Church-going

By Sean Carroll | June 6, 2006 1:55 pm

God Since today, 6/6/06, is (granted some typographical latitude) International Number of the Beast Day, I should tell you about my visit on Sunday to the Augustana Lutheran Church near the University of Chicago. (Not to disparage my kind hosts, but I have to say that sacred architecture really took a turn for the worse after the Reformation; give me those Gothic cathedrals any day.) I was invited by Shane Caldwell, a student in my cosmology class, to speak to a group that meets to talk about science and religion. Of course, my take on the matter is that science and religion are in stark conflict. But they understood where I was coming from, and were interested in hearing my spiel on cosmology and atheism. (All practiced academics understand that it’s important to have a small number of spiels that can be adapted to multiple circumstances at the drop of a hat; mine was rather different in this case than Clifford’s.)

Hot dogs and hamburgers were served, and we had a fun time debating the meaning of “knowing” and the existence of God. Robert Smith, the pastor of the church who is also the campus minister of the UofC, was very welcoming, and excited to be starting this kind of dialogue between different parts of the community. Most of the small audience were actually students, some who had taken my classes and some undergrads who were members of the church. There were also a few representatives from the Zygon Center for Science and Society, an organization across the street that is dedicated to studying the relationship between science and religion.

I’ve given my “God does not exist” talk to a couple of religious audiences before, and they’re generally very interested in hearing a different perspective and thinking about the issues in an unfamiliar way. Granted, these audiences were highly selected and undoubtedly academic, not randomly chosen evangelical churches in the heartland. And you may suspect that nothing I might say would ever change anyone’s mind, but that’s not true; I had one professional theologian tell me that I did change his mind. Not about the existence of God, but about the efficacy of the argument from design. And there is a tight (inverse) correlation between age of the listener and willingness to engage with the ideas; the students were interested and ready to tackle my claims on their own terms, while some of the older folks wanted to argue that there were plenty of scientists more famous than me who were religious, so what right did I have?

There are a million things one could talk about concerning science and religion, and the discussions tend to become rapidly unfocused (or individually focused on the concerns of each person in the room, with everyone talking past everyone else). Not to mention that theology is a rich subject with a complex history about which I know only the basics. So I make a real effort to define all the my words very carefully, and limit myself to one extremely specific chain of reasoning: science and religion do overlap in their mutual interest in understanding the basic workings of reality, and therefore it is possible to judge at least some religious claims using the ordinary empirical criteria of science, and that when one does so, a materialistic conception of reality (in which there exist nothing but stuff following unbreakable rules) comes out very far ahead of a theistic one (in which there exists a separate supernatural/spiritual category not bound by the laws of physics). There might be other interesting things to talk about, and there are other things that religion is concerned with besides the workings of nature, and there could be other criteria besides the scientific method that one might want to use in deciding between different pictures of the world. But in the quite specific question I am choosing to address, I think there is a sensible answer.

At the same time, I want to argue that the answer is not inevitable, or it wouldn’t be worth going through the exercise. There are several ways that thinking like a scientist could have led us to believe in God (or the supernatural more generally). The most obvious would be if God just kept showing up in our world and performing miracles; a sensible scientific approach in that case would be to search for the “laws of nature” that were in effect when God wasn’t around, and treat his manifestations as outside that box. More subtly, we might look for evidence of design in nature, or we might look for impassable “gaps” in our understanding (like the beginning of the universe, or the origin of life and/or consciousness) that only God could bridge. I’m perfectly happy to contemplate that such things could be part of a logically possible world; I just strongly believe that, in the actual world in which we find ourselves, there are no such fingerprints of design or unbridgeable gaps, and hence no scientific reason to appeal to the supernatural. We don’t understand everything in nature, but there’s absolutely no reason to think that it’s not understandable (even the beginning of the universe etc.) in terms of purely mechanical laws. So God, as an hypothesis, is discarded along with geocentrism and phlogiston and the Steady State universe and whatnot. Sadly, it’s taking a little while for the discarding to actually sink in, but I suspect it’s just a matter of (perhaps a very long) time.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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