Science and atheism

Robert Barron writes

I have found that, in practically every instance, the scientists who declare their disbelief in God have no idea what serious religious people mean by the word “God.” Almost without exception, they think of God as some supreme worldly nature, an item within the universe for which they have found no “evidence,” a gap within the ordinary nexus of causal relations, etc. I would deny such a reality as vigorously as they do. If that’s what they mean by “God,” then I’m as much an atheist as they—and so was Thomas Aquinas. What reflective religious people mean when they speak of God is not something within the universe, but rather the condition for the possibility of the universe as such, the non-contingent ground of contingency. And about that reality, the sciences, strictly speaking, have nothing to say one way or another, for the consideration of such a state of affairs is beyond the limits of the scientific method.

I understand why people like Barron might like this maneuver – it is philosophical jujutsu of the highest order. In a single conceptual stroke, they overturn what seems like a powerful argument – that (supposedly) there is little evidence for God within the universe.

Yet, I don’t think Barron can actually mean what he says here. Does he think there is no evidence for the action of the Holy Spirit? No experiences of grace that make a difference to how people act? Similarly, does prayer have no effects – and if so, why does he ask people to pray for him and his ministry?

If these things have effects, they are on overlapping terrain with science, which is simply the study of cause-and-effect relationships pertaining to the paradigmatically physical world. Since what affects human actions affects that world, scientists will have a large lacuna in their understanding of the world if, indeed, there are effects such as described above.

Having said this, Barron gets a more general claim correct. Most scientists are poorly informed about Christianity or even theism – they tend not to be acquainted with the large variation of beliefs that go along with it (including Barron’s own Thomistic position), or the kinds of considerations or evidence for some of those variations. Similarly, his characterization of academic philosophy and theism is interesting, and worth reading.

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