Rick Mattson, InterVarsity staff and author of How Faith Is Like Skydiving: And Other Memorable Images for Dialogue with Seekers and Skeptics(InterVarsity Press, 2014), continues his series. Rick will be speaking at Urbana in a seminar called “Love Your Atheist Neighbor,” and he’s giving us a preview here. Read Part 1. Interested in doing a series on Urbana or an interview with an Urbana speaker? Email us here.
Responding to the Science-only Objection
In my prior post I replied to the question, Who is my atheist neighbor?, by suggesting that he/she is a friend to serve, an author to read, an enemy to love.
In any of these cases it’s common to hear the “scientific objection” to Christian faith, as made to me by Jonathan, an atheistic engineering student in Chicago:
“Science is rational and based on reason. Faith is just the opposite. It’s basically irrational. So unless God proves himself to me scientifically, I’ll never believe in him.”
How might we reply to Jonathan? Of many possible ways, here are two:
Response 1. The demand for scientific proof of God’s existence is not science per se but simply a philosophical preference.
Had I pointed this out to Jonathan (which I didn’t) he might have honestly admitted that yes, proof is an extremely high standard to meet. And while proof isn’t possible or necessary in many areas of life, when it comes to the question of God it’s the only thing he, Jonathan, would accept.
This seems reasonable because our friend is simply being autobiographical. He’s giving a personal preference for proof in a certain segment of life.
But as the conversation unfolded, that’s not what Jonathan said to me. Rather, he insisted that his was a scientific worldview, meaning that all of life is under the domain of science and its rigorous methodology.
This is a huge and unsustainable claim. Does his mother love him? Will he be safe walking home this evening? Is his memory of childhood events accurate? Does he truly have “free will”? None of the answers to these questions (and many others) are provable by the scientific method. Yet he lives as if the questions are, in fact, settled beyond doubt.
So the inconsistent application of the scientific method across one’s whole experience is something to point out. But even more basic is the notion that the demand for scientific proof is not, strictly speaking, practicing science. It can’t be measured for mass or velocity or other physical properties. It’s simply a philosophical preference.
Response 2. Science is helpful in finding God because it studies nature, which is a reflection of God’s glory. But by itself science is an insufficient tool.
To illustrate, let’s say that in order to receive packages at my house I cut a two-inch opening in my front door, and I instruct the FedEX, USPS and UPS drivers to slip all my parcels through the slot.
Imagine the many deliveries I’d miss, simply for being too narrow minded.
This is, in fact, what I pointed out to Jonathan. I said that we need to come to God on his terms, not our own — and that God was under no obligation to play by our rules. He is God and we are not. So if we create a two-inch slot in our lives which is called the scientific method, we’ll miss out on much of God’s self-disclosure.
Wouldn’t it be better to open ourselves more widely to the ways in which God might reveal himself? Let God define the terms of engagement? Expand our narrow expectations?
So the transaction between ourselves and God is at least partly a matter of the will on our part — the willingness to drop our guard, widen our mail slots and accept God’s methods rather than trying to force him into our own. When we allow God to make the rules of divine-human interaction, we are likely to find him.
The engineer’s reply.
Jonathan the engineer thought about my challenge to exchange the scientific method for a broader band of receptivity. Unfortunately he was not willing to be surprised by God. He held firmly to his system of finding truth, restricted as it was. And if God would not submit to that system, God does not exist. Period.
But wait, I say, not so fast. Maybe this isn’t the end of Jonathan’s inquiry. I’ve learned not to give up on anyone. Sometimes the outlook of skeptics—even those who are “science-only”—changes with time. That’s what happened to my atheist friend Alan. When I asked him what finally turned his thinking after so many years of skepticism, he replied, “Admitting my pride. Yes, the arguments for God were important, but it was ego that blocked the way. When my pride came down it cleared a path for my faith to emerge.”
Jonathan’s reasons for disbelieving may be different than Alan’s. In any case I pray that someday Jonathan will open himself more widely to the possibility of finding God.
Rick Mattson is a national evangelist and apologist for InterVarsity, speaking at over eighty campuses the past few years. He lives in St. Paul, MN with his family. He studied at Bethel Seminary of St. Paul, MN, where he received his masters in the philosophy of religion. As part of his current duties he serves as evangelism coach for graduate students at several universities. Rick’s a committed family man and serious golfer. He is the author of two books: Faith is Like Skydiving and Faith Unexpected.