A Scientist Reflects on Religious Belief

Dr. Allan Sandage

Q. Can the existence of God be proved?

I should say not with the same type of certainty that we ascribe to statements such as "the earth is in orbit about the sun at a mean distance of 93 million miles, making a complete journey in 365.25 days," or "genetic information is coded in long protein strings of DNA that, in cells of a particular individual, replicate during mitosis, and in reproduction unite with DNA from another individual to produce the hereditary similarity of progeny with their parents, etc." The enormous success of modern science is undeniable in producing such facts, which have a strong ring of certainty, and this success simply cannot be ignored.

Proofs of the existence of God have always been of a different kind-a crucial point to be understood by those scientists who will only accept results that can be obtained via the scientific method. God can never be proved to them for that reason (Those who deny God at the outset by some form of circular reasoning will never find God.) Science illumines brightly, but only a part of reality.

The classical proofs of God by Anselm and by Aquinas via natural theology do not give the same type of satisfaction as proofs of propositions arrived at by the method of science. To the modern mind they seem contrived. Nevertheless, they were sufficient for Pascal to finally approach his certainty in God's existence by preparing his mind for God's necessity, if the world is to make ultimate sense. After that preparation, he simply could then abandon the God of natural theology and of the philosophers, and could at last will himself to faith by leaping across the abyss, from the edge of reason on this side of the chasm. For those who have experienced this way to God, I would say that God's existence has been proved beyond doubt for them.

Q. Must there necessarily be a conflict between science and religion?

In my opinion, no, if it is understood that each treats a different aspect of reality. The Bible is certainly not a book of science. One does not study it to find the intensities and the wavelengths of the Balmer spectral lines of hydrogen. But neither is science concerned with the ultimate spiritual properties of the world, which are also real.

Science makes explicit the quite incredible natural order, the interconnections at many levels between the laws of physics, the chemical reactions in the biological processes of life, etc. But science can answer only a fixed type of question. It is concerned with the what, when, and how. It does not, and indeed cannot, answer within its method (powerful as that method is), why.

Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do all electrons have the same charge and mass? Why is the design that we see everywhere so truly miraculous? Why are so many processes so deeply interconnected?

But we must admit that those scientists that want to see design will see design. Those that are content in every part of their being to live as materialistic reductionalists (as we must all do as scientists in the laboratory, which is the place of the practice of our craft) will never admit to a mystery of the design they see, always putting off by one step at a time, awaiting a reductionalist explanation for the present unknown. But to take this reductionalist belief to the deepest level and to an indefinite time into the future (and it will always remain indefinite) when "science will know everything" is itself an act of faith which denies that there can be anything unknown to science, even in principle. But things of the spirit are not things of science.

There need be no conflict between science and religion if each appreciates its own boundaries and if each takes seriously the claims of the other. The proven success of science simply cannot be ignored by the church. But neither can the church's claim to explain the world at the very deepest level be dismissed. If God did not exist, science would have to (and indeed has) invent the concept to explain what it is discovering at its core. Abelard's 12th century dictum "Truth cannot be contrary to truth. The findings of reason must agree with the truths of scripture, else the God who gave us both has deceived us with one or the other" still rings true.

If there is no God, nothing makes sense. The atheist's case is based on a deception they wish to play upon themselves that follows already from their initial premise. And if there is a God, he must be true both to science and religion. If it seems not so, then one's hermeneutics (either the pastor's or the scientist's) must wrong.

I believe there is a clear, heavy, and immediate responsibility for the church to understand and to believe in the extraordinary results and claims of science. Its success is simply too evident and visible to ignore. It is likewise incumbent upon scientists to understand that science is incapable, because of the limitations of its method by reason alone, to explain and to understand everything about reality. If the world must simply be understood by a materialistic reductionalist nihilism, it would make no sense at all. For this, Romans 1:19-21 seems profound. And the deeper any scientist pushes his work, the more profound it does indeed become.

Q. Do recent astronomical discoveries have theological significance?

I would say not, although the discovery of the expansion of the Universe with its consequences concerning the possibility that astronomers have identified the creation event does put astronomical cosmology close to the type of medieval natural theology that attempted to find God by identifying the first cause. Astronomers may have found the first effect, but not, thereby, necessarily the first cause sought by Anselm and Aquinas.

Nevertheless, there are serious scientific papers discussing events very shortly after the big bang creation (ex nihilo?) out of which all the types of matter that we know (baryons, electrons, photons, etc.) were made, and in what quantities. Even the creation of matter is said now to be understood. Astronomical observations have also suggested that this creation event, signaled by the expansion of the Universe, has happened only once. The expansion will continue forever, the Universe will not collapse upon itself, and therefore this type of creation will not happen again.

But knowledge of the creation is not knowledge of the creator, nor do any astronomical findings tell us why the event occurred. It is truly supernatural (i.e. outside our understanding of the natural order of things), and by this definition a miracle. But the nature of God is not to be found within any part of these findings of science. For that, one must turn to the scriptures, if indeed an answer is to be had within our finite human understanding.

Q. Can a person be a scientist and also be a Christian?

Yes. As I said before, the world is too complicated in all its parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone. I am convinced that the existence of life with all its order in each of its organisms is simply too well put together. Each part of a living thing depends on all its other parts to function. How does each part know? How is each part specified at conception? The more one learns of biochemistry the more unbelievable it becomes unless there is some type of organizing principle-an architect for believers-a mystery to be solved by science (even as to why) sometime in the indefinite future for materialist reductionalists.

This situation of the complication and the order to function of an organism, where the sum is greater than its parts (i.e. has a higher order), becomes more astonishing every year as the scientific results become more detailed. Because of this, many scientists are now driven to faith by their very work. In the final analysis it is a faith made stronger through the argument by design. I simply do not now believe that the reductionalist philosophy, so necessary to pursue the scientific method and, to repeat, the method which all scientists must master and practice with all their might and skill in their laboratory, can explain everything.

Having, then, been forced via the route of Pascal and Kierkegaard in their need for purpose to come to the edge of the abyss of reason, scientists can, with Anselm "believe in order to understand" what they see, rather than "understand in order to believe." Having willed oneself to faith by jumping to the other side, one can pull, at first, a wee small thread across the abyss, pulling in turn a still more sturdy rope, until finally one can build a bridge that crosses in reverse the chasm that connects the sides of life that are reason and faith. It is, then, by faith that a scientist can become a Christian, and yet remain a scientist-believing in some form of Abelard's dictum.

Without that faith there is no purpose, and without purpose all the arguments for its need drive one once again to build Pascal's bridge.