Karl Marx said religion in general — and Christianity in particular — is nothing more than an opiate for the masses. How do we know Marx is not right?
The mere fact that people around the world worship a divine being doesn’t establish the existence or non-existence of any such thing — nor does it establish the truth of any one specific faith. Surely there must be more that can be said about the existence of God and the truth of certain religious beliefs.
While not all would agree these days, in the not-too-distant past the effort to reason about the existence of God was deemed worthy of investigation by some of the world’s most famous intellectuals — people vastly more renowned for their intellectual prowess than John Shelby Spong or the nearly unknown members of the Jesus Seminar. For example, a famous debate occurred on the BBC in the 1930s between atheist extraordinaire Lord Bertrand Russell and the most famous historian of philosophy at the time, Rev. Frederick Coppleston. Most listeners who heard the debate or have since read the text agree that, on technical grounds, the debate was a draw. And until very recently, most intellectuals were willing to allow that no one can prove or disprove the existence of God in any publicly accessible manner.
There is no experimentum crucis that science can evoke in the debate over God’s existence. Neither is there any dramatic result in logic that makes belief in God necessary. This point seemed unassailable for the 40 years that followed the Russel / Coppleston debate, but then other questions arose. If a good and loving God wanted humans to know the truth about Him so that they could praise and adore Him, then He surely would have done more than leave the matter to debating philosophers. But did He?
Even St. Paul could do no more than speak about his experience on the road to Damascus. He couldn’t replicate that experience for others. At best, they would simply have to believe St. Paul’s claims. So why does a loving God keep Himself so well-hidden?
This may not be so difficult to understand as it initially appears. The problem of the hiddenness of God is resolved simply by understanding the import of free will. Assuming we have free will, God must be careful about what He reveals about Himself. If people are to commit themselves freely to God, there can be no overwhelming duress. Such an imposition of power would defeat God’s apparent desire for His creatures to embrace Him freely out of love. So where does that leave His beloved?
Are the road to Damascus and events of similar ilk all that are available for a few select individuals to ground their intellectual allegiance to God? Must the rest of us consign ourselves to a mere gamble — a Pascalian wager that, in the end, it’s a better bet to believe in God than not?
Do Smart People Believe?
It’s a common myth that holds that intelligent people reject religion. Yet surveys have shown that scientists and ordinary people believe in the existence of God in roughly the same percentages. Indeed, many of these scientists are staunchly believing Christians. Others are Jews and Muslims. So if religious belief is an opiate, it is one inhaled as fully by the highly credentialed as well as the least. But there’s more. Intellectuals have found that God is nowhere near as hidden as He at first seems.
Next to Bertrand Russell, the most famous atheist of the 20th century was Russell’s countryman, Sir Anthony Flew. (This is not to say that Sir A. J. Ayer, Richard Dawkins, and others of established academic reputation have not also been frequent opponents of Christian truths; Flew surely has the longest published record of such attacks.) But as 2004 turned into 2005, Sir Anthony did the most extraordinary thing: He became a deist. In both a videotape presentation, an interview, and subsequently through an essay, Flew acknowledges that the fine-tuning of the universe at every level is just far too perfect to be the result of chance.
The greatest logician of the 20th century and intimate friend of physicist Albert Einstein was the mysterious and reclusive Kurt Godel of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Godel upset the whole of 20th-century mathematics with two proofs that together are popularly known as Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Godel’s proof set limits not only on mathematics but on the completability of artificial intelligence as well. No one can pick up a book in higher-level number theory or artificial intelligence without finding respectful reference to Godel’s work. Further, he made it no secret to those who knew him well that he too was a deist along the lines of the 18th-century philosopher and mathematician Gottleib Leibniz. For Godel as for Flew, the more he learned, the more it seemed evident that there’s a creative intelligence lurking about somewhere. Even the skeptical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the recently deceased philosopher Robert Nozick of Harvard admitted having something of a haunting awareness that something was “out there.” Neither could find enough call to commit to more than that.
But there are others prepared to go further. Henry Schaefer III is a physical chemist from the University of Georgia who has long been in line for the Nobel Prize. Should he win in either chemistry or physics, he won’t be the first Nobel laureate in those fields to be Christian. Schaeffer has more than 800 articles published in scientific journals, and yet nearly all his life he has exhibited a very traditional — a nearly evangelical — spirit toward Christianity. In his book Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence? (Apollo’s Trust, 2003), Schaefer describes his many friends in the sciences who believe as fully as he does.
Over dinner and through many correspondences, Sir John Eccles, a neurophysiologist and himself a Nobel laureate in medicine, has often expressed to me his resolute commitment to Catholicism. In one letter, he explained that in a strictly technical article he published with the British Royal Academy, he established in his mind (and without saying so explicitly in the piece) at least a mechanism for a human soul to communicate with its assigned body.
Schaefer and Eccles are but two scientists who find in their scientific work the whispers of a loving God.
Scientists Speak Out
I delight in the writings of quantum physicist and Anglican priest Sir John Polkinghorne. He was said to be on the fast track to Nobel fame when he suddenly gave up his career in physics at Cambridge and went into the seminary. So committed was Polkinghorne to his vocation that after taking holy orders, he originally turned down academic appointments to work for a while as a parish priest. He explains in his many books that he finds in quantum physics information compatible with his very traditional Trinitarian Christianity. Polkinghorne also insists that the styles of thinking necessary for work in high-energy physics are very near to that needed in theology. Substantively, he argues that quantum physics provides the plasticity the universe needs for our exercise of free will to make a difference in the unfolding of the world’s details. Only the mind of a loving, self-sacrificial God could have imagined a creation wherein the laws of physics together with those of theology conjoin to create a world both under the Master’s control but with abundant room for His creatures to work both mischief and good.
But it isn’t just the most formal and abstract disciplines that lead one to embrace the notion of God. In his bombshell book Darwin’s Black Box (Free Press, 1998), Catholic and molecular biologist Michael Behe sent the biological community into turmoil, trying to explain how randomness could account for everything scientists see in the biological world. Soon, other biologists weighed in. Jonathan Wells, with two doctoral degrees in the biological sciences, pointed to the many questions that evolution leaves unanswered in his book Icons of Evolution (Regnery, 2002). Today, there are articles in academic journals of nearly every stripe circling the wagons against those scholars who see God’s hand in the creation of life. However, even some evolutionists are themselves believers. Catholic biologists Kenneth Miller of Brown University and Lee Dugatkin, a popular science writer, have explained evolution as the tool through which God works.
Moving toward increasingly applied disciplines, there are people like computer scientist Donald Knuth (Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About), who has been unabashed in defending his Christian faith and the impact his work in computer science has had in reinforcing his beliefs. Like Knuth, applied mathematicians Stevin Unwin (The Probability of God) and Frederick Bartholomew (Uncertain Belief) have used their resources as Bayesian statisticians to establish whether it’s more or less likely on an inductive basis that a personal, theistic God exists. These two applied mathematicians go far beyond Pascal’s wager; their arguments begin with the most modest assumptions about the nature of reality and then let the inferential techniques of aggregated data lead where it may. Unwin concludes the evidence is rather strong that God is more likely than not, whereas Bartholomew finds the evidence is slightly persuasive in favor of God.
But the increase in belief isn’t restricted to scientists alone. Philosophers too are coming to faith — a surprising thing to those outside the academy. There was a time when the term “philosopher” seemed almost coextensive with that of “atheist.” However, since the mid-1980s, the Society of Christian Philosophers has grown rapidly from a handful of members to nearly one out of eight of all American Philosophical Association members. Nor does this number include the increasing number of philosophers who are devout Jews or many of those from Catholic colleges who are members of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.
Truth Versus Convention
If religious truths are just collections of social conventions, then there are no truths to worry about. In such a case, whether Christianity survives or dies should matter little to anyone save those dependent on the receipts of the collection plate. But if religious claims point to an enduring reality then they are something else entirely. Polkinghorne and Gerald Schroeder both consider religious truth as being made of far firmer stuff than the shifting sands of social convention so persuasive to non-scientists. Both physicists see in the Book of Genesis and the study of quantum physics very nearly the same story. Scientists, mathematicians, and others in the exact sciences seek truth beyond the conventions of local human communities. Social theorists do not.
Philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians worried a great deal about truth as the mid-20th century approached. Rigorous programs to illuminate the foundational structure of mathematics by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead on the one hand and David Hilbert on the other were both upset at the hands of the brilliant Godel. Godel had no doubt that there were truths to be discovered, though many loudly disagreed. In this turbulent sea of philosophical speculation, Alfred Tarski laid out a definition of truth that was both sophisticated and appropriate to much mathematical work but that also carried much common sense as well. Tarski’s lay definition of truth goes something like this: The sentence “X” is true if and only if X is true. For example, the sentence, “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. This sounds simple enough, but note all that it accomplishes.
Tarski’s definition of truth sets truth outside the human mind. Truth is clearly not just a matter of human social convention but the property of a sentence that manages to map onto the world without error. Whether humans can ever know the truth and to what extent remains a worthy area of investigation. Nevertheless, truth itself, lying as it does outside the human mind, cannot be written off. If the declarations of Christianity are true, then they are true and there’s nothing more to be said about it. Truth stands alone as the relationship between the world and a proposition — it simply is what it is.
Scientists are correct when they acknowledge the parallels between science and religion. Both are uncompromising fields aimed at the truth. Furthermore, Christians can benefit from the sciences and may find that the hidden God is not so hidden after all.
This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Crisis Magazine.