The Place for Experience in the Mix of Science, Faith and the Evidence for God

When asked what would make them believe, some atheists say a personal experience with God would do it.

On the show and podcast, Unbelievable! On Christian Premiere Radio in the UK hosted by Justin Brierley, the host often asks people, atheists and Christians, what would make them believe (or not believe, as the case may be). Most people think of arguments or historical or scientific proofs, but not everyone.

In one particular episode Michael Ruse, a professor and philosopher of biology at Florida State Universality, participated in discussion with John Lennox, a professor of mathematics and philosophy at Oxford, on the subject of Science, Faith and the Evidence for God. When asked the question about what would make him believe, Michael Ruse surprisingly (for me at least) said that it would have to be a personal experience with God.

Michael Ruse is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ruse is an evolutionary biologist who has debated against intelligent design proponents. He has been on the Advisory Council to the National Center for Scientific Education. He is a Bertrand Russell Society award winner for his dedication to science and reason.

Thus, my surprise to hear him provide such an “unscientific” answer to the question of what it would take for him to become a believer. I have since heard other atheists provide similar answers. Intelligent Christians, I think, underestimate the power of personal experience.

To be fair of Michael Ruse, though is a decided atheist, he has a healthy respect for theology. Maybe that is because he is a philosopher, and not just a scientist.

I say “just a scientist” because there is a school of thought among modern scientists that we don’t need philosophy anymore, that science is all we need. (People like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson have expressed this view.)

But science, by definition, is limited to the study of the natural world, matter and energy (or “molecules in motion” as some like to say). Anyone who makes the claim that science is all we need has made an a priori determination (an initial presupposition) that molecules in motion are the sum of all reality. Neither theology, nor philosophy, fit into a world like that. And, where, then, does that leave mathematics and logic?

Michael Ruse, being an expert in philosophy takes great offense at the notion that philosophy has gone the way of God and is dead (alluding to Nietzsche’s great contention). It’s natural for a philosopher to take that position, I suppose, even an atheist philosopher. After all, he has devoted his life to philosophy!

But then, consider that he knows something of what he talks about. Just as scientists know a great deal more about science than me, a philosopher knows a great deal more about philosophy than, well… a scientist (who studies only molecules in motion). It isn’t hard to understand why such a person might begin to see the world as nothing but molecules in motion when that is the constant and continual focus of life long study, but the theologians and philosophers, even atheistic one, protest there is more.

Ruse has commented that the New Atheists (like Dawkins) do science a “grave disservice” and do “disservice to scholarship” generally. Ruse pulled no punches when he said, “’Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course’, [citation omitted] and that The God Delusion makes him ‘ashamed to be an atheist’.” (See Wikipedia)

During the conversation between Ruse and Lennox, Ruse came back to the importance of personal experience in relation to faith. He says that faith isn’t a matter of proof, “It’s a question of Saul on the way to Damascus. Saul was not met by somebody who said, ‘By the way, Saul, I’d like to introduce you to the ontological argument.’”

I think Michael Ruse, the atheist, is right  that personal experience can play a very big role in faith (and the lack of it, for that matter). Like Thomas wanting to put his hand in the side of Jesus, we want personal proof. Academic proof just isn’t enough for most of us.

On the other hand, more objective proof isn’t to be so easily dismissed. Watch and listen to the short segment of a portion of the Ruse/Lennox discussion that follows:

We might not be able to prove God in a “scientific” way, but science can’t prove everything even in the natural world. Many things can’t be proven in the sense of being able to reproduce results or mathematical certainty. All we can do for some things, like the origin of life, is reason to the best explanation.

Science, reason and logic – and experience – provide tests that can be applied. After applying those tests, we can add up the results and see what makes the most sense of all of those tests. The Bible actually encourages us to do just that – “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8); “test everything; hold fast what is good”. (1 Thessalonians 5:21) We don’t throw out our faculty of reason when it comes to faith, far from it.

But our ability to reason is as finite as we are. We are, by the very nature of our beings, limited in our perspectives and abilities – even the greatest among us.

If we want to know whether God exists and is real, we have to taste and see. We need to (and are encouraged to) test everything, and hold on to what we find that is good. To taste something, we have to take it in. We have to digest it.

To test something, if we want to be “scientific” about it, we need to give something a chance to prove itself. We can’t rig the test to get the results we expect. We also have to test over and over and over to be sure of the results we are getting, considering them and accounting for all possibilities – just like scientists do with the study of he natural world.

In other words, there is no a short cut to discovery. It’s a pursuit, perhaps a life long pursuit.

The promise of God that has been given to us be people who claimed to know and experience God is that we will find Him if we seek for Him with all of our hearts. (Duet. 4:29; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Proverbs 8:17; and Jeremiah 29:13) This idea is expressed throughout the Old Testament by people who claimed to know God, and the same promise is repeated by Jesus. (Matthew 7:7 and Luke 11:19)

What these statements made by many different people over a long period of time suggest is that we need to be willing to find that God exists. If we spend much time listening to honest atheists, including once atheists who are now believers, many of them really don’t like the idea of God at all and may even find the idea personally repugnant. CS Lewis recalled his view of God as a Great Interferer in the Sky.

The idea of God is antithetical to personal autonomy and individual determination. CS Lewis recalled that he was willing to embrace the stark, cold, hopeless world of rationalism for the freedom to be left alone. It was worth the trade off to him to be free from any interference with personal autonomy a Supreme Being might suggest.

But, Lewis ultimately came to a point of consideration of the evidence that suggested to him that God was more likely real than not. He realized, at that point, that he stood at a crossroads. He chose to side with where he thought the evidence lay, but he did so reluctantly:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.”

For Lewis, it was no personal experience that prompted across the gap between knowledge and faith; it was a decision of the will. Not that Lewis didn’t have the personal experience. In fact, the experiences Lewis described as “joy” propelled him along the path to discovery that led him, eventually, to that reluctant place of concession to God:

“It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased… In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

In the end, we shouldn’t dismiss or underestimate experience. Many atheists I have heard, in fact, mention negative experiences in their explanations of why they don’t believe. We can’t let our experiences of hearts be the final dictators of our beliefs, but they have their places, prominent places, in our journeys. Just as the atheist shouldn’t let negative experiences dictate a rational conclusion, we need to test and our experiences, test everything, and hold on to what is good.

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