Questions on Science and Religion

The following is an interview that will appear in the book How to Prove God Does Not Exist by Trevor Treharne, to be released in September by Universal Publishers.

What is the fundamental conflict between science and religion? Is it one that will never be resolved?

The two have opposing views on what constitutes reality. Science finds no need to include any substance beside matter in order to describe our observations of the world. Religion holds that there is a world beyond matter. Religion claims it has a way of obtaining knowledge that is separate from the scientific method of observation and experiment. The religious believe that we have an inner faculty of some sort that enables us to learn about the world, the universe, and reality without such observation. It is hard to see the two ever resolving this conflict.

One of your more recent books, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, is certainly a timely one based on how common that argument is currently proving. What is your summary on what is wrong with the fine-tuning arguments?

As I have said before, the universe is not fine-tuned for us--we are fine-tuned to the universe. I claim that the statements made about fine-tuning are not accurate. When theists talk about something being fine-tuned to one part in ten or a hundred orders of magnitude, they are simply incorrect. If you look more closely at the physics and cosmology, you will see that there is plenty of room to vary their various parameters and still maintain some kind of life. Our form of life is certainly sensitive to the parameters and if the parameters of the universe were different, our form of life wouldn't exist; I agree with that. But our form of life is not the only form of life one can imagine.

Two rather traditional arguments still persevere amongst theists today, firstly that "something" could not come from "nothing"...

When tackling this question in the past, I was often forced into a philosophical discussion on defining what one means by nothing. Once you define it, give it some property, then it becomes "something." So, I don't really know how you define "nothing," when you start talking philosophically. The way I handle that question now, which is consistent with all existing knowledge of cosmology and physics, is that the universe is eternal. It didn't come from nothing, or something for that matter, because it always existed and it always will. Our universe began with the big bang. I don't dispute that, but it could have come from an earlier universe and there are proposals available in literature--written by reputable scientists, published in reputable journals, and fully worked out mathematically--that provide scenarios for how our universe could have come from an earlier universe. They don't prove it really happened that way. However, they serve to refute any claim that our universe had to be supernaturally created ex nihilo.

And secondly, how can "order" come from "disorder"...

That's an easy one since you don't have to rely on complex biological arguments. You can go back to simple physics and look at something like water. Water appears in three phases: gas, liquid, and solid. If you are out in space or in a polar region, then the natural state of water is solid--ice. But that occurs only after water vapor, which is a gas, is condensed into liquid water, which is then frozen into ice. That original vapor has little structure and is about as simple as it could be. Then when it becomes a liquid, it develops some structure but can still flow and change shape. Finally, when it becomes solid ice it has considerable structure--crystal layers and so forth. So, there is this tendency in nature, in physics, for physical substances to go from simplicity to complexity. That is actually the natural trend of physical processes.

Much is made of Christian apologist William Lane Craig today, yet your debate in Hawaii seemed to set him straight on several of his arguments, in particular his first cause argument. What do you make of his challenge?

I've debated William Lane Craig a couple of times. I've written about his views, he has reviewed one of my books, and I have also spoken to him personally a number of times. So, we have had a fair amount of interaction. He is basically a very evangelically minded Christian theologian and philosopher. He uses a lot of cosmological arguments, but they don't hold water. They are already ruled out by existing science.

"Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings" - what reaction has that view garnered since you suggested it? What made you think of it?

I sent it into Richard Dawkins when he was trying to come up with bus slogans. He was delighted with it and said it was the best one he had received. Other people have picked up on it since, so it has worked out pretty well. It is one of those sound bites which people have made use of.

What do you define as what is new about the New Atheism?

When my book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason came out in 2009, I took a lot of flak from old-time atheists who resented that all the work they had done promoting atheism, secularism, and humanism was not fully recognized. But there was a difference. When, starting in 2006, a whole series of bestsellers appeared by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and myself, these all got a lot of attention. In The New Atheism, I was focusing on those works and asking what it was about these bestsellers that were different from the old atheism, which I did acknowledge.

The difference was that we are far more uncompromising towards religion. The term "accommodationists" is used for the people who were saying that they wanted to promote atheism, humanism, and science--but at the same time, we should respect the opinions of believers and, in particular, we shouldn't get into fights with them since we need their support for, say, the teaching of evolution in public schools. Moderate Christians tell us that they believe in evolution. But surveys show they really don't, since they claim evolution is God-guided, which isn't Darwinian evolution. In Darwinian evolution, humanity is an accident and that is unacceptable to Christians. They sure as heck don't want that taught in school.

Scientists are very reluctant to criticize religion. They are afraid of a backlash that might affect scientific funding, which for a research scientist is critical. The new atheists understand that it makes sense to have as many friends as possible, but ultimately it came down to the fact that religious belief is based on magical thinking and ideas that cannot be supported empirically. This serves to retard the progress of science. There is a lot of antiscience built into the religious enterprise and we felt we had to take a strong stance and argue that when someone says something contrary to our best existing knowledge, whether religious or not, then we should not hesitate to respond to it. Not that we have to call them fools or idiots, but we have to present an intellectual arguments that explain the flaws in their reasoning. We needed to come out and say something and not pussyfoot around it.

The antiscience that is so prevalent among conservatives in America today, and is occasionally found among liberals as well, is driving the world toward economic and environmental disaster.