Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

The John Templeton Foundation is well-known for its efforts to encourage and fund a civil dialogue between religion and science. For these efforts it is often panned by hard-core atheists who think this dialogue is keeping us from seeing the obvious "truth" about the triumph of science and reason and the vacuity of all religious claims. See, for example Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.

To their credit the folks at the Templeton Foundation are not afraid to give the religious haters a voice. They have a new series available online and in print entitled Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? The series is edited by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine. It includes responses from fellow skeptics Stephen Pinker and Christopher Hitchens as well as church leaders like Keith Ward, an ordained priest in the Church of England.

I haven't read all the responses yet. I took a quick look at Hitchens' piece and found him once again being dogmatic about holding onto a narrow definition of belief that he can then easily dismiss:
Religion, remember, is theism not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will.
Must it now? Hitchens just can't have religious thought that has evolved along with scientific thought. That wouldn't sell very many books.

One interesting response came from Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, the chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, and author of Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. He turns the "god of the gaps" argument on its head. It is usually argued that as scientific knowledge has increased there is less and less room for God to be used as an answer for what we don't understand. He suggests that while one understanding of God might be dying, the door is being opened to another:
Let's face it: the day of the Sky God is long gone. In the Age of Science, religion has been downsized, and the medieval God of classical religions has lost repute and territory. Today people pay lip service to trusting that God but they still swallow antibiotics when sick. Muslim-run airlines start a plane journey with prayers but ask passengers to buckle-up anyway, and most suspect that people who appear to rise miraculously from the dead were probably not quite dead to begin with. These days if you hear a voice telling you to sacrifice your only son, you would probably report it to the authorities instead of taking the poor lad up a mountain. The old trust is disappearing.

Nevertheless, there remains the tantalizing prospect of a divine power somewhere "out there" who runs a mysterious, but scrupulously miracle-free, universe. In this universe, God may choose to act in ingenious ways that seem miraculous. Yet these "miracles" need not violate physical laws. Extraordinary, but legitimate, interventions in the physical world permit quantum tunneling through cosmic worm holes or certain symmetries to snap spontaneously. It would be perfectly fair for a science-savvy God to use nonlinear dynamics so that tiny fluctuations quickly build up to earthshaking results—the famous "butterfly effect" of deterministic chaos theory.

Nietzsche and the theothanatologists were plain wrong—God is neither dead nor about to die. Even as the divine habitat shrinks before the aggressive encroachment of science, the quantum foam of space-time creates spare universes aplenty, offering space both for a science-friendly God as well as for self-described "deeply religious non-believers" like Einstein. Many eminent practitioners of science have successfully persuaded themselves that there is no logical contradiction between faith and belief by finding a suitable God, or by clothing a traditional God appropriately. Unsure of why they happen to exist, humans are likely to scour the heavens forever in search of meaning.
The gap isn't shrinking; it's exploding exponentially. There is plenty of room for God. There is also plenty of room for discussion about what it means to be religious and at home in a world explained by science. Kudos to the Tempelton Foundation for facilitating the discussion.

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