“God-belief is unscientific!”

A strategic response

Atheists often complain that the God hypothesis is unscientific, and that this is a problem for the God hypothesis. The objection captures a widely publicized sentiment among non-believers that faith and science are in some sense incompatible: the belief that God exists is taken to be subjective and personal, while beliefs about how the world actually is (or objectively is) must in principle be testable by scientific methodology. This is a very clumsy dichotomy, however. Try this four step response.

Step 1: Ask the atheist what he means by unscientific.

You will likely hear something along the lines of “one cannot test God's existence by the scientific method” (and/or “the idea that God exists is unfalsifiable”). If you hear either of these, then proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Ask the atheist if he is affirming scientism.

It is important to confirm now what the atheist is arguing before you respond. Pin it down, so he cannot change later. For example, say…

“Why does it matter that one be able to test God's existence by the scientific method (and/or that his existence be scientifically falsifiable)? Are you perhaps thinking that the scientific method is the only possible source of genuine factual knowledge? Or is the idea maybe that all true propositions are scientifically falsifiable?”

It might be that simply asking the question will give your interlocutor pause; he will ideally be able to guess what will happen next if he answers “yes.” This occasionally results in him backing up and re-framing the issue in terms of something else, like the claim that God is magic (see link for response). If the atheist does confirm that he means to criticize theism on grounds that God is not knowable by the scientific method and/or is unfalsifiable, then proceed to step 3.

Step 3: Point out that scientism is self-refuting

(and/or give them examples of unfalsifiable things they believe).

For example, say…

>“If all true propositions are knowable by science, then is the proposition that <all truths are knowable by science> itself knowable by science?”

The answer of course, is no, which sets you up for Step 4. If the atheist also complained about God's alleged unfalsifiability, ask them about all the things they believe which are not falsifiable. For example, say…

>“Why think that all true propositions are scientifically falsifiable? What about the proposition that truth exists? What about the proposition that you are not in the Matrix? Do you believe aliens exist? That seems unfalsifiable. We also know electrons exist, so that seems true and yet also cannot be falsified.”1

Step 4: Explain that “scientific” and “rational” aren't identical.

For example, say… >“Imagine that God caused all the eschatological events articulated in the Biblical book of Revelation to occur tomorrow, such that everyone knew for sure that God existed and was responsible. Concluding that God is the explanation, even though it is true, would still be unscientific. It would be rational, yes, but unscientific because the explanation is supernatural.”2

The obvious conclusion is that no one should care if God, as an hypothesis, is unscientific. All one should care about is whether it is true. There is more to say, but these series of steps should get things rolling in the right direction.

Question: What strategies do you use when encountering atheists who criticize the God hypothesis on grounds that it is not scientific? Share them with us!

  1. Though unnecessary, you can proceed to explain that falsifiability is not even considered a criterion for an hypothesis being scientific these days.
  2. This is because science is not strictly in the business of truth-seeking. After all, rather than considering all options, scientists are restricted by so-called “methodological naturalism”; scientists are only permitted to posit explanations which are in principle reducible to initial conditions and physical laws. This makes science a carefully designed tool which helps with truth seeking in the following way: it presents to truth-seekers the best naturalistic explanation, so they can more easily make the higher order philosophical decision about whether that best naturalistic explanation is the best explanation overall. The rational person cannot skip the second step, and it is in principle possible then for an explanation to be scientific, while nevertheless irrational.