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.

Basics: I Didn’t Decide to Be an Atheist

I occasionally hear people say things like “If you choose to be an atheist, that’s fine. It’s your decision and I respect that” (or, from less-tolerant people, “if you choose to be an atheist, don’t be surprised when you suffer the consequences”).

This bugs me because, in fact, I did not choose to be an atheist. This is a basic point, and will come as no surprise to many atheists, but I feel it needs to be underscored. This was not a choice I made.

I was born into a Russian Orthodox family, and grew up believing in God and Jesus. I learned all the usual (bowdlerized) Bible stories, went to mass, occasionally went to Sunday school when our schedule permitted. I had religious instruction class in Swiss public school. I spent my summer vacations at Russian scout camp, an explicitly religious organization.

What’s more, as the son of people who had fled the Soviet Union, I heard all sorts of horror stories about razed churches, enforced atheism, and so on. When I read the Communist Manifesto in High School, I went in with the express intention of finding the flaws in Marx’s and Engels’s reasoning and tearing it apart.

But I also grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov (both fiction and nonfiction) and Martin Gardner’s mathematical games, and watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on PBS. I learned that the world was full of magnificent things, and all you needed to do was look for them. Heck, you did’t even need to get up from your chair, not with mathematical wonders like Pascal’s Triangle and fifteen-dimensional spaces. Notably, somewhere between High School and college, I read Richard Feynman’s You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman and learned the difference between understanding a thing, and merely knowing its name; and that a teacher who can’t explain a concept in such a way that you can understand is not a good teacher.

And through it all, I kept trying to figure out this whole God thing. Evolution didn’t pose any problem, because obviously the god of the entire immensity of space and time would work on a grand and epic scale, and would think nothing of letting things run for millions or billions of years. I worked out for myself that prayer was pointless, because God already knew what I wanted, and had a much better idea than I did of what was best. He also didn’t mind me thinking for myself. Or if he did, he never said anything.

Hell obviously couldn’t be forever: I had a pretty good idea of the difference between mind-bogglingly huge numbers and infinity, and there was no way that even someone like Stalin deserved an infinite amount of punishment (though I did play around with convergent sequences and the idea of an eternity of ever-diminishing torment, so that total suffering converged on a finite amount). Famous Bible stories like Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea, and so forth had to be instructional myths or allegories, since they resembled Greek myths far more than scientific or historic accounts. I’d read Jesus’ instruction not to engage in vain repetition in the book of Matthew in some hotel Gideon Bible; this immediately brought to mind a way that Orthodox priests chant “Lord have mercy” over and over during mass (and forty times at Easter mass), and undermined my faith in that institution.

I did this not because I wanted to disbelieve the Bible, but because I wanted to get at the truth. But little by little, I had to discard bits and pieces of the religion I’d grown up with. At the time I would have said I was moving from a child’s understanding of God to a more mature, adult theology.

I went through what I now think of as a deist phase, partly because there was no good evidence of divine intervention, and partly because from a divine perspective, setting up the initial conditions of the universe and then standing back and letting it unfold seemed most elegant.

I went through a Taoist phase, which (I thought at the time) was even more elegant because the Tao wasn’t even a being, a mind bolted onto the universe, but was more like an emergent property of, well, not just the universe, not just a multitude of possible universes popping in and out of existence, but of The Way Things Must Be.

And eventually I stumbled on alt.atheism on Usenet, and read its FAQ, which defined atheism simply as the absence of belief in God.

It would take a while longer, but eventually I realized that that definition applied to me. That in trying to figure out who and what God was, what he wanted, and his relationship with the universe, I’d stopped believing in him without even noticing. And that all that faffing about with Taoism was a delaying tactic, an attempt to have some sort of religion because it never occurred to me that I didn’t have to have one.

I wasn’t happy about this. After all, the word “atheist” conjured images of Stalinist purges and priests sent to work themselves to death in Siberia. But at the same time I couldn’t lie to myself and tell myself I didn’t fit the definition, when I clearly did.

The point is that I didn’t decide to be an atheist. If I had, I would have stepped back as soon as I realized what I’d done. Rather, after spending years thinking about the problem and examining it from all sides, I’d come to the only conclusion I could. And so, I had to expand my definition of “atheist”, to cover not only communist priest-murderers, but also myself. It didn’t take too long to come to terms with the word.

If you’re still reading this, then the main point that I’d like you to take away from this is that you don’t have to have a religion. If you’re looking around, trying to figure out which religion is right for you, you do have the option of saying “none of the above” or “none”, and of staying there for as long as you like, either until you find one that fits you, or forever.

The second point is that if God is indeed good and wise and loving, then how can he punish you for honestly examining your beliefs and how they mesh with the world?

And finally: you can lie to other people. You can even lie to your parents if you have to. But don’t lie to yourself.

(Update, Feb. 18: Is this autobiography week or something? Roger Ebert has a new post similar to this one.)