Reflections on faith, science, reason, and belief
By Wayne Allensworth
Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you—I Peter 3:15
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.
It was Advent season in a year now long past. The singing of that hymn, associated with the ancient liturgy of St. James, was a signal moment in the life of a man who had once been young and arrogant, one who had thought of himself as wise beyond his years. The sublime poetry of the lyric, the music itself, was deeply affecting, and for a moment that man was taken back to another place and another time. It was a time when a long dormant, if not moribund, faith in God had been slowly revived. It had been a struggle, one that had taken years, one tainted by the usual shallow sense of superiority that came with too much education and too little learning, as yet unfazed by the wisdom that comes with experience, or a sense of humility.
That young man didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist, as they say. The old faith rose slowly, almost imperceptibly, like the illumination of a new dawn, rather than striking like a Pauline road to Damascus conversion. Slowly, then all at once.
What does “faith” mean, anyway?
Militant atheists use the word to mean belief without evidence, blind adherence to an imaginary old man in the sky, a comic book version of the Deity the mentally deficient can hallow. The “brights” as they call themselves, rail against God, but that straw man of spirit they target is often a god believers do not actually put any faith in. The deity the “brights” subject to ridicule as the “flying spaghetti monster” is reminiscent of pagan deities who were themselves created, molded by Titans of mysterious provenance before the beginning of the world. And those created gods were petulant potentates, magicians like superhero versions of Merlin.
But our “faith” is not what the atheists say it is. Faith, as noted by Oxford mathematician and noted Christian apologist John Lennox, means trust, trust that is bolstered by evidence, study, practice, and experience. Lennox, among others, has pointed out the hollowness of the atheists’ arguments against a god none of us believe exists. Our faith is not without basis. There is nothing blind about it.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth—Genesis 1:1
The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming—Freeman Dyson
What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?—Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
We’ll begin at the beginning, for there was a beginning, and those who maintained that the universe was not created, that it simply always was (called at the time the “steady state theory” in cosmology), mounted a vigorous resistance to proponents of what they derided as “the big bang” theory of the universe’s origin as proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic priest and theoretical physicist. Fred Hoyle, one of the leading astrophysicists of the 20th century, coined the derisive term, and he defended steady state cosmology in The Nature of the Universe, published in 1950. Hoyle’s book included an attack on Christianity, which, as noted by astronomer Owen Gingerich in God’s Planet, seemed gratuitous, to say the least, to Hoyle’s critics.
It’s likely that the anti-Christian turn of The Nature of the Universe did not, however, seem gratuitous to Fred Hoyle, who may have recognized immediately that the big bang was reminiscent of the Genesis origin account. He piled on in remarks to the BBC, taking a potshot at the Christian belief in eternal life. He wondered “how they propose eternity to be spent,” called the idea of eternal life “horrible,” and said he wouldn’t care to live more than 300 years, adding that mankind had “scarcely a clue” as to whether “our existence has any real significance.” What seemed to upset Dr. Hoyle, however, was that the notion of a creation seemed to diminish his significance.
Atheists were further disturbed by Pope Pius XII’s declaration in 1951 that big bang cosmology (though he did not use the term “big bang,” which had not yet become a part of popular parlance) was evidence of creation and a Creator.
However hostile he had been to the big bang and all that it implied, Fred Hoyle, and cosmologists like him, were forced to change their minds in the 1960’s as a torrent of new evidence undermined the steady state theory. The details of those developments are too complex to go into here, but an initial problem with the big bang theory involving calculating the age of the universe had encouraged its opponents. In the 1950s, the calculation of one billion years did not seem old enough to account for the age of the oldest rocks, nor did it allow enough time for astrophysical developmental processes to take place. Astronomers, however, later discovered that they had miscalculated the scale of measuring distances to other galaxies, a scale they had used to determine the rate of the expansion of the universe and, by extrapolating that backward to the origin, its age. The origin date had been considerably underestimated. The date of the universe’s origin was no longer such a problem (current estimates range from about 11.4 billion to approximately 13.8 billion).
Steady state adherents were further rankled by the discovery of radio noise emitted by distant sources, which turned out to be ancient galaxies eventually called quasars. The implication was that our universe did, in fact, have a history. There was more to come. As related by Dr. Gingerich, the “crowning blow” to the steady state theory was the 1965 discovery of what was called “cosmic microwave background radiation.” That “background” radiation was seen as evidence of a “primordial fireball” that was the big bang, an echo from a cosmic explosion eons ago.
In September of 1965, Hoyle finally admitted that he had been wrong about the big bang. That admission, however, had been preceded by Hoyle’s key role in the discovery of the “resonance level” of the carbon atom’s nucleus, a property which, if set in exactly the right place, would allow for the abundant production of carbon in evolving giant stars. Without that, there could not have been enough carbon to support carbon-based life (like us) in the universe. Owen Gingerich has written that “nothing had shaken Hoyle’s atheism more than that discovery.”
In 1981, Hoyle wrote an article in the Caltech alumni magazine arguing that the “blind forces of nature” could not have been responsible for a universe that supported intelligent life—the chances of the levels of precision in physics, biology, and chemistry necessary to produce such a universe were “utterly miniscule.” Hoyle maintained that “a common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics…and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” As pointed out by Dr. Gingerich, “not only was the resonance level in the carbon critically positioned to speed up the formation of carbon, but another such level in oxygen was just right to slow down the production of oxygen, which prevented much of the carbon from being transmuted into oxygen.” As astrophysicist Paul Davies put it, the little bear’s porridge was just right.
The precise resonance levels needed in carbon and oxygen are just two examples of a number of physical constants in nature that appear to be “fine tuned” to allow the existence of life on Earth. “Fine tuning” is the basis of what came to be called the “anthropic principle”—the universe seemed to have a purpose, the purpose of supporting intelligent life.
Not only scientists like Fred Hoyle found the evidence powerful enough to persuade them that a “superintellect” was, in fact, responsible for the creation of the universe. In 2004, philosopher Antony Flew, after spending a lengthy career as a champion of atheism, changed his mind. Flew, whose motto in his philosophical pursuits was “follow the evidence where it leads,” had produced, as related by Roy Abraham Varghese, co-author of Flew’s last book, There is a God, “over thirty professional philosophical works that helped set the agenda for atheism for half a century.” His paper “Theology and Falsification,” for example, has been described by Varghese as “the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last century.” The paper had first been presented at a 1950 meeting of the Oxford Socratic Club, an organization chaired by C.S. Lewis.
According to Varghese, atheists’ reaction to Flew’s “conversion” to a belief in a creator God “verged on hysteria.” Richard Dawkins, for instance, whose name, along with that of the late Christopher Hitchens, became synonymous with a militant “new atheism,” called Flew’s change of mind an “over publicized tergiversation.” Flew, “in his old age,” as Dawkins unkindly noted, had betrayed the true faith, for, as pointed out by Varghese, tergiversation means “apostasy.” Dawkins had admitted that atheism was an example of the much derided (by atheists) notion of faith. He had put his trust in a certain belief system that could not ultimately be proved. One of the articles of the atheist faith, as described by Dawkins in an interview with the Edge Foundation, was his firm belief that “all life, all intelligence, all creativity, and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.”
Dawkins was playing the role of gatekeeper, ignoring how many prominent scientists had confirmed that they believe in a Deity. The men behind the scientific revolution, such as Kepler, Copernicus, and Newton, believed that the laws they had discovered originated in the mind of God. We who believe in that eternal Mind, also believe that it is the source of all others.
Part II to follow.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.