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A Christian Scientist and an Atheist Philosopher Walk into Merkert…

On April 20, 2017, The Veritas Forum at BC presented “Does Science Point to Atheism?” Held in the heart of the chemistry center on a Roman Catholic campus, this was sure to be a discussion worth attending.

doesscienceflyerTwo professors from MIT were invited to speak at the event: Ian Hutchinson of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and Alex Byrne of Philosophy. Advertised as a discussion between an atheist and a Christian, I was expecting the typical atheist-scientist versus Christian philosopher/theologian debate. What caught my attention and put me on the edge of my seat immediately? In this discussion, the usual roles were reversed as an expert in plasma science defended his faith, and his chair-of-philosophy colleague used logic and syllogisms to disprove God’s existence.

Dr. Hutchinson presented first on his view that natural science does not result in disbelief in God. Among other arguments, he used a set of statistics to demonstrate his point that being involved in the academia of the natural sciences does not show decreased religiosity. When comparing the different academic fields, professors in the humanities and the social sciences actually report a belief in God in lower percentages than those in the natural sciences.

Adamant that science and God are not mutually exclusive and can coexist, Dr. Hutchinson also used a metaphor to describe the relationship between evolution and intelligent design. Science can explain how water boils, but that says nothing against the fact that he wanted it for a cup of tea in the first place! (In an important aside, both of these professors hail from Britain).

Dr. Byrne took to the podium next, setting up a crisp and clean PowerPoint presentation to accompany his words – the debate had yet to begin, but this felt slightly like a power-play after Dr. Hutchinson’s strictly verbal lecture. Dr. Byrne took a broader approach to the definition of science, including a variety of fields from biology to anthropology to history under its umbrella. From here, he gave three straightforward arguments.

First was an argument centered around the concept of “lonely suffering.” Why would an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God (as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) allow any part of Creation to suffer without an Earthly agent, without benefit, and without witnesses? The second argument asked why God would stay hidden instead of allowing people the opportunity to know Him explicitly. Finally, what gives humans a sharp and relevant distinction from other animals such that God would mark them as special? Here Dr. Byrne called upon human ancestors such as Neanderthals to ask where the line can be drawn that mark Homo sapiens as “the chosen people.” He drew a chuckle from the audience when he pulled up his Neanderthal ancestry results from his 23andMe profile.

The ensuing discussion consisted of the two professors answering questions both from the moderator, BC’s own Micah Lott of the philosophy department, and from students in the audience. Before they began to answer any of these questions, however, there was a friendly “turf war,” as Dr. Byrne described it, about what was meant by the word “science” in this context.

It was a lively conversation full of intelligent analysis, long-winded responses, and more than a touch of wit. Had it been a fight, it would have been a fair one, and the two clearly could have gone on for hours more if left to their own devices.

These two speakers engaged the audience, and that was by far a bigger accomplishment than any irrefutable argument either might have made. Even in a room full of people inclined to “take sides,” particularly Dr. Hutchinson’s, the respect each person held for the discussion was almost tangible. The door was opened for further conversation on the topic, and if there’s one thing BC loves, it’s the idea of an ongoing conversation.

No matter what your field of study or you concept of faith, the discussion is there, waiting to be held. Does science point to atheism? Can we reach an agreement? Is there space for God in an academic setting? Can our views and lifestyles change? The answers may be complicated and controversial, but taking the first step and asking the questions is simple.

Who was the winner, if a discussion-not-debate can have such a thing? I’ll let you be the judge of that. Veritas ensured that the entire event was recorded and will soon be uploaded to their website.

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