Does Christianity Offer the Best Basis for Science?

There’s an argument I’ve run across several times, that theism, and specifically Christianity, forms a much better basis for science than does atheism. Indeed, some people go so far as to claim that only Christianity provides a foundation for science. Matt Slick at CARM lays it out well (though Don Johnson Ministries makes a similar argument). After listing a number of influential scientists who were Christians, Slick writes:

To many Christians, the idea that God existed and brought the universe into existence meant that the universe could be understood because God was a God of order and his character would be reflected in creation (Rom. 1:20).  Instead of a Pantheon of gods who ran the universe in an unpredictable fashion, Christianity provided the monotheistic bedrock (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5) upon which the scientific study of nature could be justified.  Many Christians expected to find the secrets that God had hidden in the universe and were confident in being able to discover them.  This is a critical philosophical foundation that is necessary if an emerging culture is to break the shackles of ignorance and superstition in order to discover what secrets exist in the world around them.

This emphasis on order seems odd, since one of the main features of Christianity is miracles, that is, violations of natural law. Without at least the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christianity. Add to that the various miracles Jehovah, Jesus, and various and sundry saints are said to have performed, the common notion that God sometimes responds to prayer by performing additional miracles, and weekly transubstantiation in church, and you get a picture of reality in which any regularities, any laws of nature exist only so long as a malleable deity permits them to exist.

If scientists like Kepler and Newton saw the Christian God as fundamentally one of order rather than caprice, and drew inspiration for their scientific pursuits from that, fine. But that’s hardly the only type of Christianity out there. I doubt that theirs was even a majority view. But in a time and place where pretty much everyone was Christian (and where not being Christian often carried either social stigma or legal penalty), of course Christians are going to be the ones doing science.

It seems to me that Taoism is a much better match for Matt Slick’s description than Christianity. You could, I think, make a strong case for the notion that the Tao is natural law. There’s certainly the notion that you can either go with the Tao, or you can wear yourself out trying to go against it.

(Yes, this still leaves the question of why so many scientific discoveries came from Europe rather than China. But that’s an interesting question for another day. I suspect that the fact that Europeans wrote American history textbooks has something to do with it.)

I suppose it wouldn’t do to mention alchemy and algebra, whose prefix “al” betrays their Muslim origin. Or the fact that a large proportion of visible stars have Arabic names.

I also don’t see why it takes a whole religion or worldview to want to figure out what makes the world tick. Anyone can see that day follows night, summer follows spring, rocks always roll downhill, never up, and that oaks only come from acorns. Clearly there are some regularities, and these can be investigated. We’re curious creatures; figuring stuff out is fun.

There’s a related claim to the one that Christians founded all the sciences: that Christians founded all the major universities. I haven’t checked this, but I see no reason to doubt this claim.

This brings me to my final point: let’s grant, at least for the sake of argument, that Christians, motivated by their understanding of God as a lawmaker, got all of the sciences started; that most or all of the major universities were founded as institutions to learn how God set up the universe; that Christianity is the only religion — the only worldview — that could have kickstarted science this way, and that out of those beginnings grew science as we know it today… so what? Why keep religion around today?

A scaffolding is essential when beginning a new building. But after a certain point, it needs to go. I was on an all-milk diet for the first, crucial part of my life, and that helped make me into the person I am today. But that doesn’t mean that I should continue to drink milk as an adult; I especially shouldn’t be on an all-milk diet.

Whatever benefits religion may once have provided to science, these days it just gets in the way, from creationism to anti-gay “conversion therapy” to faith-based climate change denialism. It’s time to jettison it.

Slick’s Transcendental Argument

Last week on
The Atheist Experience,
a guy named Matt Slick from
CARM.org
called in to present the
Transcendental Argument
for the existence of God. His version of the argument is
here.

When I read
Slick’s version of the argument,
my reaction was one that I often have when theists try to construct
purely logical arguments: as I was going through his bullet points, I
wasn’t nodding in agreement, even reluctantly. I kept thinking “well,
this is sorta-kinda-maybe true, given the proper definition and
starting assumptions”. Take, for instance, his point 1. C. ii.:

“I am alive” is either true or false.

This statement is true, but only if you define “alive” very carefully.
This is why courts spend time splitting definitional hairs: to decide
precisely where the line between “alive” and “not alive” runs or ought
to run, and by extension where the line between “legal” and “illegal”
runs. In real life, however, things can get much messier (Terry
Schiavo, anyone?). Now, Slick is free to divide the world up into 100%
true and 100% false statements if he likes, but he must then accept
that some of the 100%-true statements won’t feel 100% true.

This sort of sloppy thinking permeates the argument, which tends to
trigger my BS-o-meter.

Or take 2. C.:

Something cannot bring itself into existence.

I wonder how Slick deals with things like pairs of virtual particles,
which just pop into existence all over the place, and usually
annihilate each other a fraction of a microsecond later.

We can also apply this statement to 7. D.:

We call this transcendent, absolute, perfect, and independent mind, God.

Surely a mind is a “thing” in the sense of 2. C.. This means that God
cannot have created itself, and therefore raises the question of who
or what created God.

Don Baker, who was co-hosting The Atheist Experience on
the day that Slick called in, has a
fine rebuttal
including several points I would have made:

  • There is no universal requirement that a system of logic be complete, elegant, or even consistent. It’s just that we humans value these properties.
  • A lot of Slick’s “universal” laws, like the law of the excluded middle (a statement is either true, or it’s false) are not inherent to logic; they just happen to be true (as far as we can tell) in this universe, and in most of the systems of logic that we humans find useful.
  • Properly applied, logic is universal and absolute, but you have to be very very careful and rigorous.

In short, this version of the Transcendental argument is par for the
course, as far as purely logical arguments for God go: it looks okay
on the surface if you don’t look at it too closely, but the
construction is shoddy. The argument doesn’t tell us which statements
are assumptions for the sake of argument, which ones are assumptions
Slick thinks are obvious enough to be axioms, and which statements
follow from which premises. If this argument were a work of
carpentry, all of its angles would be slightly off from 90°, the
sides wouldn’t line up quite right, and there would be gaps between
the boards.

Color me less than impressed.