The Challenge of Default Atheism
At the XVIIIth International Society for the Study of the Origin of life (ISSOL) conference held at the University of California in San Diego on July 16–21, 2017, Fazale (Fuz) Rana and I had the pleasure of many thoughtful conversations during extended mealtimes with origin-of-life research scientists. When they found out that we were Christians working at Reasons to Believe, they immediately assumed that we were not scientists, or at least not serious scientists. When we asked why, their responses were revealing. They equated the pursuit of serious science with atheism. One biochemist declared, “I am a scientist. Therefore, I am an atheist.”
These origin-of-life scientists also had a distorted understanding of Christianity. When they found out that Fuz and I both believe that the Bible’s content is trustworthy and reliable, they concluded that we must be young-earth creationists and that we dismiss nearly all scientific findings.
How did we break through their misperceptions? First, we assured them that we were not young-earth creationists. We explained how a careful and thorough integration of all the Bible’s creation texts—where we take all those texts literally and consistently—establishes an old-earth interpretation, while ruling out a young-earth interpretation. Next, we asked them questions about their research, their most recent papers, and the next papers they intended to write. These questions persuaded them that we were familiar with and understood the scientific details in the origin-of-life research literature.
In turn, they then asked where Fuz and I earned our PhDs, where we had done postdoctoral research, what research papers we had published, and why we were at the conference. They were surprised to learn that this was the third ISSOL conference we had attended and that we regularly write articles on the origin of life. Moreover, our interdisciplinary book, Origins of Life,1 had been reviewed by David Deamer, a highly respected researcher in the field, in Origin of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere.2
Having established our credibility, a door was now open for Fuz and I to ask our companions questions about their atheism. For instance, did they have other reasons for identifying themselves as atheists other than their occupation? They replied that it seemed to them that science has all the answers, or at least the potential to provide all the answers, to all the questions humans might ask.
Their response opened another door for Fuz and I to probe their thoughts on death, human consciousness, and our ultimate destiny. For example, we asked them how they were preparing for death what they thought happens to their consciousness when their physical bodies die, what they think might exist beyond the universe, and whether they believed there were any ultimate purposes to the universe and human beings. It turned out these scientists hadn’t given any thought to such issues. The focus of their lives had been their scientific research.
Fuz and I suggested that perhaps our companions were not committed atheists, but rather default atheists in the sense that they had not taken the time to seriously research the philosophical implications of atheism and whether or not purely naturalistic science indeed can answer all the questions that humans might pose. Scientific research can distract us from the most important issues of life. They readily agreed.
Science Research Addiction
What we observed and experienced at the XVIIIth ISSOL conference we have seen repeated in other interactions with leading scientific researchers. It is something we have observed in ourselves. Scientific research can be powerfully addicting.
There is a certain thrill and euphoria that overflows me when I discover and understand some secret of the universe or the realm of nature that no one else has uncovered. My scientist colleagues at Reasons to Believe have those experiences, too. All scientists whose research has pushed back the frontiers of scientific knowledge and understanding have such moments.
The thrill and euphoria of making scientific discoveries can take scientists captive. Following one of my university debates with an atheistic scientist he told me just how captivated he was by his research findings. “It is all I ever I think about,” he said. He, too, admitted that he was a default atheist and that in our debate he had defended something he had not really thought through in terms of its implications.
The pursuit of scientific discovery, I contend, can be as addicting as alcohol or heroin. It can overtake one to a point where it pushes out personal relationships and the most important issues of life. During my time as a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology I was grieved to see the destruction of many marriages. Within the space of just a few years the majority of my colleagues who were married had gone through divorce.
As far as I know, there is no 12-step recovery program for scientists who are addicted to their research. However, I can suggest five steps to overcome this problem. (These are written with a Bible believer in mind, but the steps can be tailored to apply to a default atheist.)
Step 1: Obey the Sabbath. On a regular basis, step away from your scientific research and spend dedicated time meditating on the most important issues of life.
Step 2: Refrain from worshipping nature. God made the natural world and universe incredibly beautiful, elegant, grand, and complex. He also made us spiritual beings; hence, we are compelled to worship. However, we can be easily tempted into misplacing our worship. As Romans 1:25 states, we must guard against worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator.
Step 3: Diversify your relationships. I know many research scientists for whom their only close personal relationships are with fellow research scientists. This situation is akin to an alcoholic having only alcoholic friends. We all need friends who have had different education and life experiences than ourselves. We need their objectivity.
Step 4: Deepen your relationships. For many research scientists, their personal relationships are superficial. They will have deep conversations about their scientific research, but say little to one another about their emotional and spiritual states and the steps they are taking toward building more love and reconciliation into their relationships. We all crave deep, fulfilling intimacy. It takes hard work, time, and especially prayer to achieve the intimacy God wants us experience in this life.
Step 5: Take time to experience wild nature. Scientists are committed to research and study of nature but most of them do their research and study in technologically modified environments: laboratories and observatories. I was an amateur astronomer before I turned pro. It never ceased to amaze me to encounter research astronomers who didn’t know the constellations hovering above their telescope dome. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory or God.” Psalm 97:6 states, “The heavens proclaim his righteousness.” Job 12:7-10 exhorts us to learn from birds and terrestrial mammals. The problem today is that the majority of humans live in dense metropolitan cities where they cannot see more than a few stars and have little or no close contact with wild birds and mammals. I noticed how much easier it was to have deep spiritual conversations and share my Christian faith with research scientists in the high Sierra Nevadas than it was in hallways of Caltech’s laboratory buildings.
These five steps are not just for research scientists. We can all benefit from them, whether we are Christians needing to draw closer to God or default atheists needing to examine why we believe what we believe.
- Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2014), https://support.reasons.org/purchase/origins-of-life.
- David Deamer, “‘Origins of Life. Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off’ by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross,” Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres 37 (April 2007): 201–3, doi:10.1007/s11084-006-9019-4.