It’s a familiar story, but a recent Huffington Post article caught my attention. The author, a non-Christian physicist, expresses shock after posting an article on the age of the earth. Expecting a torrent of abuse from religious conservatives, he was surprised that it was the atheistic fundamentalists who piled on.
One of the biggest objections to religion is that there are so many competing truth claims. How can each claim to be right? Religious detractors argue that this is in sharp contrast to science, which is based on facts upon which any rational person can agree.
How do we handle this objection? First, it is important to point out that the number of truth claims on the market has nothing to do with whether which, if any of them, is true.
Take something as significant as belief in a transcendent creator. Cambridge mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle noted, “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” In sharp contrast, biologist and passionate defender of atheism Richard Dawkins says, “The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and toward atheism.” These thinkers can hardly be distinguished by their scientific credentials. If anything, Hoyle contributed far more to applied science than has Dawkins so far. Both came to radically different conclusions based on their considerable study of nature.
Albert Einstein saw himself as more of a pantheist like Spinoza than an atheist like Marx or Nietzsche. “[T]he fanatical atheists,” he wrote to a friend, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle.” They are simply rebelling against their religious upbringing. Indeed, he added that although he didn’t believe in a personal God, “such belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook.” Following Spinoza, he was a strict determinist. He wrote to physicist Max Born,
You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice game, although I am well aware that some of our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility.
Scientists disagree about all sorts of things: from matters as metaphysical as string theory to details over genetic mutation. In fact, as Michael Polanyi argued years ago, scientists belong to a concrete, historical community of interpretation. They too have lives, histories, and experiences within which they interpret reality.
We all remember the ill-fated pronouncements of the church in relation to Copernicus and Galileo, but it was scientists who made the biggest fuss at least initially over the new cosmology. Not unlike religious communities, the scientific community resists massive paradigm shifts. That’s good, because we’d be starting over every day if it were otherwise. It takes a lot of anomalies to overthrow a well-established paradigm. But it happens.
Of course, one reason that paradigm revolutions can occur is that there are rigorous standards for evaluating and testing theories. I would argue that this is what sets Christianity apart from other religions. It arose not out of a projection of felt needs, the charisma of a sage, or the profundity of its universal ideas, but as a historical claim with cosmic significance: the resurrection of Jesus. It was a paradigm revolution within the Jewish community that sparked momentous debate. Even greater was the shift that it provoked when it met the Greek world. The idea of God as personal—and three persons to boot; that the world is created out of nothing, as a free act by a good God, not to mention the incarnation of this God in history and his death and resurrection as redemption-bringing events, were completely revolutionary. One couldn’t really be a good Platonist by day and a Christian by night. A choice had to be made.
Even within religious communities there are major paradigm shifts. The Reformation is an example. Fresh exegesis turned up new evidence and shed new light on passages that had been misunderstood—even mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate. This doesn’t explain it all, of course, but it was a big part of it. The reformers didn’t set out to cause a revolution. They didn’t touch most of the Christian doctrines—affirming the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other key teachings without alteration. However, they did cause many throughout Europe to rethink the meaning of the gospel. Pretty significant on its own merits.
At some point, we have to take responsibility. We can’t just dismiss the search with Pilate’s shrug, “What is truth?”
At a conference a number of years ago, I was on a panel with Bill Nye (as in “The Science Guy”). Like a modern-day David Hume, he made general arguments about religious claims as equivalent to fairy tales that evolve over time with each telling. I agreed with some of his assertions about religion in general, but asked him to evaluate specific claims for Christ’s resurrection. Going through these claims, one by one, he became increasingly impatient. Finally, without addressing even one of the arguments, he dismissed the whole thing with a single brush, returning to his opening assertions.
Christianity has been in the business of offering arguments and evidence from the beginning. The Hebrew prophets mock the idols of the nations because they cannot speak and cannot make good on their promises in history. The God of Israel has done so in Jesus Christ and “has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
Of course, none of us is neutral. We all come to the evidence with big assumptions about reality. The Holy Spirit alone can bring conversion, but he does so through his Word. And he also uses supporting arguments and evidence that reveal too many devastating anomalies—indeed contradictions—that our reigning worldview can’t accommodate. One thing is for certain: to say that miracles do not happen because they cannot happen is as vicious a circle as any argument can be. In fact, it’s not an argument at all, but mere assertion. Isaac Asimov said, “Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” Insert “believer” and change “doesn’t exist” to “does exist” and there is nothing expressed here that the Dawkinses of the world wouldn’t leap upon as evidence of blind faith.
Hoyle concludes, seemingly against his personal inclinations, that the evidence requires a transcendent creator, while Dawkins’ conclusion couldn’t be more antithetical. No less than religious ones, scientific claims about ultimate reality are driven by deeper worldview assumptions. But the sheer fact that there are competing claims doesn’t settle anything. Whether or not we take the time to investigate those claims on their own terms is a decision that closed minds on both sides of the debate will have to consider seriously if the search for truth is of any significance to being human.