- Atheistic Science: The Only Option?
One profound reality confronting the contemporary Church is the revolution in science and technology that has occurred over the past several centuries. Scientific and technological advances have transformed the natural world in ways hitherto unimagined. They have also penetrated the very fabric of human culture and challenged our faith.
The progress of this transformation is not unfolding without conflict, especially between science and religion. In the past several years there has been a “new burst of atheistic literature” that invokes the authority of science to deny the existence of God.1 Proponents of this viewpoint are becoming increasingly aggressive in their scientistic zeal. The authors take methodological naturalism to an extreme, adopting it as a metaphysical stance. Recently on the Internet there was a brash advertisement for “Amazon’s Unholy Trinity,” a trio of antireligion books published in 2006 including The God Delusion by scientist and avowed atheist Richard Dawkins, Atheist Universe: Why God Didn’t Have a Thing to Do With It by atheist author David Mills, and Letter to a Christian Nation by atheist author Sam Harris (who also wrote The End of Faith).2 The express goals of the authors are to counter religious forces that they believe are [End Page 56] undermining genuine scientific thinking and to show God to be a delusion;3 to “point the way past religion;”4 and “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.”5 Dawkins goes so far as to argue that having faith precludes scientific integrity. In a 2006 article in Time, he states bluntly: “Once you buy into the position of faith, then suddenly you find yourself losing all of your natural skepticism and your scientific—really scientific—credibility.”6
The pro-atheism campaign of these men is no small effort, and their books are receiving wide readership. Dawkins’s book, released in October 2006, was number 4 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List by December.7 Harris’s book, released in September 2006, was number 7 on the New York Times Bestseller List by October.8
How is the Church to respond to these brash claims of atheism and scientific authority? The aggressiveness of their claims is in part a reaction against Christian fundamentalism, which in its extreme forms asserts the literal truth of the Bible and denies the validity of certain findings in science, including evolution. In response to Christian fundamentalism, Dawkins and others adhere to their own kind of atheistic fundamentalism. In his recently published book on evolution and faith, Archbishop Jósef Życiński calls their line of thinking “ontological naturalism.”9 Roman Catholic physicist Stephen Barr calls it “scientific materialism.”10 Leon Kass, medical doctor, biochemist, and bioethicist, refers to it as “scientism,” meaning a distorted approach to the scientific enterprise in which empirical science is embraced as the sole method for understanding the totality of reality.11
In the face of the polarizing scientism advocated by Dawkins and others, is it possible to envision and defend a science that is compatible with faith? Or must the two be at odds? It seems that an integral Christian response should seek to clarify the proper place of science and to preserve what is good in the scientific enterprise while at the same time countering its excesses. Throughout his pontificate, [End Page 57] Pope John Paul II asserted that there is an integral place for science in the Church and that a dialogue between science and theology is essential to bridge the divide between them. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1988, he stated: “The unprecedented opportunity we have today is for a common interactive relationship in which each discipline [religion and science] retains its integrity and yet is radically open to the discoveries and insights of the other.”12
In union with this approach, this article seeks to counter alarming trends in scientific atheism and to argue that science is not necessarily a recipe for atheism. Rather, one hopes for a constructive conversation between science and theology, a dialogue that draws upon the faith tradition and in doing so...