Why atheists are wrong about science and religion



Back in April this year, Melbourne hosted the second Global Atheist Convention, a follow-up to the gathering of thousands of atheists from around the globe that took place there in 2010. Both events featured the most prominent of the so-called New Atheists, Richard Dawkins.

To believe Dawkins, and many of the other speakers at the conference, you'd think there is a deep gulf between science and religion, that the two are intractably at loggerheads and have nothing useful to say to each other.

But this is at odds with what many other theologians, philosophers and scientists tell us. They say science and religion are both quests for truth dealing with different aspects of human experience. This is well summed up in Galileo's famous statement that 'the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go'.

He in turn was quoting an eminent churchman of his time, historian and curial official, Cardinal Cesare Baronio. Both these men, one on the side of science, the other on the side of religion, recognised the legitimacy of both.

Chris Mulherin, featured here on Eureka Street TV, similarly has a foot in both camps; an Anglican clergyman with a substantial academic background studying and lecturing in science and the philosophy of science.

He is now doing his doctorate on the relationship between scientific and theological ways of knowing. He argues they are different but complementary ways of understanding, and summarises the difference by saying that while science deals with mechanics, religion deals with meaning.

Mulherin's first degrees, both from the University of Melbourne, were in Mechanical Engineering and English and Philosophy. Following this he gained a Master of Science, also from the University of Melbourne, on the philosophy of science, with his thesis focusing on the nature of scientific knowledge.

Next he gained a Bachelor of Divinity with honours from the Melbourne College of Divinity. He was ordained an Anglican minister, then worked for 12 years, from 1994–2006, as a university chaplain and minister in Argentina.

After returning to Melbourne, he began his doctorate at the MCD University of Divinity. He now lectures at Catholic Theological College and the Anglican Ridley College, tutors at the University of Melbourne, and is a minister at St Jude's Anglican Church in Parkville.

Since 2010 Mulherin has worked as a freelance writer and contributor to ABC Radio National. He wrote a very thoughtful blog for the ABC analysing and commenting on the 2010 Global Atheists Convention.

He has also written about very personal events in his life. In 2010 he wrote a moving and eloquent account for Eureka Street of the passing of his son, Ben, who died from cancer. He spoke not only of the course of Ben’s illness, but also with depth and clarity about the grieving of the whole family.

He often speaks at conferences, has penned scores of articles for popular and academic journals, and has contributed chapters to three books: Knowing and Being: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Michael Polanyi; Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture; and, most recently, God and Science: In Classroom and Pulpit. 

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 


Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Global Atheist Convention, Richard Dawkins, Chris Mulherin


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Existing comments

May I recommend to 'Eureka Street' readers an excellent book that is relevant to Peter Kirkwood's excellent article and to Chris Mulherin's research. I refer to 'The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning' by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. Released in paperback this year, it was described by the British journalist, Andrew Marr, as 'The most persuasive argument for religious belief I have ever read'--a judgment which I warmly support.
Br Brian Grenier | 27 July 2012

In one sense, this new atheism has the potential to encourage churches/religions to flourish by forcing them to talk on the basis of what Chris Mulherin describes as "meaning" rather than "mechanism"... the problem is that I think religions are still stuck in "mechanism" ie. That's the rules, follow it. That's what the bibles says. etc etc. So even contentious moral issues within churches are often dealt with on the basis of this "mechanistic thinking" rather than the meaning or moral value behind the teaching. And there's reluctance to discuss contentious issues for fear of being branded disloyal or lacking in faith, and the discussion end up becoming a political divide into left/right - And of course just another battle of ego, wit and power.
AURELIUS | 27 July 2012

As a presbyterian sunday school teacher in my teens, and without knowing of Galileo's statement, I espoused the same view to a class only a few years younger than myself and got hauled over the coals by the church elders. That process lost me to religion. Many years later, I discovered that the Catholic church had moved on but sadly the anglicans and protestants mostly hadn't. I've often thought that if Richard Dawkins were to read the yellow catechism we might see another conversion!
ian | 27 July 2012

Throughout the world there is a variety of theists, atheists and agnostics, mostly well defined and, in many cases, well organised. Then there are others, belonging to no organisation, who simply acknowledge that they are "Don't knowers".
Bob Corcoran | 27 July 2012

But, Bob Corcoran, the "Don't knowers" who don't know with both their head and their heart, are the agnostics. The "Don't knowers" in just their head, are probably the majority of believers, but they know in their heart.
AURELIUS | 27 July 2012

"science and religion are both quests for truth dealing with different aspects of human experience" But science eventually reaches a consensus on many questions, such as the shape of the earth and the fact that it orbits the sun. Religion, by contrast, leads to no consensus on anything. Is eating bacon ok? Is polygamy ok? How many gods exist -- none, one, two, more? There's no way to discern truth from falsehood, so all made-up answers are on equal ground, and all are equally useless.
Brian Westley | 27 July 2012

Ah... Brian Westley, you are confusing religious traditions with religious meanings. Human beings are still cultural animals, and religions have evolved the same way we do as a species. And so our understanding of how God is revealed to us evolves. Unlike science, religious truths are discerned through "discernment" (pardon the tautology). Discernment cannot "prove" anything the same way science does, but that's why we call it religious "faith", and unlike science, no-one is trying to "prove" anything, but to find meaning.
AURELIUS | 27 July 2012

There should be no conflict between science and religion, because both come from God. In the beginning there was no conflict, because religion was built on whatever science was available at the time. Leaders in both disciplines made unfounded assumptions, because no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned they were, they did not have sufficient knowledge available to make definitive decisions on the problems facing them. A parting of the ways came when scientists relied on observations and measurements, and religious leaders relied on their scriptures, which they falsely assumed were God-given. However as time passed, Science evolved as new knowledge emerged, but the religious traditions tended fearfully to cling to beliefs in the out-dated interpretations lest neglect of them might be disloyal and have unpleasant repercussions.Old scientists would simply retire from the scene. Old religious leaders could demand "Loyalty".
The main difference between progression in science and fossilisation in religion has been the control that could be exercised over new insights.

In both realms of knowledge, older cognoscenti might have spent their lives achieving the insights they promoted, and often they were now too old and set in their thought patterns to return to basics and develop new interpretations.
Robert Liddy | 27 July 2012

Oh please. This statement:

"But this is at odds with what many other theologians, philosophers and scientists tell us. They say science and religion are both quests for truth dealing with different aspects of human experience."

Is very misleading. In fact about 75% of professional philosophers are athiests, and similar results ahve been found for scientists - figures that continually rise (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=coarse).

Furthermore, Mulherin's claim that "while science deals with mechanics, religion deals with meaning" is false. Both science and philosophy deal with meaning, while religion deals uncritically with outdated scriptures written by literate bronze-aged peasants.

When are we ever going to get over our childish obsession with the supernatural?
James MC | 27 July 2012

Science and religion both claim to be paths to truth and knowledge. Only one of them has ever demonstrated itself to do this whilst the other has only ever demonstrated itself to suppress the truth - either by claiming to have answers that it does not and so convincing others to stop seeking or by actively interfering with government to prevent the truth from reaching the public.
Ian | 27 July 2012

Interestingly in scholastic philosophy:
'Theology' is defined as the study of all things through their ultimate causes under the light of Revelation.
'Philosophy' is the study of all things through their ultimate causes under the light of reason alone.
Science is the study of all things through their proximate causes under the light of scientific instrumentality and experimentation.
Different fields that are complimentary if carried out with erudite focus and proper methodology
Father John Michael George | 27 July 2012

It's true that there are complementary ways of understanding, one of which is through evidence-based reasoning.
David Arthur | 27 July 2012

Science doesn't need excuses made for it, because science works. Religion, not so much.
Gordon | 27 July 2012

I share with Bro. Brian Grenier the first respondant, that Rabbi Sacks has a very level headed approach to both religion and science - or faith and reason. Reasoning should not be substituted with blind faith; but reasoning does run out, and when all reasoning is done, then the potential for a leap of faith is all that remains.
Both science and religion are of the same sauce, and I believe both are a necessary means in the search for truth - but a search from different perspectives.
Science deals with 'how' questions, while religion deals with 'why' questions, and surely both forms of questioning are valid.
Of course the questions addressed by science can never be addressed by religion, and the questions addressed by religion can never be addressed by science because the very nature of their different modes of enquiry excludes this.
The great Albert Einstein once made an interesting observation as to the necessity of both science and religion - 'that religion without science is blind, and that science without religion is lame'
Rabbi Sacks having been mentioned, I will also add another couple of names also well worth researching:

Dr. John Polkinghorne is a theologian (Anglican Priest) and particle physicist - in fact one who was instrumental in the discovery of quarks - a fundamental sub atomic particle.
Prof Russell Stannard is another who has similar interests - he spent most of his life as a high energy particle physicist, and headed a team at Cern's Large Hadron Colider.
I believe there are many like myself who see a deep and subtle marriage between science and thiesm - otherwise it would seem a case of truth being set against truth!

John Whitehead | 27 July 2012

I don't really understand the point of this article, all an Atheist is is someone who rejects the claim there is a God. Their reasons are their own. What does it have to do with science.

Science is not an ideology it is a tool for understanding the universe around us. Science has managed to explain how many processes occur naturally, this conflicts with many supernatural explanations provided by religion.

For example, in the bible there is a first man, and a first woman made from the mans rib. In science humans evolved from another primate. Sadly for Christianity, no first man or woman means no original sin, which in tern means no reason for God to send Jesus to die for our us.

Science can most definitely back up an Atheist's beliefs however you don't need to do an experiment to decide you don't believe in a magical man in the sky who made everything, and cares what we eat, speak and have sex with.
Byron Lumley | 28 July 2012

The usual interpretation of the word "Atheist" is "Someone who rejects belief in God." BUT,in practice it really means "Someone who rejects Theists - or rather, - the limited and often distorted concept of God the theists propose."
The 75% of professional pphilosophers/ scientists that James MC refers to are mostly prescinding from consideration of God, and restricting the parameters of their thoughts to the observable and measureable. There are two areas of Reality,(1), the material - what can be observed and measured- and(2), the non-material - the realm of ideas and ideals. The concept of a perfect circle, with no thicknesss or depth in the line making it, cannot exist in the material world, since everything material must have thickness and depth. But the perfect cicle displays its Reality by being a necessary element in working out - (for eample), how to put a man on the moon, and bring him back. Logically those 75% of philosophers/scientists should also deny the existence of perfect circles, but they can hardly deny their Reality, since they are such essential components in much of practical implementation of human endeavours.
Robert Liddy | 28 July 2012

To James MC, the literate bronze-aged peasants who wrote down the words of another peasant called Jesus are indeed outdated for many people - to "Love one another as I have loved you" is surely irrelevant in today's society, where arguments and debate are motivated by bitterness and anger.
If you think to "love one another" is a "childish obsession with the supernatural", then I stand guilty.
AURELIUS | 28 July 2012

It is obviously false to say that religion only deals with meaning and not mechanisms, as Chris Mulherin says (1:40). Christianity relies explicitly and implicitly on truth claims about mechanisms - e.g. 'how the universe comes into existence', 'how sin came into the world', 'how god wants people to act' 'how to get to heaven'. These are all matters of facts about mechanisms, aren't they?
Bwian | 28 July 2012

Byron Lumley:Science has managed to explain how many processes occur naturally, this conflicts with many supernatural explanations provided by religion.
What science explains is HOW God does things.
Thanks to Science, We are slowly coming to realise that God works by Constant and Universal laws. The Authors of ancient 'Traditions' did not realise they were belittling God by porftraying him as acting arbitrarily, as would an angry and sometimes vindictive man. God, as Perfect, is Constant and Universal. Our task is to become in tune with God, and not attempt to manipulate God to accord with our limited understanding and desires. In other words, what we need is a more spiritual approach.

Robert Liddy | 28 July 2012

Aurelius your 'mechanised thinking' reductionism is fiction
re 'contentious issues' discussions I have made an industry of it, on many db websites and I have never been tagged as disloyal,indeed 'disloyal' dbS have expelled me ad nauseam for dissenting from their party lines
Father John Michael George | 28 July 2012

Father George, I am a free think and I would have no pleasure in seeing you expelled and I can't even think of an appropriate tag for you, but you seem to be the one very quick at assign tags to people - whether reductionist, orthodox, revisionist or anti-catholic. The only thing I can say with all certainty is that no matter what we say about God, it's all subjective. We can discuss and argue till the cows come home - God will still be God (or not, for the atheists) and for us believers he could be he, she, one or many. He might have created the earth in seven days - or created it over millions of years. He might send some to hell, some to heaven - or all the heaven and all the hell. We don't know. But at least you and I both have one thing in common - we believe.
AURELIUS | 31 July 2012

Aurelius the Aquinas proofs for Gods existence are the absolute antithesis of subjective projections They arise from observable objective absolute lacunae of sufficient reasons in the world at ultimate causality and rigorously move with unrelenting logic to the objective verifiable ultimate cause and sufficient reason of all things[thus a posteriori methodology extraordinaire For highly subjective a prioristic proofs on gods non existence try atheism[a pottage of confusion, a prioristic illogicality,and wishful thinking subjectivism.
Father John Michael George | 31 July 2012

Father George, Aquinas merely started his arguments with human reason and philosophy (which is subjective). His hoped to show that even people who reject the Scripture could believe in God through the use of their intellects (like what you were doing in your comment above :) But he found that the Scriptures were necessary since the human mind cannot conceive of concepts like the Trinity.
AURELIUS | 01 August 2012

Aurelius, Thomistic philosophy versus numerous others[cf History of Philosophy:Fred Copleston sj]rests on perennial, objective,rational principles of "being" and "existence"; not fickle subjectivity [moods, emotions, sentimentality]eg of modern, subjectivist, European Personalists, existentialists, Phenomenologists and Axiologists.
Though Karol Woytyla drew good even from those[though himself a Thomist,and developed a brilliant integration of all with thomism]
British Linguistic Analysis Philosophy, I found the tedious pits [though one guiding light actually died 'theistic', viz. Anthony Flew]
But nothing surpasses the clarity and objective sheer earthiness of the Angelic Doctor Aquinas!

Father John Michael George | 02 August 2012

Dear Father George, I am not discrediting Aquinas. His legacy belongs to us all. But even Aquinas admits that he is looking into Plato's cave of shadows and moving figures when he compares his wisdom with the depth and breadth of the divine. We will all understand this one day I hope when our time comes.
AURELIUS | 07 August 2012

May I recommend anothe book BEFORE THE DELUSION by Wm Gleeson, recently published in UK. The cover looks a little Dan Brownish but it actually contains impressive research of pre-Christian history, including a rational explanation of several 'mysteries' of the early Church. Well worth a look. RossMelb
RossMelb | 11 August 2012

Isn't it remarkable that the most accomplished scientists in the world, such as the members of the American National Academy of Sciences, are also overwhelmingly atheistic? More remarkable still is the claim by a person with with a Masters degree in divinity that these people are "wrong about science".
Tim | 12 August 2012

"science deals with mechanics, religion deals with meaning."

There likely would be no conflict if religion would in fact stick to talking only about meaning. But it doesn't. Many theologians and many believers in general make claims about the material universe, such as intelligent design. When they do this, and they do it often, they present themselves and their claims for critiical evaluation and criticism. These claims have all failed spectacularly when scrutinized by the means of scientific examination. So your premise that science and religion are compatible is false so long as theists continue to make testable claims about the physical, material universe.
Randy | 12 August 2012

Science may never be able to tell us everything, but it is a way of knowing. What right does any religion have to claim the same? Religions claim to provide answers to many big questions, but none of them provide evidence to back up those claims. Science relies on observation and experimentation, on constantly questioning well established truths, while religion relies on revelation, on blind trust in authority and rigid acceptance of the established dogma. And those different approaches to truth seeking are incompatible.
Darek | 13 August 2012

To RANDY and DEREK, if you'd care to browse some of the topics discussed on ES, you'd find that religion doesn't rely on "blind trust in authority and rigid acceptance of the established dogma" - the existence of Christianity is testament to that. And also, RANDY, in an attempt to explore meaning - this also has a physical aspect so you can't expect theists to ignore the material universe. When you say the "intelligent design" theory be theists has failed spectacularly, there is no one theory for this that scientists have attempted to disprove. The lack of evidence to support a theory, even in the material sciences, does not thereby disprove it.
AURELIUS | 14 August 2012

Is Tim aware of accomplished scientists in the world in the vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences? "Art. 6 The full complement of the Academy consists of 70 life members, chosen in such a way that as far as possible all the principal branches of science and all the major geographical regions are represented.1" "Over the centuries, the Academy has had a number of Nobel Prize winners amongst its members, many of whom were appointed Academicians before they received this prestigious international award."
Father John Michael George | 17 August 2012

Aurelius the lack of evidence from science and philosophy to apodictically prove atheism or disprove theism sure jettisons atheism. A posteriori proofs for god from theodicy provide a double wake upon the eternal deaths of atheism and beloved late cousin, agnosticism[floral wreaths from Divine Revelation and common sense, on the jubilant demise]. And lest we forget 'The existence of God is no mere hypothesis to be established! Rather a sine qua non given, underpinning all.
Father John Michael George | 17 August 2012