Saturday, October 16, 2010

Science and the New Atheism

[These notes were prepared in the second full week of October 2010. They were intended as a 20 minute lunch time talk. Some sections rely heavily on popular online resources, such as Wikipedia.]

Last Saturday would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, and his most famous song – at least, his most famous hit as a solo artist – that song provides the title for the first two talks of this Word @ 1 series… “Imagine there’s no heaven” Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky…" The song doesn’t explicitly mention God. But the sentiment and the message is very clear. We don’t need God, we don’t need religion, we can and should live based on what we see in the world here and now. And Lennon’s philosophy of life was in some way a God-less, classless, society where there was equality and freedom with regard to rights and property and so on. Because for Lennon - at least according to the lyrics of Imagine - political, religious and national loyalties were the source of poverty, inequality and war.

Next week, we will ask the question, Can 21st cenury Ireland live without God? And we might think about some of those issues… how have religious and political realities shaped Ireland, and is it time to drop the religious influence? But today, in Part 1, I want to describe and comment on what I’m calling Science and the New Atheism.

Stephen Hawking.

A few weeks ago, in the middle of the newspaper silly season, when nothing else was happening worthy of report, the newspapers in the UK carried headlines like this: Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create Universe. Has Stephen Hawking ended the God debate? With the publication of his latest book, called The Grand Design, Hawking has more or less come out of the closet and admitted that he is an atheist. In what I’ve read there is still a little ambiguity, but at the very least it is clear that he does not believe in any personal God.

Now, there is a brief history to this association between Stephen Hawking and God. Most of you will have heard of Stephen Hawking. World famous professor of mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, Hawking is respected among scientists for his theories about black holes and the structure of the universe. And he is known to the general public because of his popular best selling book from the late 1980s, A Brief History of Time. In that book, Hawking described his theories about the universe. Although he did not think God was a necessary part of those theories, he appeared to allow for the possibility that God did exist. So, if we were to discover the secrets of how the universe began, and the secrets of how it worked and held together… well, as he famously put it, then we would know the mind of God.

In his latest book, however, there is a more definite and distinct rejection of any need for God in explaining the universe. The suggestion is that, if we don’t need God to explain the universe, then we don’t need God at all. That is to say, if there is no need and no room for God in the physical universe, why should we allow for God in any sense? Whatever you believe about God, you may as well be an atheist, because to all practical intents and purposes, we are atheists when it comes to what we know about the universe through scientific knowledge.

There is an interesting background to all this. Why should Hawking be worried at all about the God question? Well, the funny thing is that in some ways the development of scientific theories about the universe led to questions about God. Let me try and illustrate what I mean by that. If I was giving this talk, let’s say, 60 or 70 or maybe 80 years ago, and you were all listening to me because you were interested in the latest ideas about the universe, one of the main challenges I would need to address would be this: I would need to persuade you that the universe had a beginning, had a creation. Because some scientists in the early and mid 20thC believed that the universe had always existed. They also believed that the universe was more or less one massive static fixed space. Stuff happened within that space, but the space itself was permanent and immovable. If something has always existed, there is no need for God or anyone else to create it.

So Christians and other believers in God had to argue against that, and it wasn’t very easy in some ways. But then, lo and behold, the science changed. People, influenced by Einstein and other leading thinkers, started to re-think how they understood the universe. They started to think that maybe the universe, maybe space itself was not so static and fixed. Where did that lead? Well, it led to the Big Bang theory. And what does the Big Bang theory say? The Big Bang theory says that the universe had a beginning! It is fascinating that the scientists who were most opposed to the Big Bang theory were Russian communists who were committed or forced into a God-less view of the universe. To defend themselves from the implications of the universe having a beginning, they tried to defend the old view of a static eternal universe that had always existed.

Once the Big Bang theory had become the dominant idea explaining the universe, Hawking and all the other scientists were left with one final problem. How did the Big Bang occur? How did something start out of nothing? And, so, you’ll be able to understand for yourself how that allowed the God question to remain legitimate, even for people like Stephen Hawking.

New Atheism.

To some extent Stephen Hawking has published his latest book on the back of another movement, dubbed the New Atheism. The New Atheism movement is something that has developed in the last decade or so, it has helped lots of people sell lots of books, and it is worth thinking about because of some of the questions that it raises.

The term, New Atheism, apparently first appeared in 2006. It refers to a series of best-selling books that were published in the years between 2004 and 2008. The books were written independently, and the authors included Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. The book written by Dawkins, The God Delusion, was on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a full year. The New Atheists are not all scientists. Of those that are scientists, I’d say that none of them are as groundbreaking or influential in scientific terms as Stephen Hawking. But they do claim that atheism, backed by the findings of science, has reached a point where it ought to be more confident. And I suppose that in that sense Hawking has contributed to the movement in his latest book.

The New Atheists write from a scientific perspective. Unlike other people who have written about belief in God, they argue that the God question is a valid topic for scientific research. A lot of thinkers claim that science is indifferent or even incapable of dealing with questions about God. But the point remains valid. New Atheists more or less says this: if God did create the world, and if God does effect the physical world, then that is something that should be open to scientific testing and observation. The New Atheists say, let’s put God to the test, and they argue that God fails the test. For them, nature and materialism is sufficient to explain everything that is seen in the world. There is no need for any kind of supernatural power, certainly not a Creator God. And so they go on to assert that many of the religious or supernatural claims of religion, including the well known Christian claims concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, are either false or they must have a scientific explanation. One example. Apparently scientists at Duke University in America are currently researching the power and effectiveness of prayer, without any evidence so far that prayer makes any material difference to the physical world.

A Response.

I’m speaking here as a Christian, so I’m not assuming to speak for anyone other than myself when I ask: How can Christians respond? Do we have to give up on our belief in God? Or do we have to choose? Do we have to choose between knowing and using scientific knowledge, and knowing and using religious knowledge? Or, and this probably describes most Christian and religious people: do we hold those two areas in tension, being careful not to confuse the two, switching between each area as we live our lives, but avoiding any combination or confusion, so that our religious beliefs and practices have a little existence of their own?

Here are three remarks, three observations on this movement which has become so prominent.

1. Atheism is not new

There have been atheists and atheist movements in public discourse for at least the last 300 years. The New Atheism is different because it is militant. According to CNN, "What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises."

I think the difference is this: There have always been people who have argued that religion is bad. But the New Atheists don’t even respect religious people, religion itself is a problem, religion itself is the worst thing ever, and needs to be wiped out. It can’t be a coincidence that the New Atheism movement started in North America and the UK, two or three years after 9/11. Terrorism and wars that appeared to be associated with strong religious beliefs dominated domestic and international politics for much of the last decade. So there was an opportunity for people like Sam Harris to write against religion and against belief in God. The tone of that writing was highly critical, almost belligerent. That’s a change from most other atheist movements. But I think that’s the only real difference. The actual arguments that the New Atheists use are not new, and they can be challenged by all sorts of people, not just Christians.

2. The God that New Atheism attacks and rejects is not the Christian God

In general terms, almost none of the New Atheist writers understand how Christian theology has described God. For example, Dawkins holds to the view of God as a complex being. It is difficult to describe, but his thinking in general is on the face of it quite plausible, something along these lines... “The Universe is a big complicated place, therefore God, should God exist, must be a rather complicated being. But we don’t see any sign of such a complicated being, therefore God cannot exist.” But whatever conclusions those arguments lead to, they do not challenge or undermine claims for the Christian God.

Christian belief has always stated the opposite to what Dawkins understands. God is simple. God is not complex in the sense that God is made up of many parts. Rather God’s being is pure, uncompounded. God is not material. God has no body or material component. God is not part of the universe. God is not the first and original cause in the universe, because the God of the Christian faith exists apart from the universe.

Someone has written these words about Stephen Hawking. They use this quote from his latest book: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. . . . It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” The writer then adds this comment… “Hawking is right: the god he describes does not exist. The true God did not simply set the cosmos in motion. … He does not merely inhabit the gaps in our explanatory theories. Rather he upholds his creation, including the laws of physics, at every conceivable moment. Without his doing so, it would cease immediately to exist. A god who is subsequent to the law of gravity is definitely not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Thank God there is no such god as Hawking conceives of him.”

3. Jesus

That leads into my final remark, as we draw this first talk to a close. I think there is a more specific sense in which the New Atheist writers misunderstand the Christian God. And I have to say that most Christians who engage and respond to the New Atheists also miss this point, which I think must be the starting point for any credible and useful Christian response. In one sense, you will not be surprised by what I’m about to say. But you might not realize the importance of it: the God that the New Atheists attack and reject is not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The god that the New Atheists attack is more or less an abstract vague notion or idea. But the Christian understanding of God comes from our knowledge of Jesus.

Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but through me.” The first Christian believers, followers of Jesus, who knew Jesus before his death… after his death those early Christians were very quickly writing and telling and explaining to people things like this: "Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. By him all things were created… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." So, at least for Christians, the evidence for and the credibility of Jesus is the thing that will make or break belief in a God who created the world and the whole universe.

To explore the significance of that position would take another 20 mins at least. But I think you will understand how that changes the terms of the debate. If the Christian view of God is grounded in Jesus, described in historical documents that claim to be genuine records of his life… if the Christian view of God develops among people who knew Jesus, wrote about him, shaped their way of life around their knowledge of him… then the place to start thinking about God is wherever you find information about Jesus. And, of course, almost everything we know about Jesus is found in the New Testament gospels and letters.

Closing remarks.

Thanks for coming along. There are some leaflets to take away and read. We’ve got some booklets selling for a euro. If anyone is interested we can arrange further discussions on Science and the New Atheism. But this time next Friday the topic is slightly different… Can 21stC Ireland live without God?


Danny said...

Great summary - saved me actually reading up on it for myself :)

Thanks for sharing... hope you are posting the next one?

Francois said...

I, as are all other humans, was born an atheist. Hence the burden of proof does not lie with me but with religion. All followers of religion, became that once they became succeptable to the propaganda. "give me the child and i will give you the man". So I am an old atheist because thankfully I could avoid being influenced when I was at my most vulnerable as a child. Though they tried!
Why the term NEW athiest? Is it not because society has advanced to a point were relion's hold is slipping and one is free to speak out and oppose false dogmas in every way possible.Religions have much to answer for committing and promoting institutionalized crimes against humanity. untill then don't expect any thinking person to take you seriously.

citzfan said...

Thanks David - lucid and succinct.

Hi Francois: one simple point only - "religions" have not had the monopoly on "institutionalised crimes against humanity". The anti-human atheist regime list is large and must surely include the Soviet Union, Albania and several other East European states, North Korea, China and many more.

pat joe said...

Hi Dave,I would just like to point out a very important fact in relation to Atheists in general. According to the God Himself there is no such thing as an atheist in the classical sense of the meaning. The classical meaning is that Atheists say that there is no God. But we must realise that for someone to actually come to that conclusion, they must first suppress the the truth that God has made known about Himself. Romans 1:18-21 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
This is a clear picture of many people; but Atheists in particular. So in order for them to hold to their erroeous view they must first suppress the truth that God has made known.