The Atheist Myth


The creed by which many atheists live often goes something like this: before science people could neither understand the mysteries of the universe nor control its hazards, so they invented gods to explain the mysteries and, by appeasing them, to control the hazards.  But now the mysteries have been explained by science there is no more need for religion, at best an irrelevance and at worst a toxic irrationality.  This is a delusory myth that misconceives both religion and science.  The crucial episode in the history of science was the trial of Galileo, who was both a Catholic and a Platonist.  Catholicism is essentially sacramental.   God is not outside the universe but within it, much as an artist is present in his (oh alright, her) works.  Wagner is not his music, but his style, his personality, his very being is present in the music as Mozart’s is in his.  ‘God is within the universe and that innermostly’ wrote Aquinas.   You could almost say the universe is God’s body.  For the neo-Platonists this indwelling of God was essentially mathematical.  By showing that moving objects go on moving unless obstructed by air, as they always are, Galileo believed he was revealing  the divine substructure of the universe.


Science was born in this thought world of the Catholic south.  But fear of the Inquisition’s fires drove science north where it became an almost wholly Protestant phenomenon.  Now the Catholic Wisdom was seen as the grossest idolatry.  Now matter was not God’s  living body but a dead machine, and God not  the spirit animating it but, in Paley’s classic statement,  the great contriver outside it constructing it as one might a watch.   Natural selection is incompatible with Paley.  If species developed naturally then they did not come ready made from the hand of God.  It is not at all incompatible with Catholicism.  Either this extraordinarily intelligible world is just unintelligibly there or it is the evolving expression of a cosmic intelligence.   The latter option is, to say the least, just as rational as the former.  Since by definition science examines material reality, if there were an immaterial reality it would not locate it.  But by definition it doesn’t disprove it.  It might even point towards it.  


Science never tells us certain truth, because truth is made up of both facts and meanings.  Facts may be certain but meanings never are.  We necessarily understand facts within slippery webs of metaphor, and no metaphor is so misleading as that metaphor in the nude, the bare fact.   The great glory of science, indeed, is not that it is always right but that it always shows itself to have been wrong.  It is peculiarly misleading, for the facts it discovers are so awesomely certain that the same certainty is often illegitimately conferred on the meanings that interpret them.  For Descartes and Boyle, a corpuscular universe marshalled by Galileo’s mechanics and natural laws invented by God was as certain as anything could be.  Look, Galileo’s mechanics have been proved, and where can the laws come from if not from God? 


This world picture was completely overturned by Newton who, in showing that the universe is intrinsically rational, opened the door to modern atheism.  Whereas for Boyle science had made belief mandatory, now it was unbelief that was scientific.  ‘That hypothesis, sire’ said Laplace to Napoleon, ‘explains everything but predicts nothing’.   For nineteenth century positivists everything was rational.  We could predict the gambler’s throw  if we had enough information. ‘The likelihood of a new law of physics being discovered’ said Michelson in the late nineteenth century, ‘lies in a remote place of decimals’. 


He couldn’t have been more wrong.  Whereas the basis of reality had been rationally predictable, in a quantum world it was radically unpredictable.   Either the constants on which life depends – the strength of gravity, the .007 of energy released when hydrogen fuses into helium – and most iconically life itself were amazing co-incidences, or they had been set up by God.  But God had been upstaged by science so many times scientists were reluctant to think that either. ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the universe’ said Einstein,  ‘is that it is comprehensible.’  But now science is changing  again.  In an infinity of universes there must be one just right for life and here we are living in it.  An infinity of universes?  Far from enabling us to understand the world more and more fully by discovering more and more facts, science reveals more and more mysteries – wave/particle duality, nonlocality,  backwards causation – that  more and more escape our understanding.   Religion bewilderedly seeks to apprehend these mysteries emotionally as science bewilderedly seeks to comprehend them rationally.  You can bet your life that the meanings , so often atheistic, so many attribute to the facts of science today will be quite different in a hundred years’ time.  As an in itself meaningless name for those impenetrable mysteries God takes a bit of beating. 


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