Atheism and Science

In a desire to foster a great respect and appreciation between atheists and Christians, and for other religious people, I want to celebrate the high esteem that we often share for science: for the scientific method, for scientific experiments, for scientists, for scientific results, and so on.

To begin, many atheists have made outstanding contributions to our scientific knowledge, and we should celebrate their work. To mention just a few people:

  • Sigmund Freud, the massively influential psychoanalyst.
  • Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
  • Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist.
  • Stephen Hawking, the well-known theoretical physicist and cosmologist

Hundreds of other scientists, many of them at the top of their respective scientific disciplines, with a strong commitment to atheism, could also be listed.

Naturally enough, sometimes atheists celebrate science in order to critique religious beliefs. This often has the form of: “The religion says X, but science says Y, so the religious belief is wrong.” Very often these kinds of arguments do, in fact, serve to delegitimize any number of religious beliefs. In those cases, we can be grateful for the advance of human knowledge because of scientific inquiry.

At other times, perhaps the majority of the time, atheists celebrate science and its beneficial results simply because science has generated so many positive returns for human society and the world in general. To mention just one example: this discussion is possible because of modern computing, the internet, and so on.

One of the tensions between atheists and Christians sometimes comes about because some Christians strongly fight against science. This profound difference in values can generate a very tense and often hostile conflict. Learning to treat people well, even as we disagree with their ideas and priorities, is a difficult challenge for everyone involved. This is especially so in areas where the stakes are high: medical research, public education curriculums, and so on.

At the same time, we should acknowledge the high regard that many Christians (and those of other religions) have for science.

For one, there is a strong historical case that the modern scientific enterprise arose out of a highly Christianized cultural and intellectual context. The historian Rodney Stark, in his book The Victory of Reason, has offered a careful, detailed elaboration of this point. Stanley Jaki, a Templeton Prize winner, has also written to this effect. Of course it is legitimate to disagree with their arguments and conclusions. But the more basic point is that, whatever our final interpretations of the historical record, there remains an abundance of historical data that many Christians, for centuries, have greatly prized science and scientists.

This love for science has, consequently, meant there have been a number of famous Christian scientists. To mention just a few:

  • Sir Francis Bacon, known as the father of the scientific method
  • Michael Faraday, a chemist and physicist who did foundational work in electromagnetism
  • Richard Houghton, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change
  • Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project

In addition, Christians use science to argue against atheism. Typically, these arguments take the form, “Atheism says X, but science says Y, therefore atheism is wrong.” Of course these arguments are as hotly contested as when science is used to debunk religious claims. But in both cases, each person is using science (or, sometimes, pseudo-science) to offer support for their worldviews. There is very often a shared respect for science in these conversations.

And finally, nearly every Christian denomination is open to or enthusiastic about the technological benefits of science. Whether it is in humanitarian work or appreciating the convenience of a TV, Christians and atheists alike tend to share this appreciation for science and its results.

If anything, the ‘argument’ is that if we are committed to respecting one another, and looking for the good in one another, we can often find some important shared values. Given the hostility and antagonism between atheists and Christians, generated by both sides at times, it is valuable for us to work hard at looking for shared values, as this effort can contribute towards building a respect for one another.