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God and Science Are Back in the News, and Deservedly So. (Part 1 of 3)

What does an enlightened citizen believe about God at the end of the 20th century? The topic is of growing interest as the millennium approaches and the Baby Boom generation ages. Print and broadcast media have discovered a growing appetite for news about religion in all its manifestations, and they have been feeding and encouraging that appetite. Some deep anxiety apparently is tapped by events like the suicides of Heaven’s Gate, on one hand, and the cloning of sheep, on the other. People want to know all about such things, including the implications for their own futures.
Much of today’s curiosity and concern centers on science. When IBM’s Big Blue beats chess champion Gary Kasparov, commentators feel called upon to assure us that, of course, the computer is not really thinking, and in any event, it is only the product of its programmers, plus immense computational power. In other words, don’t worry, we have not played God and created a rival to man. There is no Frankenstein’s monster in the offing, no “Hal” of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The breakthrough in artificial intelligence that futurists were predicting some years back has not yet taken place. But the popular fascination with the idea of it–and the fear–developed anyway.

Americans have always respected science and scientists, yet since at least World War II, they also have worried that some mad scientist–like the Dr. Sylvana of comic book lore–will blow up the world or invent a virus that will do the job by stealth. What happens if this powerful caste of people exists in a different moral universe from the rest of us?

Therefore, when the prestigious scientific magazine Nature reported last month that nearly as many scientists today believe in God as did their predecessors 80 years ago, the report was welcomed as big news–and mostly as good news. The co-authors of Nature’s survey, Edward Larson of the University of Georgia, and writer Larry Witham, found themselves deluged with interviews from international as well as American media. The BBC World Service reporter told Larson, a sometime Seattleite who is a fellow of Discovery Institute: you are about to be heard by more people in the world than have ever heard you before.

In fact, the Nature survey showed that there still are far more scientists who express a disbelief in God (45.3%) or agnosticism (14.5%) than express a belief in God (39.3%). Yet, the report was considered significant, not because the percentage of believers was so low, but because it was higher than expected, and nearly the same as it had been 80 years earlier (41.8%). So accustomed are we to the idea that science teaches atheism–the materialist ideology of the 20th century–that the media saw the survey as a surprising contrary sign. And that view is probably right.

First of all, the question on faith, replicating a survey by James Leuba, a psychologist, in 1916, was posed in a way that seemed likely to elicit a minimum positive response. It asked, did one “believe in a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind;’ that is, a personal God who answers prayers (even in 1916, scientists had a hard time writing simply). This construction of the question annoyed many respondents, for it obviously left out anyone who believed in a God, but not one who takes part in history and answers prayers. Thus, if anything, the survey underestimated the percentage of scientists with some kind of religious belief.

Second, Leuba in 1916 expressed his expectation that religious belief would erode much more during the 20th century, among both scientists and the general population. Yet that did not happen among scientists or, as other survey have shown, among the general population, wherein upwards of 85% still profess a belief in God.

The Nature survey now sets the stage for examination of a much bigger and more consequential question: Is materialism debatable on scientific grounds? When the late Carl Sagan opened his TV series, “Cosmos”, with the ringing statement, “The cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be,” was he asserting a proven, verifiable scientific truth, or merely a materialist assumption–the faith of the atheist?

It matters. The materialist assumption affects almost all intellectual disciplines, including not only the natural sciences, but those that wrap the mantle of science around them, such as psychology, sociology and political science. If there is no God and “Man is the measure of all things,” as the Greek Sophists said 2400 years ago, then there are no permanent truths or principles beyond survival of the fittest. Relativism reigns: in criminology and the law, in education, the economy, the arts; indeed, in the whole moral order.

But if roughly 40% of scientists themselves have qualms about a materialist interpretation of the cosmos, then things are not as bleak as many have supposed.

If, furthermore as is the case — there now are scientists actively engaged in “origin of life” studies that attack the materialist assumption at its scientific roots, that is truly newsworthy.

This article is part one of a three part series. Be sure to read parts two and three:
2: Materialism’s Slipping Hold on Science and Culture. (May 22, 1997)
3: Academic Freedom at Risk in Science Debate. (May 30, 1997)

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.