The Superstitions of Science
By Audrey Stallsmith
National Geographic recently published an interview with Francis S. Collins, head of the human genome project and also a committed Christian. This resulted in a backlash of indignant letters to the editor. Some of those letters predictably attempted to relegate religion to the realm of “medieval superstition.”
(Though why atheists always insist on calling it medieval superstition is beyond me! As G. K. Chesterton notes, “To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant.” Beliefs that were right a thousand years ago are still going to be right today. And simply calling them ancient isn’t gong to make them any less right.)
According to Webster, superstition means “beliefs and practices resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, or trust in magic or chance.” On that basis, I contend that it is the atheistic scientists themselves who are actually superstitious.
Although Collins believes in evolution he, like most of the rest of us, doesn’t see that it makes much difference whether God created the world quickly or slowly. Even if life started with primitive forms, Collins points out, those forms couldn’t invent themselves--a fact that Thomas Aquinas made clear centuries ago.
“We never see anything causing itself,” he writes, “for then it would have to pre-exist itself. . . A non-existent thing can only be brought into existence by something already existing. We are compelled to suppose something that exists necessarily, having this necessity only from itself.”
“Nobody could imagine how nothing could turn into something,” Chesterton agrees in The Evolution of Man. “Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else.” So those scientists who do believe that nature created itself can only be trusting in magic or chance.
By doing so, however, they have negated all their own arguments. As C. S. Lewis states in Miracles, “Every theory of the universe which makes the human mind a result of irrational causes is inadmissible, for it would be proof that there are no such things as proofs. Which is nonsense.” In A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, Lewis goes on to ask, “How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, subtler than itself?”
Lewis himself was an atheistic intellectual before he began honestly examining his own disbelief, only to become “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” But how many scientists have actually used that objectivity they espouse to really look at both sides of the issue--to discover for themselves whether an intelligent designer really exists?
Much of their vehement denial of God can only spring from the “ignorance and fear of the unknown” that characterizes superstition. In other words, a fear of anything that they can’t prove! This is highly mendacious of them because, as Frederick Buechner points out in Wishful Thinking “Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved.”
There is no way, for example, that I can scientifically prove my family members and friends love me. In fact, love itself can’t be proved. But most of us believe in it because we’ve experienced it.
So even the atheists among us have no trouble in building the foundations of their lives on things they can’t prove. The Christian’s assurance, as C. S. Lewis explains it in The World’s Last Night, is similarly “quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them.”
We believe in the source of love because we know Him. We’ve discovered what he’s like. No, we can’t see Him, but we Christians hold that His Spirit pervades ours, as much as we allow it to. And that’s a much more intimate knowing than even the Old Testament type. “If there isn’t a loving God,” Stephen Brown asks in If God Is in Charge, “where did love come from? How do you explain the problem of good?”
The only way I see of getting around that question is to argue that love is simply a chemical reaction in the brain--largely based on self-interest. We can only feel sorry for people who actually believe that, and who have thus blocked God out of their thinking.
Most of them hedge their bets a bit by saying that they are agnostics rather than atheists. As Chesterton writes in one of his columns, “It is assumed that the agnostic is impartial, whereas the agnostic is merely ignorant.”
In other words, he claims he doesn’t have enough information to decide the question one way or the other. Well, considering how important that question is, doesn’t he think he’d better start looking?
In Life Is Worth Living, Fulton Sheen comments that “We would not have a gadget in our house five minutes without knowing what it was for; yet some live years without knowing why they are here or where they are going. When life is meaningless, it is dull.” “Agnosticism,” he concludes scornfully elsewhere, “is not an answer. It is not even a question.”
And, although the few actual atheists out there often contend that science has disproved God’s existence, it has actually done nothing of the kind. Science can only work within the laws of nature to explain the laws of nature. It can’t get outside of itself to prove who invented those laws or why. Science, as Chesterton writes in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, “has given us a vulgar familiarity with the earth, a familiarity without knowledge.”
Let’s suppose that I am a complicated android that has been programmed with the ability to make its own decisions. I eventually become curious about why I was created and by whom, so I go to a more mechanically minded robot for an explanation. After months of taking me apart, he is finally able to explain to me how I was constructed.
I would look at him more than a little askance if he then proceeded to tell me that, because he has been able to explain me, he has disproved the existence of my inventor. Not to mention that his “vulgar familiarity” with me still hasn’t answered my most basic question. What is the point of it all? For what purpose was I created? As Phillips sums it up, in God Our Contemporary, “Because science can answer so many of our hows, we should not be deceived into thinking that it can answer any of our whys.”
The good scientist is like the detective in a mystery novel who works with the evidence that is already there. If he’s an ethical sleuth, he doesn’t create clues. But he works backwards from them in an attempt to find their source. “Human science,” George MacDonald asserts, “is but the backward undoing of the tapestry-web of God’s science.” As someone else once wrote, “Scientists are not inventors but discoverers--“unwrappers.”
But we are in danger, I think, of allowing science--like art--to become an end in itself. And we all know what happened to art once it became self-conscious. I call this dangerous because, as George MacDonald notes in Unspoken Sermons, “The idea of God is the flower; his idea is not the botany of the flower.” Or as he wrote elsewhere, “The truth of the flower is not the facts about it.. . .the truth of a thing, then, is the blossom of it, the thing it is made for.”
Back in the good old days, what an artist’s paint portrayed was deemed more important than the paint itself. In the same way when God used botany (science) to create a flower, the flower was the important thing, not the tool used to make it. Just as we humans, the flower of God’s creation, are more important than our biology. But, as Lewis predicts in The Problem of Pain, “In a period when factual realism is dominant we shall find people deliberately inducing upon themselves the doglike mind-all fact and no meaning.”
We can call science a tool or an artistic medium. But we should never make the mistake of considering it a philosophy or, as some are trying to make it, a religion. MacDonald puts it best when he concludes that, “Nature exists primarily for her face, not for the secrets to be discovered in her. To know a primrose is a higher thing than botany, just as to know Christ is a higher thing than to know all theology.”