Atheists object to religious faith and ridicule it – but they cannot refute it completely

NASA’s $10bn James Webb space telescope mission saw the Ariane 5 rocket carrying it launched on Christmas Day.

By Ian Ellis
Thursday, 24th February 2022, 5:29 am
Humanity’s last glimpse of the James Webb Space Telescope as it heads into deep space on Boxing Day; this image was captured by a camera on board the rocket from which the telescope separated
Humanity’s last glimpse of the James Webb Space Telescope as it heads into deep space on Boxing Day; this image was captured by a camera on board the rocket from which the telescope separated

In a statement issued on January 8, NASA declared that the team had fully unfolded and deployed the telescope’s 21-foot, gold-coated primary mirror, “successfully completing the final stage of all major spacecraft deployments to prepare for science operations”.

Then, just one month after its launch, the telescope reached its destination in space, approximately one million miles from Earth, from where it will carry out its study of the universe.

On February 11, NASA reported: “The entire Webb team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope are proceeding.” It has been an amazing scientific accomplishment, even before it becomes fully functioning as planned.

The NASA joint effort with the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency sets out its aim as being to explore every phase of cosmic history.

Marina Koren, a staff writer with The Atlantic, has commented that “the project, at its core, represents some of our purest intentions in space exploration”, adding: “Scientists want to understand the arc of our strange universe, how it led to a story of life on Earth, and whether that narrative has unfolded anywhere else.”

I have never seen science and religion as in competition with each other. A churchman for whom I have especially high regard is the Church of England’s late Archbishop of York, John Habgood, who died in 2019 and who had an earlier background in science.

Having studied natural sciences at King’s College, Cambridge, he obtained a double first and went on to hold a scientific post at the university while carrying out research in physiology.

He had not been particularly interested in religion until he came in touch with the Christian Union at Cambridge University.

Dr Habgood chaired meetings that I used to attend in England and he struck me as not only an intellectual giant but also as an unfailingly courteous and strikingly calm and quiet man. His 1993 book, Making Sense, considered the issue of the Bible and scientific discovery, including the question of creation.

Dr Habgood held that God works through natural laws, writing: “The biblical story sets out the inner meaning of the scientific story by revealing the dependence of all existence on God, and the ultimate meaning of it as finding its fulfilment in God.”

Science is about establishing facts and applying that knowledge while religion is about the practice of faith and the interpretation of facts in light of that faith.

Science and religion are therefore different and while there are facts that are part of religious history and religious testimony, faith is essentially what comes beyond facts.

Religious people ‘know’ of God by conviction rather than as the result of scientific analysis.

What has been termed ‘metaphysics’ is a branch of philosophy which attempts to understand reality itself. The term literally means ‘beyond physics’.

No doubt the James Webb space telescope will help our understanding of how things have come to be as they are, but it will not inform us further about whether or not God exists or about the nature and being of God.

It will not be able to tell us that, no, God does not exist, and nor will it be able to tell us that God has been scientifically discovered.

The existence of God and questions about God’s nature are ultimately matters of faith.

Atheists raise many different objections to religious faith but they are unable to refute it absolutely

They can point to contradictions in religious world-views, they can present a reasonable alternative, they can even ridicule faith, but they cannot show that faith is unarguably mistaken.

Nonetheless, apart from revelation itself, there have been various philosophical arguments in favour of God’s existence, one of which has been the argument from design.

Basically, this suggests that the world we know is so marvellously complex that it is wholly implausible to assert that we could be here simply by chance, or that the universe with all its laws of nature just happened to come into being because of a massive explosion, the cause of which is unknown.

This is classically illustrated in what is known as the watchmaker analogy.

William Paley, in an 1802 book on natural theology, wrote that if one stumbled upon a pocket watch lying on a heath it would be reasonable to deduce that someone had either dropped it there or had left it in that place for some unknown reason, and that it had been made by at least one watchmaker rather than having come about by natural forces.

In Northern Ireland, the magnificent Giant’s Causeway is an illustration of a remarkable stone formation as a result of natural forces, but if it were a huge timepiece such a conclusion would certainly be a stretch too far.

While a Big Bang cause of the universe coming into its present state is generally asserted, it is still quite possible that such an explosion may have itself been designed as part of a divine, creative plan.

It all depends on what one believes.

Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette

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