Do science and rationality support atheism?

Horsehead nebulaThe challenge of militant Islam is focusing new attention on religion. Many, especially in Europe, are turning from being indifferent to religion to being militantly anti-religious. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are both being blamed for roles in the bloody war on terrorism. Thus secular Europeans have voiced dismay at American religiosity and worry that faith-based reasoning is spreading in Europe, too. Many Britons, for example, believe the Christian faith of Prime Minister Tony Blair helped lead him to entangle Britain in America's war in Iraq. Thus also, the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, who calls himself "the world's most prominent atheist", asserts the "irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11".

The resurgence of a militant atheism represented by these remarks has been the immediate impetus for writing this essay. My primary goal is to analyse the question of the rationality of belief in God with emphasis on the claim that such is irrational because it contradicts science. 

For simplicity, belief in God will be identified with theism and with the assertion God exists. This ignores the distinction between theism, which usually considers God as an active agent in world history, and deism, which does not.

Science cannot answer why anything (including science itself), rather
than nothing, exists. There is nothing in the universe that can explain
the existence of the universe.

Theism generally comes packaged in a religion. The latter is a complex set of ideas that relate God to all aspects of nature including, especially, human nature. For example, religions explain thunder, stars, good/bad fortune, the existence of humankind, the meaning and proper conduct of life, and so on. Each religion relates these to God or gods.

A belief in some religion can and should be distinguished from a belief in God. Religion is a diffuse topic liable to unending disputation whereas theism is not. Unfortunately, most discussions fail to keep this distinction clear. Thus one often reads that religion has made a claim in contradiction to scientific truth, theism is irrational. This is simply a confusion of words and concepts: the rationality of theism does not stand on the scripture of any religion.

Relating God to science

Another important way in which theism is commonly said to contradict science is in respect to creation. Particular scenarios depend on particular scriptures but God is always the creator of the universe. On the other hand, one often hears that science can or will explain creation (eg, the Big Bang) and so the role -- indeed the primary role -- of God as creator is superfluous or just wrong.

Thinking just beyond this shallow point, one realises that science can only explain the creation of something in terms of something else ("something" here includes non-substantials such as laws of nature). After a bit more thought one arrives at the key creation question known as the Fundamental Question of Philosophy: why is there anything at all rather than nothing at all? Analysis of the FQP leads to a clear understanding of the relation between theism and science.

As a start, let us try to answer the FQP with science. To do this fairly we grant the stipulation that everything in the universe is explicable, or will ultimately be physically explicable. This means, in particular, that all fields of science are reducible to physics and that every area of knowledge is a proper subject for scientific inquiry. It does not mean that all explanations will be reduced to physics. It means just that they could be, at least in principle.

This assumption underlies virtually all of modern science. Biologists seek ultimate causes of biological phenomena in terms of chemistry; chemists, in terms of physics. Even mental phenomena are assumed to be ultimately explicable in terms of the physical brain. Not everyone believes this scheme to be true, but a real scientist would never attempt to base scientific explanations on some sort of non-physical, spiritual essence, force, soul, or will. Even a scientific study of artistic or religious inspiration would not use the classical interpretation of inspirations as the in-taking of a spirit.

Science and the fundamental question

Returning to the task of answering the FQP, pick anything -- say a drop of water -- and ask yourself: why is there this thing? Why does this drop exist? An attempt to answer this within the framework of science leads to a series of existing things, and a why-question for each of them.

The series starting with a drop of water might be sketched as follows. A drop's existence can be understood in terms of its individual water molecules, the particular forces between them, and the general physical laws governing motion: quantum mechanics (QM).

Why molecules and inter-molecular forces exist can be understood in terms of atoms, inter-atomic forces, and again, QM. Similarly, atoms and inter-atomic forces, in terms of electrons, nuclei, the electrodynamic forces between them and QM; and so on.

Eventually one reaches the most fundamental level of physics, its most basic concepts and equations. All paths of why-questions, starting from all things, all lead to the same end: the basis of physics. At this point, the FQP requires you to ask why this basis -- the set of concepts and equations underlying physics -- exists.

The known basis of physics changes in time, and deepens as our understanding of nature deepens. However, at any given time, physics cannot explain the existence of its basis. Its sole job is to explain what is not in its basis in terms of its basis--which is why a basis is called a basis. Thus the FQP creates a series of questions all leading to an unanswerable end -- unanswerable, that is, within the framework of science. Science cannot answer why anything (including science itself), rather than nothing, exists. There is nothing in the universe that can explain the existence of the universe.

That the answer to the FQP cannot be found within the bounds of science and rationality means only that. It does not mean its answer does not exist. If an answer is assumed to exist, in some sense of the word exist, there can be no error in naming it. The traditional name is God. Thus a very important conclusion: within the framework of science, God is unknowable -- and therefore, unknown. Furthermore, the unknowable God must be conceived to be an indivisible unity. For how can one know of parts of that of which nothing can be known?  

Common mistakes concerning creation

It is worth mentioning two red herrings commonly dragged into this argument. People with a smattering of physics may bring up "quantum mechanical vacuum fluctuations". Could the universe have been created out of nothing via a vacuum fluctuation? Could it have been created all by itself out of nothing (and therefore, it is implied, without need of God)?

The scientific answer is No: a physical vacuum is a thing, something rather than nothing. Furthermore, there still remains the question of why quantum mechanics itself exists -- or any natural law for that matter?

Others feel that the FQP can have meaning only if one believes that the universe was created at some time, before which there was neither time nor universe. They feel that, therefore, if time extends to the infinite past, then no moment of creation ever existed and therefore it need not be explained.

Unfortunately, this still leaves open the question of why the universe exists at all? Furthermore, why, if it exists today, must it continue to do so tomorrow?

Alternative views of the FQP

Should the Fundamental Question of Philosophy be taken seriously? Many (if not most) people ignore the FQP simply because they are not intellectually serious themselves, but some serious thinkers also ignore it.

There seem to be three possible views of the FQP:

(1) It is irrational, and hence, uninteresting.

(2) It is rational, but scientifically unanswerable and hence uninteresting.

(3) It is rational and scientifically unanswerable, but still interesting.

In the first of these, the claim of irrationality may rest on the phrase "nothing at all" contained within the FQP. Try to visualise "nothing at all"! It is not empty space because space is something. It is not altogether clear that we can conceive of "nothing at all"; but we cannot coherently talk or ask about that of which we have no conception. In a similar vein, some people may feel that the claim that God created the world ex nihilo (from nothing) is irrational since we have no conception of nihilo.

Another possible irrationality in the FQP is contained in the word "why". Some thinkers read motivation into "why", not causality. Since there is no reason to assume that every cause has human-style motivation, and certainly no scientific cause includes motivation, the FQP seems to include an irrational assumption. Many serious people (such as the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume) view scientifically unanswerable questions of this sort as uninteresting.

It is also possible to argue that a question which is unanswerable is therefore uninteresting. Why, for instance, hit your head against a stone wall? Or, similarly, one could argue because a question lacks a rational answer, the question is irrational. If this is the case, it is meaningless and therefore uninteresting.

As these examples illustrate, "rationality" is ambiguous and "being interesting" is subjective. Hence, the first two views listed above cannot be argued; and no one who maintains either of them can be argued into seriously considering the FQP -- that question which is central to a belief in the concept of God.  

Tackling the existence of God

What if we take the third view, that the FQP is rational and scientifically unanswerable, but interesting nonetheless? The modern and highly influential German metaphysician Martin Heidegger maintained that the FQP is the only genuine philosophical question. Oddly enough, he called himself an atheist -- but also claimed that atheists do not deny the existence of God. Rather, they deny that "God has an existence". This obscure wording serves to emphasise the ambiguity in the concept of existence. Heidegger's basic point was that simply stating that God does or does not exist, without further clarifying the sense of the word "exist", is ambiguous.

To say that something "exists" normally means that it is within the universe (of every thing and every being). If we were to say that God "exists" in this sense, it would imply (since God is the reason for or explanation of why anything rather than nothing exists) that the universe explains its own existence. Or, if one prefers to think in terms of creation ex nihilo, that the universe created itself into something out of nothing: no-thing created some-thing out of no-thing! This incoherence amounts to merely a denial either of the meaning of the FQP, or an unwillingness to face its meaning.

We now approach the end of our chain of logic. To say that God exists is to understand existence in an enlarged sense. It means that we accept his complete transcendence, that: the reason for the existence of the universe lies completely beyond the universe. In fact, it lies beyond nature -- it is, strictly speaking, "super-natural".


To summarise: we have examined the claim of militant atheism that a belief in the existence of God is irrational, and that it contradicts science. We have concluded that the existence of God itself, as distinguished from particular religious teachings, certainly does not contradict science.

Furthermore, is "the world's most prominent atheist" correct to assert that the existence of God is irrational? Only if he believes that the Fundamental Question of Philosophy is itself irrational, is our answer. The meaning of “irrational” is flexible enough to allow a belief in the irrationality of the FQP; but this does not permit the "irrationality of the existence of God" to be asserted as an authoritative truth. It is more aptly characterized as a religious faith of atheism.

The upshot of this is that it is simply foolish to assert that science and rationality support atheism.

Finally, it is possible to reach a rational belief in the existence of God. One must have first the mental (and perhaps, emotional) wherewithal to ask the fundamental question. Then one must understand and accept the fact that its answer is unknowable through science. God, the answer, transcends the universe of knowable things. 

Edward A. Remler is a professor emeritus at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia. He has worked in nuclear and particle physics theory for the last 50 years.


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