By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life Sciences
Long Beach City College
Physical evidence for God seemed everywhere
A few centuries ago, physical evidence for an all-powerful God seemed everywhere in the Western world. After all, how else could one explain the existence of our bountiful Earth at the center of an awe-inspiring cosmos, with planets and stars circling Earth in perfect God-like circles? How else could one explain lightning, thunder, earthquakes and volcanoes? How else could one explain the existence of all the myriad of beautifully designed species, in particular, us? How else could one explain weeping religious statues, miraculous cures, near death experiences, prayers answered and biblical prophesies coming true? Although all along there have been atheists and skeptics, still, all this apparent evidence for God’s existence was inescapable and compelling.
The Scientific Enlightenment
Then came modern science and over the last 400 years essentially all of the “proofs” for God’s existence turned out either to be false or to have quite natural explanations. All of the relevant scientific evidence—from astrophysics, to our evolution, to the biochemistry of life, strongly supported the thesis that there never were any gods in the first place, at least not in any kind of manifestation that is of interest to the overwhelming majority of religious folk. Today, mostly as a result of these scientific discoveries, over 90% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences (the “hall of fame” for top scientists in the United States) have now declared themselves to be non-theists (either atheistic or agnostic).[i] For scientists in general, about 60% are now non-theists (although almost all theistic scientists do accept our evolution). Consider some of these scientific discoveries:
Over the last 500 years our universe has gotten bigger and bigger. We’ve gone from an Earth-centered universe to a heliocentric one, to a galactocentric one, to there being billions of galaxies in a universe with no center, to there possibly being a multitude of universes.
a. Deep space: Contrary to the Bible, the heavens are not stretched out over a stationary Earth (Psalms 104:5; I Chron.16:30) like a canopy (Isaiah 40:22), with the stars so small and close to earth that they could fall to the ground (Rev.12:4) or fall from the sky in the End Times as prophesied by Jesus (Matt.24:29). Instead, our universe is incomprehensibly huge, with literally billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Our solar system, itself, is moving around the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, at 400,000 mph. Yet, even at this tremendous speed it will still take it about 200 million years to make one round trip. In addition, our galaxy is moving away from other galaxies at an estimated one million miles an hour.
b. Deep time: Contrary to a literal reading of Genesis-1 in which the sun, moon and stars were formed on the 4th day of creation, our universe is unfathomably old, having come into existence about 14 billion years ago. Our sun was formed about 5 billion years ago from the “dust” left over from ancient exploding stars that, themselves, were formed billions of years before our sun. Also, Earth was formed hundreds of millions of years after our sun. If the age of Earth were represented by the height of the world’s tallest building, then all of human civilization, starting from the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, would represent only the thickness of the paint on its roof.
c. A violent universe: Our universe is far from a peaceful backdrop for some god’s favorite planet. Stars explode. Black holes suck in entire star systems. Gigantic explosions at the center of galaxies destroy millions of worlds.
d. Our solar system: Our own solar system show all signs of having been formed naturally from the “dust” of exploding stars about five billion years ago. Its structural details are sloppy from an engineering perspective, but just what one might expect if only the blind laws and forces of nature were involved.
e. Earth’s surface devastated: Planet Earth is far from a peaceful setting for some god’s favorite species. Catastrophic events (meteor impacts, gigantic volcanic eruptions, ice sheets covering much of Earth, plate tectonic movements tearing apart entire continents) have devastated Earth’s surface, resulting in at least five major mass extinctions over the last 600 million years.
f. Laws of nature: In the Bible, God made the clouds rise and sent the lightning, rain and wind (Rev. 12:4; Isaiah 40:22). Yet today, scientific discoveries have replaced essentially all earlier supernatural explanations and events. Comets are no longer viewed as heralding the birth of a new leader. Lightning, thunder, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, eclipses and epidemics are no longer seen as the wrath of an angry god. There is also no physical evidence for a global flood several thousand years ago (Genesis 6), much less for the death of all life on Earth except those crammed on an ark. Science now has natural explanations for the existence of the earth, sun, moon and stars. Ongoing hypotheses and experiments on the origin of our universe, its apparent fine-tuning and the origin of life continue to rapidly advance our knowledge.[ii]
a. All life evolved: All life on Earth evolved from earlier life forms going all the way back to an incomprehensible 3.8 billion years ago. Our ancestors about seven million years ago were ancient ape-like primates. Our extremely ancient ancestors some 500 million years ago were a species of now-extinct fish.[iii] The millions of fossils discovered in the thousands of different layers of sedimentary rock that spans hundreds of millions of years all but spell out the evolutionary history of life on our planet.
b. No ladder of progress: There is no so-called evolutionary tree with humans at the top. Instead, there is an extremely branchy evolutionary bush with over one billion twigs (species) which continuously grew (evolved) and then broke off (went extinct). If we look at this entire bush, no special branch destined to evolve inexorably toward humans becomes obvious. Instead, one sees only frequent changes in direction, or no changes at all, or common reversals, or extinctions.
c. No apparent goals: In addition, scientists have been unable to detect any genetic mechanism, or law of nature that could possibly direct evolution toward advanced, intelligent beings. In fact, according to theorists, if we rewound the evolutionary clock, the infinite contingencies (accidents, errors, lucky breaks, random genetic variations) of history would most certainly result in an entirely different array of species. The evolution of advanced intelligence might not happen again. Thus, very few evolutionary biologists since at least the 1950s have believed in any “progressive force” or “cosmic goal” of evolution.
c. Natural selection: The entire history of life’s evolution on Earth has been a story of random genetic errors followed by selection of the more fit and extermination of the less fit. With this natural selection process, all “design” we see in nature is NOT purposeful design, but instead came about over billions of years through a blind, no foresight, automatic sifting process. This process resulted in an “infinity” of dead ends, pain, suffering, widespread starvation, constant disease and plagues, flawed designs, violent deaths, a prodigious waste of life and ultimately extinction for almost all species. Shortsighted selfishness usually won out, no matter how much pain and loss it produced in the long term. For centuries, arguments have been offered by theologians to explain why so much evil and suffering exists in a world supposedly created by an all-good god. But if only natural selection is at work, the mystery disappears.
d. Flawed & vestigial designs: Another predictable outcome of natural selection is that the human body, like all species, is riddled with anatomical oddities, vestigial structures and flawed designs that disclose a history of trial-and-error tinkering: Nipples in males, an appendix, wisdom teeth, a retina installed backwards, a birth canal that’s often too small, a miscarriage rate of over 60%, a windpipe next to the esophagus so we can choke to death on a bite of food, lower back problems, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, a genome riddled with duplicate and discarded genes, a brain that can seriously malfunction in dozens of ways.…and on and on!
e. Parasites: Parasites make up the majority of species on Earth. So why would a benevolent god create all of these parasites? Why would he create a parasite that blinds millions of people, or 10,000 different species of harmful tapeworms, or 2000 different species of disease-spreading biting lice? Why would he create dozens of species of mosquitoes that transmit malaria to over 300 million people every year, or bacteria that caused deadly plagues (like the Black Death of 1348 which wiped out over half the inhabitants of Europe), or the virus that caused the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed up to 50 million people? On the other hand, an abundance of parasites is just what one would expect if only natural selection is at work.
f. Extinctions: Natural selection, plus chance, the contingencies of history and cataclysmic events have sooner or later resulted in the extinction of over 99% of the one billion or so species ever to have evolved on our planet. This extremely high extinction rate raises serious theological questions, of course: If almost all of God’s creations sooner or later go extinct, doesn’t that suggest a god that is inept, wasteful, careless, or unconcerned with the welfare of His creations?
Evolution of morality
Conservative Christians insist that we need God and the Bible to be moral; that without God society collapses into immoral chaos. Yet, considerable scientific evidence has accumulated to support the theory that moral sentiments in humans and moral principles in human groups evolved naturally over the last 100,000 years of living in a Paleolithic environment. Morality evolved as a means of fostering pro-social in-group behavior and of defining and defending the boundaries of that group. Religions and their deities, a cultural development, came much later. [iv]
Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) provided a scientific foundation and direction for future research in the study of ethics. Darwin wrote: “Our descent… is the origin of our evil passions!—The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!” Darwin was convinced that it would be through the study of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, not through philosophy or religion, that we would discover new valuable truths and insights into our moral and immoral natures.
No paranormal or supernatural events have ever been proved
The possibility of divine souls and/or life after death would not seem so rationally implausible if paranormal or supernatural phenomena (mind over matter, psychic readings, seeing into the future, past-life regressions, talking to the deceased, near-death experiences, weeping religious statues, the appearance of the Virgin Mary in one form or another) were actually known to exist. Yet, after over one hundred years of intensive investigation scientists still have found no convincing evidence for (and much evidence against) the existence of any such phenomena. When all of the experimental variables have been tightly controlled (to eliminate chance, errors, bias, carelessness and fraud), not a single person has yet been found to possess paranormal powers—not one![v] All such claims have turned out to be unverifiable, scientifically explainable, wishful thinking, illusions, hallucinations, or fraudulent.[vi]
In addition, all processes studied in living organisms (from fertilization to death) have been found to strictly obey the known laws of chemistry and physics. No paranormal or supernatural inputs have been found anywhere (or even seem necessary) for life to function and to evolve.
The same is true with all claimed supernatural happenings or “miracles” (weeping religious statues, medical miracles at Lourdes, intercessory prayer, Shroud of Turin, etc.). In fact, the biblical miracles of Jesus, including his bodily resurrection, have now been even rejected by over 75 religion professors and biblical scholars composing the Jesus Seminar.[vii]
The human mind
Neuro-science informs us that our minds appear to be totally a function of the neuro-anatomy and physiology of our evolved brains. No link to some kind of “spirit” world has been found. There is just no scientific evidence for (and a staggering amount of evidence against) any “ghost in the machine” that is separate from our physical brain and lives on after death. [viii]
The human brain has an extremely long evolutionary history. Our brain evolved from an ancient fish brain some 500 million years ago, up through an almost infinite line of ancestors by a process called natural selection. As a result, the human brain, with its many quirks and flaws accumulated over eons of time, has made it extremely difficult for us to truly come to grips with numerous aspects of both ourselves and our modern complex world.[ix]
The mental and emotional problems associated with our evolved brain now fill psychiatric textbooks. We tend to be xenophobic and to be attracted to charismatic leaders. We have delusions and fake memories. We can be easily seduced by long disproved paranormal, superstitious, and supernatural beliefs. We become completely locked into belief systems despite all contrary evidence.
As one outcome, our brains have created scores of religions, each one claiming to be the absolute word of this god or that god. In doing so, we’ve rejected centuries of our finest science and critical rational thought in favor of various “holy books” and supernatural forces.[x] Given our evolved brain and the cultures that sprang from that brain, entire societies have suppressed women, engaged in genocide, fought endless wars, destroyed their environmental life-support systems, and/or believed in apocalyptic theologies which threaten the very survival of the entire human species.
Additional arguments against the existence of the biblical god
a. Other gods and religions: Over the millennia humans have created thousands of different gods and religious belief systems. All of these different gods (speaking through their prophets, gurus, ayatollahs, shamans, mullahs, clerics, swamis, priests, ministers, rabbis, etc.) have given their followers quite different moral laws and rules regarding just about everything. Logically they can’t all be right. Yet there’s no scientific way to determine which ones are wrong, if not all of them. Thus, on what grounds is an outsider supposed to be able to choose between Islamic dogma, Catholic dogma, Baptist moral edicts, Hindu beliefs and so on? Indeed, how can theology be considered knowledge at all when there’s no way to resolve differences short of prayer, persecution and drawing swords?
b. The Bible: If the findings of the last several hundred years of scientific discoveries, plus the historical, textual and linguistic analyses of the Bible using the latest scientific tools, plus the archaeological discoveries and comparative religious studies are all put together and taken seriously, then the Bible appears (at least to those biblical scholars who employ the scientific method) to be a very human book, a book having no more claim to divine status than does any other book written by humans. It was written by people who lived long ago and who knew no more concerning the nature of the cosmos, the world, or life than did anyone else. It contains enough contradictions, ambiguities and inconsistencies to fill books.[xi] As a result, thousands of different Christian sects have appeared over the centuries — sects which disagree with each other on just about everything — from how to get to heaven, to the time of ensoulment, to the morality of slavery, contraception, suffrage, gay equality, abortion, and death with dignity, to women wearing long pants.
There’s still much to learn, but skepticism is high
Today, all of the relevant scientific evidence— from astrophysics, evolutionary biology and biochemistry, to the lack of any solid evidence for the existence of paranormal and supernatural events, to evidence from objective historical research into the Bible and other holy books — all this evidence has finally reached a critical mass which strongly supports the following powerful thesis: there never were any gods in the first place, at least in any kind of manifestation that is of interest to the overwhelming majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious folk.[xii]
Of course, many scientific questions remain and always will. There are major questions surrounding the origin of the universe and what really are mass, space and time. There are questions on some “fine-tuning” aspects of our universe, why its expansion is accelerating, and what are dark mass and dark energy. There are major questions regarding the origin of life and the workings of the human brain.
Yet, of critical relevance, as scientific knowledge continued to advance over the last 400 years, supernatural explanations for events continued to retreat and retreat … and retreat. Many scientists faced with such a consistent trend have extrapolated and declared all of our earthly gods to be non-existent.
Scientists, of course, can only attempt to answer empirically testable questions. Thus, some scientists who are also religious point out that just because a phenomenon can be explained naturally doesn’t mean that God had nothing to do with it. After all, perhaps it was God’s absolutely elegant plan for humans to evolve in the first place.
But, respond the non-theists, “God did it” answers don’t explain anything. No experiments or observations are suggested. No outcomes are predicted. It’s just giving ignorance a name. Also, even if there is an “Intelligence” lurking behind all of nature, that still doesn’t mean by any stretch of logic that it’s the biblical God. After all, once supernatural answers enter the picture, the possibilities are endless. For example, maybe Satan deceived hundreds of thousands of scientists over the centuries into thinking we evolved over the last 3.8 billion years. Or for that matter, maybe humans were merely evolved as future “fast food” for God’s truly chosen species which is now touring our galaxy.
Some closing thoughts
Religion is one of the most powerful social phenomena in the world. It has guided nations, wars, societies, even whole eras; it has catalyzed climactic moments in history. So, should our religions be open to critical analysis and evaluation in our colleges and universities? Should this be an ongoing assignment of anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, evolutionary psychologists, geneticists & others, all using the scientific method and aided by the recently developed powerful computer tools of statistical, textual and linguistic analysis? Or is such an undertaking way too dangerous, given who we are as a species? Should the domain of the sacred remain a shrouded enclave?
[i]See Larson, E. and Witham, L., 1999, “Scientists and Religion in America,” Scientific American, Sept., pp. 88-93. The specific question asked was: Do you believe in (1) “a God in intellectual and affective communication with man…to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer” and (2) “personal immortality.”
[ii]Tanner Edis, The Ghost in the Machine (Prometheus Press, 2002). See also Free Inquiry, www.secularhumanism.org; The Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason,: www.csicop.org; Skeptic magazine, www.skeptic.com; Prometheus Books, www.prometheusbooks.com.
[iii]In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences published the 2nd Edition of a booklet titled Science and Creationism in which it stated (p. 28) that our evolution from more ancient life forms today is considered a fact by scientists, because they no longer question whether or not it occurred since the evidence in support is so strong. In 2008 the NAS published its 3rd book, Science, Evolution, and Creationism in which it notes: “The discovery and understanding of the process of evolution represent one of the most powerful achievements in the history of science…Evolution successfully explains the diversity of life on Earth and has been confirmed repeatedly through observation and experiment in a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines. Evolutionary science provides the foundation for modern biology.” See www.nap.edu. Also see the National Center for Science Education: www.natcenscied.org.
Today, most Christians still find evolution to be incompatible with their faith, not just because their theology is biblically based, but because they believe that a god who works through evolution is much too remote. Their theology requires a very personal God who is actively involved with individual human lives and who, therefore, gives purpose to life.
[iv] See The Science of Good & Evil by Michael Shermer (Times Books – 2004). Also, see Teehan, J. “The Evolution of Religious Ethics,” Free Inquiry, June/July 2005, pp. 40-43.
[v] The National Academy of Sciences states that 140 years of research had produced no scientific justification for the existence of any paranormal phenomena. In 1997, the James Randi Educational Foundation reported that anyone who could demonstrate any paranormal, or psychic ability under tightly controlled scientific conditions would be paid $1,000,000. Many have tried and so far no one’s collected a dime! For more information check the web site at (www.randi.org).
Also see Skeptics Society at (www.skeptic.com) and CSICOP/ The Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason: www.csicop.org
[vi]CSICOP/ The Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason: www.csicop.org
Skeptics Society/ Skeptic magazine: www.skeptic.com
Prometheus Books: www.prometheusbooks.com.
[vii]In 1985 the “Jesus Seminar” was organized to determine which, if any, of Jesus’ miracles could possibly have been authentic. Over 75 religion professors and other scholars contributed. By 1993, these experts had rejected the virgin birth, all of Jesus’ miracles, and even his bodily resurrection. See: The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Macmillan Press), 1993.
Price, R., 1998, “The Jesus Seminar: Historians or Believers?”, Free Inquiry, Winter, pp. 9-10.
See also: U.S. News & World Report, April 8, 1996. Newsweek, April 8, 1996. Time, April 8, 1996. Publishers Weekly, May 13, 1996, pp. 36-7.
[viii]Zeman, A., 2003, Consciousness: A User’s Guide (Yale University Press). Zeman is a neurologist in Edinburgh; Fischbach, G., 1992, “Mind and Brain,” Scientific American, September. Dr. Fischbach is a professor of neurobiology and chairman of the department of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.; B. Hinrichs, “Brain Research and Folk Psychology,” The Humanist, March/April 1997; T. Clark, “Materialism and Morality,” The Humanist, Nov./Dec. 1998, pp. 20-25. Also see books by Dr. John R. Searle.
[ix] A few relevant books include: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert Burton, 2007; Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson, 2007; A Mind of its Own by Cordelia Fine; The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westen, 2007.
[x] Gallup polls consistently reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans continue to hold at least some beliefs that are viewed as non-rational, nonscientific & nonsensical by the scientific community. For example, the National Science Foundation’s biennial report (2002) reported that 60% of adult Americans believe in ESP, 40% think that astrology is scientific and 70% accept magnetic therapy as scientific. In addition, a 2003 Harris Poll found that 84% of Americans believe in a soul that survives after death and in supernatural miracles.
[xi] As one example see Biblical Errancy, an 800 page reference guide by C. Dennis McKinsey. Also check out the Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties (476 pages).
[xii]As one key reference, read Victor J. Stenger’s book Has Science Found God? The Latest Results inthe Search for Purpose in the Universe (2003). Dr. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii. Also a must read is Tanner Edis’s book, The Ghost in the Universe (2002). Dr. Edis is assistant professor of physics at Truman State University Missouri.
Other relevant books include Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker (1987) and Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1991). See also the following web sites: www.skeptic.com; www.csicop.com; www.natcenscied .org.