Why I Am not an Atheist
As Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”1 On social media platforms, belief in God is commonly juxtaposed with “belief” in science. Usually this type of confrontational question comes up in a discussion about evolution2. This is a false choice. It is possible to believe in both, as long as the limitations of both religious belief and the scientific method are understood. There are questions that can be asked that are not answerable with logic, and can be proven to be so3,4. I will not go into further detail on that here (see the footnotes), but the question of whether or not a god exists is such a question. I will attempt to explain my position on this in detail.
The short answer to the original question would be that I believe in God, and that the universe is a divine creation, yet also believe that evolution occurs. It would be a misleading statement to call myself a creationist, because usually when people say creationist, what they actually mean is “young earth creationist.” Young earth creationists usually believe that the earth was created somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago. I am not a young earth creationist. I believe that the earth and the universe are billions of years old. There are many sources of evidence for this from various fields of study including geology, chemistry, biology, and physics. The Bible contradicts this, but was written in an era before the scientific method existed, and came at least partially from oral tradition. Many things written in the Bible suffer from this historical context. That is one of the limitations of a religious explanation for the origin of earth. Religion usually does not contain explanations of radiometric dating or computer simulations of the formation of a planet.
Similarly, with regard to the origin of life, I believe that the human species as we see it today has evolved from earlier primate ancestors. The early primates evolved from earlier mammalian ancestors who evolved from primitive reptilian ancestors and so on all the way back to primordial cells billions of years ago, sometime in the early geologic history of the Earth. On the surface of things, this reflects my acceptance of the conventional scientific explanation for the origins of humans, which is to say evolution.
To many atheists, the evolution of life from simpler ancestors into the advanced, intelligent life forms that humans are today implies there was no outside intervention in the origin of life. Everything is seemingly explainable by the normal laws of nature as we have come to understand them, based upon hard evidence: the fossil record, genetic and biochemical studies, comparative studies of anatomy over time and across species, as well as other lines of evidence. I completely accept the process of evolution as having occurred, that it led to the development of homo sapiens from simpler progenitors, and that evolution must be occurring even now, although it is difficult to observe in real time.
Why then, am I a creationist? I accept (believe) that life cannot come from nothing. According to the prevailing theories of science, it did. The usual interpretation of the natural history of life is that evolution of more complex organisms implies that at some point, there was the first cell that emerged from only raw materials. This hypothesis contradicts all of the evidence that has been gathered about the origins of life in the entire history of science. All life that we know on earth today, came from previous life. No other methods for life appearing have ever been documented. Ever. But there is an even bigger problem. Demonstrating that life could be made in a laboratory does not really solve the question of whether or not life has a completely natural origin.
Abiogenesis and the Burden of Proof
The existing scientific theories about the origin of life, or as I would call them, hypotheses, all state that somehow life arose from the primitive murky soup of nutrients on the early earth in the presence of some source of energy. To support this, many experiments have been conducted over the years (centuries) showing that the basic building blocks of life can all be assembled naturally. Then, it is presumed that these basic building blocks somehow spontaneously assembled into an early cell or group of cells and that these somehow started reproducing, naturally evolved into more complex life, and that process continues to this day.
There is abundant evidence from laboratory experiments and observations of the natural world that the basic chemical building blocks of life can be assembled solely through natural processes. As for the assembling of these building blocks into a cell that functions and lives, there is absolutely no evidence for this at all.
We know that all life on earth has come from previous life. We know this because conditions on earth right now are ripe for life. The planet is covered with life, teaming with life. Yet no new life has ever been observed to arise spontaneously in the wild, and people have been looking. A lot of people have looked. We also know that no new life forms have been generated just by throwing the basic ingredients together in a laboratory and exposing them to heat or other forms of energy. This has not been achieved even with large input of time, money, and expertise in very concerted efforts in laboratories.
The closest anyone has ever come to creating artificial life was when the lab of Craig Venter claimed to have generated synthetic cells by inserting an artificial genome into the shell of a living cell that had the genome removed and getting the resulting cells to live5,6. They had to use many parts from the pre-existing naturally grown cell to achieve this, and they used the accumulated understanding of how existing life functions. Without both, they would not have succeeded even in reaching this very limited result. While a great technical achievement, all the experiment really accomplished was to demonstrate that cells are made up of compatible, interchangeable parts (with many caveats to that conclusion). That is also true of door latches. It did not demonstrate that life can arise from anything other than life.
The basic process of assembling life from nothing is usually referred to by the term abiogenesis. Numerous experiments have been conducted to try to generate life from these basic building blocks to no avail. No one has yet achieved anything more than the most basic assembly of the constituent parts of a cell, let alone figured out how to get the great concerted process of cellular metabolism started without it already having existed in the medium, nor any of the necessities that follow, such as reproduction. We could be optimistic and say that we simply do not understand well enough the processes of life, or the early conditions on the earth, but I do not expect any breakthroughs in this area soon, and claim that even if someone succeeds, it still does not demonstrate the requirement for life to be actually observed generating in a natural environment.
In this case laboratory experiments will not suffice. The evidence from the laboratory would be important, but would have to be aligned with real world abiogenesis. We can design a sky scraper, and demonstrate that sky scrapers exist in the real world, but the claim of a natural origin of life would be analogous to claiming that sky scrapers are naturally occurring. Sky scrapers are assembled by humans, they don’t occur naturally. If you put forth a hypothesis, then the burden of proof is upon you according to the scientific method, and the proponents of abiogenesis have been trying for centuries now with no confirmation, either in the laboratory or in the natural environment. I’m having trouble thinking of a scientific theory that has remained supported for so long with no confirmation. My personal conclusion is that the explanation must be something other. Let’s take a look at the major alternative.
This lack of evidence for a completely natural genesis of life has progressed to the point that some fairly wacky theories that were once consider fringe science, or pseudoscience have become popular among credentialed mainstream scientists. The most commonly repeated hypothesis is called panspermia, which is the idea that life on earth may have come from some other world and somehow made it over enormous distances through the hostile environment of space to seed earth with life. When I was in college my professors ridiculed this theory. Now it is being widely investigated by serious researchers.
There are several problems with the notion of panspermia, the most important of which is that life has never been found outside of the earth’s atmosphere. This constitutes a lack of basic observations to support the idea. There is also the problem that the environment of space is ridiculously hostile to life. Currently, life has not been demonstrated to survive in space without shelter. Space is colder than anywhere on the earth’s surface and is showered with innumerable natural hazards, but particularly the presence of lethal levels of radiation (lethal to any known life forms anyway) seems to me to be a show stopper. Other challenges include the vast distances that would need to be traversed from one world to another, and the likelihood of high speed impacts after descending to the surface of a world remote from the world of origin, the relatively unlikely occurrence of landing in an environment conducive to life, and so on.
Panspermia seems not only unlikely but also does not solve the riddle of how life could arise in the first place. It merely conveniently removes the origin far enough away that scientists supporting the idea now, need not be concerned with having to prove it to be true within their own lifetimes. It’s a hypothesis of scientific convenience.
I realize the supporters of natural abiogenesis will say that for me to support divine intervention as the source of life also requires scientific evidence. I agree, however divine intervention is not a scientific theory, but by definition it is a belief. See the quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson at the beginning of the essay to clarify what I mean by this. For this reason I do not expect scientists to believe it, or even to research it. The question of whether or not God exists, is one of the questions that can be logically asked but can’t be answered with the scientific method. It is probably not falsifiable (testable), which is one of the ways you can determine if an idea is scientific or not. In other words, I do not consider it a theory, and that is why I identify myself as religious, and call myself an “old earth creationist.” But what or who is God?
God is in the Causality
In this essay, I have mostly stuck to the question of the origin of life, because that is the extent of my academic training, but it suggests an overarching theme of reality: the question of causality. I have less training in physics than I do in biology and chemistry, so I’m less willing to extend myself on highly technical considerations of the details of the origins of the universe, but I have noted that there is always a question of causality in any branch of science. Just as all life has come from previous life, the universe as it exists now came from the universe previously. It has been suggested that the universe may have been created in a Big Bang, but this theory suffers from the same problems that abiogenesis and panspermia have: what came before that? It has also been suggested that time is something we perceive but is an illusion, sort of like a hologram. But everything we know is cause and effect, whether or not the directional flow of time is an illusion. All life came from previous life. The sun and the planets came from primordial material left over from the destruction of previous stars and planets, all of which was left over from earlier events. Where did the chain of events begin? Is it an infinite process?
Cause and effect is generally referred to as causality, and there is some discussion of it in scientific fields, particularly physics and cosmology, but I have never seen a satisfactory explanation for it. There are plenty of observations but no mechanisms are ever demonstrated beyond known scientific principles and basic forces, which have proven very difficult to explain (especially gravity).
I have read the opinion from some scientists that the notion of causality could be considered analogous to the religious concept of God. It is a more specific refinement of the idea that nature is God. I somewhat agree, although I subscribe more directly to the notion of divinity. I have no proof for this, but the unresolvable nature of the very question of causality is consistent with the notion of God. If the Devil is in the Details, then God is in Causality. God is the why of the universe, including all of it’s natural laws and fundamental forces. The notion of causality is elusive. It can be tested for specific outcomes, but is not testable as a general principle. The question of the existence of a god is the same.
Why is abiogenesis not testable? An argument could be made that if ever human scientists manage to synthesize artificially all the components of life and manage to assemble them and get metabolism started, and demonstrate that the unit of life thus assembled can reproduce itself, then it would be proven that life on earth was not created by divine intervention, and therefore must have occurred naturally. The proper response to this is that, on the contrary, is that life was still produced by other pre-existing life, in the form of humans conducting experiments in a laboratory. Does this imply that God was . . . an alien? That question is irrelevant, because yet again, we have the question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Alien or human, you can’t get outside of that question without life arriving spontaneously. My claim about the origin of life being divine is unprovable, but so is the claim that life arose spontaneously. Any test in the lab is important but not complete enough because it takes human intervention to bring about the circumstances under which it might occur. It’s like an Uncertainty Principle for biology. It can be imagined but never fully observed and documented7. Due to the question of the chicken and the egg, a meaningful experiment cannot be conducted to prove spontaneous abiogenesis. It must be observed to occur in the wild, and it never has been, and in my opinion, never will be.
Footnotes and Further Commentary
1 From an interview on Real Time with Bill Maher, February 4, 2011. Video here: https://youtu.be/yRxx8pen6JY
2 My first degree was in Biology, Purdue University, 1997.
3 On Computable Numbers With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, (Ser. 2, Vol. 42, 1937). In the field of Computer Science, there is a very important logical conundrum referred to as the Halting Problem. Looping algorithms exist that can be shown to halt under certain specified conditions, but cannot be proven to always halt for any input. Indeed, the opposite occurred, as the mathematician Allen Turing proved that it is not possible to prove such a thing. The original paper is viewable at this link: https://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/Turing_Paper_1936.pdf
4 My second degree was in Computer Science, Middle Tennessee State University, 2002.
5 Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Gibson, D. G. et al. Science 329, 52–56 (2010)D. G. Gibson et al. Science doi:10.1126/science.1190719; 2010 (and other publications).
7 I also do not fully accept quantum theory (a.k.a. quantum mechanics) for the same reason. Heisenberg attempted to resolve the question of un-solvability or un-testability by coming up with a principle stating that it would be impossible to make definitive observations. He then proceeded to form theories anyway, even though testability is a prerequisite of the scientific method. At that point “theoretical” physics diverged from science and became fringe science, if not outright pseudoscience, in my opinion. Personally, I can’t distinguish belief in quantum theory from belief in a divinity.