Wednesday, May 11, 2011

science and religion (again!)

A reader drew my attention to this brief debate on this topic, in which well-known atheist Sam Harris made the statement:

"We have Christians believing in the holy ghost, the resurrection of Jesus and his possible return – these are claims about biology and physics which, from a scientific point of view in the 21st century, should be unsustainable."

What is the basis of this statement?

let's start with some definitions

Wikipedia defines science as "an enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world".

Further, Wikipedia quotes the Oxford Dictionary's description of the scientific method as "a method of procedure .... consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses."

So how does belief in the resurrection and the Holy Spirit contravene science?

supernatural beliefs and science

I think we can agree that no-one can establish the truth of the resurrection and the existence of the Holy Spirit via the scientific method. We have no way of making any scientific observations of the resurrection, and no method I know of to measure something non-physical and allegedly supernatural.

But one can equally ask how science has made such beliefs "unsustainable"?

Can Harris reference any scientific experiments that have even attempted to test the hypotheses that there was no resurrection and no Holy Spirit? To do so one would have to develop a method to measure these things, then perform the tests, then show that a negative result shows non-existence rather than inability to measure. I can't even imagine anyone being able to do this. Without such a program, the scientific method hasn't been followed and it is wrong to label the conclusions as in any way scientific.

Clearly, Harris doesn't mean this. Rather he is drawing an unscientific conclusion from his experience of the world and his own opinions. I imagine he might argue that:

  • Dead men don't come back to life. We understand biological processes better than they did back then, and there are good scientific reasons why resurrection is contrary to the laws of nature and therefore impossible. But a believer will agree with Harris that resurrection is impossible in the natural course of events - we just believe this wasn't the natural course of events, but an intervention from outside the physical universe.
  • The idea of a powerful spiritual being is incoherent, especially one that is a "Trinity". But it must be said that this is simply an opinion, and far from a scientific conclusion. Others find no problem with the concept.

is harris being unscientific himself?

Right before he makes the statement I started with, Harris says: "Religious language is, without question, unscientific in its claims for what is true." I have agreed that is correct, but Harris doesn't seem to want to see that he has done exactly the same thing in reverse. His conclusions are based on his worldview, not any science.

But he comes closer to this understanding when he later talks of "a background reality which we are dimly coming to understand", on the basis of which "we can still recognise falsehood, or how implausible certain [religious] claims are".

So Sam Harris' disbelief has a similar philosophical basis as my own belief - based on the world and life as we experience them, we each draw conclusions about God (which happen to be opposite). I think the evidence is best explained by God's existence, he thinks God's non-existence is part of the best explanation. There's no more science in it than that, for either of us. If only he could see that, it would be easier for atheists and believers to have a thoughtful discussion.

If anyone wants that.


  1. Belief in the ressurection is a theological belief and is untestable in any other arena.
    Neither can it be proved historically.
    So, while this belief is fundamental to Christianity it cannot be regarded as factual and thus acceptance is merely up to the individual.

  2. "Neither can it be proved historically.:

    It can be and has been tested. Most scholars, christian or otherwise, conclude either that Jesus' tomb was empty, and/or the disciples had post crucifixion "visions" of Jesus and/or that belief in the resurrection was both very early and a major part of the explanation of the rise of christianity. Many believe several or all of those "facts".

    So the resurrection has reasonable historical support. I suggest your problem isn't with the history, but with the metaphysics.


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