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Science, Belief, And The Search For Meaning

To insist on negating the advances and discoveries of science is ridiculous. Such feats should be celebrated as humanity's greatest achievements, a reason to be proud of who we are amidst so many reasons not to. NASA hide caption

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It's rare that I give a public lecture or participate in an open debate without getting the "God question."

The hand goes up and the familiar words come out: "Do you believe in God?"

When I reply that I don't, I can discern a look of confusion, even fear, in the person's eyes. "How can you sleep at night without believing?"

There is nothing surprising in asking a scientist about their beliefs. After all, if we follow the age-old rift between science and religion, we see that as science progressed it has threatened God's traditional role in the world. The famous "god of the gaps" debate, that science squeezes God into ever-smaller gaps, has created much controversy over the centuries.

Even the great Isaac Newton saw a key role for God in Nature, not only as Creator, but also, continually, as a kind of cosmic mechanic interfering when necessary to keep the cosmos in check, making sure the planets and everything else in the solar system didn't end up as a giant ball of matter on top of the Sun.

However, as science advanced, it became clear that Nature could take care of itself without much divine interference. Newton's theistic God made room for Franklin and Jefferson's deistic God, creator of the universe and its ruling laws but nothing else. This being the case, what would be made of God in the long run? If science's explanatory power continued unchecked and undeterred, would God become a historical curiosity?

It is from this tension — between science and belief — that the notion that science's not-so-hidden agenda is to steal God from people, to kill belief once and for all. Books by Richard Dawkins and other militant atheists accusing people of faith to be living in a state of psychotic delusion don't help much. Given this mess, we should be asking if, indeed, this is truly what science has in mind. Do these atheist fundamentalists speak for all scientists?

Not at all.

I know plenty of scientists who are religious and don't see any conflict whatsoever between their science and their belief. To them, the more they understand the Universe, the more they come to admire their God's work.

Even if this is not my case — I'm agnostic, an unacceptable position to fundamentalist atheists, but I defend it as the only position truly consistent with the scientific method — I do respect those who believe.

Science doesn't have an anti-religion agenda. Its task is to interpret Nature, expanding our knowledge of the natural world. It seeks to alleviate human suffering, improve people's material comfort, develop advanced technologies and means of production, fight disease, and ask some of the deepest questions we face as a thinking species. The "rest," the human baggage that inspires our search for knowledge as well as personal agendas and vanities don't come from science as a body of knowledge but from the men and women who devote their lives to its study.

It's obvious, as Einstein already wrote, that to believe in a God that interferes with the affairs of men is incompatible with the view that Nature proceeds according to well-determined laws that we try — more or less successfully — to decipher through the scientific method.

The situation turns serious, if not tragic, when believers use religion to "explain" natural phenomena. To say that the Universe is less than seven thousand years old, or that we all descend from Adam and Even, themselves created by God from clay, is equivalent to living in the 16th century. To insist in negating the advances and discoveries of science is frankly ridiculous.

For example, an enormous number of people still refuse to accept that we have landed on the Moon, presenting some silly arguments as to the position of the American flag, the shadows, the marks on the ground, etc., all of them easily explained away. We've landed there many times over! Instead, such feat should be celebrated as one of humanity's greatest achievements, a reason to be proud of who we are amidst so many reasons not to.

In my opinion, there are two kinds of people: the naturalists and the "supernaturalists." The supernaturalists see hidden forces acting behind shadows, dictating the affairs of men, explaining all that we can't through mysterious and law-defying cause and effect relations beyond what we call the real. They live a life of fear, enslaved by apocalyptic beliefs, oppressed by their gods and death.

The naturalists humbly accept that we will never have all the answers, that knowledge is an ongoing process, and that it's okay not to know. Instead of embracing fear, they embrace our ignorance as a means to inspire personal and collective growth, as a challenge and not a prison. Although death is painful and so is loss, they accept it as a part of life.

And it's because of that acceptance that I am able to sleep at night.