08/10/2010 08:27 am ET Updated 5 days ago

Would Evidence for God Mean the End of Atheism and Christianity?

A complaint often voiced by scientific atheists is that there is simply no evidence for God and therefore belief in the old codger is thoroughly unjustified. Frightened witless by this snort, creationists (and I include intelligent design advocates here) scurry about frantically trying to provide just such evidence. But what would scientific evidence for God look like, and what implications would it hold?

The astronomer Fred Hoyle famously remarked that nothing shook his atheism quite like the apparent "fine tuning" of the cosmos for life. For Hoyle, the delicate balance of our universe's physical constants vaguely approached what might be called evidence of God. Others have remained unimpressed by this "evidence." They point out that if there are an infinite number of universes out there (as some cosmologists contend), then invariably some are going to have physical constants like ours -- no divine fine tuning required. Of course, the faithful can always retort that God is the ultimate author of all these universes because God loves diversity. In the end, the physical constants might hint at something divine, but they are hardly convincing.

This little episode highlights the absurdity of treating God as a hypothesis. He's impossible to pin down -- as might be expected from someone whose job description includes being infinite and everywhere. But as a thought experiment, let's set aside this little problem and assume that the scientific atheists and creationists are right and God can be treated as a hypothesis. If so, there ought to be conditions under which the hypothesis receives support, possibly even strong support. The ramifications of this are just too intriguing not to consider.

If the physical constants fail as convincing evidence of God, then what might succeed? In his book Universes, philosopher John Leslie conjures up a rather fanciful scenario for potential God-evidence (I'm taking a few liberties here in order to make Leslie's example a bit more fun). Imagine obviously intentionally engineered artifacts descending harmlessly from the sky (God doesn't want to hurt anyone!) each with an engraved label saying "made by God." Scientists are able to perform definitive tests on these artifacts and conclude beyond all doubt that they have been fashioned by an omniscient, all-powerful agent.

Now this may seem too whimsical to be taken seriously, but the important point is this: however one envisions convincing scientific evidence of God, let's suppose we've got it. Let's further suppose that this god is pretty much the god we all expected to find -- not Aristotle's reclusive thought-contemplating-itself god or Plato's disappointingly limited Demiurge, but the "golden rule," Ten Commandments kind of god with whom we are all pretty familiar. This God is now on the same footing as gravity, evolution, and the germ theory of disease. He is an accepted scientific fact. Now what?

Well nothing major -- only the end of both atheism and Christianity. If scientific atheists are true to their convictions, then it seems that they have no choice but to become theists. Their worldview is based on evidence and the evidence says there's a god.

But it's also the end of Christianity. For those who find Christianity to be a stubbornly abhorrent strain of the religion virus, this ought to be a moment of much rejoicing. How so? A fundamental tenet of Christianity is free will. It is no stretch to say that Christianity without free will is simply not Christianity anymore. The Christian God grants humans free will and will not interfere with its exercise. Humans are free to believe or not believe, free to follow God's laws or free to sin and separate themselves from God. God condemns no one. People condemn themselves. This is all standard, mainline Christian theology and it all gets utterly demolished by convincing scientific evidence of God.

We really aren't free to believe or not believe in germs, gravity, evolution or other firmly established scientific facts. We can foolishly try to deny them, but their effects are with us and their laws hold regardless of our attitude. If I jump off a cliff, it matters not a whit whether I believe in gravity; I'm gonna fall. The laws of physics, Mendelian genetics, viral contagion, etc. -- my beliefs about these things are irrelevant. I follow their dictates. I suffer or enjoy their consequences.

The Christian God is not supposed to be like that (at least not in this life). His laws are not the laws of physics. One believes in him and follows his laws out of love and gratitude, not because of being compelled by necessity. It's my choice if I want to hate my neighbor. If I see a greater immediate gain from not doing unto others, then I should be able to do that and God can't get in my way. But if God is like gravity, then I will suffer the consequences of breaking his laws just as surely as I'll break my neck if I step off a cliff. Love of God is as meaningless as love of the inverse square law.

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement and atheism remains an option. A God who values free will would set it up just that way.

However, pondering the questions raised by the God hypothesis have potential value. If the scientific atheist is sincere in claiming that it is a lack of evidence that compels disbelief, then he or she ought to be able to specify the type of evidence necessary to reverse this situation. What are the conditions under which the God hypothesis gains support and are these conditions even possible? For the Christian creationist, or indeed any Christian who looks to science as way of verifying God's existence -- might you be using the wrong method in search of the wrong God?