Why Scientists Must Believe in God

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 30, 2003

They say that there are no atheists in foxholes, and apparently there are no atheists in laboratories, either. This is the thesis of a recent article by Vern Poythress, who teaches New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary here in Philadelphia. The full title of the article is “Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law” [Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 46, No. 1 (March, 2003), pp. 111-23]. In it Poythress develops the simple, attractive thesis that scientists must believe in God in order to do their scientific work.

Today many people seem to think that the opposite is true–that somehow faith in God gets in the way of doing good science. They believe that science is capable of offering a total explanation of the world without reference to religion. This may explain why more than 90 percent of the members of the National Academy of Science claim not to believe in God. For them, to appeal to God is unscientific; religion is the enemy of science.

This viewpoint is not true to history. The history of science itself shows that Christianity was fundamental to the rise of the scientific study in the modern world [see Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994)]. But scientific opposition to religion is also flawed for another reason: it is not true to the real requirements of science.

In order for scientific investigation to have legitimacy, certain things must hold true for the universe we live in. The universe must operate on the basis of fundamental regularities–or “laws,” as we usually call them. These laws must be universal. Otherwise, scientists would have no way of knowing whether what they observe in one place at one time would hold true for another place at another time. Scientific experimentation would be impossible. Poythress points out that if a scientific law really is a law and it is correctly formulated and qualified, then it holds true for all times and all places. All places and all times: the classic terms for this are “omnipresence” (all places) and “eternity” (all times). And these, of course, are attributes of God. For scientific laws to be what they are, God must be who he is.

What are some of the other attributes of the laws of science? Scientific laws do not change; or to put it another way, they are immutable. They are immaterial and invisible, yet they have power to make things happen in the natural world. This is why pure science has practical applications. Scientific laws are also true. It may even be said that they are beautiful. Scientists have learned to look for simple, elegant explanations for things rather than for answers that are complex or asymmetrical. The deepest laws are the most beautiful in their simplicity.

These are some of the attributes of the laws of science, and the more of them that we list, the more they remind us of God. God is immutable, immaterial, and invisible. He is powerful, good, true, and beautiful. Thus the laws of the universe reflect the perfections of his divine character. A scientific law, writes Poythress, “is simply God speaking, God acting, God manifesting himself in time and space” [p. 117].

At this point someone might object that there is no God, only the laws of science. But the existence of the law demands a lawgiver. The laws of the universe are rational, and as such, they require a rational being to make them. Reason is a property of persons, not of things. The law can only be what it is if God is who he is.

The rationality of science thus gives Christians a strong platform for bearing witness to God. Scientists depend on laws that declare the glory of God (see Ps. 19:1). Nevertheless, some of them say that they are not even sure that there is a God. This may seem contradictory. How can people operate on the basis of something that they say they do not believe? Actually, it happens every day. Consider the skeptic who says that he only trusts in things that he can see with his own eyes. Yet even he does not run a can of Coke through an X-ray machine every time he’s thirsty. Rather, he acts on the basis of his faith in the bottling company to produce a safe product. Similarly, the scientist who denies the existence of God nevertheless relies on the divine order of the universe to do his daily work.

Vern Poythress is right when he points out that all scientists–including atheists and agnostics–must believe in God. The Bible goes so far as to say that all scientists really do believe in God, even if some of them try to deny it. They not only must believe in God, but they actually do so:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1:19-21).

This is true of everyone who lives in the world that God has made but refuses to worship Him as the Creator. It is obvious that God made the world, and deep down they know this, which makes their unbelief inexcusable. And scientists–of all people–ought to know better, because their daily work depends on the God that some of them so desperately try to deny.

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