Once upon a time I taught in a (more or less) Catholic high school. Occasionally I was called upon to teach religion to the bright-eyed young men and women of the 9th grade. At the time the so-called “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc.) were in vogue, and so class usually contained two or three students eager to try out the latest anti-Christian tropes that they had picked up online or wherever it is that aspiring atheist proselytizers hang out. Needless to say, we had many a lively discussion. A number of these discussions became blog posts.
In the course of these conversations I became aware just how much our educational system and our cultural institutions have become imbued with an unspoken materialist orientation. Virtually all my students, even professed Christians, seemed to take it for granted that a transcendent God who cannot be measured or detected with scientific instruments could not be shown to exist.
I realized that I would need to help them expand their understanding of how we acquire reliable knowledge beyond the things that science can measure. My first step, however, was to demonstrate that even science has much more subtle ways of understanding reality than they had been led to believe. In the post below I enlist NASA and modern cosmology to show that belief in God is at least as reasonable as many “scientific” concepts that are accepted almost without question.
We begin with the proposition that cosmological science offers a good illustration of some ways in which we apply reason to our world and experience. You may occasionally hear in the news, for instance, reports of planets discovered in other solar systems. We do not now have any instruments capable of “seeing” the planet itself; instead, we detect it by observing its effects on other things, such as the miniscule wobble its gravitational pull causes in the star it orbits, or the very slight changes in the light we observe from the star as the planet passes in front of it (read more here).
On an even grander scale, consider the question of “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy.” Over the past century, scientists have formulated what is known as the Big Bang Theory to account for the fact that the entire universe appears to be expanding at a consistent rate. At the same time, they have calculated that in order for the universe to do what it seems to be doing, it needs to contain much more matter and energy than we can detect – many times more. As the NASA publication “Dark Energy, Dark Matter” explains (my italics):
More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the Universe’s expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 68% of the Universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called “normal” matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the Universe. (full publication here)
Notice that physicists say that more than 95% of the matter and energy in the universe is completely undetectable, and we may never be able to detect it. There is no direct evidence of the existence of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, and yet they are sure it is there, only because of the effects we observe on other things.
Much of the evidence for God’s involvement in our world is of a similar sort, at least for those who have not themselves had a direct experience of God. Like Dark Energy, God cannot be measured with scientific instruments, but his effects are very clear. Consider the case of Bernard Nathanson, an atheist doctor from a Jewish family who was one of the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). Nathanson himself performed or presided over tens of thousands of abortions until he was convinced by ultrasound images of the humanity of the unborn.
Deeply disturbed by his involvement in the taking of so many innocent lives, Nathanson, still an atheist, became active in pro-life activities, where he encountered many committed Christians. He noticed something different about his religious friends, which he eventually recognized as what St. Paul called “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). It was clear to him that the difference he saw was due to the religious dimension of their lives, the visible effects of their relationship with God. He eventually converted from atheism to Catholicism.
Literally millions of people have come to Faith in the same way over the last two thousand years. Like Nathanson, they were first attracted by the effects they saw in others, and after embracing Christ, found the same changes in their own lives. They very reasonably based their faith on the real results they saw in others, and that they experienced themselves.
That, by the way, is a significant way in which belief in God is different from a belief in Dark Energy or Dark Matter. Nobody has ever had a personal encounter with Dark Energy, or seen a miracle performed by Dark Matter; countless people throughout the ages have had direct experiences of God, or witnessed His miracles, which continue up to the present day. One might say that, when we examine the evidence of the world around us, belief in God is actually quite reasonable.
(Feature image above: “Ancient of Days” by William Blake, from Europe a Prophecy, 1794)