Are “The Unbelievers” Unbelievable?

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Graham features on the “Unbelievable” show on Saturday 3rd August, discussing the film “The Unbelievers” with its director and producer Gus Holwerda.*

You can also listen to the show on the “Unbelievable” site  (which has many useful links about the film) or download the MP3 by following this link: Review of The Unbelievers

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Obviously, we don’t agree with many of the arguments made in this film; that does not detract from its importance. The producers have made an engaging and entertaining film which also neatly summarises many popular objections to Christianity. “The Unbelievers”  not only provides a thoughtful portrait of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss; it reveals a vibrant and energetic community which has formed around the “New Atheism”. Churches should purchase, watch, listen and respond.

Why don’t we believe  “The Unbelievers”? The film sets up Christianity and Science as competing scientific hypotheses. This misunderstanding is enough to make an informed person wince. Christian theism is not a scientific hypothesis. It does not attempt to explain some carefully specified feature of the physical world using experiment or measurement. If we want to treat theism as a hypothesis, we must treat it as a metaphysical hypothesis.In less academic language, theism is a world-view: an attempt to explain everything. Why does the physical world exist? Is there more to the world than objects that science can discover? Is there right and wrong? How can I know? Why am I here?  How should I live? If we are to understand everything there is we need to refer to everything we know. To answer these questions we must listen to science, but not only science. History, art, literature and philosophy must also have a voice – as must the wisdom we glean from our daily lives.

Of course, what Dawkins and Krauss are not defending in this film is not science but scientific materialism. This worldview has two notable elements – scientism and materialismMaterialism is the belief that there is no non-physical reality. Everything is composed of objects that could, one day, be quantified, measured, and described by physicists. Whatever cannot be described by science is not real. So you do not have a soul, your mind is nothing other than your brain in action, and no divine power governs this universe. Scientism is the belief that the scientific method is the only way we can discover the truth about whatever is real.  The arts may make life bearable and express our desires and values;  but if we want to know the truth about the universe we need to use the scientific method.

Of course, if you only ask certain kinds of question you’ll only receive certain types of answer. If someone insists that scientific questions are the only questions worth asking they are determining, in advance, the types of answer that they will base their life on. Scientific answers are tied to mathematical measurements, and tend to avoid the language of purpose, meaning and value. If you will only listen to scientific answers then you will inevitably conclude that the universe lacks purpose meaning and value. That’s exactly the conclusion that the New Atheist wanted to reach; so science becomes central to his world-view.

“The Unbelievers” naïve and uncritical adoration of science faces at least two other problems. First, science does not teach scientism or materialism. Scientism cannot be found in any scientific theory, and it is not found in any experimental result. Second, historically most scientists have not believed in scientism. Looking for physical causes when you perform experiments does not preclude you searching beauty in art, meaning in a text, blame when someone commits a crime, or asking another person to make a decision!

Historically, the relationship between science and Christianity has been complex but intimate.  During the scientific revolution, notions from Christian belief found their way into scientific discourse.  Christians believed that God was both rational and sovereign: a rather different world-view from the ancient’s belief that the world sprang out of chaos and was governed by Fortune. A rational, personal God would create an orderly, regular universe. This led to the belief that nature would be governed by laws and that these laws could be described in the language of mathematics.

To have knowledge of the natural world, the laws of nature must not be too deep or complex  for us to follow.Christians believed that we were made in God’s image; it followed that were created with the intellectual ability to understand God’s creation. On the other hand, God is free and sovereign. Some Ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, thought that we could discover the principles that governed the world simply through rational reflection. However, Christians believed that God  was not obliged to create the world according to the principles that philosophers thought best. The only way to discover God’s plan in creation was to go out and look! This meant an increased focus on observation and experiment.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of the Christian contribution to the birth of modern science. After  the second industrial revolution, it seemed axiomatic that scientific discovery would bring 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.

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

 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.”

So for Galileo, Kepler, Boyle and Newton, “God-did-it” did not function as a “science stopper” but a “science starter”! Theistic belief alone could not tell them 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. Yet it follows that the discovery of new laws and physical mechanisms did not explain God away; Descartes, Boyle or Kepler would have found this idea ludicrous. They expected to discover laws and mechanisms precisely because they were theists! Science alone could not give a full, complete explanation of the universe.

Physics requires laws to make predictions. Some laws (Kepler’s) will 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, by its very nature, explain why there are laws of nature. Why can we use mathematics to describe the universe? And why is there anything –  particles or relativistic quantum fields –  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.

But surely the theory of evolution has undermined Christianity’s intellectual foundations? It is true that “Creation Wars”still rage on. It is also true that someone who believes in a creator who has miraculously intervened in our world might assess the scientific evidence differently from someone who does not share that belief. However, in our view, debates about evolution can be a distraction from the central issue – which is whether  life was designed by God. Once that question is answered, it is less important to what process  was involved in the production of intelligent life. In order to assess the case for design in biology we have to ask how likely it is that the types of life that we observe on Earth would come into existence given only unguided physical processes. This should be compared to the likelihood of such creatures given theism.

Now, contrary to high school text books, Darwin’s theories did not overturn the design argument in one fell swoop. In fact, some Christians believed that Darwinism supported design!  Evangelicals James McCosh and James Iverach 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 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”

Asa Gray took a different approach, arguing that unguided evolution was unlikely to produce the bewildering diversity and beautiful complexity of the living world. In fact, Dawkins should concede that Darwinism is compatible with such ‘guidance’. In Climbing Mount Improbable (Norton:1996) Dawkins considers “a theoretical world in which mutations were biased towards improvement” (p.80). He dismisses the idea because no physical mechanism has been found which could produce such an effect; however, he concedes that “Darwinians wouldn’t mind if such providential mutations were provided” (p.80).)

In order to explain away the evidence for design, natural selection needs to do much more than account for complex adaptations, like the eye or the ear. It also needs to explain why life managed to make all the transitions from bacteria and algae to birds, reptiles and mammals. Granted, most evolutionary biologists would expect some increase in complexity over time. But the journey from the first cells to human beings requires numerous transitions, some less probable than others. It is this journey that stands in need of explanation; and in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins concedes that some key transitions in life’s history were incredibly improbable.

Dawkins attempts to rescue his argument that evolution explains design away by arguing that there must be billions and billions of Earth-like planets in the universe. Most of these are lifeless; on a small fraction life “evolves”; on a smaller fraction still eukaryotic life evolves; and on a still smaller fraction conscious life evolves. (The God Delusion, 2006, pp168-169). Take the origin of life. Dawkins concded that on any one particular planet it would be extremely improbable that life would arise from non-living material. However, given the vastness of the universe it is not improbable that it would happen somewhere. Dawkins assumes that the universe must contain “billions and billions” of Earth-like planets, because this is the only way to account for the existence of beings like humans.

Dawkins has made two crucial assumptions. First, that there are billions and billions of Earth-like planets – that is, planets capable of supporting  conscious animals. It is important to realise that Dawkins does not offer any evidence for the existence of these worlds.Second, Dawkins assumes that planets which bridge “all three gaps” are “intensely rare planets” (The God Delusion, 2006, 169). Remember, Dawkins ‘gaps’ are events of very low probability, yet of immense importance in evolutionary history: the origin of life, the origin of eukaryotic cells, and the origin of consciousness.

How big does the universe need to be for this to take place? Is the universe actually that big? Does it contain the right number of planets to make the existence of life probable? What evidence is there for these planets? Put that to one side; let’s suppose that in a few places in the universe life did develop. But then it seems that multicellular life would only develop in a very small fraction of these cases. And the same would be true for each improbable step. It might be that using this strategy, even if life had developed many times elsewhere it would never have got beyond the level of bacteria.

Now, it is not at all clear that the universe is teeming with Earth-like planets, with all the features necessary to support populations of conscious animals. But not only has Dawkins assumed the existence of billions and billions of Earth like planets. Without a shred of evidence, he then goes on to tell us what life is like on these planets! His evolutionary hypothesis would predict that only a very small fraction of other Earth-like planets could have conscious animals. Unguided evolution does not have the power to produce conscious animals on every Earth-like world. But suppose there are billions and billions of Earth like planets. Suppose that all these planets were teeming with conscious animals! That would be extraordinarily strong evidence against Dawkins’ explanation of life on Earth and strong evidence for design.

Dawkins originally offered evolution as an hypothesis that  explained the existence of complex life on Earth. It now seems that it can only explain the existence of complex life given billions and billions of Earth-like planets. Dawkins is creating a new hypothesis and assuming the additional evidence exists to confirm it. But our only evidence is the organised complexity and taxonomic diversity of life on Earth: that evidence supports design. Furthermore, the evidence of the laws of nature and the fine-tuning of our universe points us away from atheism and towards theism. Listening to science, and evaluating its results carefully and thoughtfully, need not take us down the path of “The Unbelievers”. Facts should change our beliefs, if we are rational. And the facts about our universe can only be explained by purpose and design.


*Graham was also featured on the Unbelievable show in July, discussing Flying Spaghetti Monster, New Atheism, free speech and religious freedom with show host Justin Brierly and fellow guest Rory Fenton. Rory is dialogue officer for the British Humanist Association. As well as being a fellow Ulsterman, he is an extremely perceptive advocate of atheism in general and humanism in particular.  You can listen to that show here and listen to Premier Radio here.



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