Christianity, as practiced by billions of people worldwide, still rests on a foundation that was erected by desert tribesmen who lived thousands of years ago in a tiny spot on a the surface of a planet that itself is, as we now know, an infinitesimal speck in an immense universe. Many of the original concepts of these tribesmen, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments and built upon over time by tradition, deeply conflict with the discoveries of modern science. Today’s Christians must resolve these differences if they are to claim, as most do, that Christianity and science are perfectly compatible.
Other religions make similar claims, but allow me to focus on Christianity where we find the greatest efforts by apologists to reconcile their faith with science.
Perhaps 20 percent of American Christians regard the Bible as literal and inerrant, and so are unwilling to accept the facts revealed by science that contradict Scripture. As far as fundamentalists are concerned, they know the truth and science is simply wrong. They think scientists are all a bunch of frauds.
However, most Christians can judge, just from looking at the world around them with all its technological marvels, that science cannot be so simply dismissed. Science is the most successful and powerful activity humans have ever undertaken. In this essay I’m going to show what a difficult task science-savvy Christians have in reconciling many of the most basic tenets of their faith with science.
Let’s start with the first words of the Bible, which are usually translated as: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” At the time these words were written, the conception of the universe that was common throughout Canaan and Mesopotamia was a more-or-less flat Earth resting on water. Above are the heavens in which the sun, moon, planets, and stars circle around Earth. And, in the Hebrew version, above it all God sits on his throne looking down upon his most beloved creation — us.
Although more sophisticated cosmologies were developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, these were rejected by the Catholic Church when it took control of the Roman Empire in the fourth century of the Common Era. This ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages that did not end until the Renaissance a thousand years later.
Europe emerged from the Dark Ages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the rise of the new science. The development of the telescope, first turned on the heavens by Galileo in 1609, provided irrefutable evidence that Earth is not at the center of the universe — as was commonly believed until then. Instead, the telescope showed that Earth is just another planet revolving about the sun.
With this impetus, observation replaced divine revelation as the primary source of authority for our knowledge of the world. With that, Europe moved into the scientific age since that is the basic principle of science and the one most at odds with the principles of religion.
Over the next 400 years, telescopes and other instruments steadily improved and our knowledge of the cosmos expanded beyond anyone’s imagination. In the twentieth century, instruments on Earth and in space discovered that our sun is just one of hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy we know as the Milky Way. And, the Milky Way itself is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible universe.
Our universe originated 13.8 billion years ago in an explosion, called the big bang. The Hubble Space Telescope has detected galaxies that were over 13 billion light-years away from Earth when the light we observe first left them.
Most educated people are aware of these facts, but perhaps not the latest discoveries, which are even more mind-boggling.
I’m sure you have all read about the recent discovery of gravity waves from the early universe generated by the big bang. This provides strong evidence that immediately after it came into existence, our universe underwent an exponential expansion of many orders of magnitude called inflation. As a result, an even vaster part of our universe, originating from the same big bang, lies beyond what is visible from Earth — where light has not had time to reach us in 13.8 billion years. This region is at least a hundred orders of magnitude larger than the portion we can see from Earth. If Earth is a speck of dust in the visible universe, our visible universe of 100 billion galaxies is but a speck of dust in an even vaster universe.
Furthermore, inflationary cosmology, supported by the new discoveries, implies that we live in an infinite and eternal multiverse composed of an endless number of universes of which ours is just one. This means there was no beginning, no creation. If there was no creation, then there was no Creator.
While we have not yet observed other universes, they are in principle detectable by their effects on the cosmic microwave background. Don’t rule that out such an observation in the not-to-distant future. There are already some hints in the data from space telescopes.
By the same token, if future observations should not show the expected deviation from spherical symmetry, the multiverse hypothesis might be falsified. This alone justifies treating the multiverse as a legitimate scientific hypothesis and discussing the philosophical and theological consequences.
Now, clearly scientific cosmology bears no resemblance to the cosmology described in Genesis, where Earth, the sun, and the stars were divinely created about 6,000 years ago. In fact, Earth and the solar system were formed 4.5 billion years ago, some 9 billion years after the big bang.
If Christians are to accept science, they have to admit that the Bible is not a reliable source of information about the natural world. And why should we believe it is a reliable source of information about anything? The creation story in Genesis is a myth. And, it is not the only story in the Bible that science can now prove is largely fiction.
Archaeology has revealed that Exodus and the conquests of Joshua are almost certainly fictional, and no evidence has been found for a great Jewish empire ruled by David and Solomon. At best they were minor tribal chieftains. How do Christians (and Jews) deal with these established scientific facts? No covenant with God? No Ten Commandments? No Promised Land?
Actually, intellectual Christians today are gradually disassociating themselves from the God of the Old Testament, who is certainly an unpleasant character. Thank goodness he is fictional. But it is not so easy to disregard the New Testament, which essentially defines Christianity.
A basic tenet of Christian belief holds that God is the creator of all there is, that the universe had a beginning a finite time ago and will end at some finite time in the future with the Second Coming, which has already been put off for 2,000 years. Jesus said it would happen in a generation.
But let’s start with creation. The first major conflict with physical science that the science-savvy Christian must reconcile is the possibility, as I have said is strongly implied by inflationary cosmology, that the universe was not created but is part of a far greater reality that had no beginning and will have no end. How can there be a Creator if there was no creation?
Similarly, Christianity can hardly abandon its notion of a supreme being who has a special interest in humans, listening to their every thought, answering their prayers, and providing those he specially selects with eternal life. Without these minimal attributes, a belief system can no longer be called Christianity.
Throughout the Old Testament, God intervenes with his chosen people, the Jews, providing them with laws to follow and punishing them severely when they disobey those laws or show him disrespect by worshipping other gods, which they often did. In the New Testament, God goes even further in his direct involvement with humans by coming down to Earth himself in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, who dies to atone for humanity’s sins.
In just the last few months, we’ve learned from the Kepler space telescope, launched by NASA in 2009, that there are far more planets in the universe than astronomers ever imagined. It was previously thought that only stars like our sun could have planets, and they are relatively rare. We can now say that planets are common in most stellar systems including those with stars very different from the sun that are also more numerous.
We already know from our failure to find life outside Earth in our own solar system that life is not very common. But it is hard to imagine that the universe is not in fact teeming with life, perhaps very different from ours, but still life. And even if intelligent life is highly improbable, there are still likely to be trillions of planets with sentient life forms. According to Christians, all of this is presided over by their personal God. It’s unthinkable that God only rules over Earth.
We have no scientific reason to think that life is so improbable that it only happened once, on one planet out of quadrillions in 13.8 billion years. Yet Christians believe that only they have a special relationship with God. In this view, of all the other sentient beings in God’s creation, only humans required redemption. But, how does that reconcile with the Christian teaching that humans were made in the image of God? Shouldn’t we be the least sinful creatures — not the most? Shouldn’t we be the least in need of redemption? Not the only ones. And, if we are God’s favorites, why did he create this vast universe, wait nine billion years before making us, and then confine us to this tiny speck of dust rather than making it possible for us to live anywhere, even in space?
Moving from cosmology, we can’t point to a single observed fact about the world around us that is indisputably the result of an action by a force outside of nature. That doesn’t mean we have a natural explanation for everything. We never will. But no one has ever proved that a natural explanation for some particular phenomenon — any phenomenon — is impossible.
Christian theologians who agree that science has found no evidence for God have made heroic efforts to develop a plausible mechanism by which God can act in the physical world without that act being detected. I wrote about these in my 2009 book Quantum Gods. But I can’t imagine why God would want to hide from us.
So far, the attempts to explain the hiddenness of God have not succeeded. The best apologists can do is come up with a modern deist god, who creates the world and then goes away, leaving it to carry on by its own means. But that’s not the Christian God.
Let’s move to biological evolution. I just have a short addition to the arguments between creationists and evolutionists that are, no doubt, already very familiar to readers.
While Catholics and moderate Christians claim to accept evolution, surveys indicate that most are not thinking of the theory of evolution, as it is understood by science. They say they believe in God-guided evolution, which is just another form of intelligent design. These Christians need to recognize that Darwinian evolution by natural selection has no design, intelligent or stupid. It has no need for guidance. Evolution is the result of random mutations and the unavoidable fact that only those organisms with the ability to survive, do survive. Natural selection is not a law of nature. It’s a tautology.
Theologians correctly point out that we do not yet have an accepted theory for a natural origin of life. Evolution does not currently deal with that issue. It assumes that some form of primitive life already existed when the process of natural selection got underway. However, we have no reason to think that a natural origin of life is impossible. Life is basically a property that material systems develop when they reach a sufficiently high level of complexity.
It is commonly believed that complexity can only arise from an even higher level of complexity. This is dead wrong. There are many examples in nature showing how complex systems often spontaneously emerge from simpler ones. The best example is the way water passes naturally from a simple gas to a more complex liquid, and then to a very complex solid we call ice. Consider the complex beauty of a snowflake compared to the structureless water vapor from which it formed. It takes energy to reverse the process, to melt ice or vaporize a snowflake. In other words, an external action is needed to make complex things simple. No external action is needed to make simple things complex.
Next let’s look at the world of human behavior, which is still in the purview of science since it involves observations. Christians certainly do a lot of highly visible public praying (despite Jesus discouraging the practice in Matt 6:5, calling it hypocritical). While not all prayers involve entreaties to God to take some action on behalf of the supplicant, many if not most have that purpose. In the two millennia since the birth of Christianity countless prayers have been offered. You would think that by now, God would have answered some for which the result could be independently verified.
In recent years, competent groups of scientists from reputable institutions such as Duke, Harvard, and the Mayo Clinic have tested for the efficacy of intercessory prayer on medical outcomes. They found none. Christians need to ask themselves why prayer is so ineffective.
You often hear it said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Prayer is an example of how the absence of evidence that should be there but is not constitutes evidence of absence. The absence of evidence that prayer works can be considered evidence for the absence of a God who answers prayers.
Another basic tenet of Christian belief is the promise of eternal life. People have written best-selling books describing alleged visits to heaven while on the operating table, where they were close to death before being resuscitated. This is the so-called near-death experience. Some describe floating above the table and observing everything below. But controlled studies have failed to confirm any of their claims. Furthermore, there is no evidence that they were “brain dead” during what have all the earmarks of purely natural hallucinations.
A simple test can be made for any claimed religious experience. From the time of Paul’s possible epileptic attack on the road to Damascus to now, no one returning from such a mystical event has been able to demonstrate its veracity by providing some revelation that could be verified. For example, a subject might meet Jimmy Hoffa in the next world and he tells her were where he’s buried. If the authorities then go to the spot and dig up his bones, then we would have reason to take the existence of another world seriously. But nothing like this has ever happened.
The possession by humans of an immortal soul is fundamental to Christian belief. Christian tradition has long associated the mind with the soul. Otherwise, how can our thoughts and memories survive death? For almost two centuries, scientists, who were mostly Christians, have sought to find evidence for the soul. They have studied so-called psychic phenomena, such as ESP and mind-over-matter, which would indicate that the mind has supernatural powers. Although many positive claims have been reported, in all that time, no evidence for psychic powers has been found that stands up under scientific scrutiny.
The association of mind with the soul is further undermined by the fact that our thoughts and memories are affected by disease, drugs, and brain trauma. If consciousness is unphysical, why do we lose it under anesthesia or a blow to the head? If all our memories are stored in our physical brains, how can they survive when the brain crumbles into dust?
One of the most misused words in the English language is “spiritual.” People use it to describe their more profound thoughts such as love or joy. Today many individuals who have become disenchanted with organized religion and all its negative effects on society describe themselves as “not religious but spiritual.”
Even if not part of any religious tradition, the implication remains that another realm exists outside the realm of matter — a realm of the spirit. However, we now know a lot about the brain from neuroscience. Brain imaging techniques, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have located regions of the brain where certain thoughts, including emotions and even religious experiences, take place. There is absolutely no sign of any immaterial element in the process, no evidence for stuff called spirit.
One day, in the not-too-distant future, we will have neural network machines that think just as well as humans–if not better–and experience emotions. It’s now past 2001, but Hal may be just around the corner.
Of course, we still have a lot more to learn about the brain. Scientists and philosophers have not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness. But they have no reason to think that anything supernatural is involved.
I’ve covered a lot so let me summarize the points I have tried to make:
- Archaeology has conclusively demonstrated that key events in the Old Testament, such as Exodus and the conquests of Joshua, never happened. There was no covenant with God. No Ten Commandments. No Promised Land.
- The universe is much vaster than most people realize and extends far beyond a horizon where light has not had time to reach us. Not only is Earth a tiny speck, our visible universe of 100 billion galaxies is also just a speck in the total cosmos generated by the big bang. Christians must reconcile this fact with their belief that humans are the special creation of God.
- Inflationary cosmology has just received a major boost with the discovery of primordial gravity waves. This makes it quite possible that the cosmos is infinite and eternal, a multiverse of many universes, in which case there was no creation since there was no beginning. If there was no creation, there was no Creator. The multiverse is a testable hypothesis.
- We have recently learned that the visible universe has quadrillions of planets in the habitable zones of stars. Our universe is very likely to be teeming with sentient life, though because of the immense distances we are unlikely to ever be in contact. Are we the only ones in the need of redemption?
- Most Christians who say they believe on evolution really do not. They believe in God-guided evolution, which is not Darwinian evolution.
- Complex systems in nature do not require something more complex to produce them. Many occur spontaneously from simpler systems.
- There is no evidence that prayers are answered.
- All our thoughts and memories reside in the physical brain. It is very unlikely that they will survive death. They will die when our brains die.
- Mystical experiences provide no evidence that they are not all in the head.
In short, there are many conflicts between science and basic Christian beliefs that are irreconcilable. Science is not likely to change to accommodate Christianity. If Christianity changes to accommodate science, it will be difficult to still call it Christianity.
This essay is based on a talk given to the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, April 16, 2014.