I’m team-teaching Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator at church along with a college biology instructor and an engineer, each of us taking the chapters relating to our own areas of specialty. Chapter Two asks, “Is science—especially evolutionary science—opposed to God? Do we really need God if we can explain the world through science?”
Evidences in Nature
There are two parts to the answer to this question. One of them has to do with the actual evidence of science: what do we see in nature, and what’s the best way to interpret it? The definition of Intelligent Design (ID) is this: “ID holds that there are features of nature that are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause.” You’ll see other definitions of ID from opponents or the popular press, for example:
- “ID is creationism dressed up to look as if was science,” or
- “ID is the theory that nature is too complex to have come about by evolution so it must have come from God,” or
- “ID is the God-of-the-gaps, the theory that what we don’t yet understand about evolution must have been God’s doing.”
None of those is correct; all of them are distortions. The class will cover this more later, or you can read more here now.
There is evidence, and there is interpretation. The second part of the answer to our question has to do with the mindset by which you interpret evidence. People on both sides of the debate are looking at the same “stuff” in nature but they give very different explanations. Why?
Different interpretations are nothing new in science, so there could be a lot of reasons why they happen here. I’m going to focus on one here that’s really quite unique to the Intelligent Design controversy. Lee Strobel uses two very crucial words in Chapter Two without defining them. Actually he does come back to them in Chapter Four, but they are so crucial to this whole issue, I don’t think we ought to wait that long.
These words are “naturalist” (page 22) and “materialist” (page 23 and 25). This is not about an outdoorsman/naturalist like Euell Gibbons, and this materialism is not about trying to satisfy yourself by building up material goods. They have a different meaning in this case. They’re practically synonymous, so we’re going to treat them that way here, and I’ll stick with the word naturalism to cover both of them.* Naturalism is the belief that nothing exists except for matter and energy, and their interactions according to law and chance. That’s the short version. Unpacked it means:
- The cosmos consists of matter and energy (physicists will actually tell you the two are two sides of the same coin). Nothing else exists. Period.
- Everything that happens is caused either by the necessity that we call natural law, or (on a subatomic scale only) by chance.
What does that leave out? God, or in fact any kind of spiritual reality at all. Naturalism is atheistic.
Where Does This Mindset Come From?
Many evolutionary scientists (not all, but many) are naturalists in this sense. Where do they get it from? I’ll speak to some of the more common answers here.
Richard Dawkins is a great example of this way of thinking. In a marvelous book (it really is a good read) called The Blind Watchmaker, he sets out to show Why the Evidence of Evolution Proves a Universe Without Design (that’s the book’s subtitle, in fact). He says that since we can (at least in principle) explain all of reality without God, there is no God. Based on that early book of his, it appears that he had come to a scientific conclusion that there is no God. There are only two problems. One is that the evidence he presented is still very controversial, as you’ll see in weeks to come. The other is that no matter what the scientific evidence shows, it can’t show that there’s no God.
Science can investigate physical reality. Can it investigate spiritual reality? No. It’s not in science’s area of competence. Science is about what you can count, weigh, measure, observe with the five senses or with instruments, experiment on, control, repeat, etc. God doesn’t fit any of those categories. “We looked with all of our science and we didn’t find God” is about as relevant as, “We looked all over Australia and we never found Kentucky.”
Naturalism is a belief about spiritual reality, and as such it has spiritual roots: See 1 Corinthians 2:14-15; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.
Some people express a naturalistic attitude for the sake of science. The classic statement is Richard Lewontin’s, from a book review (emphasis added by me):
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
The horrific fear he states here is that “the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.” If there is a God who works in the world, it’s all going to go haywire, science becomes worthless, everything we thought we knew turns out to be wrong, in fact we no longer have any way of learning anything about the world because science can’t be trusted any longer!
We have to take this seriously. There’s a great cartoon that shows how serious the problem is: “And then a miracle occurs.” Clearly this is not science, it’s not responsible, and it’s not acceptable. It’s wrong. It’s bad. Even Christians can agree this is foolish. Physicist Gregory Benford, quoted in a book edited by Ravi Zacharias called Beyond Opinion (page 166) said,
One can imagine a universe in which laws are not truly law-full. Talk of miracles does just this, invoking God to make things work. Physics aims to find the laws instead.
God and Science: Not Enemies
Which is exactly what physics ought to do. Is God so erratic, though? Not at all. We can take this right back to the heart of God. These are not things we made up just so he won’t be an embarrassment to science! These are core attributes of God we relied on long before anybody gave a moment’s thought to what makes science work. God wants to communicate with us, he does it through miracles, he wants us to know him, he wants us to reflect his own image, and it is precisely for those reasons that we know he will let nature run its course
- God wants us to know him. You cannot really get to know someone whose character and behavior are erratic.
- God created us in his image; he wants us to be responsible for what we do in the world. That means he had to design the world to be predictable, so that we could be confident that if we did x, we could count on y being the result. If I brush my teeth they will be cleaner and healthier. If doing x could result in some random set of outcomes a, b, c, … with no predictable connection to x, then how could we be responsible for the results of our actions? One day I brush my teeth and my neighbor is healed of cancer, the next day I brush my teeth and a jet plane crashes, the next day a beagle mutates into a basset hound: how am I ever going to know what brushing my teeth is going to do? And how can I be a responsible person in the world if I can’t find a way to figure out what I’m causing? So God has this reason also to make cause-effect relationships very consistent and regular.
- God wants to communicate with us. In biblical history much of his revelation was through miracles, like the virgin birth or Christ’s resurrection. What if there were no such thing as natural law and regularity, though? What if, say, one in a million births or so were to virgins, kind of on a random basis? What if God more or less on a whim raised people from the dead, once a decade in every country of the world? What would have happened to his communication through Christ? The power of God’s communication through miracles absolutely depends on their being out of the ordinary—way out of the ordinary.
- And God wants us to understand some of what kind of a God he is through nature (Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19:1-6.
So there’s no reason whatever to think that having a God who runs the world would be the death of science.
Committed Naturalists (Atheists)
Still, I guarantee you that many evolutionary scientists choose to believe in evolution at least partly because it takes God out of the equation forever. Not all, but many. In their case it is a spiritual as well as a scientific issue. Atheists must be evolutionists: If you are committed to atheism, then you are committed to evolution, and no evidence that could ever be brought before you could ever make the slightest difference, because there isn’t any other idea on the table that could even begin to explain where we all came from. If you choose atheism, you have to choose evolution, regardless of the evidence. It’s your only option.
If you choose to believe in God, you’re not so constrained. There are Christian evolutionists. There are Christian young-earth creationists who take a literal 6-day interpretation of Genesis. There are Christians who take Genesis to mean what it says, but who don’t think it actually says a literal 6-day interpretation is necessary.
If you ever hear someone say that being a Christian makes you closed-minded, remind them of this:
- Naturalists must be evolutionists, regardless of the evidence
- Christians can believe in God-directed evolution, young-earth creationism, or old-earth creation, and they can follow the evidence where it leads.
- Which of these is the more closed-minded?
Assumptions or Proof?
This brings us back around to the point of this whole lesson. Is science opposed to God? Yes and no. There is a certain kind of scientist who is opposed to God: the scientist who takes up the position of naturalism, who assumes that nature is the whole show, that science is the one way to learn about reality. Science itself, rightly understood, doesn’t say that at all. There’s plenty of room in science to look at the evidence and draw an open-minded conclusion. When you hear, “science proves there’s no God,” or “science proves God had nothing to do with creation,” or anything of the sort, what they’re really saying is, “my version of science, which assumes there is no God, says there is no God.” Assumptions are not proof.
*There are different accounts of how naturalism and materialism differ. One such account says that materialism is about what the universe is made of (just matter and energy, two sides of the same coin), while naturalism is the belief that everything that happens can (in principle) be explained by natural causes and laws.