There seems to be four primary challenges to the Christian faith from atheistic scientists.
Religious Belief is not Scientific
First, why should we believe that if something is not scientific that it is not true or not meaningful? Are historical truths meaningless? What about moral truths, such as “murder is wrong”?
Science also has to presume some non-scientific things in order to work. The laws of logic are an example. Without logic we can’t do science, but we have to first believe that logic works and applies to the real world (rather than just existing in our own heads). Logic isn’t “scientific” but without it we can’t do science.
Scientists also have to presume that nature works the same everywhere. If you do an experiment in a lab, then it is taken as a given that the results are meaningful outside of the lab. This isn’t a presumption that can be proven by science, but it is obvious that it has to be true for science to work.
Finally, what scientific experiment was conducted to show that non-scientific beliefs were suspect? This sort of attitude destroys itself.
Religious Belief is Unprovable
The skeptic might say that religious belief is nothing but a bunch of un-provable claims about the world, while science relies on proof for what it says.
First we should understand that “provable” is a standard of verification only reached by things like mathematic equations. No theories in science are ever considered “proven” because the standard is too high. Scientists will instead say that evidence supports or challenges a theory, but it is never considered “proven”. Even the theory of gravity (not the law of gravity, but the theory) is not considered proven.
If it is true that nothing that isn’t “provable” is worth consideration, then none of the theories of science are worth consideration. In fact, the presumption that “only provable statements are worth consideration” is itself un-provable, so we’d have to throw it out as well.
There is no evidence for religious belief
If you’ve studied in apologetics, then you’ll know by now that Christianity does present evidence for its claims. We can look at things like the Moral Argument, the Cosmological Argument, the Argument from Contingency, and so on. What the critic is trying to do here is deny evidential status to Christian evidences. The problem is that what we count as evidence is relative to the background beliefs that we accept. If our background belief is that God does not exist, then we will reject any evidence presented for God from the outset.
It seems that Fine Tuning and the Multiverse are a good example of this. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Multiverse exists.1 It is pure speculation. However, an atheist might look at the fine tuning in our universe and say that it doesn’t count as evidence for the existence of God but instead for the existence of a near infinite number of alternate universes, each with randomly generated physical constants and quantities, and some sort of universe generator to create them all. In such a case the atheist believes in the multiverse because he already doesn’t believe in God, and then he’ll use the multiverse to show that the fine tuning isn’t evidence for God. In other words, fine tuning can’t be evidence for God because he already doesn’t believe in God. This is what’s known as circular reasoning.
At any rate, science itself has to assume certain things in order to operate (like the applicability of science outside the lab). Since science has to assume certain things without evidence, then the critic has two options. He can either agree that some truths can be self-evident or that some truths can be held without direct evidence. There isn’t any reason to rule out religious beliefs from whichever option he chooses. If he says that certain truths can be self-evident, then why not religious truths? If he says that certain truths can be held without direct evidence, then again, why not religious truths?
Religious Belief is Unnecessary
This type of a critic comes in two versions.
Version 1: God of the Gaps
Here the critic will say that people only made up the idea of God to explain phenomena that they couldn’t otherwise explain. That God just lives in the “gaps” of our understanding. As science explains more and more of our world, there is no more room for God. The critic relies on an inductive argument that since past gaps have been filled, then all gaps will eventually be filled.
The first problem is that this sort of thinking is not logically valid. Past experience is no guarantee of future results. Just because science explains that Zeus isn’t really the source of lightening bolts doesn’t mean that science will explain the origin of the universe. It just doesn’t follow logically.
The second problem is that not all gaps have been filled. Things like the beginning of the universe, the origin of life, fine tuning, and the like. Additionally new discoveries in science have opened new “gaps”. As an example, we have come to understand the remarkable information bearing properties of DNA. So remarkable, in fact, that it is absurd to think it could have happened by chance. This is a “gap” that has been opened up since we have learned more about the cell.
The third problem is that it mischaracterizes the case for God. Modern apologists don’t make a case from God based on what we don’t know, but what we do know. The Cosmological Argument, for example, argues from the scientific discovery of a cosmic beginning.
Finally, modern science generally rejects non-naturalistic theories and holds onto theories even if known to be inadequate. It has been known for a long time, for example, that general relativity is not entirely adequate (it breaks down when trying to explain certain phenomena). Since science will hold onto inadequate theories to avoid non-naturalistic ones, then how could science ever tell if a non-naturalistic cause was really at play? For all science can tell, it has already run into difficulties where there is no naturalistic solution, but its own methodological naturalism would prevent it from ever realizing it.
So not only does the “God of the Gaps” argument mischaracterize God as nothing more than a “junk drawer” explanation for the things we can’t explain but it doesn’t even accomplish what it tries to do.
Version 2: Naturalistic Explanations Take Precedence Over Other Explanations
Why must the explanations be mutually exclusive? I’m currently writing this blog. You could explain that fact by describing my neural network, how it activates the muscles in my fingers, how the laptop I’m writing on works, and how the internet and WordPress work. You could develop a comprehensive physical description of how it is that I’m writing this blog. My intent for writing the blog, however, is a different type of description and one that you can’t get at unless I tell you. Even if science could describe how the universe was created, it would do nothing to say there is no “why” it was created.
Also, why should we think naturalistic explanations take precedence? It is true that we adopt a methodological naturalism (adopting naturalistic methods) while we are practicing science, but why should be adopt a “metaphysical” naturalism (adopting only naturalistic explanations)?
Finally, if God designed the natural laws to accomplish his purposes, then why should we think that he is in competition with them? Why should we think that describing how something came about by natural law means that God didn’t bring it about? If God does exist, then didn’t he design those natural laws to his own ends?
Scientific observational data cannot pose a challenge to religious belief, even in principle, for the reasons described above. Only the philosophical inferences taken from observations can be taken as challenges to faith, but those philosophical inferences fall to the same challenges that they pose.
1There MAY be evidence for a multi-domain universe, sometimes called a multiverse, but there is no evidence for the array of completely disconnected universes that some call the “multiverse”. It is this array of universes for which there is, and can be, no evidence.