January 21, 2005
BY ANDREW GREELEY
The nastiest letters this column attracts are from right- wing Catholics and militant atheists. Both groups are true believers, the former in the Catholicism of the 1950s, the latter in science. The mix of anger and triumph in their letters suggests that both have a deep emotional need for absolute certainty that drives them to rage at those who suggest that the world is a complicated place.
The atheists celebrate science. They reject religion because it is not “scientific.” They dismiss anything that suggests there are other sources of truth than “science” and thus claim an intellectual and moral superiority to those superstitious folk who believe in God. They rejoice therefore that the tsunami disaster proves there is no God.
In fact all the tsunami proves is that a planet that has “plates” floating over its molten core will produce earthquakes as a cost of generating a “crust” on which there can be life. One might argue that it is the mission of creatures who live on the crust to co-create warning systems that predict quakes and tidal waves. Perhaps such efforts are similar to the co-creation of techniques that control the worst of human plagues.
Atheists will dismiss such a view as not “scientific.” Perhaps it is not because it cannot prove beyond any doubt the thesis of human co-creation. But neither can science disprove such a view, much less disprove the existence of goodness and love in the universe. Science simply does not have the tools to wrestle with such questions.
Many scientists don’t believe in God, but many do. According to a study of college faculties some years ago by sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, scholars who are engaged in the “hard” disciplines such as physics and chemistry are more likely to believe in God than social scientists or “humanists.” Those who are inclined to reject God in the name of science are less likely to be engaged in science in the strictest sense of that word.
Sociology may well be the most problematic of the “sciences” not because we are airheads (though in truth some of us are) but because we deal with the most complicated of subjects – humans in society. I tell the students every year in my course on “God in the Movies” that, while we can talk about images people have of God and stories they tell about God, we cannot address the question of whether God is. Facetiously I say that God is never home when our interviewers call. More seriously we lack the tools to answer the question – though of course we have our own personal beliefs.
The same constraints apply to all sciences. None of them have the tools to explain why there is anything at all, why there is an arrangement of reality in complex patterns (quantum theory, for example) and what might be the direction of and purpose of reality. Anyone who claims that science can answer such ultimate questions is a charlatan.
It does not follow from this fact that there is a God, much less that knowledge and love animate the cosmos. All that follows is that science does not have all the answers and it is in the nature of the scientific enterprise that it cannot answer the ultimate questions. This fact, however, does not prevent some scientists pontificating as if they had the answers. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as it is clear that their answers do not flow from their science. I can argue the presence of love strongly suggests the presence of Love. But sociology doesn’t prove that – though it can prove that most people everywhere in the world do believe in God.
Where the competence of science ends, mystery begins – though there is bafflement at the outer edges of science too. The answers to the Big Questions cannot be attained through the methods of science but require other ways of knowledge – insight, intuition, faith, no matter which way the answers go. To decide whether there is purpose in human life – something that looks like gestation and birth – or whether it is all a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, requires a leap of faith, a venture into the darkness of mystery in search of light. Science can bring one to the edge of that darkness but is impotent beyond it.
Copyright 2005, Chicago Sun-Times
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