Christians in Roman times were accused of being atheists, because they refused to believe in these pagan gods. And rightly so; there are many gods I do not believe in. Indeed, even Richard Dawkins only believes in one fewer God than I do!
And the God I believe in is not of the universe, but existed before the universe began; not a part of nature, but super-natural. If you believe in that kind of God, then there is room to ask how the rest of the world works, and room to wonder if it works by regular laws….
If you think the universe is a morass of temptations, then you will be afraid to be too involved in it; you will want to meditate yourself to a higher level, perhaps. If you believe that, you are not going to want to be a scientist. But instead, we believe in a God who so loved the universe that He sent His only Son….
So why do people think that there is a conflict between science and religion? Too often the assumption is that science and religion are systems of epistemology, ways of knowing facts. Science gives me one set of facts, religion gives me another set of facts, and so surely there is going to be a time when the two systems conflict.
But that is not what science is at all, and not what religion is at all.
Science is not a big book of facts. Science is not about ‘proving’ anything. Science describes, but the descriptions are incomplete; we keep hoping that they get better. For that very reason you cannot use science to prove the existence of God (or no-God). But can science encourage us in our belief?
One trait of God I find is that He always gives us ‘plausible deniability.’ Every time you see His action in the universe, you can always come up with some way to explain it away if you want to. It could just be coincidence, or an illusion. You can never know for sure; that, of course, is why we need faith.
But postulating a ‘God’ helps us deal with certain classic mysteries of the fundamental nature of our existence. Leibniz once famously asked, ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ The ‘nothing’ of ‘creation from nothing’ is more than the absence of matter; it is the absence of space, time and the laws of physics themselves. Why is there a universe? The universe itself cannot explain itself. Either it has no explanation, which is certainly possible; or there is a reason for its existence, outside of itself, and we will identify that reason with God.
But in my science I encounter not only the creator God, but also a personal God. And to explain that, let me tell one final story.
I recall rainy summer afternoons when I was a child; when I couldn’t go outside to play, my mother would bring out a deck of cards and deal out a hand. Now, she is an adult, I am a child; there is no question that she could win the game at any time she wanted to. But the point of this game was not to win. The point of this game was for her to tell me she loves me. She could not say it out loud; no ten-year-old boy would stand for that. But she could show it, by spending time with me, by sharing the enjoyment of the game.
When I do science, God is playing a game with me. He sets the puzzles, I play out the puzzles; and like all puzzles, it is not the answers that matter, it is activity of finding the answers. The answers only count if they can then set up the next puzzle.
Science is where I get to spend time with the Creator. When God invites me to encounter him in the things that have been made, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, God is setting up a game we get to play together. It is a game that, on top of everything else, tells me He loves me.
And for that, I am grateful to be an astronomer.