06/13/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

The Reconciliation of Science and Religion: We Can Do Better

The reconciliation of science and religion is one of the most compelling tasks confronting religious believers today. For we are truly faced with a pair of hostile, warring camps. Many religious believers have drifted into a kind of pietistic mistrust of science that seeks comfort in demonstrably false propositions like young earth creationism. On the other hand, we find a number of scientist who dismiss the possibility of a spiritual dimension to human existence. Some dismiss faith altogether as an outdated mode of explaining the inexplicable. Religion is superstition, they contend, and empiricism must finally triumph over the irrational.

Thus I picked up Amir Aczel's book, "Why Science Does Not Disprove God," with eager anticipation, hoping that he might make peace between these contending factions. Alas, I sighed, upon finishing the book, the chasm remains unbridged. Rather than grappling with the truly challenging, foundational questions, Aczel, I discovered, preferred to recite middle-brow explanations that might give consolation to people of faith but that never really come close to achieving a reconciliation of science and faith. Certainly, no one who is not already a believer will find much that is persuasive in these pages.

Let's just consider a couple of Aczel's arguments to see his method at work. Take evolution. Aczel's chapter on evolution opens with a nod to Charles Darwin's early training in theology. It notes that in the second edition of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" someone -- Darwin himself, perhaps, or an anonymous editor -- inserted acknowledgement of a "Creator." So, the argument goes, Darwin maybe did not see an essential incompatibility between his findings and conventional Christian faith.

Aczel might have used these interesting historical nuggets as a way of opening a broader conversation about faith and evolution. Instead, however, he becomes distracted, devoting precious pages to expressing his own misgivings about evolutionary theory. Thus he goes on at great length about how he thinks evolutionary biology has failed to give an adequate account of the origins of human altruism, which we display not only towards beloved family members, but to animals: "How often do we hear about a person who jumped into the icy water of a lake to save the life of a dog, or a fireman who returned to a burning house to rescue a cat?" (pp. 203-204). The idea seems to be that since no genetic benefit is conferred by such acts, this impulse does not fit the evolutionary model and evolutionary theory is thereby weakened.

There are other thinkers, of course, who have attempted a sophisticated reconciliation of evolution and religion. Classically, there was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). A world-class paleontologist as well as a Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin relied on evolutionary theory and extended it to propose an ever-expanding "noosphere" -- an inter-connected realm of cognition and consciouness that aims finally at the Omega Point, which constitutes ultimate knowledge of the universe, and of God.

Aczel mentions Teilhard de Chardin, but refuses to engage the complexity of his thought. He merely quotes Teilhard on the compatibility of religion and evolution and leaves it at that. Why? Why are evolution and religion compatible? One longs to have the "why" question answered. But Aczel does not venture a reply.

This is small potatoes, however, compared to Aczel's condemnation of the concept of the multiverse. The multiverse is a trending subject of investigation among cosmologists and theoretical physicists. Relying variously on notions of cosmic inflation and quantum mechanics, exponents of the multiverse posit the existence of many universes -- perhaps even an infinite number of them. We happen to inhabit a universe that is not inherently hostile to sentient life, but a strong mathematical case can be made for the simultaneous existence of other universes where the parameters for life are simply absent. And while we may never come into contact with these universes, what we know of the physical laws governing our own point to their existence.

Aczel notes that some of the so-called "New Atheists" find intellectual refuge in the theory of the multiverse. And for that reason, it seems, he attacks the very proposition that such infinite complexity is possible. Aczel writes: "Just because we don't know how to 'stop' inflation doesn't mean that it creates other universes. And just because we understand so little about the wave function of quantum mechanics doesn't mean that a wave can live on in other worlds." (p. 145).

Aczel disputes the existence of the multiverse, finally, because it is not subject to strict experimental verification. We will never be able to observe its attributes, and so we should conclude that there is no such thing. There is an obvious fallacy lurking in this denialism. God, also, is not subject to strict verifiable proof. God's existence cannot be discerned by experiment. God and the multiverse alike are matters of inference, intuition, perceiving insight.

Aczel can be an informative and entertaining writer. I have particularly benefited from some of the articles he has written for Huffington Post. Thus I learned a good deal from his essay on Albert Einstein's concept of God and what has become of it. And even if I remain unconvinced, I think his essay on some of the more speculative elements of theoretical physics offers some cogent criticisms.

In the end, I wonder if Aczel was motivated to reject certain contentions, such as the multiverse, chiefly because some New Atheists have found such claims congenial to their cause. Honestly, whether we live in a singular, one-and-only universe uniquely and finely tuned for life, or in a microscopically small, habitable corner of an infinitely expanding multiverse, I do not believe that science has disproved God. To make that case, however, would require another book.