When two ideas seem to contradict each other, we call it an oxymoron. Drawing a clear understanding of what an oxymoron is can be achieved by simply looking at the word ‘oxymoron’; oxymoron is an oxymoron.
Oxymoron is actually two words put together in the same way as compound words like jellyfish, fingernail, jigsaw, toothbrush, etc. In this case, both words are Greek. Οχυσ (Oxus) literally means ‘sharp’ or ‘swift’. Early Greeks used this word to describe the sword of Christ in Revelation 1 & 19. But, οχυσ also carries the imagery of a sharp, quick thinking individual—one who is smart. μωρός (Mōrus), on the other hand, is where we get our modern word, moron; it means fool/foolish. Thus we have a clear oxymoron: oxus moros, smart fool.
Welcome to scientific atheism. Science: “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”[i] In contrast, atheism is a, “disbelief[ii] or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods”.[iii] As atheism is considered a system of disbelief pertaining to spiritual entities, it draws an οχυσ (sharp) contrast to scientific physical necessity. In very straight forward terms, scientific atheism is like saying physical-study, spiritual-disbelief; a clear oxymoron on multiple fronts. Just as physical and spiritual are opposite, study and disbelief also find themselves in opposition.
I think recognizing the polar differences between physical and spiritual are straight forward (mass/mass-less, observable/non-observable, has weight, is weight-less, etc.) Study and disbelief may not be as clear, but these terms are more conflicting than the latter two. Study is an active process; it is an intent to learn, investigate, and explore. To study is to give credence to the topic and then draw a conclusion based on the results. Studying concludes in belief–always. Whether that belief affirms that a proposition (i.e. God exists) is true or affirms that the proposition is false (i.e. God does not exist) is indifferent. Studying a topic leads you to either believe it’s true or believe it’s false; it will never lead you to disbelief in the topic. The only way to arrive at disbelief is to reject the topic exists and therefore refuse to study. Some might say I have a disbelief in unicorns or leprechauns or flying spaghetti monsters. That’s fine, I’m not saying everything requires a belief. I am saying, you do not arrive at disbelief by studying. To disbelieve, to say I don’t want (or there is nothing) to learn, investigate or explore, is to refuse to study.[iv]
Let me clear this up in terms of atheism (atheism as a disbelief). There are some atheist that say, “there is no evidence therefore there is nothing to study.” But this is clear rejection of study for two reasons. First, there are a lot of scholars who study the concept of God (atheists and religious). The atheist that makes the claim, there is nothing to study, is rejecting all arguments that exist which are against his position; this atheist is not studying. This atheist can only say, “There is nothing to study” because he is refusing to study what is available. This is drastically different than refusing to study the flying spaghetti monster which literally has no proof to investigate.
The second reason I can charge some atheists with refusing to study is because they admit they are okay not knowing. Origin and meaning of life are deep questions we all ask ourselves. The religious take all the evidence and formulate an opinion, but some atheists shrug and say, “Science doesn’t know yet.” Science doesn’t know yet? Do you know what you are saying? You just said: I don’t know and I’m not going to speculate until a group of people tell me what to think. <— I’m pretty sure that is a straight forward rejection of study, #JustSayin.
As a quick note, not all atheists fit the above category. In fact, some atheists study diligently and I have a lot of respect for them. The generalities listed above are purposefully pointed at the atheist who refuse to admit atheism is a belief system.
But, there is more that needs to be said about the oxymoron of scientific atheism than just semantics.
I titled my post, scientific atheism to address the notion that the study of science will lead to atheism. But this is just as contradictory as study is to disbelief.
A 2009 study was released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge) titled, “Empirics on the Origins of Preferences: The Case of College Major and Religiosity.”[v] The group presented the hypothesis that because polls indicate a large number of college students leave the faith[vi] in college, studying scientific advancements lead to disbelief in God. Or, science leads to atheism. The conclusion, however, was vastly different.
As it turns out, the biggest change (i.e. decline) in religion came from a study of the humanities/literature. Physical sciences, like math and biology, had no significant difference (3-5% decline) in religiosity and studying education actually had a positive influence. A quick note about the numbers; by the studies own admission:
“we expect the coefficients on religiosity to be biased downward”.[vii]
So, even the 3-5% decline represented in biology isn’t as statistically drastic[viii] as it appears.
Before we hit the sciences, I’d like to briefly discuss the opposing results in humanities and education (significant fall & rise respectfully) as it relates to religiosity. Humanities classes typically fall into post-modern thinking (everything is relative). It has no objective foundation because the individual chooses what is true for him/her. In fact, one analysis of this particular study proposed that, “broadening world views is the major reason these students lose their faith”.[ix] This brings about yet another oxymoron, though one that will have to be discussed another day, that the degree with no foundation is the foundational position of the education system.[x]
As interesting as this could be, the scientific aspect is astounding…but not for the reason you think.
While students in the sciences did have a slight decline in religiosity, it by no means was conclusive—not everyone lost their religion. So, if students in college can examine the same data and determine different results, we must at some point force ourselves to recognize the human aspect of science—namely the point of interpretation. That is, anyone who states, “Science says ________” is clearly not appreciating the point of science. Science is a tool that produces data that needs to be interpreted by people.
To put it another way, the debate between science and religion is not a debate about data; the debate is about the interpretation of the data.
But the interpretation isn’t the only thing science needs. In fact, science needs non-scientific elements to even exist. In a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Atkins, professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, Dr. Atkins challenged Dr. Craig to think come up with something science couldn’t prove. Dr. Craig’s reply was spot-on,
“Let me list five[xi]…logical and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science. Science presupposes logic and math so that to try to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle…and finally, most remarkably, would be science itself. Science cannot be justified by the scientific method, since it is permeated with unprovable assumptions.”[xii]
So now that we understand science is not end of all knowledge we can find the humor in concluding atheism via scientific inquiry. A great analogy of science and atheism is found in Dr. Edward Feser’s metal detector examination. Feser writes, using science to disprove God is,
“utterly fallacious—as fallacious as appealing to the success of metal detectors to support the claim that only metal exists.”[xiii]
Don’t miss this. Metal detectors find metal, but they aren’t entirely comprised of metal. Science can find physical stuff, but science itself isn’t physical. So the mere idea that science or physical stuff is all there is is ridiculous. Science isn’t physical stuff nor is physical stuff science—how can either claim exclusivity? They can’t!
In conclusion, we must look at what science is investigating. Sir Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, said “true knowledge is knowledge by causes”.[xiv] In order to study causes, science requires repeatability. News flash, random repeatability is another oxymoron. Instead of complete randomness we see consistency. Not only do we see it, we need to see it. Imagine trying to live in an ecosystem that was composed of 21% oxygen one day and 100% nitrogen the next. Imagine trying learn about causes if each cause had a different effect. It would be impossible. Science and life need order, consistency, and stability. Everything about what science does and how it works depends upon a creating agent. In order for science to be conducted and interpreted based on our presuppositions to logic and basic reliability of senses, it needs God; an immaterial Being governing the immaterial to make sense of the physical.
If science needs God and atheists reject God in support of science, we end up with two contradictory terms side-by-side. Scientific atheism is an oxymoron.
[i] New Oxford Dictionary
[ii] My good friend Nate Sala has covered atheism and its belief/non-belief semantics well in his two posts: here & here. So while this topic doesn’t add itself well to the conversation within the post, I do acknowledge there are significant differences in how atheism is viewed (even among atheists) as it relates to belief.
[iii] Google definition. It should be noted that this is not a debate about what atheism is or isn’t to various groups of atheists. Rather, my inclusion of a definition here is solely to point to the non-physical characteristic of atheism which will be drawn out through this entire post.
[iv] I have no doubts this point will be a matter on contention. Many atheist will say something to the effect of, “I have investigated the claims of…” of, “there is no proof/evidence in order to study…”, etc. That’s a lie. I wrote an entire series on this idea here.
[vi] This is actually a mischaracterization on the part of the study. The studies in question draw on the attendance of religious services and not sworn statements of faith.
[vii] Pg 19. More information is available within the study to further explain influences upon the answers. The study determines the answers to be depictive of the trend though not fully accurate.
[viii] The study followed approximately 15000 students over 4 years. 5% change is roughly 750 students and hardly drastic though the charts certainly give that appearance.
[x] I may draw this out to its own post later, if it spikes your interest leave some feedback. But the more I dive into it the further down the rabbit trail I get—I must move on.
[xi] For brevity I only included the 2 most relevant. The 5 Dr. Craig named were: 1) logical and mathematical truths, 2) metaphysical truths about reality, 3) ethical beliefs, 4) aesthetic judgments like beauty, and 5) science itself.
[xii] Frank Turek, “Stealing from God: Why atheists need God to make their case” p162-163
[xiii] Turek, p 160
[xiv] Turek, p 149