My last column outlined points I made in a February 18 debate at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, about whether religion and science are compatible. My "opponent," Oxford mathematician John Lennox--a Christian, who has debated Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer and other prominent non-believers--emailed me the following response:

It was a great pleasure for me to meet and have a spirited discussion with John Horgan. We found that we had much in common, including good scientific grounds for not being atheists, which made it all the more interesting to discuss the areas where we differed. Horgan is right to suggest that I appeal to the heart as well as the head since God is not a theory but a person and so a holistic approach is apposite--but I don’t appeal to the heart as opposed to the head!

I was rather amused when I saw the title: “Can Faith and Science Coexist?” since in one sense the answer is obvious and has nothing to do with God. All scientists presuppose and therefore have faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe. Einstein could not have been a scientist without this faith. But the title probably intended the word “faith” as shorthand for “faith in God." Indeed, one of my main reasons for believing in God is that we can do science. The mathematical intelligibility of nature is evidence for a rational spirit behind the universe. If we take the atheist view, then rationality dissolves, as distinguished philosopher Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame neatly puts it:

“If Dawkins is right that we are the product of mindless unguided natural processes, then he has given us strong reason to doubt the reliability of human cognitive faculties and therefore inevitably to doubt the validity of any belief that they produce – including Dawkins’ own science and his atheism. His biology and his belief in naturalism would therefore appear to be at war with each other in a conflict that has nothing at all to do with God.”

Plantinga is a Christian, but atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel says essentially the same: “Evolutionary naturalism implies that we shouldn’t take any of our convictions seriously, including the scientific world picture on which evolutionary naturalism itself depends."

I sympathise with Horgan’s main objection--the problem of evil and pain. It is the hardest problem for both of us. Yet for me it leads to God and not away from him for several reasons. Firstly, at the intellectual level, if there is no God then I agree with thinkers from Dostoyevsky to Dawkins who say that there is no such thing as evil (e.g. Dawkins’ famous statement: “there is no good…no evil… no justice…DNA just is and we dance to its music”). Rather contradictory then to talk about a problem of evil at all.

Secondly, getting rid of God does not get rid of the suffering. In fact, it can make the pain worse since it gets rid of all ultimate hope and justice. Horgan denies this in his last sentence, but I still maintain he has no ultimate personal hope to offer for anyone, including himself. The vast majority of people who have ever lived have suffered and not received justice in this life. Since, according to atheism, death is the end, then these people will never receive justice since there is no life to come. I applaud Horgan’s positive reaction to what we have achieved in overcoming disease, poverty, oppression and war, but that does not affect my point in the slightest.

Whether God could have made a world in which fire warmed but didn’t burn and there were no destructive earthquakes is difficult. After all, earthquakes are paradoxically essential for the maintenance of life. Certainly, God could have made a world in which there was no moral evil. But there would have been no humans in it--it would be a robotic world. The greatest God-given capacity we humans have is the capacity to love. It inevitably carries with it the capacity to hate. Hence the world presents us all with a mixed picture – beauty and barbed wire.

The question I ask is: granted that this is so, is there anywhere evidence of the existence of a God whom I can trust with this deep issue? Yes. At the heart of Christianity there is a cross. The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is God incarnate – which raises the question: what is God doing on a cross? At the very least that shows me that God has not remained distant from human suffering but has become part of it. Furthermore, Christ rose from the dead, which is a guarantee that there is to be a future judgement. This is a marvellous hope, because it means that our conscience is not an illusion, and those who terrorise, abuse, exploit, defame and cause their fellow humans untold suffering will not get away with it. Atheism has no such hope--for it ultimate justice is an illusion.

Finally, none of us finds the idea of ultimate justice attractive because we are all flawed and have all messed up. The cross also speaks of a place where I can receive forgiveness and new life by repenting and trusting the one who died for me. Christianity competes with no other philosophy or religion since no one else offers me such a radical solution to my human problem.

Of course these are huge claims and demand evidence. I have tried to put some of that evidence together in Gunning for God. published by Kregel. Also see my website

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.