Atheism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Atheism, a term that began to appear with frequency only in modern times, literally means the denial of theism, that is, belief in the existence of a personal God who creates the world and exists independently of it. This denial may be formal and explicit, as in the writings of Karl Marx (1818883), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844900), Sigmund Freud (1856939), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905980); or it may be an implicit "practical" atheism in which a person or community tacitly assumes that nothing transcends, or exists beyond, the physical universe. In both cases the justification for atheism is usually rooted in the alleged absence of positive evidence for God's existence. Often vaguely referred to as "unbelief," atheism comes in many varieties, but it is those forms that emphasize the lack of "evidence" for God that are of special interest in discussions of science and religion.
Atheism also arises, of course, among those who consider it impossible logically to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful and omnibenevolent God with the fact of evil and suffering in the world. The physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (1933, for example, has stated that it is not only the absence of evidence but, even more, the fact of evil and suffering that grounds his own atheism. Along with many others today, he finds in the suffering of living beings, especially as this has been exposed by evolutionary biology, a stronger reason for rejecting theism than the mere absence of physical evidence warrants. Since the days of Charles Darwin (1809882) the indifference of natural selection to the pain and the extinction of sentient organisms has often been cited as a clinching scientific reason for atheism. Darwin himself was unable to reconcile the idea of an intelligent divine designer with the disturbing life-struggle that his own evolutionary science uncovered. And among scientists today it is more often biologists than physical scientists who reject the notion of a personal God.
It should be noted, however, that the renunciation of theism because of innocent suffering has been a strong temptation quite apart from any specifically scientific information given by evolutionary biology. Darwinian depictions of life may add support to an atheism already based on a compassionate protest against suffering, but the question of how to hold together the idea of God and the fact of suffering is as old as theism itself. Indeed, belief in God arose in the first place, in part at least, as a response to the fact of suffering; and biblical as well as other religious portraits of ultimate reality find in God a compassionate will to conquer suffering and death.
Consequently, as far as the question of science and religion is concerned, atheism is of interest primarily when its proponents accuse theism of failing to provide adequate evidence for its claims. Here evidence means empirically available and publicly accessible data that might reasonably confirm theistic claims. To many scientific thinkers such evidence is ambiguous at best and completely lacking at worst. Although the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century founders of modern science (Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and others) were convinced theists, there is little question that they ironically bequeathed to Western intellectual culture, and especially to modern philosophy, an understanding of truth-seeking (or an epistemic method) that has led many educated people to be skeptical of all propositions unsupported by experimental evidence. And since it is the very nature of theism to refer to a deity that is sensually unavailable, or to propose that believers wait patiently in unconditional trust for a future revelation of indisputable evidence of the divine, the idea of God seems especially uncongenial to confirmation by scientific method.
To those who elevate scientific method to the status of sole or primary arbiter of truth, therefore, all references to a hidden personal deity will be suspect. In the absence of empirical evidence, they ask, how can scientifically educated people be expected to take seriously theistic beliefs about the creation of the world, the eternal love of God, or the ultimate purpose of the universe? The renowned British philosopher Antony Flew (1923, applying Karl Popper's (1902994) criterion of falsifiability to the question of God's existence, has argued that since no counter-evidence would ever be enough to uproot the beliefs of a confirmed theist, theism violates the (scientifically shaped) rules of rational inquiry. If God lies beyond the domain of possible empirical verification or falsification, the claim goes, then theism cannot pass the most elementary test for truth.
At times the demand for theists to provide empirical evidence of God's existence is framed as a moral requirement, any violation of which is held to be indicative not only of cowardice but also of unethical insensitivity to the value of truth. The famous French biochemist and professed atheist Jacques Monod (1910976), for example, sought to base all of culture on what he called the postulate of (scientific) objectivity, which for him constituted the core of a new ethic of knowledge being ushered in by the modern age of science. Accordingly he dismissed theistic affirmations and all religious hope for final redemption as instances not only of cognitive but also moral delinquency. An earlier example of such passionate commitment to an "ethic of knowledge" is that of the American philosopher W. K. Clifford (1845879), whose essay "The Ethics of Belief" (1879) became famous in William James's (1842910) criticism of it in the "The Will to Believe." Clifford had stated that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (p. 183), an assertion that James along with others chastised for its puritanical extremism. In any case, among the beliefs for which sufficient evidence is especially lacking, at least according to Clifford's standards, are those of theists.
Does science support atheism?
The important question, then, is whether science, or the "scientific spirit," provides an incontestable basis for atheism. Although many atheists claim that it does, strictly speaking science as such can in principle justify neither atheism nor theism. By definition scientific method places theological interests beyond the compass of its concerns. Science does not as such ask about values, meaning, or God. Consequently the assertion that science sanctions atheism is logically spurious. Such a claim emanates not from science but from scientism, the belief that science is the only road to reliable knowledge. But one may legitimately ask whether this particular belief (scientism) orients the human mind reliably to the fullness of being or truth. Since it is impossible to conceive of an experimental situation that could in principle confirm or falsify the belief that science is the sole avenue to truth, it may be argued that scientism is a self-refuting proposition.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the progress of modern science has been accompanied historically by a rising skepticism, especially in the intellectual world, about the existence of a personal God. To many scientific thinkers the decline of theistic religion in modern times, especially among educated people, is a logical and not simply historical correlate of the advance of science. Albert Einstein (1879955), for example, famously asserted that the existence of a personal God, one capable of miraculously intervening in nature or history, would be incompatible with a basic assumption of all modern science, namely, that the laws of nature are utterly inviolable and invariant. For a scientist to believe in a responsive, personal God, a God who answers prayers, would be inconsistent with the very essence of scientific inquiry, which can tolerate no exceptions to natural laws.
Einstein, however, did not accept the label of "atheist" since it seemed a term of opprobrium and one that during his lifetime often implied moral relativism, which he vehemently opposed. Moreover, as a disciple of the famous Dutch pantheist Baruch Spinoza (1632677), he was not opposed to using the term God to refer to the mystery of "intelligence" that pervades the universe and makes possible the whole enterprise of scientific exploration. Einstein considered himself a deeply religious man, provided that "religion" is taken to mean a firm commitment to universal values (goodness, beauty, truth) and a cultivation of the insurmountable "mystery" encompassing the universe. But he considered the idea of a personal God dispensable to living religion.
Responding to Einstein, theologian Paul Tillich (1886965) insisted that living religion cannot dispense with the idea of a personal God since an impersonal deity would be lower in being than persons are. God must be "at least personal" in order to evoke the attitude of religious worship. God is much more than personal, of course, and so theology must acknowledge that personality is one among many symbols that religion employs in its attempts to understand ultimate reality; but it is not optional to theism. Addressing the objection by scientific atheists that God does not fall among the objects of empirical investigation, Tillich replied that God by definition cannot be one "object" among othersven if the most exalted of theseithout ceasing thereby to be God. If God is to be taken as the deepest reality it would be as the "ground of being" rather than as one being among others. Religious awareness of such a reality, however, comes not by grasping it empirically or scientifically, but only by allowing oneself to be grasped by it.
See also EVIL AND SUFFERING; FALSIFIABILITY; THEISM
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