Has Science Buried God? My opening statement from today’s debate

March 10, 2015

Here's my opening statement from today's debate with Christian evangelist and debater Peter Payne in Trondheim, Norway today.




Thank you to the organisers for inviting me to participate in this excellent event. I'm delighted to be here.


In one of his online resources Peter Payne says, and I quote:


"The net of scientific method, namely the net of hypothesis and experimental/observational test, is unable to demonstrate either the truth or falsity of the Christian faith, for it is simply the wrong kind of net to capture what is relevant."


Peter is not alone in thinking Christianity is off limits to science, of course. Many Christians would agree with him. However it seems to me Peter's claim is pretty clearly wrong. Science can be a threat to religious beliefs, and indeed to Christian belief. I'm going to explain how.


Hegel said that God is unobservable - 'God does not offer himself for observation.' So does that mean that God off-limits to science? Does it mean that theistic and religious beliefs are, then, immune to scientific refutation?


Many think it does. They suppose reality is divided by a kind of cosmic veil or curtain. On one side of the curtain lies the observable realm of physical objects, physical forces and so on. On the other side lies the supernatural realm. Some suggest the scientific method is well placed to investigate and reveal natural phenomena lying this side of the veil. But science can't penetrate the veil. So God, being supernatural, is off-limits to science.


That's a popular view. But it's mistaken. Actually, many supernatural beliefs can be refuted, including beliefs about gods. Actually, many have been refuted.


It takes only a moment's reflection to realise that the unobservable is not off-limits to science. Science has a well-established track record of confirming and refuting beliefs about things that can't be observed.


Take electrons, for example. We can't observe electrons themselves. But we can observe their effects. The theory that electrons exist has observable consequences. If the theory about electrons is true, then we should expect to observe certain things - such as these bubbles in a bubble chamber - that are unlikely to be observed otherwise. If these effects are observed, then the theory is strongly confirmed. The key to understanding how claims about unobservables can be observationally confirmed or refuted is to realise that unobervables can have observable effects.


The distant past of this planet is also something that's necessarily observable. We can't travel back in time and observe dinosaurs wandering the Earth millions of years ago. But, again, we can confirm and indeed can refute, all sorts of claims made about the past, despite the fact that that past is unobservable. That the Earth has been around for many millions of years and that new species have evolved is now extremely well confirmed, for example. On the other hand, the popular Biblical view that the Earth is only about six thousand years old with all kinds created by God, as literally described in Genesis, is now thoroughly scientifically discredited.


So there's one belief about God - that the Genesis account of creation is literally true - that has been scientifically refuted.


What about the belief that there's a God who answers our prayers? Is that scientifically testable? Yes, it is. There have been two huge multi-million dollar, double-blind scientific experiments involving prayers for heart patients, both of which found the prayers had no medical effects. One study was run by a scientist who believes in both God and the power of prayer and who was clearly disappointed by the results, so you can't dismiss these studies on the grounds of bias.


What these large-scale studies revealed was not just an absence of evidence of the power of prayer to produce such medical results. They also revealed evidence of the absence of any such power. That's scientific data strongly supporting the view that prayer doesn't have that sort of medical effect.


Empirical observation can be used to establish beyond reasonable doubt that other God hypotheses are false too. Take for example the claim that there exists a single creator that is omnipotent and supremely malevolent. The cruelty of this evil being knows no bounds. His malice is beyond our comprehension. Is it reasonable to believe in such a being? Surely not. If there were such an evil god back there behind the cosmic curtain, then we'd expect to see something much more horrific this side of the curtain. We would expect the world to look unremittingly horrific. But the world doesn't look entirely like that. Sure, there's a lot of horror. But there's not nearly enough horror. Clearly, the world contains far too much love, laughter, ice-cream, and rainbows for this to be the creation of such a supremely powerful and cruel supernatural being.


So let's now finally consider the question: could science establish beyond reasonable doubt that say, Christianity is false? Yes, it could. It could do that by, for example, showing that the God that Christians believe in doesn't exist. Perhaps there's some sort of creator. Still, science might show, beyond reasonable doubt, that even if there is a cosmic being who drew the blueprints of the universe and lit the blue touch paper of the Big Bang, that being isn't the Christian God.


How might science show that? Well, the Christian God is a good God. And, if we can reasonably rule out an evil God on the grounds that the world contains far too much good, then surely we can reasonably rule out a good God in much the same way. Yes, there's good in the world, but there's way too much evil for this plausibly to be the creation of a supremely powerful, loving, and just God.


I don't say that you need science to reveal evil, of course. But still, science can significantly contribute to the case against a good God by revealing the scale of the evil that exists. I will finish with two illustrations:


A while ago I watched a documentary about Komodo dragons. A komodo dragon poisoned a water buffalo by nipping it. It then tracked the buffalo for a week or so while the buffalo got sicker and sicker. Finally, when the buffalo became too weak to defend itself, the dragons disembowelled it and ate it alive. The cameraman said this was his first ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his last, because he couldn’t cope with the depths of suffering he had been forced to witness.

Every single day, millions of animals are similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And science has revealed this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This might, in many ways, be a beautiful world. But it’s a quite staggeringly cruel and horrific world for very many of its inhabitants.

Now let's consider human suffering. Consider the suffering of a child dying from malnutrition, or some awful illness. Consider the awful psychological torment a parent must go through who has to watch, helpless, as their young child dies slowly of starvation or an agonizing disease.

The consensus among population experts is that, over the sweep of human prehistory - that's around two hundred thousand of years - the parents of each generation have had to watch, on average, between a third and a half of their under-five children die, usually from disease.

This appalling suffering and death was not something these children or their parents brought upon themselves. Unavoidable, unspeakable horror on an almost unimaginably vast scale is built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves forced to inhabit. Science has revealed the sheer scale of that horror.


Now if the amount of love, laughter, ice-cream, and rainbows we find in this world is good evidence there's no evil God, and surely it is, then the scale of the global horror unleashed on the sentient inhabitants of this planet thousands and millions of years is then similarly enough to rule out a good God.


The bottom line is this. We may not know the answers to many of life's Big Questions. Where did the universe come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? I don't claim to know. But, just because we don't know the answers to certain questions doesn't mean that we can't reasonably rule out at least some answers.


While I don't know where the universe came from I do know that it was not created by an evil God. I can, for much the same sort of reason, rule out the Christian God as creator as well.


If we're a product of blind, natural forces, then the existence of all this human and animal suffering is no surprise. But given the Christian claim that we're created by an omnipotent creator of limitless justice and love, the vast horror show that science has now revealed sweeping back over thousands and millions of years really is really very surprising indeed. That's just not at all what one we should expect to find - even many theists find it deeply puzzling. Which is why this vast horror show constitutes very strong evidence against the existence of the Christian God.


So let's return to Peter's claim that, and I quote,


"The net of scientific method, namely the net of hypothesis and experimental/observational test, is unable to demonstrate either the truth or falsity of the Christian faith, for it is simply the wrong kind of net to capture what is relevant."


Peter is just wrong about that. Science has at least the potential to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the truth or falsity of all sorts of theistic claims. I have given two illustrations of how science has provided abundant evidence that this world is not the creation of a supremely powerful, loving and just deity.


Maybe there's some sort of God back there behind the curtain (though I doubt it). But it's clearly not the Christian God.


#1 DougEBarr on Tuesday March 10, 2015 at 3:56pm

There’s one question science can’t answer, It’s “Why am I?”, the last why. One of the ways we’ve tried to fill that void since ‘Eve’ first asked the question is with religions, hence God. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poems/2006/9/26/god.html

#2 Alvaro Caso (Guest) on Wednesday March 11, 2015 at 2:01pm

The Problem of Evil is a old argument, but I’ve always wondered… There is no doubt that in spite of countless attempts to reconicle a perfectly benevolent god with all the needless suffering observed in the world, none is convincing. The existence of evil is as much a knock down argument agains an all powerfull perfectly benevolent god, as we are ever going to find in philosophy. But take a look at the Bible. What we find there is not an all powerfull perfectly benevolent god. We see a jealous and insecure guy, one capable of nice things but also of atrocious deeds. He is also rather dim sometimes. The god of Christianity is most definitely neither all powerful nor perfectly benevolent. It s the kind of god you would expect when looking at the world; a world created by a fellow who enjoys both rainbows and disemboweled buffaloes. Of course Christians wouldn’t argue that way; they want. (Tongue is only partly placed agains cheek)

#3 Graeme Lindenmayer (Guest) on Wednesday March 11, 2015 at 10:10pm

There is no way that we can unequivocally confirm the presence or absence of some kind of supernatural entity. If we provisionally assume that such an entity exists, how might we infer any of its characteristics?
The scientific/evidential arguments relate to assumed characteristics that seem ideally humanistic. If we assume that such an entity influences the material world, which includes us, we might identify apparent phenomena that science was presently unable to explain, but to attribute them to a supernatural entity would mean that they were intrinsically beyond the reach of science. Even then, all that could be (tentatively) said about the purported supernatural entity would be that it had the ability to cause these phenomena. (This is explored in detail at agnosticperspectives.com .)

The argument about evil is based on assumptions about the nature of evil and the power of the particular entity. The pain and suffering of sentient organisms on a small planet of a medium sized star might be just an infinitesimally small blip in a mainly inanimate cosmos – no more significant than the crushing of an ant. A notional supernatural entity might have set off a process from which the universe developed but was unable or disinclined to interfere with how the process developed. If you want to use the argument of evil, you can say either the supernatural exists and has these characteristics or it doesn’t exist. Each is just conjecture.

#4 bob down (Guest) on Monday March 23, 2015 at 5:47am

yes. the evolution of knowledge and thought has buried the idea of god.

#5 rtkufner (Guest) on Tuesday March 24, 2015 at 6:04am

Rather than burying, I would say that science simply exposed god for what it is and always was: A fancy word for having no idea what it is one is talking about, while pretending otherwise.

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