A scientist has to be an atheist; that seems to be the pervading popular wisdom these days. Yahoos, snake handlers and Bible freaks are "true believers," but sober men and women of science can't possibly believe in such fairy tales.
The thinking goes that if a person is smart and educated, then obviously they get that God is a convenient psychological crutch and religion nothing more than a social mechanism designed to reign in our baser tendencies-tendencies that, if uncontrolled by the do's and don'ts of religion, would lead to societal anarchy.
This idea that atheism is the ideology of choice for the more educated and enlightened and can be the only mind-set of the rational and scientifically minded is certainly in literary vogue as evidenced by best sellers such as Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (2007) and Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (2006).
They reflect a cultural climate where so-called smart people--academics, scientists, intellectuals, and wannabe intellectuals--declare themselves atheists with a capital A and tow the company line: since God, or cosmic sentience, can't be affirmatively proven (or even observed) via scientific methodology, then those empirically unobservable things can't exist. Thus, anything beyond our observable material reality is considered right up there with Big Foot and the Chupacabra.
But here's the thing. As I discuss in my new book How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save Your Life (Conari, 2011), it's this matter of proof and evidence that gets to the source of the modern conflict between science and religion: science demands affirmative proof for what's essentially un-provable in the scientific arena. But perhaps, just perhaps, when it comes to "proof " regarding God, the evidentiary burden should instead fall on the atheists to prove that there is not a God or, at the very least, that there isn't some sort of cosmic purpose. Think about it; if an atheist is so quick to invoke science as their guiding rationale in their belief in a random universe, then shouldn't they prove it?
Because, really, if any scientists proudly and self-assuredly declare themselves atheists (Richard Dawkins and Stepehen Hawking-you know who you are!), then they're not only being intellectually dishonest, but they're also going counter to the guiding principles of the thing that they profess to love so much: Science.
In science, we can't affirmatively know or assert something until we've empirically proven it; absent any such affirmative data, the true and proper scientific stance should be one that echoes Socrates' credo of "I know that I don't know". (Socrates is said to have been dubbed by the Oracle at Delphi the smartest man in all of Greece because he alone was smart enough to realize that "I know that I know nothing.")
Thus, without any affirmative scientific proof that God does not exist, the default position should be one of agnosticism--of "I don't know since I don't have enough data one way or another."
Really, how can Dawkins claim, as a scientist, that he's an atheist when he hasn't proven that God doesn't exist? As a private citizen, he can choose to believe--or not believe--anything he wants. But what irks me is when scientists use the banner of science to somehow give legitimacy to their own--oftentimes dogmatic--beliefs.
Now, the atheist will counter my affirmative proof argument by crying, "Well, OK, but there isn't any affirmative proof of God." Fine, even if we grant that assertion (which some will dispute), then the proper scientific stance should still be one of uncertain agnosticism--not definitive atheism.
Here, some might echo the old axiom that, well, you can't prove a negative. But if we were to believe that, then that's all the more reason why a person of science should not claim to be an atheist since the nonexistence of God is empirically impossible to prove (although some have disputed this old "you can't prove a negative" axiom by pointing out that some scientific experiments do indeed prove a negative; Francesco Redi's famous seventeenth-century experiment proving that maggots do not spontaneously generate from meat is an example of proving a negative).
This difficulty in proving a negative should be even more reason for the scientist to embrace agnosticism. Absent an experiment that shows that God does not exist or a proof that concludes that the universe has no purpose, we can not scientifically accept those assertions; thus for a scientist to embrace atheism is not only intellectually dishonest, but also logically inconsistent.
I understand that some might reasonably say that theistically inclined scientists are also guilty of intellectual dishonesty; after all, they too believe in something that hasn't been scientifically proven, which, as we've said, is a big scientific no-no.
But here's the thing: there is a logically consistent proof for the existence of God. It's not commonly taught in most public schools, but Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian developed his "five proofs for the existence of God" hundreds of years before an apple dropped on Newton's head.
In essence, Aquinas argues that "something" (i.e., us, the universe) can't arise from "nothingness," that "something" (namely God) had to be the "cause" of all things and of all "movement." (This notion borrows heavily from Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" conception of what we might call God.)
Aquinas's second key idea has to do with the universe's tendency towards order, which seems to contradict the chaos of the laws of entropy; in other words, the order that comes from disorder leads to a conclusion that the universe has some sort of purposeful unfolding. Some might call this a form of universal DNA encoded into the existential fabric to guide, over the course of roughly 15 billion years, the evolutionary development of an inanimate, subatomic, pre-Big Bang speck into the sentient and reasoned being that's reading this blog.
Yes, admittedly Aquinas's proof relies on reason and logic; for those seeking C.S.I.-style evidence of God, sorry. Nor do we have the George Burns version of God testifying in a courtroom or revealing himself to a befuddled John Denver.
Instead, all we have is a thirteenth-century proof from a long-dead philosopher. That, and wondrous and miraculous creation itself--flowers, and babies, and rainbows, and luminous stars and galaxies, and, perhaps most amazing of all, this amazing thing called the human mind with its seemingly infinite ability to create and to imagine.
But even if everything that I've just mentioned doesn't convince the atheist that there's more to the universe than meets the eye, I have yet to see the compelling proof or the scientific evidence that God or cosmic purpose does not exist.
So the question remains: is there such a thing as God? Is there a purpose to the evolutionary unfolding of the universe that science-with all of its man-made high-tech gadgets-has yet to discover?
I know that I don't know.
Certainly the ancient Greeks would suggest a humble agnosticism rather than a self-assured--and unproven--atheism. Really, if you're a no-doubt-about-it atheist, for all you really know, you might just be a butterfly dreaming that you're an atheist!