“Science has buried God!” an atheist friend remarked to me. That’s a claim I hear ever more frequently in the media, online, or on the lips of celebrity atheists. A few years ago I had the chance to interview one of the UK’s leading atheists, Dr. Peter Atkins of Oxford University, who put it bluntly: “Science gives you the promise of understanding while you’re alive. Religion offers the prospect of understanding when you’re dead.”
That kind of soundbite sounds impressive, especially when delivered in an Oxford accent and accompanied by the jangle of PhDs, but the problem is it’s wrong. Why? Well, for a start, it entirely ignores the history of science, which reveals that Christianity was the birthplace of science. The modern scientific enterprise did not arise in the Islamic world, or in China, or in any of the world’s other great civilisations: it has, according to historians of science, only arisen once: in medieval Christian Europe. Why? Because science requires a belief in a universe that is rational, staple, and coherent. The first scientists were deeply religious, they believed that a rational God had created a rational universe: and thus they were motivated to set out to study it.
Science is one of the most amazing tools that human beings have ever invented. But like all tools, it has limits. A hammer is a wonderful thing for banging in nails: it’s positively useless for making omelettes, doing brain surgery, or explaining why we have nails in the first place. That science has limits is illustrated well by the existence of questions that science cannot answer. One such question is this one: what is the value of a human life? How might we answer that question using science? Well, perhaps we could find a giant test tube, boil you down to your constituent chemical parts and then stick those parts on eBay and see what somebody would bid for them. Most people, however, would conclude that such an experiment would make you a sociopath, not a scientist.
Nor can science explain itself: why, quite simple, does science matter? Sure, if you’re researching some amazing medical advance, or a wonderful new flavour of ice cream, or the cure for folk music appreciation, maybe you can justify it. But I have a friend who is studying the mating habits of a particularly rare type of tree frog in the Amazonian rainforests. Why, quite simply does this matter? Science is based on the assumption that the pursuit of truth really matters. On atheism, it’s hard to see why: after all, we human animals are just atoms jiggling, just a “1% bit of pollution in the cosmos” as physicist Lawrence Krauss put it. In which case: why does what we think, do, or discover matter?
I have every sympathy with my atheist friends, who often for personal and emotional reasons, want to chase God out, and who see science as a great weapon to do that. But I want to suggest to them that if they do that, they don’t just lose God—they lose humanity and science in the process.
In contrast, if the ultimate reality is not the impersonal dancing of atoms or lifeless equations, but a God of some kind, a God who is personal and who has created us in his image, that explains a number of things. For starters, it explains why human beings have value and dignity. It also might explain why are we wired to pursue truth, both in and beyond the sciences. But it also raises one other question: has that God, that grand designer, not merely created the universe but also communicated into it? As Albert Einstein, possessor of arguably the greatest mind and the wildest haircut in the history of science once remarked: “Religion without science is lame. Science without religion is blind.”