Christianity vs science


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Dawkins vs McGrath’s on the relationship beween religion and science, nature of proof & limits of science.
  • The ‘God of the gaps’ argument.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The extent to which a scientist must be an atheist
  • Whether science has reduced the role of God in Christianity

God of the gaps 

This is an argument which claims that religion is irrational and unscientific.

Many atheists, including Dawkins, make this argument. It claims that religion is irrational because it is the result of scientific ignorance. Science is replacing religion and one day will completely replace it. People used to explain all sorts of natural phenomena by attributing them to God. Diseases, thunder and lightning, rainbows, volcanic eruptions, the success of harvests and so on, were all explained by divine providence or punishment in ancient times. As scientific knowledge develops, these natural processes became explained, thereby progressively filling in the gaps where the God explanation had existed. Dawkins criticises “the worship of gaps”.

McGrath responds that Dawkins is attacking a method of arguing for God that is no longer popular amongst sophisticated theologians. Arguing for God on the basis of filling in gaps in scientific knowledge was a method that rose to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. McGrath accepts that Dawkins is correct to criticise the “gaps” approach and Mcgrath himself rejects it as “a foolish move”. However, McGrath claims it was “increasingly abandoned” in the 20th century, though he admits there are unfortunately some varieties of it still around such as the intelligent design movement.

McGrath claims that contemporary Christian philosophers have much better approaches, such as that of Richard Swinburne. McGrath is echoing a point he makes elsewhere, that modern Christian philosophers (e.g. Swinburne & Polkinghorne) have argued that science is limited and cannot answer all questions. It can tell us the what but not the why. Science can tell us what the universe is like, but it cannot tell us why it is this way, nor why it exists. It cannot answer questions about purpose.

Swinburne’s argument is a variety of the teleological (design) argument.

Dawkins responds that the ‘why’ question is valid regarding scientific explanation, but when we ask ‘why’ about purpose it becomes ‘a silly question’. Just because a question can be phrased using the English language, that doesn’t make it valid. Dawkins makes an analogy: ‘what is the color of jealousy?’ That question is assuming that jealousy has a color. Dawkins seems to be claiming that questions of purpose also assume that existence or human life has a purpose over and above scientific explanation, but there’s no evidence for that.

Dawkins accepts there may be limits to science and that where the laws of physics came from may be one of them. However he points out that scientists may one day actually solve that problem, but if they don’t, that doesn’t justify a non-scientific explanation of purpose. It just means we cannot know and should suspend judgement. It is still irrational

Max Tegmark agrees with Dawkins, pointing out that physicists are trying to figure out why the laws of physics are the way they are. It could be that there is some deeper reasons why the laws are the way they are and that this could be discovered by a more advanced understanding of the laws themselves. Swinburne seems to be unjustifiably claiming that is impossible.