You’ve probably heard that science has made God irrelevant. It’s one of the favorite claims floated by the so-called “New Atheists,” folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the now-deceased Christopher Hitchens, who have made a career out of battling religion. To them, science has pushed God out of the picture—even to the point of refuting His existence. But this idea even pervades the day-to-day conversation on faith, even seeping into the minds of believers. Some of us have taken on this notion that belief in God is precisely that: a belief—something you take “on faith,” something for which there is no evidence. That’s a lousy definition of religious belief, but it’s a common one nonetheless. So is there any reason to think science has shoved God aside?
As someone who has always loved science, I have to say the idea that science has disproven God is ridiculous. On the contrary, modern science favors God. To see why this is, we should first review what is meant by science—and God.
Can science disprove God, in the first place? Science by its very definition observes, measures, and predicts physical reality—that which is in the Universe. But God by definition is “outside” the Universe. God is not some “thing” within physical reality. Rather, God is the ground of all else that participates in existence. Science can disprove the existence of this or that god, if by “god” one has in mind just another being in the Universe—much like the gods of pagan mythology. But science is simply not in the business of proving or disproving that which is beyond physical reality.
God is not an old man with a beard. He’s not floating around up there in space. If that’s what Christianity meant by God, then yes—science would have plenty to say. But God is not just another being out there. He’s not even the highest being. Rather, according to classical theism, God is being. The great thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas described God as ipsum esse subsistens, or the act of “to be” itself. This is beautifully confirmed in the story of the burning bush, when God reveals his name to Moses as “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). God just is. In God, there is no difference between what God is and that God is.
God is the pure act of existence itself.
Everything else merely participates in existence. No individual being has within itself its own reason for existing. Take me, for example. My nature is not to exist, for I very well could not have existed. The same is true for that tree, or that star, or that hydrogen atom. The Universe is full of things that may have very well not existed. That is to say, the Universe—the sum total of all there is—is contingent. This fact can be analyzed philosophically, but it can be simply observed as well. People arrive at the intuitive realization that things are contingent: that this cause is related to that cause, which is, in turn, related to another cause, and so on.
In other words, physical realities do not exist necessarily. But then again, some reality must exist necessarily, or else we wouldn’t be here! Imagine if everything in existence were dependent on something else for its existence. Consider a stack of blocks, for example, in which each block must rely on another block to stand. Block A is held up by Block B, and Block B is held up by Block C, and so on. Now, this cannot go on for infinity, for an actual infinite (of distinct items) is impossible. So maybe the blocks mutually support each other: Block A is held up by Block B, which is held up by Block C, which in turn held up by Block A. But this is also impossible, for that means Block A must already be held up to hold up Block C. Essentially, Block A would be holding itself up, which is absurd.
Since the series of blocks cannot go on infinitely nor can they rely on each other in a circular fashion, ultimately the blocks must be held in existence by something that is not dependent on anything else—something that is not contingent but instead exists necessarily.
The blocks illustrate a larger point. In order for any contingent reality to exist at all, there must also exist some non-contingent reality. If physical realities are by nature contingent, then this non-contingent reality must transcend the physical Universe, including all space and time. In other words, it must be spiritual. What this means is difficult to imagine, but we can know that it must be so. That which has never failed to exist is what we call God: the eternal, spiritual act of existence itself.
Many who claim a clash between God and science have a VERY different idea of God. Some of the more popular atheists—who, sadly, also happen to be the more influential and aggressive ones—think of God as just another hypothesis, on par with scientific theories and empirical evidence. To them, God is a postulated cause competing with other various causes that can be observed, measured, and predicted in the Universe. This so-called “god of the gaps,” they argue, is used by Christians to attribute those things not yet explained by science. As our knowledge of thunder has since supplanted Zeus, so has science steadily undermined God.
Unfortunately, this understanding of God is not absent from Christian circles. Some Christians promote a God who directly intervenes in creation. This is especially obvious with creationists, those who adhere to a literal account of the Genesis creation story. They often wrongly infer that the complexity and diversity of life is tantamount to “intelligent design” and therefore suggestive of a divine creator. Non-believers rightly criticize this perspective, for there can always be a natural explanation for something within the Universe (and in fact, there is: biological evolution does a great job at explaining the complexity and diversity of life on Earth). The important thing to note, however, is that the traditional Christian approach would agree with the atheist on this point.1
God is not the answer to some unexplained physical phenomenon. No event or condition automatically indicates divine intervention just because it is not (currently) explained by science. Historic Christianity professes a God who works through secondary causes. While being the ultimate cause of all things, God allows things to operate according to their natural properties and processes. But when Christians perpetuate such a false notion of God, atheists will be quick to criticize it as unscientific—and rightly so. Still, it must be stressed that these atheists are criticizing a parody of God:
The target of their attacks is not an author of nature who gives it its very being and inherent tendencies, but something like a cosmic meddler who takes it upon himself to fiddle with some independently existing material that would rather be left alone.”
-Michael Augros, Who Designed the Designer?
With the classical Christian (and general theistic) definition of God in mind, we can easily see how science does not—and can never—disprove God’s existence. For the same reasons, science can not empirically “prove” God. Philosophy and intuitive reasoning can and do arrive at God’s existence—as indicated above. But science cannot prove it, as you cannot put God under a microscope.
Additionally, we see how God is not just a “god of the gaps,” for God is not appealed to in order to explain gaps in our scientific understandings. Rather, God is the ultimate ground of reality, or the unconditioned act of existence from which everything else proceeds.
So to say science has made God irrelevant by disproving him is a rather bizarre and unfounded claim. Science has certainly not made the Christian God irrelevant. But even more than that, (surprise!) science in fact favors God’s existence—arguably more so now than ever. While it cannot prove God, science can indicate God indirectly, especially by affirming what philosophy and human intuition already acknowledge: the contingency of the Universe. It does this quite profoundly when it suggests a beginning of the Universe. Such is the case with discoveries that have led to a solid case for the Big Bang. It does this even more significantly when it suggests that all physical reality—including the hypothetical multiverse—must, in fact, have a beginning. If all of physical reality must have a beginning, then its cause must be outside of physical reality. And God is the only “thing” that fits this definition.
To see how modern science indicates God’s existence, wait for Part 2!