Why Atheism Is Unscientific

By Van Heerden, Adriaan | Contemporary Review, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Why Atheism Is Unscientific


Van Heerden, Adriaan, Contemporary Review


A 'THINK TANK' closely connected to the Labour Government has advocated that atheism be included in the Religious Education curriculum that is studied in British schools. Central to the argument of this group is the idea that atheism is rational and scientific.

In this article I will argue that atheism is unscientific. The argument is intended to counter the belief that adherence to the scientific point of view necessitates the adoption of an atheistic position on religious matters. This belief in the equation of science and atheism has arisen in part as a result of the historical advance of science: scientific research has shown that phenomena which were previously explained by reference to supernatural causes can be shown to have natural causes. These natural causes are much less mysterious and much more amenable to human understanding than their supernatural counterparts; therefore it is assumed that all supernatural explanations have natural counterparts, with the result that supernatural explanations are redundant. One may also conclude from this that supernatural phenomena do not exist, that supernatural explanations are simply false, and that scientific explanations approximate more accurately to the true state of affairs that pertains in the universe, including accounts of the origin of the universe and the appearance and position of humans in nature. From this it seems entirely natural to some people to go one step further and equate science with atheism: any reasonable person, it is argued, cannot do other than adopt an atheistic position on matters of religion. It is this last step that I want to question first of all, before arguing in addition that this debate basically revolves around a misunderstanding of religion, and that it is possible for science and religion to co-exist in a reflected position.

The main premise of my first argument is that there are at least two characteristics of science that are in conflict with atheism, in particular the more militant streak of atheism. These characteristics are (1) open-mindedness and (2) drawing conclusions only on the basis of sound physical/material evidence. The exposition of this argument will consist of three parts. First, I need to explain what the argument is not about; the argument itself can then be stated relatively briefly, after which I will attempt to anticipate one of the main counter-arguments that may be levelled against it.

In addressing the first part of the exposition, we need to note that there are four things that the argument is not about. First, in arguing that atheism is unscientific I do not wish to present an apology for any theistic doctrine or any particular religious faith. Second, I am not saying that atheism is not a viable personal or religious position--I am saying it is not a valid scientific position. Third, I am not saying that one cannot be an atheist and a scientist; I am saying that one should not equate the scientific and atheistic points of view. (In other words, one can be a scientific atheist but science cannot be atheistic.) Fourth, my argument should not be taken as a negative moral judgement on atheism.

With these qualifications in mind we can proceed to the argument itself. I have already mentioned the main premise of the argument, which is that at least two characteristics of science conflict with atheism. We may now state the argument briefly as follows: two essential characteristics of science are open-mindedness and only drawing conclusions on the basis of sound physical/material evidence; atheism is close-minded with respect to religious matters and its rejection of religion is not based on sound physical/material evidence; therefore atheism is unscientific. We now need to consider the two premises of this argument in somewhat more detail.

The first premise relies on the belief that we can identify a set of properties which is characteristic of science and which distinguishes it from other things like religion and ideology.

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