08/09/2010 05:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Science Is Not Based on Faith

Christian apologists argue that evidence in religion is no less credible than evidence in science. As David Marshall asserts in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, "Almost everything we know -- not just about first-century Palestine, but about dwarf stars, neutrinos, state capitals, vitamins, and sports scores -- we believe because we find the person telling us the information is credible."

To begin with, the stories of the Bible are incredible. Isn't it incredible that someone born of a virgin rose from the dead? To believe that requires far more evidence than needed for a ball score in the newspaper. And, as someone who labored for 30 years to learn the properties of neutrinos, I can tell you that the evidence for their existence far exceeds any evidence that someone rose from the dead.

Marshall continues the same line of argument: "The second level of faith is trust in our senses. ... Again there's no way to prove your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin are giving you the real scoop about the outside world."

True, we can't prove our senses are giving us the "real scoop." But we have plenty of personal experience that our senses do a good job of alerting us to oncoming cars, warning us when something on the stove has caught fire, and telling us that the baby needs to be fed.

Marshall turns to testimonial evidence:

Third, to learn anything we accept "testimonial evidence" from parents, teachers, books, street signs, Wikipedia, and "familiar" voices transmitted as electronic pulses over miles of wire and electromagnetic signals, then decoded into waves in the air. Almost everything we know comes from other people one way or another. This is true in science.

Yes, but in science we don't just take anyone's word for it. We test against independent observations. If I went up to a colleague and told him I solved some major physics problem, do you think he would simply accept that without insisting that I prove it to him?

Of course we don't have time to independently test everything we hear, so we take the word of people have already proven to be reliable in the past. That's why scientists and scholars of all kinds work so hard to maintain a good reputation. No one pays attention anymore to Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, the chemists who announced to the world in 1989 that they had discovered cold fusion.

It also depends on the message. If an airline pilot flying over Yellowstone National Park reports seeing a forest fire, we have little reason to doubt her. But if she reports seeing a flying saucer whose pilot waved a green tentacle at her, I would demand more evidence.

Besides, much eyewitness evidence is highly unreliable, as demonstrated by the hundreds of death row inmates who, in recent decades, were convicted by eyewitness testimony and later exonerated by DNA analysis. Physical evidence is far more reliable than personal testimony because it is subject to replication and verification by independent observers. And the lack of physical evidence when that evidence should be there, such as the absence of archaeological confirmation of the Exodus, can be used to reject the historicity of some biblical myths.

In God and the New Atheism, theologian John Haught similarly claims that atheists have an unjustified faith that the real world is rational. What's the alternative, an irrational world? Science makes no assumption about the real world being "rational." It simply applies rational methods in taking and analyzing data, following certain rules to assure that data are as free from error as possible, and checking the logic of our models to make sure they are self-consistent. The only alternative is irrationality -- error-filled data and inconsistent models. How can irrational thinking with ill-defined words and inconsistent statements lead us to any credible knowledge?

Christian apologists think it is rational to seek out evidence that supports their preconceived beliefs and ignore the evidence that doesn't. They already know the truth, and so view their job as making a case against any arguments from skeptics and doubters. Scientists, even if they have preconceived beliefs, examine all the evidence and go wherever the data lead.

Scientists trust scientific method, logic, and mathematics because they work. They give us answers that we can independently test against objective observations. They give us electric lights, computers, and cell phones.

This post is excerpted from my 2009 book, The New Atheism and my column in the September 2009 issue of Skeptical Briefs.