The Judeo-Christian Origins of Modern Science

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The Judeo-Christian origins of modern science: An excerpt from “Return of the God Hypothesis” by Stephen C. Meyer

August 16, 2023 -

Light shines forth from a starfield on a dark sky, an illustration of the beginning of the universe © By Quality Stock Arts/stock.adobe.com

Light shines forth from a starfield on a dark sky, an illustration of the beginning of the universe © By Quality Stock Arts/stock.adobe.com

Light shines forth from a starfield on a dark sky, an illustration of the beginning of the universe © By Quality Stock Arts/stock.adobe.com

I live and work in Seattle, where, a few years ago, a prominent professor of evolutionary psychology, David Barash of the University of Washington, authored a startling New York Times op-ed. He told of “the talk” he gives each year to his students flatly informing them that science has rendered belief in God implausible. Or as he explained, “As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious belief has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

Barash follows in a long tradition. Since the late nineteenth century powerful voices in Western culture—philosophers, scientists, historians, artists, songwriters, and science popularizers—have attested to the “death of God.” By this they of course do not mean that God once existed and has now passed away, but instead that any credible basis for belief in such a being has long since evaporated.

Those who tout the loss of a rational foundation for belief in God often cite the advance of modern science and the picture of reality it paints as the chief reason for this demise. The idea that science has buried God is pervasive in the media, in educational settings, and in our culture broadly. For example, Richard Dawkins has claimed that the scientific picture of the universe—and particularly evolutionary accounts of the origin and development of life on earth—supports an atheistic or materialistic worldview. As he put it, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

This book will show that reports of God’s decease have “been grossly exaggerated,” to appropriate a quote from Mark Twain. Instead, the truth is just the opposite of what Dawkins, Barash, and numerous other popular spokespersons for science have insisted. The properties of the universe and of life—specifically as they pertain to understanding their origins—are just “what we should expect” if a transcendent and purposive intelligence has acted in the history of life and the cosmos. Such an intelligence coincides with what human beings have called God, and so I call this story of reversal the return of the God hypothesis.

Three Big Questions

My own interest in what scientific discoveries show about the possible existence of God germinated over thirty years ago when I attended an unusual conference. At the time, I was working as a geophysicist doing seismic digital signal processing for an oil company in Dallas, Texas. In February 1985, I learned of a Harvard historian of science and astrophysicist, Owen Gingerich, who was coming to town to talk about the unexpected convergence between modern cosmology and the biblical account of creation as well as the theistic implications of the big bang theory. I attended the talk on a Friday evening and found that Gingerich had come to Dallas mainly to speak to a much larger conference the next day featuring leading theistic and atheistic scientists. They would be discussing three big questions at the intersection of science and philosophy: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin and nature of human consciousness.

Fascinated, I attended the Saturday conference at the Dallas Hilton. The organizers had assembled a world-class lineup of scientists and philosophers representing two great but divergent systems of thought. I was not surprised to hear outspoken atheists or scientific materialists explaining why they doubted the existence of God. What shocked me was the persuasive talks by other leading scientists who thought that recent discoveries in their own fields had decidedly theistic implications.

On the first panel, not only Professor Gingerich, but also the famed astronomer Allan Sandage, of Caltech, explained how advances in astronomy and cosmology established that the material universe had a definite beginning in time and space, suggesting a cause beyond the physical or material universe. Gingerich and Sandage also discussed discoveries in physics showing how the universe had been finely tuned from the beginning of time—in its physical parameters and initial arrangements of matter—to allow for the existence of complex life. This suggested to them some prior intelligence responsible for the “fine tuning.”

Neither wanted to claim that these discoveries “proved” the existence of God. They cautioned that science cannot “prove” anything with absolute certainty. Both argued, however, that the discoveries seemed to fit much better with a theistic perspective than a materialistic one. Professor Sandage caused a stir at the conference just by sitting down on the theistic side of the panel. It turns out that he had been a lifelong agnostic and scientific materialist and had only recently embraced faith in God. And he had done so in part because of scientific evidence, not in spite of it.

The panel on the origin of the first life featured another similarly dramatic revelation. One of the leading origin-of-life researchers in attendance, biophysicist Dean Kenyon, announced that he had repudiated his own cutting-edge evolutionary theory of life’s origin. Kenyon’s theory—developed in a bestselling advanced textbook titled Biochemical Predestination—articulated what was then arguably the most plausible evolutionary account of how a living cell might have “self-organized” from simpler chemicals in a “prebiotic soup.”

But as Kenyon explained at the conference, he had come to doubt his own theory. Origin-of-life simulation experiments increasingly suggested that simple chemicals do not arrange themselves into complex information-bearing molecules, nor do they move in life-relevant directions—unless, that is, biochemists actively and intelligently guide the process. But if undirected chemical processes cannot account for the encoded information found in even the simplest cells, might a directing intelligence have played a role in the origin of life? Kenyon announced that he now held that view.

After the conference, I met one of Kenyon’s colleagues on the origin-of-life panel, a chemist named Charles Thaxton. Thaxton, like Kenyon, thought that the information present in DNA pointed to the past activity of a designing intelligence—to an “intelligent cause,” as he put it. As I talked more with him over the ensuing days and months, I became more intrigued with the question of the origin of life and whether a scientific case could be made for intelligent design based on the discovery of the digitally encoded information in DNA.

I decided to focus my own energies on assessing that possibility, eventually completing my PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge on the subject of origin-of-life biology. Much later, in 2009, I published Signature in the Cell. In that book, I made a case for intelligent design based upon the information stored in DNA, though, again, without at- tempting to identify the designing intelligence responsible for life. Even so, through those years I remained intrigued by the possibility that the evidence from cosmology and physics taken together with that of biology might provide the basis for a persuasive reformulation of a God hypothesis.

To say that the God hypothesis has returned implies that scientists must have previously rejected it and that, at some still earlier time, a theistic perspective reigned either as an inspiration for doing science, an explanation for specific scientific discoveries, or both. Yet few science popularizers today present the history of science and its relationship to religious belief this way. Instead, they not only assert that science and theistic belief currently conflict, but they also say that science and religion have nearly always been at war. They describe the historical relationship between science and religion as one characterized by conflicting claims about reality and competing ways of knowing.

This chapter challenges the New Atheist–favored narrative about the historical relationship between science and theistic belief. It does so by showing how Judeo-Christian ideas contributed crucially to the rise of modern science.


Excerpted from Return of the God Hypothesis by Stephen C. Meyer and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021.


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