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Sermons » 12/02/2012 (6.30pm)
Has Science Disproved God?
- Genesis 1; Mark 4; Romans 1
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
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Well, the question I want to look at is, ‘Has science disproved God?’ – because people often think it has, thanks to some of the high-profile atheists in science – like Richard Dawkins, who says:
Science offers us an explanation of how complexity arose out of simplicity. Whereas the hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything.
Now you may feel you don’t really know much science – in which case you’ll be able to relate to some of these quotes from GCSE science course work:
- On physics: ‘By listening to thunder after lightning, you can tell how close you came to getting hit. If you didn’t hear anything, it means you got hit.’
- On cosmology: ‘Most books now say our sun is a star. But it still knows how to change back into a sun in the daytime.’
- On nutrition: ‘There are 26 vitamins in all but most of the letters have yet to been discovered.’
- And finally on genetics: ‘Genetics explains why you look like your father, and if you don’t, why you should.’
That may be about your level – but whatever science you know, let’s ask:
Firstly, HAS SCIENCE DISPROVED GOD?
Soon after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, the Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev said in a speech, ‘Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there.’ As if science had disproved God: ‘We haven’t seen him down here and now we’ve looked up there, we know he doesn’t exist.’ But you’d have to look much further to disprove God. You’d have to fly to every place in the observable universe to be 100% sure he’s not there. And then you’d have to be 100% sure there’s no other spiritual dimension to reality where he could be. But science is incapable of doing either of those things.
And whenever someone tells me they’re an atheist – whether they’re a scientist or not – I usually say, ‘But isn’t that the most arrogant thing you could possibly believe? Because what you’re saying is that you know absolutely everything about reality and can rule out the existence of God with 100% certainty.’ But in fact none of us knows much about even the tiny corner of reality we live in, let alone the whole of it.
And according to the Bible, reality is much, much bigger than just this observable universe. Just turn in the Bible to Genesis chapter 1 and look at that famous opening line:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [i.e., the whole observable universe]. (Genesis 1v1)
Which means: God was there before the universe came into being, and that he stands outside it. Which is why we can’t discover him – like scientists can discover a new star. We can only know him if he reveals himself somehow – which is what the Bible claims he’s done in Jesus.
So has science disproved God? The answer is: ‘No it hasn’t, and can’t.’ But that backs up to my next question:
Second, BUT HASN’T SCIENCE EXPLAINED EVERYTHING, SO THAT THERE’S NO NEED TO BELIEVE IN GOD?
That’s what Stephen Hawking says in his latest book:
Spontaneous creation is the reason... why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper… and set the universe going. (The Grand Design)
So Dawkins and Hawking are saying, ‘We have a perfectly good scientific explanation of how the universe came to be, which doesn’t need you to believe in God at any point.’ So I want to do a quick sketch of that scientific explanation – only I’m going to call it a story. Because the way science works is that you observe the data ‘out there’. And you try to come up with a theory which explains the data ‘in here’ – in your mind. And any honest scientist will admit that his or her theory is not ‘fact’ (like measurable data ‘out there’), and not absolute truth. Theories all have holes in; sometimes they need revising, and sometimes they need binning altogether. E.g., at one point in medicine there was a theory that our muscles worked pneumatically – i.e., by fluid being pumped in and out of them. And from observation of a bicep pumping up, that seemed a reasonable theory. But it was shown to be false – and binned.
So you can call any theory ‘a story’ (a story we tell ourselves of how we think something happens or happened) and the question with any story is: how much of it is true? So here’s the story.
Once upon a time – or rather before time – 15 billion years ago, there was a lump of stuff, smaller than a pinhead, but weighing as much as the whole universe put together. And by chance, to quote Stephen Hawking, ‘something unusual’ happened in the lump: it exploded in all directions, and around one of the billions of stars that formed, a bit of rock became a planet – which would later be called the Earth. And by chance it was exactly the right distance from the Sun to have liquid water. And by chance, in the water, chemicals got together into what would later be called DNA – which could replicate itself. And the DNA made cells, and then complex organisms for itself to survive in – all thrown up by chance and time. And man emerged – the most advanced ‘disposable survival machine for genes’ ever (to quote Richard Dawkins, again).
That’s the story. The question is: how much of it is true? Well I did biology at university and not physics, but I accept that there’s reasonable evidence for the Big Bang theory. It may yet be revised or binned, but it’s what most cosmologists believe today. And if it’s true, there’s no contradiction with the Bible: as we’ve seen, Genesis says the universe had a beginning, time and space began.
But what about the biology? Well, Richard Dawkins says this:
You cannot be both sane and well educated and disbelieve in evolution. The evidence is so strong that any sane, educated person has got to believe in it.
So on behalf of Dawkins can I say: please ignore the next few minutes of this talk: please let your attention wander to the attractive person two rows ahead, or the burning question of what’s for student supper, or even to that last resort of the notice sheet – so that you don’t offend Mr Dawkins with any scepticism towards the theory of evolution and lay yourself open to the charge of insanity and poor schooling. Because I’m going to mention some of the major holes in the story.
Hole no.1 is the step from ‘non-life’ to life
The story goes that in the so-called prebiotic soup on Earth, there were just the right chemicals and conditions to throw up DNA – which carries the code for making proteins, which are the building blocks of living cells. But the evidence is that the right chemicals and conditions were not there. And even if they were, there’s a ‘chicken and egg’ problem that no-one has solved. Just imagine some DNA was somehow thrown up in the soup, with the code to make the first proteins to make the first cell. The problem is: just like a CD needs a CD player to read it and convert the information into sound, so DNA needs special proteins to ‘read it’ and convert its information into new proteins. So you’d need those special proteins – ‘the CD player’ – to have been there in the soup already. But then the special proteins could only have been made with the information in DNA... but the information can only be extracted by those special proteins… and so on, ‘chicken and egg’ style. Well, here’s what Michael Denton, a molecular biologist, says about this hole in the story in his book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (he’s not a Christian, by the way):
Considering the way the prebiotic soup is referred to in so many of the discussions of the origin of life… it comes as something of a shock to realise that there is absolutely no positive evidence for its existence.
Hole no.2 is the process of natural selection
Let’s imagine that life did get going, by chance, in the soup. The story is then that one species gave rise to another, and so on, until all the species we see today evolved. And the story says it happened like this: mutations – or changes – happened to the DNA of species no.1, which kicked up a slightly different organism. And because the difference was beneficial, that slightly different organism survived and thrived. And through loads of gradual changes like that, species no.2 emerged. And so on.
There are two holes in that bit of the story. One is that almost all the mutations we’ve observed are either harmful or lethal, whereas the story of evolution assumes there were loads of beneficial ones which survived. Which is possible, but unlikely. The other hole is that mutations take time to happen. And even allowing for the longest guess about the time from the beginning of life to now, the mutation rate would have had to be far higher than we’ve ever observed it to be. Which again is possible, but unlikely.
Hole no.3 is the lack of intermediate organisms in the fossil record
If one species evolved gradually into another species and that evolved gradually into another (and so on to produce all known species), then you’d expect to find loads of ‘half-way-house organisms’ – e.g., half-bird, half-reptile animals. Well, let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth. This is Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species:
The number of intermediate varieties which have formerly existed on earth should be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such graduated chain; and this perhaps is the gravest objection against my theory.
And nothing has changed on that since Darwin’s day. Theories have been proposed to explain why there should be gaps in the fossil record rather than a ‘graduated chain’ (to quote Darwin), but there is no hard evidence for them.
OK, that’s the end of the holes. You can start listening again.
What point am I making? That to say, ‘Science has explained everything’ is simply not true. It’s not true even if you limit yourself just to cosmology and biology. But it’s even less true if you want to explain things like our sense of the uniqueness and sanctity of human life. E.g., I’m a gardener and therefore hate slugs. And one Christmas, my mother gave me a little book called Fifty Ways to Kill a Slug. It includes some of the classics like salt traps and beer traps, but it says the best thing to do is to go out at night with a torch and pair of scissors and cut them in half. Which I do. So why shouldn’t I do that to human beings who get in the way of my plans? Why was Hitler any more wrong in trying to rid Germany of Jews than I am in trying to rid my garden of slugs? Science has nothing to say to that because it can’t give a reason for believing that you and I are fundamentally any different from slugs. And at its extreme, science ends up saying rather reductionist things like this:
‘We are all survival machines for DNA. A monkey is a machine which preserves genes up trees. A fish is a machine which preserves genes in water… We are machines for propagating DNA. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.’ (The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins)
And here’s the philosopher C.E.M. Joad underlining the same reductionist point:
‘What is man? Man is fat enough for 7 bars of soap, iron enough for one medium sized nail, sugar enough for 7 cups of tea, lime enough to whitewash one garden shed, magnesium enough for one dose of salts, phosphorus enough to tip 2000 matches, and sulphur enough to rid one dog of fleas.’
But just like, deep down, you know Hitler was wrong and that there are such things as good and evil, deep down you also know you’re worth far more than the total of that list of ingredients –which, by the way, has been estimated at about £38 at today’s prices. And science can’t explain any of that. Whereas the Bible can – in just two verses, Genesis 1v26-27:
Then God said, Let us make man [i.e., mankind] in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God
he created him;
male and female
he created them. (Genesis 1v26-27)
So that’s saying you’re made by God in his image. So you’re uniquely like him – i.e., a person, not just a machine or an animal. And you share his capacity for relationships and love – which is why those things are so important to you. And you know in your conscience that you’re ultimately accountable to him. Doesn’t that explanation make far more sense of our experience than Dawkins’?
But just come back to the holes in the scientific story. Can I make clear that I’m not using them as an argument for the existence of God, like people who say, ‘We can’t explain what happened in the first nanosecond of the Big Bang, or the step from non-life to life – therefore God must have been involved at certain points.’ Because the Bible doesn’t say God was just involved at certain points. It says he was involved at every point. So if we do get a true explanation of the first nanosecond, or the step from non-life to life (or anything else), the Christian won’t say, ‘Oh, so God didn’t do that after all.’ The Christian will say, ‘Oh, so that’s how God seems to have done it.’
So, the Bible says he was involved at every point – and still is. So, e.g., in the Psalms and Job and elsewhere in the Old Testament there are fantastic descriptions of the natural world – the Bible’s equivalent of an episode of David Attenborough. And put together, they describe the water cycle: rain coming down from the clouds, watering the land, flowing into the rivers, returning to the sea and evaporating back into the sky. So the Bible writers knew about that mechanism – in that sense they were scientific. And yet at the same time they talk about God sending the rain. They didn’t think that just because you’ve explained a natural mechanism, therefore God can’t possibly be behind it and involved in it, moment by moment. But the Bible says that’s the true picture.
So take, e.g., the world’s weather systems: moment by moment God is behind them and involved in them. And because God is so regular in what he does, weather systems are regular. And that’s why we can do science – and have our national obsession with the weather forecast – in the first place. The reason why we can make repeated observations and come up with a theory of what’s happening is because God is there day in, day out, being a regular kind of God. In fact he’s so regular that we can talk about ‘laws of nature’. But that little phrase has led to another area where people think science has disproved God – at least, the God of the Bible – namely, miracles. So onto my third and final question:
Third, BUT HASN’T SCIENCE DISPROVED MIRACLES?
Take, e.g., the account in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus calming the storm. Mark claims that Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, it got caught in a storm, they were fearing for their lives, and Jesus got up and said:
‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.’ (Mark 4v39)
I remember doing that bit in Christianity Explored one time. And a guy in my group turned to me and said, ‘Let’s face it, that couldn’t have happened, could it?’ So I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘The laws of nature.’ And the trouble with that little phrase is that we rightly think of those laws as things we’re bound by. E.g., we’re bound by the law of gravity – if someone jumps out of the church gallery right now expecting to fly, we’ll be calling an ambulance.
But God isn’t bound by the ‘laws of nature’, because the ‘laws of nature’ are just our way of talking about what God regularly does. But he’s free to do otherwise, if he so chooses. So when Jesus – God’s Son become human – calmed that storm, it wasn’t God suddenly doing something for once – and so violating the ‘laws of nature’. It was God doing what he’s always doing – namely, controlling the weather – but doing it irregularly, to a different timescale than normal – in order to reveal himself. Which is why straight afterwards Jesus asked his disciples:
‘Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4v40)
I.e., ‘Do you still not recognise who I really am?’ And Mark says:
They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ (Mark 4v40-41)
So don’t let a wrong idea of ‘the laws of nature’ make you think miracles couldn’t happen. They could. The question to answer is then: did they? And if they did, the question to answer is then: ‘Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?’
Now I’d love another sermon to talk about the ways that scientific knowledge actually points to God. E.g., the probability of the Big Bang throwing out this particular universe, with our particular solar system and planet capable of supporting life, is mind-bogglingly small. Physicist Paul Davies – again not a Christian – says it’s the probability of
‘a marksman hitting a coin at the other side of the universe – 20 million light years away.’ (Quoted in God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God, John Lennox)
Davies also says:
In my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion. These rules [by which he means the initial conditions of the Big Bang] look as if they’ve been designed. I do not see how that can be denied. (God And The New Physics, Paul Davies)
But of course it can be denied, and frequently is. There are countless examples of apparently similar, astonishing design throughout the biological world, and yet Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, can say:
Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed but rather evolved. (Quoted in God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God, John Lennox)
But Crick’s comment reminds me of what the apostle Paul says in Romans 1v18f, which talks about:
… men who suppress the truth by their wickedness [i.e., who ignore the pointers to God, so that they can keep living without reference to him. It goes on, v19:], since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1v18-20)
The bottom line is that the Bible claims that this universe is littered with evidence of its Creator. And above all the Bible claims to record the evidence that his Son has stepped into this universe, and been here on this planet, to make him known. And the challenge is to be willing to look at both those kinds of evidence, and willing to go where it leads. Which, when it could lead to admitting that God is really there and that you should really be living your life for him, is easier said than done.
‘Has science disproved God?’ The answer is: no, it hasn’t and it can’t. The real question is, ‘Do you want to use science to disprove God to yourself?’ And only you can answer that.
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