Thursday, December 1, 2011

David Marshall: "Are Scientists Too 'Bright' to Believe in God?"

Last night, I read Chapter 2 of David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and it is entitled “Are Scientists Too ‘Bright’ to Believe in God?” Marshall responds to the new atheist charge that most North American and English scientists are atheist or agnostic, and that religion hinders science.

Marshall addresses this charge in a variety of ways. He says that he knows many scientists who do believe in God, that people with doctorates in East Asia are likely to be believers, that the vast majority of scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were devout Christians, and that there are renowned Christian apologists (i.e., Alister McGrath, Richard Swinburne) who have training in the sciences. He notes examples in which Christianity has actually assisted science. Evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse, for instance, “points out that even Darwin drew ‘heavily’ on Anglican natural theology, concluding ironically, ‘Without Christianity, I doubt we would have Darwinism’” (page 38). And Stephen Hawking credits Augustine with realizing that time originated with the universe, a concept that “is now an element in the standard big bang interpretation” (page 49).

Marshall spends some pages wrestling with the question of why so many Western scientists are agnostic or atheist. He says that the modern university is a culture that is hostile to faith, and one reason is that a lot of people going into the sciences feel that they’re entering a new world of discovery, as they leave behind religious beliefs that they feel shackled them. (But Marshall goes on to say that there are some scientists who then enter into a newer world of excitement and adventure, the world of faith, after they have become disenchanted with the Enlightenment story.) Marshall also talks about the bias against miracles within the Western scientific community, the way that some conservative Christians present certain non-essentials (a young earth) as crucial for the faith, and the lack of opportunity that many scientists have to weigh the evidence for Christianity. On page 47, Marshall states: “Leading scientists at research universities work long hours. How much time does an 80-hour work week leave to study arguments for the historical Jesus, talk to missionaries about answered prayer, research the role of Christianity in reform movements, or even soak in Jesus’ words very deeply?”

I think that Marshall makes an important point on page 41: “If scientists believe for nonrational reasons, then their lack of faith isn’t relevant to the truth of religion. The word of an Oxford zoologist would be a mere celebrity endorsement, like Harrison Ford selling Kirin lager beer in a Japanese commercial. It’s unreasonable to be swayed by a celebrity endorsement unless the celebrity knows what he’s talking about.”

For me, the implications of this insight are that it doesn’t matter how many scientists are atheists or Christians. What is important is that scientists seek to understand and conceptualize the world in an accurate manner, and that includes them being open to contrary evidence. If religion hinders a scientist from doing this, then religion is problematic for science in that case. If religion can help a scientist in that endeavor, then perhaps it’s an asset—-but I want to stress that a scientific insight is valid because it fits scientific criteria, not because it conforms to a religious authority. I say this because some conservative Christians like to make a big deal about scientific discoveries that conform to the Bible (i.e., the universe having a beginning, water-channels, etc.), and so they conclude that we should simply trust the Bible as an inerrant document to which science will catch up. But science is not about dogmatically accepting a religious document as the final say: it’s about investigating and verifying and making corrections when one is shown to be wrong. Marshall interacts with this point, on some level, for he notes that scientific communities can be rigid, and that theologies can be fluid. Fine. I doubt that any group is perfect or absolutely flawed. But a key point in this discussion should be that science must be free to go where the truth leads, even when it appears to contradict a religious dogma.

I want to switch to the issue of miracles, which Marshall addresses in this chapter. He actually sums up what he says about the topic in Jesus and the Religions of Man, which I will read later. But I’ll interact with what he says right now, for I asked yesterday what he does with non-Christian miracles (since he considers Jesus’ miracles to be evidence for Christianity). On pages 45-46 of The Truth Behind the New Atheism, Marshall states the following:

“Miracles invite verification, usually historical, while magic often flaunts its irrational character. Miracles are usually practical, while magic is showy—-bleeding statues, levitation, Mary in a loaf of bread. Miracles enhance human dignity, while magic undermines our humanity—-it makes us bark like dogs, or ‘[affect] Godhead, and so loosing all’ in Milton’s words. Miracles point to God; magic to something or someone else. Finally, miracles come in response to requests, while magic makes demands. Like a fireman ‘running red lights,’ miracles actually affirm the dignity and reasonableness of natural law.”

My impression is that Marshall here is addressing the question of what happens when we allow for the possibility of supernatural intervention into the world. Does that mean that we have to accept every silly miracle report? That’s a reason that many scientists choose to be naturalists and to preclude the possibility of supernatural intervention at the outset: they fear a slippery slope! I think that Marshall is seeking to establish some criteria for what supernatural phenomena is genuine, and also to show that believing in the supernatural is reasonable and respects the natural order. That’s my understanding of his points’ significance in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, and I do not know what their significance is in Jesus and the Religions of Man.

I wonder, though, if Marshall would consider the miracles that non-Christians do to be magic rather than true miracles. If so, then I would have a problem with that, for there are plenty of non-Christian miracles that resemble the miracles that Jesus did—-they bring healing, for example, and, in some cases, there is a claim that eyewitness testimony supports them. Marshall may say that these non-Christian miracles are magic because they don’t point to God. But that would be a tautology because it assumes Christianity to support Christianity. But I’m speculating here about what Marshall might say, and so I may have to read more to see how and if he addresses non-Christian miracles.

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