Believing in God and in science: some beginnings

I was asked a while back to say something about my religious beliefs. It’s hard to know where to start, so I thought I’d start somewhere that’s particularly important to me and which relates to things I’ve already been blogging about…

A lot of people believe there’s a fundamental incompatibility between science and religious belief. I believe that they’re fundamentally wrong 😉

Is there a conflict?

There are scientists who reject religion. I suppose the most famous of these is Richard Dawkins, who has almost made attacking religion into a religion of his own. And there are religious people who reject science: for example those who treat the Bible utterly literally and insist that the world was created in six days as (supposedly) described in Genesis 1.

Cleearly there can be a genuine conflict. Someone who believes God does not exist, and someone who believes God created the world in six days, will never agree with each other. There is a fundamental disagreement between them. But is that the only kind of believer and the only kind of scientist? No–it’s an extreme variety of religion and only one kind of scientist. In fact there is no reason why scientific thinking has to reject God, or why religious belief has to reject the scientific understanding the earth’s history and of our origins. I think the debate typically takes place between people one of whom understands science but not religion, and the other understands religion but not science. And sometimes, I fear, there are religious people who don’t understand religion… though that might be a bit more contentious.

My starting point

In my first year at university, startled by my first encounter with biblical literalists, I made a conscious decision which I’ve followed ever since: anything which I believe as a consequence of my religion must be compatible with what I believe as a consequence of science.

There is only one reality, whether you’re looking at it through religious or scientific eyes. Science and religion both try to discover some truths about it. Truth can’t contradict itself; so if they do discover truth, it must be consistent. It’s no good to believe during the week that we eveolved by natural selection, only to believe on Sundays that we were specially created out of the blue 6,000 years ago. Science and religion must both live in the same real world. Theology and science must both adapt in response to known evidence, as we make more sense of the world we are in. Otherwise we’re disconnecting ourselves from the world and our beliefs are simply attractive ideas which have nothing to do with reality.

Do we want reality, or fantasy? I think that if we’re basing our lives on it, we should go for reality. Or at least, the closest we can get to reality.

Some misconceptions…

A number of misconceptions seem to be lurking in the background whenever science and religion come into conflict. So here are some things I don’tbelieve:

… about religion

  • Religion claims infallible truth
  • Religion is a set of beliefs
  • Scripture is an infallible, divinely dictated book containing those beliefs
  • All religious people see it that way, or should do
  • All religious people reject science and rational thinking
  • Faith is intellectual acceptance of [impossible] ideas despite evidence
  • Religious ideas are arbitrary.

… about science

  • Science claims infallible truth
  • Science works by proving things true
  • All true scientists are atheists and reject religion
  • Science is merely opinion
  • Scientists seek to control the world
  • Science starts out with a particular view of things, which it then seeks to justify in a biased way.

… about both

  • Religion and science are based on conflicting “facts” (e.g. the claim that the world was made 6,000 years ago, versus the scientific evidence that it is much older).

Sometimes some of the misconceptions are agreed on by both sides, and then the trouble starts. Copnsider a scientist and a Christian fundamentalist who both think it’s essential for a Christian to believe in six-day creation. They will argue forever over whether the world was created in six days. They’ll almost certainly never question the assumption that it’s an essential part of religion. So they’re doomed never to get anywhere…

Some definitions of my own

To answer all those misconceptions properly would turn this blog post into quite a long book chapter (last time I checked it was over 1500 words long as it is), so forgive me if I don’t do that in detail just yet. Instead, here are some attempted definitions which reflect my approach to it all:

Religion is the response of human beings to the divine.
Theology is the attempt to make sense of that response and produce a logically consistent set of ideas: about the encounter, and about what we’re encountering.
Science is the attempt to make sense of the physical world by testing ideas against careful (ideally repeatable) observation.
The Bible
The Bible is a set of writings, accumulated over many centuries, providing a record of around two thousand years of religious experience and reflection on it. The experience was that of human nature encountering God and the world; the reflection is influenced by how writers at the time saw the world, and is expressed in many different genres.

It should be fairly obvious that the things on my Misconceptions List are incompatible with those ideas. I’m worried about the length of this post so I won’t go into that in detail now–maybe in another post if needed. Instead, here are

Some consequences

Religion as a response

What is a reasonable response to being loved by someone, or falling in love with them? Is it to come up with a set of rigid beliefs and theories about them, and put all your effort into intellectually accepting those theories? No–your response is “Wow!” or “I want to be with this person” or to love them back or to want to join in with their activities. Similarly with our response to God: it’s not a set of ideas, and it probably can’t even be put into words because God is so far beyond what our language can describe. But after a while we feel the need to understand what’s going on, and that’s where theology comes in, so we try to describe it anyway. The beliefs aren’t the starting point.

Similar and different

Theology and scientific theorising are in some ways very similar activities. Both try to make sense of human experience. In the case of science, this is the experience of doing certain experiments and getting certain results; in the case of religion, it’s our subjective, yet shared, experience of being conscious beings, of relating to the world, and of relating to what we perceive to be its creator. Science has a distinct advantage in its area, because it deals as much as it can with things which can be made objective and measurable and repeatable.

Yet science can’t handle God at all, for a very good reason. The only way we can experience God is subjectively, in our consciousness, within ourselves. Yet the whole idea of science is to remove everything subjective and personal as far as we can, in order to be objective and repeatable. It works by letting us stand back from what we are studying. (The physicist Schroedinger expressed this well; I’ll try to find the quote.)

I believe that good theology must behave in a similar way to good science. It must take account of the real world we live in, and the real evidence we see. Its job is to make sense of the world and our religious experience as they are, not as we say they should be. It’s not a matter of taking some pre-existing belief in, say, the infallibility of the Bible and forcing ourselves to believe all the consequences; it’s about taking what we see and experience and trying to fit it all together.

Also it seems clear to me that neither theology nor science is in a position to claim absolute knowledge of the truth. They’re each a search, hoping to get nearer to the truth as they progress. Both need humility and the willingness to change if a new piece of evidence comes in. Their “truths” are always provisional: the best we can come up with so far, but open to change and refinement.

The Bible

OK, this is the bit which you won’t like if you’re a fundamentalist…

What’s special about the Bible is not that “God wrote it”, but that it contains all those centuries of experience and reflection. Human nature is universal. God is universal. So, if the biblical writers encountered God, they encountered the same God we do. They sometimes interpreted the encounter differently from us; and sometimes had some odd ideas. For example a lot of the Old Testament assumes that God’s love for us must mean God hates our enemies and wants to wipe them out. The idea of God loving them too didn’t seem to occur to the writers. Yet even that horrible and blatantly unchristian idea came from the belief that the God they had encountered was a loving one. Just not one whose love extended to other people too… And certain aspects of the encounter are consistent through all those centuries of experience; we connect with them in our experience too.

This is all scene-setting, really. I’ve not even started on basic things like what sort of God I believe in! But I hope it helps you to see my starting point.

A plea

I know that if you’re a particular kind of atheist, or a fundamentalist Christian, you’ll disagree strongly with what I’ve written. That’s fine–but please respect what I’m doing here: I’m simply setting out my beliefs for some people who’ve asked about them, and I haven’t the energy to launch into heated debate. Gentle disagreement is OK though 🙂

6 responses to “Believing in God and in science: some beginnings

  1. Andrew Mitchell

    Re: our re net online discussion. You could not understand the perspective that someone can not believe in god whilst simultaneously not rejecting the possible existence of god.

    Do i have that right?

    • Not quite—expressed like that, I don’t have any problem. It’s exactly complementary to my own position, of believing in God while being open to the possibility that I’m wrong.

      The repeated statement I had trouble with was something like “I don’t reject the existence of God. I reject belief in God”. Which I took as “even though God might exist, believing in God can’t be right”. In my vocabulary, rejecting an idea doesn’t leave room for entertaining the possibility that it could actually be true. It means you’ve done the evaluation and decided that it can’t be. So there’s an apparent contradiction between thinking God might possibly exist, and thinking the belief that he does is definitely wrong.

      Maybe he meant something more like “You can only reject someone who’s actually there to be rejected, therefore I can’t reject a nonexistent God”. (That seems like a truism to me.) There’s a typical fundamentalist claim “By not believing in God, you are actively rejecting him”. He may have been defending himself against that I suppose, on the wildly erroneous assumption that I think that way. If that was it, it’s not surprising I missed it: the claim is so completely outside the way I think that it would never occur to me that someone thought I was saying it. Fundamentalists do seem to think that accepting or rejecting God equates to accepting or rejecting a set of beliefs though, so he’s likely to have encountered it.

      But I’m still not sure either of those explains things, because I’m pretty sure he did include existence and say “I don’t reject God’s existence. I reject belief in God”. I don’t really see what “rejecting God’s existence” can mean other than rejecting the belief that God exists.

      So I’m still puzzled.

  2. Andrew Mitchell

    Hmmm… Interesting. I can’t say that I understand it either. From what little I know I can state some things.

    I have a strong suspicion that you and he were not really sharing a common definition of god. Even among athiests there are different strengths of conviction based on what type (characteisrics) of deity is under discussion. You ce rtainly have different views of what it means to be a Christian.

    He may even be a theological noncongnitivist who believes all talk of gods to be meaningless.

    Personally I’d label myself as a negative explicit atheist. Many other athiests I come across on Twitter are probably positive explicit.

    I’ve found wikipedia helpful in getting some of this clearer in my own mind.

    • Could you explain positive explicit and negative explicit? They sound both interesting and helpful . . .

      I may simply be misremembering what he said, but I do know that what I’ve just described is the impression I got of his position. It’s also possible he was saying something like “God is an idea I’ve never had, so I have no need to discard it”.

  3. Andrew Mitchell

    I think wikipedia article on athiesm will do a better job at explaining than I. Check out:

    Particularly relevant is the “definitions and distinctions” section and, to a lesser extent, the “rationale” section.

    Let me know what you think.

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