enrich each other in a person’s life.

So, the question of obsolescence is miscast, because science and faith should exist in separate realms. Science uses logic and experimental methods to measure and describe the material world. It yields knowledge about the workings of molecules and machines, mitosis and momentum. Science has no moral valence. It is neutral. DNA technology can craft a cure for a cancer or produce a weapon of bioterrorism. It is only a person’s application of science that takes on a moral dimension.

In that light, an atheist creates his or her own moral precepts in the absence of God. A believer looks to religious texts for guidance in what is right and what is wrong. Right and wrong, for both, do not come from physics or chemistry or biology. Science does not instruct how to treat one’s neighbor as oneself, how to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, why it is wrong to murder, steal, bear false witness, honor one’s father and mother, and perhaps most difficult of all, subsume envy and covetousness. There are no Ten Commandments in thermodynamics or molecular biology, no path to righteousness and charity and love in Euclidean geometry or atomic physics. The truths of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics are different from the truths we seek in human behavior and human choices. The truths of science can be measured and experimentally verified; the truths of a moral life are matters of belief–whether you are an atheist or a religious person. Religion should view science as a way to improve the world; science should see religion not as a threat but as a deeply felt path taken by some.

Science and religion occupy different fields and live harmoniously together, even if people don’t. Even Christopher Hitchens said science does not make God obsolete; he just wishes it did.

(Hat tip: Blogging Religiously)

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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