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Victor Udoewa

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Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

Posted: 01/16/2012 5:36 pm

I saw this question while rummaging for funding opportunities on the Templeton Foundation website. They have a Big Questions Essay Series which I encourage everyone to read through. I just finished reading and pondering every essay addressing the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" and I thoroughly enjoyed each essay.

My interest was specifically piqued by the two essays entitled "Yes" and "Yes, if by...." by Professor Stenger and Professor Pinker, respectively. These were the only two definitive "yes" answer essays in the group, and I found them quite interesting.

What interests me about the two essays is that they make me ask the two questions that should always precede the original question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" First, what do you mean by science? Secondly, what do you mean by God? Now, like Professor Pinker, let us assume science is the holistic pursuit of knowledge through logic and reasoning, including social sciences like philosophy and history, not just the natural sciences. The harder question is the one about God.

Stenger and Pinker highlight that for thousands of years, definitions of God have been offered up to fill in the gaps in our understanding or to explain away difficulties. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this understanding of God as a "deus ex machina," literally "God out of the machine." The term comes from ancient Greek plays in which a character was lowered onto the stage via a crane (or lifted up by a trap door) to signify a supernatural being. It became a criticized technique when writers would lazily use it to kill off a character, create an insurmountable obstacle, or resolve a conflict. The supernatural being was not a natural part of the plot or logic of the story, but a contrivance inserted into the story to tie up the loose ends "nicely." In this way, deus ex machina serves as a way to resolve problems.

Take a few of our contemporary difficulties. I don't understand how this world came to be so intricately designed, so I simply say God did it. I don't understand emotions or where our "soul" comes from; therefore, God is the person who creates that or sparks it. I don't understand where our morality comes from; so I invoke God. I don't understand consciousness and how it appears to continue after death; therefore, God.

The problem arises, of course, when science or any similar pursuit finds a natural way or theory to explain, today, that which we previously did not understand. What then happens to that God we invoked? If you define God on the basis of design, what happens if increasing evidence is found in support of an evolutionary theory? What happens to the morality-defining God in the mind of a person who reasons a way for morality to naturally develop in humanity over time? What happens to the God who sparks the soul in the view of a person who finds solace in the concurrent neurological activity in the brain?

To be fair, we can throw away such dualistic thinking and realize that there exist unique perspectives and nuanced views that bring two ends of the spectrum in integrated unity. For instance, there is the view called theistic evolution held by the BioLogos Foundation that affirms both evolution and a concept of God. Another example is Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a journalist and author, who sees no necessary incongruence between neurological activity and corresponding spiritual experiences. Still there are concepts of God that hinge on what is or was not understood. God explains the gaps in our understanding, even explaining away our emotional discomforts.

For some of us, life has no meaning unless there is someone or something watching us. Others of us fear the meaningless that comes through death. In these cases, we invoke God often as a comfort -- as someone that protects us when others cannot or provides a supernatural explanation when we have no others. In Insurrection, Peter Rollins notes that Pascal calls this form of deus ex machina, the "God of Philosophy." Whether for emotional comfort or to provide an explanation of the unknown, Bonhoeffer critiques each such understanding of God as a psychological crutch.

But what if there were other concepts of God? It seems possible that Dr. Stenger and Dr. Pinker have only shown that, for some people, science seems to make belief in certain concepts of God obsolete. Instead of negative definitions of God that fill the void, if we had positive concepts of God that do not lean on the need for comfort, or fill voids like unexplained phenomena, could science make those concepts of God obsolete? What would those concepts look like? Instead of a faith that only has something to offer to those who don't understand a phenomenon, those who are fearful, the comfortless, those near death, or the depressed, what if we had a concept of God independent of gaps and voids? What if we there were concepts of God that had something to offer or add to the fulfilled? What if we had concepts of God based on creativity? On a positive definition of incomprehensible peace? On imaginative joy? On creative, problem-solving love?

Since it is possible to maintain a certain concept of God while one's belief changes, perhaps it is possible to maintain belief in God while one's concept changes. This is definitely what we see in writers like C. S. Lewis and Brian McLaren who admit to a continual process of trading up images of God as they move from fractured concepts of God to "less" fractured concepts of God. Either way they both understand that their new concept of God is still wounded and fractured.

It is clear that science may make belief in a certain concept of God obsolete. But it is a hard task to make belief in every concept of God obsolete. And though each article in the Big Question Essays Series gave a unique perspective which I very much enjoyed reading, more than the import and impact of any one article, I think the collective of essays as a whole does a better job of answering the question than any one essay. In essence, judging by the range of answers from this group of atheist scholars, clergy, and science researchers and professors, it seems belief in God still continues on.