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Recently I got the lectures on the relationship between Science and Religion which was taught by Lawrence M. Principe from Johns Hopkins University. I’m only through the first lecture, but I found it facinating that he made a lot of claims I would not have expected him to make. For example, he states that atheists have just as much as a commitment to faith as a theist, only theirs is a belief in the negative: there is no God. Most atheistic thinkers would deny this as they describe their beliefs as “being without belief” or “absent of faith” in God. They would readily admit that they cannot prove the non-existence of God, but that they do not have sufficient reason to believe that he exists. We might call this “soft-atheism” and contrast it with “hard atheism” that asserts one can demonstrate the non-existence of God from logical proofs.
The soft atheist is comparable to one who does not believe in unicorns. She would not be able to prove unicorns do not exist since she is neither able to 1) do an infinite search of all reality, or 2) demonstrate that unicorns are incoherent (such as a square circle), yet she still sees no good reason to believe in them since no one has ever seen one. Like unicorns, God is in the same category. He is a mythical construction for some social purpose that is believed in and revered. Yet, there is a problem with this comparison: lots of people believe in God, think they have experienced God, heard from God, and have communicated with God. Very few, if any, believe in unicorns.
This fact seems to show that atheism turns out to have more of a commitment to non-belief than we might suppose. Science, done under atheistic premises, would not be motivated to discover order within creation so as to better understand the mind of God. It would be done for other reasons, say for example, to show that there is chaos in the natural world that refutes the existence of God. The point is that when we do empirical research we are motivated and guided by our assumptions.
Principe wants us to understand that faith is not entirely opposed to reason. St. Augustine thought the same when he argued that faith seeks understanding. It will be interesting to see where he ends up on some of the hot topics like intelligent design, but so far he finds the “conflict model” of understanding science and religion as adversaries to be superficial and misleading.