My friend and colleague George asked me, “Do you think a scientist can be an atheist?” I replied, “Not only can a scientist be an atheist, he should be one.” I was teasing because I knew what response George wanted to hear and this was not it. Sure enough, he shook his head. The only logical position that a scientist can take, he said, is to be an agnostic because we can never know the answer to the question of whether God exists or not.
This is of course an old debate. To avoid the logical problem of proving nonexistence, some early atheists chose to define themselves differently. In the 19th century, the political activist and self-declared atheist Charles Bradlaugh said, “The atheist does not say “There is no God,” but he says, “I know not what you mean by God….I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception.”
Bradlaugh’s contemporary Charles Darwin was reluctant to accept the label of atheist urged upon him by Edward Aveling, a well-known atheist of his time. Darwin’s stated reason for rejecting the label was because he saw it as too “aggressive.” Darwin and some of his contemporaries preferred to call themselves agnostics, a term coined by one of his supporters T. H. Huxley, partly because that position seemed less likely to offend others in the Victorian social circles in which they moved. But there are other reasons to prefer the label of agnostic over atheist.
Very often this discussion devolves into debating dictionary definitions. For example, the second part of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of atheist as one who “disbelieves” in God is unproblematic. It is the first part of the definition that says that an atheist is “One who denies the existence of a God” that causes problems. It can be argued that that this implies that the atheist is saying he or she is certain that there is no God. Since one cannot prove the non-existence of a god, few atheists would sign on to such a strong statement.
The OED definition of an agnostic—“One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and unknowable”—seems to support George’s position and appears to be a more logical one. Thus, by definition, all atheists become agnostics.
So how can I justify my statement to George that a scientist can, and perhaps should, be an atheist?
One argument is that for a scientist to accept the existence of a deity who has the ability to cause events that contradict the laws of science would be to open up a can of worms, since then any phenomenon to which we do not know the answer could be ascribed to the actions of a supernatural power and thus shut down further scientific investigations. As a result, scientists usually take a pragmatic approach, saying that the nature of scientific research requires one to eschew any supernatural explanations when doing science.
This approach can be described as methodological naturalism, but there exists a stronger formulation of naturalism that is referred to as philosophical naturalism, which is the statement that the material world governed by natural laws is all there is and no supernatural phenomena exist at all. This is what the strong form of atheism implies. Can this be justified since we can never prove the nonexistence of a deity, or indeed of many other supernatural phenomena?
One problem with using George’s standard is that then we have to leave open the possibility for the existence of anything that the imagination can conjure up, such as zombies, vampires, unicorns, werewolves, etc. Most of us would flatly dismiss that such things exist, but these phantasms are not the only things that we confidently assert to not exist. There are plenty of examples of entities that were once firmly believed by scientists to exist but are now as firmly asserted to not exist. The aether and phlogiston are two such examples. How can scientists so confidently dismiss their existence now when they have not proved their nonexistence and indeed cannot do so on the grounds of logical impossibility? It is because scientists are using the scientific logic.
The history of science suggests that entities are considered to not exist when two conditions are met: there is no preponderance of positive evidence for them and they cease to be necessary as explanatory concepts. The latter condition arises when a new theory is proposed that seems promising and does not require the existence of those entities. It was the theory of special relativity that did not require the existence of the aether, and the oxygen theory of combustion made phlogiston redundant. Once these new theories became part of the accepted paradigms of the scientific community, the aether and phlogiston were deemed to not exist.
Applying that same scientific logic to the existence of a deity or supernatural phenomena in general, we can frame the question in a more unambiguous way: Is there a preponderance of positive evidence for existence of a deity? Is its existence a necessary explanatory concept? The answer given by atheists to both questions is in the negative. All positive evidence produced by believers is at best highly ambiguous and open to alternative explanations and there is no fact that requires the postulation of a deity to explain it.
In short, God is not a necessary explanatory concept and can thus be firmly asserted to not exist until either of the above two conditions are met. Using scientific logic, we can be as sure of God’s nonexistence as we are of the nonexistence of the aether, phlogiston or werewolves!
Featured image credit: “Brick Cathedral” by Luca Baggio. CC0 via Unsplash.