Many atheists think that their atheism is the product of rational thinking. They use arguments such as “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science” to explain that evidence and logic, rather than supernatural belief and dogma, underpin their thinking. But just because you believe in evidence-based, scientific research—which is subject to strict checks and procedures—doesn’t mean that your mind works in the same way.
When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realize that religion simply doesn’t make sense.
Oddly perhaps, many religious people actually take a similar view of atheism. This comes out when theologians and other theists speculate that it must be rather sad to be an atheist, lacking (as they think atheists do) so much of the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfillments that religious people have access to—stuck in a cold world of rationality only.
The science of atheism
The problem that any rational thinker needs to tackle, though, is that the science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists. Indeed, atheists are just as susceptible as the next person to “group-think” and other non-rational forms of cognition. For example, religious and nonreligious people alike can end up following charismatic individuals without questioning them. And our minds often prefer righteousness over truth, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has explored.
Even atheist beliefs themselves have much less to do with rational inquiry than atheists often think. We now know, for example, that nonreligious children of religious parents cast off their beliefs for reasons that have little to do with intellectual reasoning. The latest cognitive research shows that the decisive factor is learning from what parents do rather than from what they say. So if a parent says that they’re Christian, but they’ve fallen out of the habit of doing the things they say should matter—such as praying or going to church—their kids simply don’t buy the idea that religion makes sense.
This is perfectly rational in a sense, but children aren’t processing this on a cognitive level. Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have often lacked the time to scrutinize and weigh up the evidence—needing to make quick assessments. That means that children to some extent just absorb the crucial information, which in this case is that religious belief doesn’t appear to matter in the way that parents are saying it does.
Even older children and adolescents who actually ponder the topic of religion may not be approaching it as independently as they think. Emerging research is demonstrating that atheist parents (and others) pass on their beliefs to their children in a similar way to religious parents—through sharing their culture as much as their arguments.
Some parents take the view that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children—95%—end up “choosing” to be atheist.
Science versus beliefs
But are atheists more likely to embrace science than religious people? Many belief systems can be more or less closely integrated with scientific knowledge. Some belief systems are openly critical of science, and think it has far too much sway over our lives, while other belief systems are hugely concerned to learn about and respond to scientific knowledge.
But this difference doesn’t neatly map onto whether you are religious or not. Some Protestant traditions, for example, see rationality or scientific thinking as central to their religious lives. Meanwhile, a new generation of postmodern atheists highlight the limits of human knowledge, and see scientific knowledge as hugely limited, problematic even, especially when it comes to existential and ethical questions. These atheists might, for example, follow thinkers like Charles Baudelaire in the view that true knowledge is only found in artistic expression.
And while many atheists do like to think of themselves as pro-science, science and technology itself can sometimes be the basis of religious thinking or beliefs, or something very much like it. For example, the rise of the transhumanist movement, which centers on the belief that humans can and should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology, is an example of how technological innovation is driving the emergence of new movements that have much in common with religiosity.
Even for those atheists skeptical of transhumanism, the role of science isn’t only about rationality—it can provide the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfillments that religious beliefs do for others. The science of the biological world, for example, is much more than a topic of intellectual curiosity—for some atheists, it provides meaning and comfort in much the same way that belief in God can for theists. Psychologists show that belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety, just as religious beliefs intensify for theists in these situations.
Clearly, the idea that being atheist is down to rationality alone is starting to look distinctly irrational. But the good news for all concerned is that rationality is overrated. Human ingenuity rests on a lot more than rational thinking. As Haidt says of “the righteous mind”, we are actually “designed to ‘do’ morality”—even if we’re not doing it in the rational way we think we are. The ability to make quick decisions, follow our passions and act on intuition are also important human qualities and crucial for our success.
It is helpful that we have invented something that, unlike our minds, is rational and evidence-based: science. When we need proper evidence, science can very often provide it—as long as the topic is testable. Importantly, the scientific evidence does not tend to support the view that atheism is about rational thought and theism is about existential fulfillments. The truth is that humans are not like science—none of us get by without irrational action, nor without sources of existential meaning and comfort. Fortunately, though, nobody has to.”
Science doesn’t answer big questions. The why questions.
However, Science does demonstrate very long odds that all this “just happened by chance.”
Life on this planet in a rare event. That the universe to exist at all is amazing. The four forces. These issues of fine tuning of all variables in our universe — varying any one of which would throw life and the Universe out of existence — provides credibility that God exists in and created the Universe.
Two points from scientific naturalism (atheism):
1. The natural world is all there is.
This claim is consistent logically equivalent to atheism. One can’t logically prove atheism or that the natural world is all there is. How could one prove that there is nothing beyond the natural world, when all they can study is the natural world (and nothing more)?
The only way the naturalists could hold this claim #1 is by faith. But then the naturalists would contradict claim #2. Indeed, claim #1 is internally incoherent.
2. We should only believe what can be scientifically proven.
This second point is far too narrow. In fact, we accept many intuitive truths that can’t be proven.
Can’t prove these truths:
1) Ethics: can’t prove good and evil. 2) Esthetics: can’t prove beauty. 3) Metaphysics: the reality of the past. 4) Science itself has unproveable assumptions: Special Theory of Relativity, one-way velocity of light is assumed to be constant. 5) Mathematics and logic truths: Science presupposes logic and math.
Even statement #2 itself can’t be proven scientifically. Statement #2 is an opinion or statement of philosophy. #2 is self-refuting and cannot be true.
William Lane Craig at his best in under 3 minutes:
Great points in 1.5 minutes:
Less than 2.5 minutes:
Awesome demolition in a little over 5 minutes:
Elder Holland, attending the 50th anniversary celebration of discovering chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, gave this talk on evidence:
John Lennox (see video below) has debated the biggest names among today’s atheists.
Christians should have an evidence base for belief in Christ. John told us of Jesus’ actions so that we might believe.
John 20 : 30-31
30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
Lennox makes several points from atheist debates:
1) Belief in Christianity is based in evidence — not blind faith. Review John 20: 30-31 again.
2) Atheists claim to not have faith, but Lennox has challenged many atheists this way: “I’m sorry, but I thought you believed your atheism.”
3) Dawkins believes in or has faith in stuff, including his wife. Evidence-based faith is still faith.
4) Traditional Christians don’t believe God was created (Mormons theology involves progression). Dawkins constantly teases, “Who created your Creator?” Lennox says nobody. Dawkins believes the Universe created him. So, Lennox asked Dawkins, “Who created your (Dawkins’) creator?” Still waiting for an answer.
1) We don’t believe in the God of the Gaps.
2) Science and God are compatible and complimentary:
To say you don’t believe in God, but rather you believe in Science is analogous to saying you don’t believe in Henry Ford, but instead you believe in the laws of internal combustion. The God explanation is not the same as the Science explanation. You, obviously, should believe in both.
Why is the kettle boiling? There are 2 explanations: a scientific one about molecules. And a personal agent explanation: it’s boiling because I want a cup of tea.
3) The Law of Gravity describes gravity, but descriptive laws do not create anything. Ever. We don’t even know what what gravity is. However, Steven Hawking and other secular scientists would have you believe laws daily create matter and the entire Universe. Not true.
4) God created the world good. God could have created a perfect world, but none of us would have been in it. A world without hate will have no love. Robotic worlds lack sin and many other problems, but they have no humans. Bringing humans into the world is a risky business. God’s children can grow up and say no. Just like our kids.
Another discussion with John Lennox on faith and reason. Faith of believers. Faith of atheists. What is the evidence? What of blind faith?
Bill Whittle and Andrew Klavan (Christian, former Jew) discuss the limits of Science and atheism.
At the 5:10 mark in the video below, Bill says when someone says “I believe in Science” you immediately know they don’t know what they’re talking about. Science is a tool. Like a hammer. So, when they exclaim, “I believe in Science,” they’re really saying, “I believe in a hammer.”
Science is not a philosophy. It’s not a world view. It’s a method. It’s a series of questions, processes, and procedures to isolate variables and extract something out of nature.
Scientism or Trans-science: popularized by the new atheists, such as Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett. An arrogant belief in objectivism — won’t believe anything other than Science — that itself becomes a religion.
What of Philosophy, Art, Ethics, and other obvious truths we can’t prove?
We can’t understand infinity or eternity. We simply lack the neurons.
Worth 12 minutes of your time.
More from William Lane Craig:
Scientism is not Science. It’s a theory. It’s a philosophy.
The statement itself — one should only believe in what can be scientifically proven — is self-refuting. One can’t prove one should believe this. It’s a philosophy statement or belief — not something that itself can be proven.
Can’t prove these truths:
1) Ethics: can’t prove good and evil. 2) Esthetics: can’t prove beauty. 3) Metaphysics: the reality of the past. 4) Science itself has unprovable assumptions: Special Theory of Relativity, one-way velocity of light is assumed to be constant. 5) Mathematics and logic truths: Science presupposes logic and math.
Fun interchange. William Lane Craig (on the left) is a skilled debater. Too bad he’s not LDS.
Another gem by WLC on God. Now, I don’t agree with all of Craig’s arguments, but the discussion is wonderful.
Does the Church take an official position on Evolution? Nope.
Let’s all remain open and humble in our pursuit of all kinds of truths. And let scientists do Science. After all, we have nothing to fear from discovery in any field.
Living the restored Gospel principles saves us. Scientific principles — even established ones — don’t exalt anyone. But it doesn’t hurt to understand truths of Science.
Further, there’s so much we don’t know. For example, the world’s best physicists don’t know what light and energy are. We are only a few hundred years from the Enlightenment. We’re all in the dark to a great degree, and thus must very much live by faith.
Science is only a method, and can ask how. God answers why.
Read this October 2016 New Era article. The first paragraph quoted below:
“The Church has no official position on the theory of evolution. Organic evolution, or changes to species’ inherited traits over time, is a matter for scientific study. Nothing has been revealed concerning evolution. Though the details of what happened on earth before Adam and Eve, including how their bodies were created, have not been revealed, our teachings regarding man’s origin are clear and come from revelation…”
Ben Spackman shares valuable insight with Gospel Tangents:
Dr. Henry Eyring — the father of current Apostle, Pres. Henry B. Eyring — was a world-class chemist and believing Latter-day Saint. After a full career in Chemistry at Princeton, he returned to Utah Brother Eyring served on the LDS General Sunday School Board.