Scientists, Theologians Debate Whether God Exists

WASHINGTON — Scientists hate God. Or find God very disturbing. In fact, modern science has found no evidence of God, and so it’s stupid to think God exists.

The above statements are often presented as conventional wisdom, but are they true?

A new collection of short essays, discussed here Thursday at an event at the American Enterprise Institute, responds to that question with a more diverse set of voices than is usually offered.

Edited by Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer and backed by the John Templeton Foundation, the booklet features replies by 13 scholars and thinkers to the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”

The practical answer is, “Of course not.” Many people worldwide believe.

In the United States, the percentage of the population without a religious affiliation is increasing, but the majority still have one, according to American Religious Identification Survey 2001.

The faithful aren’t going away despite a golden age of scientific descriptions of the mysteries of life and the secularizing, culture-draining force of consumerism.

The answers offered by the booklet’s two theologians, eight scientists, two cultural commentators and one philosopher are more creative and sophisticated than the mind-numbing “culture wars” portrayed on television.

Some of the thinkers even found ways to synthesize or reconcile God and science without throwing up their hands.

The standard line

The standard scientific line on God is well-represented in the booklet by several of the writers:

— Science has failed to find natural evidence of God. Natural evidence is all there is. No God. Case closed.

— Slightly softer is this line of reasoning: Science erases the “need” for God as an explanation of our experiences, and God either doesn’t exist or is at best a hypothesis (to the agnostic).

— And then there’s the view expressed in the title of University of Hawaii physicist and astronomer Victor Stenger’s new book, “God: The Failed Hypothesis — How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.” Stenger also contributed to the new booklet.

These arguments are old news.

Shermer, who describes himself as spiritual and agnostic, adds a cosmic twist, casting doubt on our ability to recognize God.

He claims that any encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence, should we go looking, is statistically likely to turn up civilizations that are far more medically advanced than ours and would have the ability to create life, so they will be indistinguishable from God.

“Science does not make belief in God obsolete, but it may make obsolete the reality of God, depending on how far we are able to push the science,” Shermer writes in the booklet.

Yet many scientists — 40 percent according to a 1997 poll cited by Shermer — believe in God. This isn’t big news to scientists, but might surprise people who rely on mainstream views of science.

A handful of those folks — including Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard, and William D. Phillips, Nobel laureate in physics and a fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute of the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology — are also represented in the booklet, arguing that the natural world and the world of faith are relatively separate, yet personally reconcilable domains.

“I think that we are all comfortable with the idea there are plenty of things in our lives that we will deal with outside of the scientific paradigm,” Phillips told about 70 members of the public who attended the discussion of these issues between himself, Shermer and AEI theologian Michael Novak. “And while I think faith is a particularly important part of our lives that we should deal with outside of the scientific paradigm, it is certainly not the only one.”

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