Science, History and the Myths of New Atheism

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New Atheists seem wedded to a secularist myth, a “meta-narrative” for technophiles. For example Jerry Coyne recently reacted angrily to Ross Douthat’s critique of contemporary secularist thought:

 Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things.”

This led Douthat to comment dryly:

For a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up.”

Secularist mythology teaches that, just as science has grown in knowledge, and just as technology has become more and more advanced, society is also becoming more enlightened, moving in a definite, desirable direction. The advance of science seems to be correlated with the withdrawal of religion. Therefore, as progress marches on religion will retreat, a casualty to the victory of reason over superstition. If history is necessarily moving onward and upward to greater things, this result can only be welcomed.

The myth acknowledges that religion was once useful as “social glue” to held society together. The gods were the personalisation of human social values: they provided a basis for social order. Religion also functioned as a primitive explanation for mysterious events: our first, faltering attempt to comprehend the cosmos. Over time, however, the world was disenchanted. Just as managerial techniques and sophisticated bureaucracies removed the need for religious authorities, scientific explanations replaced creation narratives.

Given the destructive power of modern weapons, our ravenous exploitation of natural resources and our amoral policies to less developed nations, it is difficult to argue that the secular West has made a great deal of moral progress in recent decades. Furthermore, there is no logical connection between the growth of science and the demise of religion. Many contemporary scientists and philosophers have argued that there is a deep coherence between theism and science[i]. Significantly the doctrine that Christendom has perpetually warred with the sciences has been rejected as a fable by historians.

For example, in an essay which argues that it is much too simplistic to say that Christianity alone gave birth to modern science, Noah J Efron points out that:

  To be fair, the claim that Christianity led to modern science captures something true and important. Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods and institutions of what in time became modern science…today almost all historians agree that Christianity (Catholicism as well as Protestantism) moved early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically.”[ii]

It’s easy to overlook the importance of this Christian contribution. After Faraday and the second industrial revolution, it seems axiomatic that scientific discovery brings technological progress. However, when the pioneers of science set out to examine nature this was not at all obvious. Knowledge of the natural world was pursued simply because it was considered to be good in itself. This particular pursuit of knowledge makes sense if we are “thinking God’s thoughts after him” by studying his creation. Intellectuals would have been less inclined to study a world produced by the random movement of meaningless atoms in the infinite void.

Effron also notes that “notions borrowed from Christian belief found their way into scientific discourse with glorious results.”[iii] The Christian worldview was a hospitable and fertile environment for the development of core scientific principles.  Christians believed that God was both rational and sovereign. Therefore God would create an orderly, regular universe. Moreover, if we were created in God’s image, and if we were made to know and worship God, then it was reasonable to assume that we could discover and understand the laws that God used to govern the world.

Ancient Platonists tended to denigrate the material world in favour of intellectual and the spiritual pursuits. Genesis One led Christians to believe that the created order was good and worthy of consideration. Additionally, unlike the philosophers of antiquity, Christian theologians insisted that we could not deduce a priori the sort of universe that God would create. A personal, free, omniscient God could choose from an immeasurable number of plans. Furthermore, fallen humans lacked the grace to understand God’s mind through reason alone. So, if we wanted to discover the plan that God had used in creation, we would have to use observation, measurement and experimentation.

Historian James Hannam summarises these points in his highly acclaimed God’s Philosophers :[iv]

 To understand why science was attractive even before it could demonstrate its remarkable success in explaining the universe, it is necessary to look at things from a mediaeval point of view. The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Mediaeval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinising. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle’s contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of mediaeval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of modern science.”

Margaret J Osler concurs, noting that Seventeenth Century Natural Philosophers believed that science and theology were inseparable. Even the so called “mechanical picture” of the world required a designer:

God infused his purposes into the creation either by programming the particles or by creating particles with very particular properties. Consequently, even the mechanical world had room for purpose and design.”[v]

For Galileo, Kepler, Boyle and Newton, “God-did-it” did not function as a “science stopper”, a phrase that explained away mysterious phenomena. The forerunners of science believed that theism explained why the universe was well ordered and structured. This order and structure was a necessary condition for scientific discovery. But they also knew that theistic belief alone could not tell us the exact form of the universe’s structure; it could not reveal how God had ordered the world. Observation, measurement and experiment were necessary for a thorough understanding of His creation. However, it remained equally true that science alone could not give a full, complete explanation of the universe. This is easily forgotten when we consider the achievements of modern science.

Physics requires laws to make predictions. Now some laws (Kepler’s) can be explained by other laws (Newton’s). But sooner or later we’ll reach a set of laws that are just foundational to science. They can’t be explained by any other law. At this point scientific explanation breaks down. So science cannot, in principle, explain why there are laws of nature. Why can we use mathematics to describe the universe? And why does anything exist for these laws to describe? Why is there intricate complex beautiful order when there are so many more ways for the universe to be chaotic? Science just can’t answer these questions because it needs the laws of nature before it can give explanations.

Contrary to popular high school text books, even Darwin could not explain away the evidence for a creator[vi]. Some, like Asa Gray[vii], argued that unguided evolution was unlikely to produce the bewildering diversity and beautiful complexity of the living world. Others, like evangelicals James McCosh and James Iverach[viii] pointed out that natural selection was an ordered process that depended on specific facts about chemistry and physics. Natural selection was actually evidence of God’s providence.  As contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne[ix] argues:

 Darwin gave a correct explanation for the existence of animals and humans; but not, I think, an ultimate one. The watch may have been made with the help of some blind screwdrivers (or even a blind watchmaking machine). But they were guided by a watchmaker with some very clear sight”

 So, if scientific explanations do not undermine the evidence for God and if theism motivated the first scientists, where did the myth of conflict come from? Why do many prominent scientists assume that science leaves no room for a creator? In The End of Secularism[x], political and legal scholar Hunter Baker points out that the rise of secularism was not the result of scientific progress. Rather, it was a “purposeful revolution” carried out and defended by determined interest groups. Certain groups found secularist myths very appealing. If science can replace theology and bureaucracy can replace the Church, public servants and scientists emerge with a substantial amount of cultural authority. These are the very groups that pushed the secularist agenda.

For example, the myth of a “conflict” between Christianity and science was created by academics like Andrew Dixon White, who rewrote history in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. When Henry Smith Pritchett administered a grant of ten million dollars for professor’s pensions in 1905, he insisted that schools with religious ties be excluded from the program. Within four years twenty colleges ended their relationships with their sponsoring Churches.

In Victorian England, self-proclaimed spokespersons for science attacked the influence of Christianity as an impediment to scientific progress. But the Church was not impeding scientific progress so much as it was impeding their career prospects. Science was the preserve of the “gentleman amateur” in English society; those who had the wealth and time would study science at their leisure. Naturally, many of these amateurs were clergymen; the Church was a respectable career choice, and the Universities were clerically dominated. This tradition stood in the way of professionalization; it also created a generation of angry young men in the Middle Classes, who desperately wanted to pursue research but could see little opportunity to do so.

So secularism and scientific positivism were attractive creeds for a “young guard” who needed to isolate clerically minded scientists. The older clerical scientists were inclined to see their work as an extension of theology; the young guard needed an ideology that valued scientific advance for its own sake.  It suited this group to believe in something like the “conflict” thesis; there could be no room for harmony between religion and rationality if the clergy was to be removed its influential position in the University. The triumph of secularism was not the inevitable result of progress; rather, two interest groups came into conflict, and one side lost.

Secularism’s ascendancy results from non-rational social forces and the vagaries of history. In short, secularism is not “the end of history”; it does not represent the inevitable triumph of progress. In fact, the secularist myth of progress impoverishes our minds.  History is so much more than the record of failed ideas and dead theories. The wisdom of older societies and thinkers is often carelessly discarded. By recovering the past we provide the modern world with a rich intellectual and experiential resource which allows us to see radically different answers to practical problems. Seeing our world through the eyes of our ancestors allows us to conceive alternatives to modern prejudices and biases. Without the benefit of history we are at the mercy of whatever intellectual fashion happens to be in vogue. We are left as helpless subjects in a tyranny of intellectual conformity.

For example, older writers might remind us that there is more to wisdom than technical knowledge or expertise. Our growing mastery over the physical world is not sufficient for a better world: the mere existence of nuclear weapons and environmental crises reveals as much. Unaided, science cannot bring us forgiveness, righteousness or meaning. Technocratic myths are superficially appealing; but, upon examination, they are as unfulfilling as any other cunningly devised fable.


[i] See: Francis Collins The Language of God Pocket Books: 2007 ; Simon Conway Morris Life’s Solution Cambridge: 2005;  Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Oxford: 2013

[ii] Noah J Efron “Myth 9: That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (R Numbers ed.) Harvard University Press 2009 p 80

[iii] Ibid p81

[iv] James Hannam God’s Philosopher’s Icon:2009 p340    (Published in the USA as “The Genesis of Science”)

[v] Magaret J Osler“Myth 10: That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (R Numbers ed.) Harvard University Press 2009 p95

[vi] “Myth 18: That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology”in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (R Numbers ed.) Harvard University Press 2009 p161-169

[vii] Ibid p164

[viii] Ibid p165

[ix] Richard Swinburne Is There a God? Oxford:2010

[x] Crossway: 2009


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