Does doing science make a person less likely to believe in God?

Q. It would be difficult to expect scientists to employ anything other than “methodological naturalism” (a commitment to work only from empirical data) in their work. If they didn’t, for every attempt to explain natural phenomena, they would have to add the possibility of supernatural causation or involvement, which would definitely be unproductive. But do you think that methodical naturalism in any sense encourages “metaphysical naturalism” (the presupposition that there is no supernatural, and that natural causation can explain everything)?

This is the second part of a detailed question that I’ve posted in its full form here.  (The terms “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism” come from a book by Brian Alters.)

In response to this part of the question, I’d have to say no, I don’t believe that the discipline of working only from observable, measurable data and seeking the most reasonable explanation for one’s observations necessarily encourages disbelief in the supernatural.  I can imagine a scientist who was also a person of faith saying, “Let’s see how much we can account for this way,” but still expecting that in the end there would be many things that could only be regarded with reverent wonder.

The lives of scientists throughout the centuries who have also been people of deep faith provide abundant anecdotal evidence that methodological naturalism does not inevitably lead to metaphysical naturalism.  Such scientists include Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Mendel, Pasteur, and, more recently, Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project.  Numerous further examples could be given.  Many of these scientists have written about the compatibility of faith with scientific endeavor.  (See, for example, Collins’ book The Language of God.)

Along those lines, in my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey (himself a widely published scientific researcher), I cite the example of King Solomon, who was noted for his natural-scientific investigations, and paraphrase one of his proverbs this way:  “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.”  I go on to say that “when we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes.  So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm.”

In other words, we can adopt the discipline of “methodological naturalism” for the purposes of science without worrying that it will lead to “metaphysical naturalism.”

Sir Isaac Newton, scientist and believer (portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1689, courtesy Wikipedia)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is writer and biblical scholar who was a also pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. He is the author of After Chapters and Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations and of the volumes in the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series. He has a B.A. in literature from Harvard, a master's degree in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought from Boston College.

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