Published as “What I Want My Teenager to Know about the God/Science Debate,” in Russell Stannard, God for the 21st Century, Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000.
Letter to Caitlin:
You have left for university, and a phrase from the hymn book keeps running through my head: “Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test-tubes, sing to the Lord a new song!” Will you have ears for that music? How will you handle serious challenges to your childhood faith in God?
I can’t tell you that you must go on believing in God regardless; you must decide that for yourself. But please let me give you some guidelines that seem important to me.
Contrary to popular legend, university science faculties are not all hot bets of atheism. Certainly you will encounter scientific atheists, but many scientists believe in God and many others are agnostics. Why do the atheistic scientists believe there is no God? The answer is likely to be deeply personal rather than having anything to do with science. If they do say science is the root reason for their atheism, this is sometimes because they grew up with a narrow, impoverished picture of God – one that simply had to give way when science offered a richer view of reality. But some admit that even if the scientific evidence seemed to show there is a God, they probably wouldn’t change their minds.
Science as we know it today is not the atheistic superweapon that earlier generations thought it was. It doesn’t rule out belief – even orthodox belief. Nevertheless, diehards continue brandishing the old weapon, often attacking some caricature of religion that science (and many believers themselves) rule out. They may do this so noisily, and with such sarcasm and scorn, that it’s hard to remember the gun isn’t loaded.
But there is a more thoughtful argument. Rather than declare, “We can’t believe this anymore in the modern age,” this argument says instead, “We don’t need to believe this anymore.” This is an argument for agnosticism rather than atheism. The physicists Stephen Hawking and Jim Hartle, and the biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, try to show that there are possible explanations for the origin of the universe and for the emergence of human life which do not require a Creator. If your main reason for believing in God is that you think this universe couldn’t exist if there wasn’t a God, then this kind of science could seriously undermine that belief. I hope your faith is based on more than God being a necessary explanation. The two questions “Is God needed as an explanation?” an “Is God the explanation?” are quite different.
Not that science has found an explanation for the way the universe appears to be incredibly fine-tuned to produce life. This fine-tuning is taken by some to be evidence of a Creative Purpose at work. They may be right. But will you rest your case for God there? Don’t. Making science your primary way of deciding religious questions is like walking on shifting sands. Science considers the “unexplainable” – and indeed its own previous “knowledge” – fair game, and science overturns both regularly. Always remember: God reportedly has said, “Seek me,” not “Seek evidence of me.”
If you argue for belief in God in a scientific-intellectual discussion, don’t be surprised if you lose. Few undergraduates have the knowledge and expertise – or the years of personal experience living with the presence of God – to hold their own in such a debate. Don’t worry. Whether there is a God and what God is like are not like – these are not matters decided by any debate or argument, regardless of how well informed and deeply thought out. Either there is a God, or there isn’t. God is like what God is like. Your eloquence or ineptitude won’t make one jot of difference to the answer. You can rack up debating points and still be dead wrong; you can be demolished in this debate and sent, embarrassed, out the door, and still be dead right.
You will find that there are similarities between acquiring scientific knowledge and pursuing knowledge of God:
Both science and religion sometimes require you to live with unanswered questions and contradictions, sometimes even to hold in mind two “truths” that, on the face of it, can’t both be true. Putting a seeming contradiction “on hold” isn’t doublethink when you do it knowingly. On the contrary, it is intellectual honesty and clear headedness, a sign of a maturity that does not demand that every question be resolved immediately.
Science builds on earlier knowledge. There have been great minds whose vision you should trust at least until you’re surer of your own. Religion has people like that, too; People who have wrestled with the same questions that disturb you. If you are prepared to trust Einstein until you’re able to understand relativity for yourself, why not trust great spiritual leaders? In neither pursuit do you have to start out as though nothing is known.
Science and religion both call for a childlike approach. Childlike, not childish. Childlike means putting no limits on the “possible,” being full of wonder, questioning what others take for granted.
It’s right for you to strive for mature intellectual sophistication. But you should know that the great thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas spent a lifetime in intellectual pursuits, arguing powerfully for the existence of God; he would have won that undergraduate debate you lost. But later he had an experience of the presence of God, compared with which all that earlier endeavor seemed to him, as he put it, “like mere straw.” People still have that experience in this age of modern science.
Seek out such people – deeply intelligent, educated, well-informed people who believe in God. Spend time with them. Barrage them with questions. They aren’t easily deceived. They are not self-deluded. They are not naïve. They may even be rather skeptical by nature. But they know what they know.