by Professor John Lennox
I am often told that the trouble with believers in God is just that: they are believers. That is, they are people of faith. Science is far superior because it doesn’t require faith. It sounds great. The problem is, it could not be more wrong.
Let me tell you about an encounter I had with Peter Singer, a world-famous ethicist from Princeton University in the USA. He is an atheist, and I debated with him in his home city of Melbourne, Australia, on the question of the existence of God. In my opening remarks, I told the audience what I told you earlier: that I grew up in Northern Ireland and that my parents were Christians.
Singer’s reaction was to say that this was an example of one of his objections to religion—that people tend to inherit the faith in which they were brought up. For him, religion is simply a matter of heredity and environment, not a matter of truth. I said,
“Peter, can I ask you—were your parents atheists?”
“My mother was certainly an atheist. My father was maybe more agnostic,” he replied.
“So you’re perpetuating the faith of your parents too, like I am,” I said.
“It’s not faith, in my view,” he said.
“Of course it’s a faith—don’t you believe it?” I replied.
There was much laughter.
Not only that but, as I discovered later, cyberspace lit up with the question: doesn’t Peter Singer, a famous philosopher, realise that his atheism is a belief system? Has he never heard of people, like the cosmologist Allan Sandage, who became convinced by the evidence of the existence of God and converted to Christianity later in life?
What is faith?
Many leading atheists share Singer’s confusion about faith and, as a result, make equally absurd statements. “Atheists do not have faith,”[note]The God Delusion, p 51.[/note] says Richard Dawkins, and yet his book The God Delusion is all about what he believes—his atheist philosophy of naturalism in which he has great faith. Dawkins, like Singer, thinks that faith is a religious concept that means believing where you know there is no evidence. They are quite wrong. Faith is an everyday concept, and they give the game away by frequently using it as such.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from the Latin fides, which means loyalty or trust. And, if we have any sense, we don’t normally trust facts or people without evidence. After all, making well-motivated, evidence-based decisions is just how faith is normally exercised—think of how you get your bank manager to trust you or the basis for your decision to get on board a bus or an aircraft.
Believing where there is no evidence is what is usually called blind faith; and no doubt in all religions you will find adherents who believe blindly. Blind faith can be very dangerous—witness 9/11. I cannot speak for other religions, but the faith expected on the part of Christians is certainly not blind. I would have no interest in it otherwise.
The Gospel-writer John says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John, chapter 20, verses 30-31
John is telling us that his account of the life of Jesus contains the eyewitness record of evidence on which faith in Christ can be based. Indeed, a strong case can be made that much of the material in the Gospels is based on eyewitness testimony.[note]See R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2017)[/note]
Do atheists have faith?
This confusion about the nature of faith leads many people to another serious error: thinking that neither atheism nor science involves faith. Yet, the irony is that atheism is a belief system and science cannot do without faith.
Physicist Paul Davies says that the right scientific attitude is essentially theological: “Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview”. He points out that “even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith [emphasis mine] … a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us”.[note] Templeton Prize Address, 1995, goo.gl/bXag3s (accessed 11 July 2018).[/note]
Albert Einstein famously said: “… science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive a genuine man of science without that profound faith [emphasis mine]. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” [note]www.nature.com/articles/146605a0.pdf (accessed 23 October 2018).[/note]
Einstein evidently did not suffer from Dawkins’ delusion that all faith is blind faith. Einstein speaks of the “profound faith” of the scientist in the rational intelligibility of the universe. He could not imagine a scientist without it. For instance, scientists believe (= have faith) that electrons exist and that Einstein’s theory of relativity holds because both are supported by evidence based on observation and experimentation.
My lecturer in quantum mechanics at Cambridge, Professor Sir John Polkinghorne, wrote, “Science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world, for it is part of science’s founding faith [notice his explicit use of the word] that this is so…”[note]J. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (SPCK, 1991), p 76.[/note] for the simple reason that you cannot begin to do physics without believing in that intelligibility.
On what evidence, therefore, do scientists base their faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe, which allows them to do science? The first thing to notice is that human reason did not create the universe. This point is so obvious that at first it might seem trivial; but it is, in fact, of fundamental importance when we come to assess the validity of our cognitive faculties. Not only did we not create the universe, but we did not create our own powers of reason either. We can develop our rational faculties by use; but we did not originate them. How can it be, then, that what goes on in our tiny heads can give us anything near a true account of reality? How can it be that a mathematical equation thought up in the mind of a mathematician can correspond to the workings of the universe?
It was this very question that led Einstein to say, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”. Similarly the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner once wrote a famous paper entitled, “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”.[note]Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. 1, February 1960 (John Wiley & Sons).[/note] But it is only unreasonable from an atheistic perspective. From the biblical point of view, it resonates perfectly with the statements: “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … All things came to be through him” (John 1 v 1, 3).
Sometimes, when in conversation with my fellow scientists, I ask them “What do you do science with?”
“My mind,” say some, and others, who hold the view that the mind is the brain, say, “My brain”.
“Tell me about your brain? How does it come to exist?”
“By means of natural, mindless, unguided processes.”
“Why, then, do you trust it?” I ask. “If you thought that your computer was the end product of mindless unguided processes, would you trust it?”
“Not in a million years,” comes the reply.
“You clearly have a problem then.”
After a pregnant pause they sometimes ask me where I got this argument—they find the answer rather surprising: Charles Darwin. He wrote: “…with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”[note]Letter to William Graham, 3rd July 1881. The University of Cambridge Darwin Correspondence project, goo.gl/Jfyu9Q (accessed 28th June 2018).[/note]
Taking the obvious logic of this statement further, Physicist John Polkinghorne says that if you reduce mental events to physics and chemistry you destroy meaning. How?
For thought is replaced by electrochemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong—they simply happen. The world of rational discourse disappears into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly that can’t be right and none of us believe it to be so.[note]One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (SPCK, 1986), p 92.[/note] Polkinghorne is a Christian, but some well-known atheists see the problem as well.
John Gray writes: “Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth—and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth”.[note]Straw Dogs (Granta Books, 2002), p 26.[/note]
Another leading philosopher, Thomas Nagel, thinks in the same way. He has written a book, Mind and Cosmos, with the provocative subtitle Why the Neo-Darwinian View of the World is Almost Certainly False. Nagel is a strong atheist who says with some honesty, “I don’t want there to be a God”. And yet he writes: “But if the mental is not itself merely physical, it cannot be fully explained by physical science. Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends.”[note]Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (OUP, 2012), p 14 [/note]
That is, naturalism, and therefore atheism, undermines the foundations of the very rationality that is needed to construct or understand or believe in any kind of argument whatsoever, let alone a scientific one. Atheism is beginning to sound like a great self-contradictory delusion —“a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence”.
Of course, I reject atheism because I believe Christianity to be true. But I also reject it because I am a scientist. How could I be impressed with a worldview that undermines the very rationality we need to do science? Science and God mix very well. It is science and atheism that do not mix.
Simplicity and complexity
Another way of looking at this is to think once more about explanation. We are often taught in science that a valid explanation seeks to explain complex things in terms of simpler things. We call such explanation “reductionist” and it has been successful in many areas. One example is the fact that water, a complex molecule, is made up of the simpler elements hydrogen and oxygen.
However, reductionism doesn’t work everywhere. In fact, there is one place where it does not work at all. Any full explanation of the printed words on a menu, say, must involve something much more complex than the paper and ink that comprise the menu. It must involve the staggering complexity of the mind of the person who designed the menu. We understand that explanation very well. Someone designed the menu, however automated the processes are that led to the making of the paper and ink and carrying out the printing.
The point is that when we see anything that involves language-like information, we postulate the involvement of a mind. We now understand that DNA is an information-bearing macromolecule. The human genome is written in a chemical alphabet consisting of just four letters; it is over 3 billion letters long and carries the genetic code. It is, in that sense, the longest “word” ever discovered. If a printed, meaningful menu cannot be generated by mindless natural processes but needs the input of a mind, what are we to say about the human genome? Does it not much more powerfully point to an origin in a mind—the mind of God?
Atheist philosophy starts with matter/energy (or, these days, with “nothing”) and claims that natural processes and nature’s laws, wherever they came from, produced from nothing all that there is—the cosmos, the biosphere and the human mind. I find this claim stretches my rationality to breaking point, particularly when it is compared with the biblical view that:
In the beginning was the Word … the Word was God … All things were made through him… John 1 v 1,3
This Christian worldview resonates first with the fact that we can formulate laws of nature and use the language of mathematics to describe them. Secondly, it sits well with the discovery of the genetic information encoded in DNA. Science has revealed that we live in a word-based universe, and we have gained that knowledge by reasoning.
C.S. Lewis argues this point saying that “unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.” If ultimate reality is not material, not to take this into account in our context is to neglect the most important fact of all. Yet the supernatural dimension has not only been forgotten, it has been ruled out of court by many. Lewis observes: “The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and therefore something other than Nature exists.”[note]C.S. Lewis, Miracles (Touchstone, 1996), p 23.[/note]
Not only does science fail to rule out the supernatural—the very doing of science or any other rational activity rules it in. The Bible gives us a reason for trusting reason. Atheism does not. This is the exact opposite of what many people think.
This article is an extract from “Can Science Explain Everything?” by John C Lennox, published by The Good Book Company, January 2019
The book is available at a special discount price of £5.00. Enter the following code at the checkout: “SolasLennox”. Click here to use the discount code.
is Professor of Mathematics (emeritus) at the University of Oxford and Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Said Business School, Oxford University, and teaches for the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme. In addition, he is an Adjunct Lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, and at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, as well as being a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum.