The Scientific Critique of Religion

Science over the last century has become the loudest and perhaps harshest critic of a belief in God. Science tends counter religious interpretations or arguments— and for some people can be seen to put forward answers to ultimate questions that were previously the purview of religion.

The relationship between science and religion has been chequered. Plato (428-347BCE) sought to explain how we could live in a world where everything changes by conceiving a transcendent realm of Forms which were the true reality. He did not make a complete split with religion- his philosophy does imply that the ultimate explanation of things lies beyond the physical realm, which is believed to be less than perfect.

How could you see this thought has influenced Christianity?

Aristotle (384-522 BCE) placed more emphasis on observations made in the physical realm, but still argued that everything was caused by something else (ultimately an Unmoved Mover).

The Medieval worldview of Christianity held these similar views, Aquinas used the unmoved mover in one of his Five Ways of proving God’s existence. The view of Ptolemy (and the Bible?) that the earth was at the centre of the universe was the scientific and religious norm. Using the chronology of the Bible people argued for an age of the earth around 6,000 years. Science and religion were seen to be complimentary. Where there was doubt or there seemed no way to test a hypothesis religious belief was called upon to fill the gaps. (This idea of a “god of the gaps” has been both positively and negatively used[1]).

Some clashes

Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543 CE), an astronomer, was employed by the Church to produce an accurate calendar. The calendar in use at that time was losing a day every 128 years because it was based on an erroneous view of planetary movement. Copernicus set out to solve this error in order to aid his calendar correction. The solution he proposed was to challenge people’s understanding of the universe. He found that to keep the calendar in line with planetary movement the sun had to be at the centre of the universe. This clearly challenged the idea that the earth was at the centre of the universe. It also challenged the belief that humanity was at the centre of the universe as well.

Why were these findings so controversial?

Did they challenge a belief in God or a doctrine of religion? What’s the difference?

Galilei Galileo (1564-1642 CE) confirmed Copernicus’ theory. He was also the first astronomer to make observations of the universe using a telescope. In these observations he saw that planetary movement was natural and that Jupiter had moons and Venus had phases. All this challenged the belief that the heavens were unchanging (perfect) and infinite. Galileo was imprisoned by the Church as a heretic and had his books banned.


We say, pronounce, sentence and declare that you Galileo… have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine that is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: namely that the Sun is the centre of the world and does not move from east to west… contrary to Holy Scripture… We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure. (Text from the ‘Condemnation of Galileo’)

The argument seemed to be based around the question “Should the Bible (God’s Word), the Church or ‘scientific’ observation of the universe be the basis for establishing ‘truth’ about the nature of the universe?” Galileo did not accept all scripture as literally true and therefore did not see any conflict between his religious beliefs and his scientific views. He also believed that a study of the universe was to find out more about God.


See “Vatican admits Galileo was right” in New Scientist 7 November 1992 available at

It was because of issues such as this that the work of science and religion began to separate. Although most scientists remained religious believers their conclusions didn’t necessarily have to fit with traditional religious belief. Isaac Newton (1642-1727 CE) presented a mechanistic view of the universe which did not necessarily require external causes. Newton has written: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done” (source unavailable).

Charles Darwin

The works of Charles Darwin have had perhaps the greatest effect in splitting the relationship between science and religion.

Darwin’s Origin of Species seemed to remove the need for a creator, in that all life was naturally generated; this recalled Hume’s argument that the universe’s “origin ought rather to be ascribed to generation or vegetation than to reason or design” (1978: 78). Darwin is often used by atheists to support their worldview. Science provides the answers of how the world and the universe developed— people no longer need God. Everitt has suggested that

AD [the argument to design] and the theory of natural selection offer rival accounts of the mechanism which produces seeming design in the living world. The first requires a supernatural designer, the second requires only that in their reproduction, species produce new members who are substantially similar to their parents, but who can differ from the parents in small ways which give their offspring a reproductive advantage over their fellows (2004:103).

Richard Dawkins has used Paley’s analogy of a watchmaker to posit evolution and natural selection as the only design(er) necessary for creation.

All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker (1991:5).



Albert Einstein and his inheritors

Einstein’s views about the universe can also be used to challenge the need for a creator. He built upon the works of Newton to construct his Theory of Relativity. Again, his ideas took away the need for a designer or continuing interventionist God. Stephen Hawking has explained his General Theory of Relativity as follows: “Einstein’s general theory of relativity transformed space and time from a passive background to active participants in the dynamics of the universe…General relativity completely changed the discussion of the origin and fate of the universe. A static universe could have existed forever or could have been created in it’s present form at some time in the past” (2001:21-22). Although not something supported by Einstein this idea of general relativity has led to a constantly expanding universe which suggests that “if galaxies are moving apart now, it means they must have been closer together in the past. About fifteen billion years ago, they would all have been on top of each other and the density would have been very large. This state was called the ‘primeval atom’ by the Catholic priest George Lemaitre, who was the first to investigate the origin of the universe we now called the big bang” (ibid: 22).


This may not necessarily be the case with some further developments:

“In particular, the universe need have no beginning or end in imaginary time” (ibid: 83). This leads to “fundamental implications for philosophy and our picture of where we came from. The universe would be entirely self contained; it wouldn’t need anything outside to wind up the clockwork and set it going. Instead, everything in the universe would be determined by the laws of science and by rolls of dice within the universe. This may sound presumptuous, but it is what I and many other scientists believe” (ibid: 85).

Does Einstinian and post Einstinian science remove the need for God? Explain your answer.

Faith and Reason

Another area of conflict within science and religion is to do with faith and reason.

There are two ways of looking at the world – through faith and superstition or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence – in other words, through reason. Reason and a respect for evidence are precious commodities, the source of human progress and our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth. Yet, today, society appears to be retreating from reason. Apparently harmless but utterly irrational belief systems from astrology to New Age mysticism, clairvoyance to alternative health remedies are booming. Richard Dawkins confronts what he sees as an epidemic of irrational, superstitious thinking…

He explains the dangers the pick and mix of knowledge and nonsense poses in the internet age, and passionately re-states the case for reason and science.


Richard Dawkins would see reason to be based on logic and scientific testing. Religion cannot be-it appeals to revelation and belief- both untestable and therefore “irrational” and “illogical”. People of faith are “dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads” who “are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination” (2006:5). He sees the discussion as over- you cannot be scientific and religious. The two are poles apart-one is observable and testable while the other is unknowable. If one were to look at the evidence it impossible to come to the conclusion there is a God. In his documentary The Root of all Evil? he dismisses the case of Lourdes as an example of evidence of miracles because they are not statistically numerous enough. This recalls Hume’s arguments against miracles that you weigh the evidence and decide what is more probable: the miracle happened or another explanation (natural explanation, mistakenness or lying of the witness(es))- and the balance of probability always lies with the natural explanation or the unreliability of the witness.


The Times outlined Dawkins’ viewpoint:

For Dawkins, things are dazzlingly simple. There is a cosmic battle taking place between reason (represented by science) and superstition (represented by religion). Only one can win — and it’s got to be reason. Scientists who profess religious belief are appeasers, representing the “Neville Chamberlain” school. You can’t be reasonable and religious. It’s one or the other — science or faith in God. Scientists who believe in God are therefore fifth column-ists, traitors either to science or religion. Feb 10, 2007 (

Again, Hume could be used to support the argument that because of the incompatibility of religious belief systems who claim revelation as their basis that if they can’t all be right then none of them are. Religious beliefs are therefore just what Dawkins proclaims them to be- superstitions built up over years of childhood indoctrination. Psychologists could see this as an example of classical conditioning- that people have been taught by their parents and society to behave or react in certain ways. With the loss of a loved one rather than looking at the physical evidence society/religion has conditioned people to fall upon the crutch of a life after death (despite there being no evidence for it). This would be exemplified through an episode of The Simpsons (I’m Goin to Praiseland Season 12 Episode 19) where the different characters all have visions of heaven according to the life views- the comic store owner going to Star Trek heaven with Captain Janeway. For a rationalist the important thing is to have lived:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. …we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than sudddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder. (Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow 1998: 1)

However, with Dawkins criticisms that religion is only effective when there is no reason, many people would argue that his atheistic worldview is similarly based on faith and belief. While there are evidences that point toward the nonexistence of God it could be argued that there is no proof and he is taking a step of faith beyond reason to postulate the non-existence of God. Atheists would not see this, however, and see the burden of proof lying with the believer and that the natural state of humanity (before conditioning) is of an atheist.

There are, however, theistic scientists and the whole of the philosophy of religion is about using reason to find evidence to support or disprove a belief in God. Reason and logic, therefore have their place but in opposition to Dawkins religious believers would say that they are not all that we have to rely on. Science has its place but so does God:

But what of that greater question: what’s life all about? This, and others like it, Medawar insisted, were “questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer”. They could not be dismissed as “nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer”. This is not to criticise science, but simply to calibrate its capacities.

This deft analysis by a self-confessed rationalist casts light on why scientists hold such a variety of religious beliefs. It makes it clear that scientists are intellectually and morally free to believe (or disbelieve) in God, while at the same time challenging religions to take the findings of science seriously. It also shows that it makes little sense to talk about “proof” of a world view, whether Christian or atheist. In the end, as Gilbert Harman pointed out decades ago, the real question is which offers the “best explanation” of things. And as there is no general agreement on how to decide which of these explanations is the “best”, the argument seems certain to run. (Alister McGrath in The Times, Feb 10, 2007)

From a believer’s perspective it is therefore possible for science (logic and reason) to answer the how, and religion to answer the why? Stephen Gould suggested the concept of NOMA- non-overlapping magisteria (which Dawkins rejects):

The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty) (Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), p. 6).

Religion and faith still has to make sense- one religion describes the process of revelation as appealing to both heart (belief and feelings) and mind (knowledge):

Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; (Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 8:2-3).

However, where religion and reason seemingly contradict there is still a desire to rely more on faith. This is highlighted in the following story:

It’s about a husband and wife who are finding their way back into activity in the Church. They talk about going on a pioneer trek reenactment with their daughter: “The feeling of the Spirit was tangible at that trek. It occurred to me to wonder if it had been some kind of ‘mass hysteria.’ Then I thought, ‘So what if it was? It was good – logical or not. Everyone was the better for it.’” It was at about that point that the couple decided to [return] after an extended period of disaffection from the Church, “To hell with logic and past rationales and reasoning (

For an atheist it is this type of reasoning that led to the dismissal of Galileo and Copernicus.

Religious believers may also see a scientific search for God to be a fool’s errand: “If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about him” (Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press), p. 30).

[1] It seems to have been first coined by Henry Drummond in the 19th Century in The Lowell Lectures: The Ascent of Man (1904)