A ‘position paper’ by Ian Todd
A bit of history
In the small English town of Wirksworth where I live, the Reverend Abraham Bennet F.R.S. was a clergyman for 23 years. He died in 1799. Like many Anglican clergyman of his day, his religious duties were not so onerous as to prevent him from pursuing other interests – in his case ‘natural philosophy’ or, as we now know it, ‘science’. This is shown by the letters after his name, which indicate that he was a Fellow of the Royal Society – the most prestigious Scientific Society in the United Kingdom (then and now). Abraham Bennet’s particular interest was in physics; indeed, he authored a book entitled ‘New Experiments in Electricity’ in which he described his invention of the gold-leaf electroscope. Bennet’s work influenced Alessandro Volta in the latter’s invention of the electric battery (and from whose name we get the word ‘volt’). This is just one example of how, during the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, many clergyman contributed to developments in science, doubtless seeing this as a way of deepening understanding of God’s Creation; thus, their interest in ‘natural philosophy’ was instrumental in the development of ‘natural theology’.
Much better known than Abraham Bennet was his older contemporary, David Hume – the Scottish philosopher who died in 1776. As an Enlightenment philosopher, Hume expressed much scepticism about conventional religion, including Christianity, without being overtly an atheist. However, his ideas anticipated the well-known statement by astrophysicist, science-populariser and agnostic, Carl Sagan in 1979 that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. It seems to me that the evolution of scientific scepticism over the 200 years from the time of Hume to the time of Sagan, and the requirement for ‘hard data’ before anything can be believed, has resulted for many in ‘the baby being thrown out with the bath water’. In this context, the ‘bath water’ includes the burning of suspected witches; the baby, however, might be the infant Jesus Christ.
William Paley, another clergyman, published in 1802 his well-known ‘Watchmaker analogy’ in which he argues that if one stumbled across a watch whilst out for a walk and examined it closely, one would have to conclude from its purposeful design and complexity that it was the product of intelligent design rather than random natural processes – by contrast, natural processes would account for a rock found on the path. In this way he argued that the complexity of the world, and especially of life, must point to an intelligence (i.e. God) who is the source of Creation’s design and being. It was, however, just over 50 years later that Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. The concept of evolution – meaning the descent of modern species from more primitive ones – was not a novel idea of Darwin’s. His new proposal was the mechanism by which evolution of species occurred as an unguided process of ‘natural selection’ acting on random, chance variations (that we now know to be due to genetic mutations). Thus Darwin (and also Alfred Russell Wallace) proposed that random variations in organisms that conferred a competitive survival advantage would be naturally selected and transferred to their offspring. The accumulation of many such variations over many generations would lead to the evolution of new species. This ingenious hypothesis has no need of an intelligent designer as envisaged by William Paley and thereby seems to dispense with a role for God.
Fast-forwarding 125 years brings us to 1986 and the publication of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution reveals a Universe without Design’. This book not only represents the apparent victory of Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ over Paley’s ‘divine creator’ as the explanation for life on Earth, but also set the scene for Dawkins’ subsequent books championing what has been called the ‘New Atheism’. The first of these, published in 2006 is entitled ‘The God Delusion’, whose title seems to indicate that those who believe in God are, in fact, ‘deluded’! His most recent book on the same topic, ‘Outgrowing God’ (published 2019), similarly implies that such belief is ‘childish’. Although, perhaps that’s actually a good thing, given that Jesus said that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who show child-like humility (Matthew 18:4).
Scientists, by definition, should be broad-minded and prepared to entertain possibilities for which there is insufficient empirical evidence for unequivocal proof or dis-proof. Thus, I contend that, contrary to the atheistic stance of Richard Dawkins, discounting the possibility of God on ‘scientific’ grounds is narrow-minded. What follows are the reasons why.
Evolution, materialism and idealism
At the time that I’m writing this, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and there is much concern about a new variants of the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus that have arisen and appear to be more infectious than previous strains of the virus. What we are witnessing here is Darwinian evolution by natural selection in progress! This is what viruses do – as they replicate in infected individuals, random changes (i.e. mutations) occur in the genes of a few copies of the virus. The changes that, by chance, confer an advantage are ‘naturally selected’ and the mutant virus increases in numbers to become the main strain of the virus, effectively ‘out competing’ its predecessors from which it evolved. Similar processes of random mutation and natural selection apply to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Evolution by natural selection also occurs in much larger organisms than microbes – for example, it’s how polar bears evolved from the North American brown bear. Humans have also made use of random variation in species to generate all the different breeds of domesticated animals (dogs, poultry, sheep, cattle, etc.), although we should probably call this ‘artificial selection’ rather than ‘natural selection’!
So, Darwin was undoubtedly correct about the mechanism of evolution within species of organisms, from viruses to ourselves – what can be called ‘micro-evolution’. However, it is less clear how Darwin’s theory explains the evolution of higher phyla and classes of organisms from simpler ones, i.e. microbes evolving into animals and plants; and then simple animals (like sponges) evolving into molluscs, crustaceans, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals (to name but a few). This has led to a variety of novel hypotheses that deviate from ‘classical Darwinism’ to explain this so-called ‘macro-evolution’. One of these that stands apart from the others is called evolution by ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID). It stands apart because, whereas all the other hypotheses infer ‘natural mechanisms’ of evolution, ID (as its name indicates) implicates an ‘intelligent designer’ of life forms on the basis that the complexity and sophisticated information systems of living things point to deliberate design rather than random chance as the basis of evolution. ID is therefore essentially a modern version of Paley’s ‘Watchmaker Analogy’ from 200 years ago. Let’s be clear, however, that this is not ‘Creationism’ – defined as believing that the Earth and all life were created exactly as described in the book of Genesis. It is also not questioning the occurrence of evolution, meaning that modern species evolve from more primitive species.
Without going in to the scientific, evidence-based arguments for and against ID, what is striking is the level of vehement criticism directed at the proponents of ID by some other scientists. Why is this? A major factor is that ID potentially implicates God as the designer/creator of life, and is therefore regarded by some as an irrational, non-scientific argument.
Matti Leisola is a protein biochemist and a supporter of ID; he writes the following in his 2018 book ‘Heretic – One Scientists Journey from Darwin to Design’ (co-authored with Jonathan Witt):
Some atheists frame the debate as faith vs. reason, but that’s a muddled—indeed, unreasonable—way to frame the controversy. In autumn 1987 I was sitting in the office of biochemistry professor Kaspar Winterhalter in Zürich. I had applied for a teaching position, and we were writing a joint publication on enzyme characterization. We had the following discussion:
“Doctor Leisola, you are a very religious man!”
“Professor Winterhalter, so are you!”
“What do you mean?”
“Your world view, like mine, is based on things that cannot be proved but have to be accepted finally by faith.”
“Hmm… you may be right.”
And there lies the crux of the matter – many, especially scientists, who espouse atheistic materialism regard their view a rational and scientific whilst regarding a theistic view as irrational and unscientific. This is ‘The Enlightenment’ taken to an extreme that has permeated the whole of society and led my thirteen year old granddaughter to ask the question that provided the title of this piece: “How can a scientist believe in God?”
My answer to that is, “Very easily”, because belief in God is in no way incompatible with the processes, results and conclusions of science. As indicated in Matti Leisola’s conversation above, it comes down to one’s view of the nature of reality and which comes first – ‘matter’ or ‘mind’. Keith Ward eloquently addresses these two opposite philosophical views of ‘Materialism’ and ‘Idealism’ in his 2014 book ‘The evidence for God’: he states that:
…..materialists hold that everything that exists consists of matter. There are no spiritual realities, and matter probably consists of elementary particles governed by laws of nature. Those particles get into very complicated patterns, and when they are complicated enough they form human beings. Human consciousness, feeling, and thought are nothing but a complicated arrangement of material particles. Idealists, on the other hand, think that matter could not exist without mind or consciousness (what I have called Spirit). Material things exist, but they exist in order to express the nature of Spirit in some way. So Spirit is fundamentally real, and matter is dependent on Spirit.
So, there we have it! Some scientists are ‘materialists’ and believe that matter (and energy) are the ultimate basis of reality; our mind or consciousness is then just the expression of the workings of the billions of material neurones that constitute our brains. Other scientists are ‘idealists’ who believe that the existence of matter (and energy) is dependent on, and the consequence of, a deeper reality which is the consciousness or mind of the Creator of everything, i.e. God. I stress the word ‘believe’ in both cases because, as indicated in Matti Leisola’s conversation above, neither group can scientifically prove that they are correct (or that the other group is incorrect). A further facet of the idealist view is that, for each of us, our mind (or spirit, as Keith Ward calls it) is housed within our material brain, but is not a product of the brain.
A problem for those wedded to scientific materialism occurs when scientific evidence itself points to the possibility of God. The materialist will argue that everything must have a ‘material’ or ‘natural’ explanation, and that evoking God takes us into the realms of the ‘supernatural’ which, to the materialist, is a fantasy world. However, as Tim Reddish states in his book ‘Science and Christianity: Foundations and Frameworks for Moving Forward in Faith’ (2016):
…..we must..not to get caught up in the sterile rhetoric surrounding the notion of “supernaturalism.” From God’s perspective, all his acts are natural to him!
I agree with Reddish that there is no fundamental difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’. Looking at this from our perspective rather than God’s, it’s simply that what we consider ‘natural’ is amenable to scientific investigation and understanding, whereas the ‘supernatural’ is currently beyond the scope of our scientific methods.
Richard Lewontin addressed this very clearly in a 1997 review of Carl Sagan’s book entitled ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark’. In this book , Sagan promotes the scientific materialist view that anything that is not verifiable by the ‘scientific method’ cannot form part of reality. This is how Lewontin summarises this materialist stance:
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Life, the Universe, and Everything
Let’s address three of the key scientific issues that divide materialists and idealists starting with what might be considered the ultimate one – the origin of the Universe. Up to about 100 years ago, astrophysicists, astronomers and cosmologists felt certain that the Universe was eternal – that it was in a ‘steady state’ that had always existed and would always exist. However, doubts about this widely-held view started to creep in as evidence was uncovered showing that the Universe is rapidly expanding, i.e. that every galaxy is moving away from every other one. Eventually it was shown that all the data collected by astronomers and cosmologists indicated that the Universe started in an instant, with an explosion from an infinitesimally small point that contained all the matter and energy from which the whole Universe is made. This happened around 13.8 billion years ago and is, of course, famously known as the ‘Big Bang’. The obvious question is what (or who) caused the Big Bang? Many scientists were not at all happy with this new theory – not because it didn’t fit the data (it did!), but because it had potentially theological implications, it raised the possibility of a Creator! Albert Einstein said that ‘it irritated him’ and the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington said the very idea was ‘repugnant to him’! The dilemma that this raised for materialist scientists was put very nicely by Robert Jastrow in his book ‘God and the Astronomers’ (1978):
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
In response to the question ‘What caused the Big Bang?’, radio astronomer Alastair Gunn provided the following answer on the website of the BBC Science Focus Magazine:
The Big Bang is the moment that space and time (or ‘space-time’) came into existence. Before the Big Bang there was no space or time. So, it is actually meaningless to ask what caused the Big Bang to happen – there was no Universe in which that cause could have existed. This might seem like a bit of a cheat, but there are other good reasons to suppose a cause for the Big Bang might not exist. Quantum physics has shown us that some events have no cause at all. Things can happen randomly, spontaneously, and for no particular reason. This unpredictable and ‘causeless’ nature of the Universe is experimentally verified but has nothing to do with our inability to observe correctly – it is a fundamental property of the Universe. So, although there may have been a cause for the Big Bang that we are unaware of, modern cosmology neither defines nor requires one.
In other words, science can’t tell us what (if anything) caused the Universe to come into being. It’s therefore not unreasonable to turn to theology for the possible answer to this moment of Creation, i.e. a Creator God.
Moving on from the beginning of the Universe to how it behaves, physicists have uncovered some remarkable facts about the nature of the Universe – in particular, the fact that it can actually support life at all, otherwise known as the ‘Anthropic Principle’. This ‘fine tuning’ of our Universe applies both to its creation and its structure. For example, if the force of the ‘Big Bang’ had been just slightly less, everything would have collapsed in on itself again. Conversely, if the force had been slightly more, the rate of expansion would have been too great for stars and planets to form. The chance that the force of the Big Bang would be exactly correct to form our Universe is estimated to be 1:1060 – in other words, virtually no chance that it would happen ‘by chance’. Another example concerns what are called the ‘strong and weak nuclear forces’: if these had turned out to be very slightly different from what they are, no stars could have formed to generate energy by converting hydrogen into helium, and heavier elements could not have been generated – so no chance of any life developing.
So, what is the ‘materialist’ explanation for this ‘fine-tuning’ of our Universe that has enabled life (and therefore humans) to evolve? One of the most popular ideas is the ‘Multiverse’ hypothesis. This states that there are many, possibly an infinite number, of Universes, each with different physical properties. The vast majority of these will be extremely chaotic and unable to support the generation of life. A very few, however, and possibly only one Universe, would happen by chance to have just the right physical properties to allow stars and planets to form that could support life. That would be ‘our’ Universe and, of course, that’s the Universe in which we find ourselves because it’s the only Universe in which we could have arisen and survived.
In his book ‘Is there a God?’ (2010), Richard Swinburne argues that one of the criteria that scientists apply when deciding the likely truth of a scientific proposition is whether it is relatively simple, or unnecessarily complicated. Well, it seems to me that proposing that God deliberately created our Universe with the physical properties to support life is a much simpler explanation than proposing that there are an infinite number of Universes. Furthermore, the Multiverse Hypothesis still begs the question of who (or what) created all of those Universes!
For the third example, we move from physics to biochemistry to ask the question ‘How did life start on earth’? This is a different question from that of evolution that we considered previously – that concerns how more complex life forms develop from simpler life forms. By contrast, the origin of life concerns how self-organising, self-replicating life arose from non-living, inorganic chemicals. The short materialist answer is that ‘nobody knows’ – and this is despite decades of speculation, hypothesising and research. An often quoted idea is that, in some aqueous environment (be that a puddle, pond, lake, or sea), the right collection of chemicals at the right temperature all chanced to come together with an energy source (e.g. bolts of lightning or deep-sea hydrothermal vents) and this triggered the synthesis of some organic molecules that managed to survive and start reproducing themselves, eventually developing into simple microbes. Although this may sound reasonable at a superficial level, scientists know that there are multiple large hurdles in that explanation that one might equate to asking a grasshopper to jump over Mount Everest in a single leap! Here’s what James Tour, a Professor of Chemistry, Nanotechnology and Computer Science, has said about the current scientific understanding of the origin of life on Earth:
We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfil biology’s functions. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins were made and how they could have coupled in proper sequences, and then transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex biological system, and eventually to that first cell. Nobody has any idea on how this was done when using our commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science. Those that say that they understand are generally wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis. Those that say, “Oh this is well worked out,” they know nothing—nothing—about chemical synthesis—nothing. … From a synthetic chemical perspective, neither I nor any of my colleagues can fathom a prebiotic molecular route to construction of a complex system. We cannot even figure out the prebiotic routes to the basic building blocks of life: carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids, and proteins. Chemists are collectively bewildered. Hence I say that no chemist understands prebiotic synthesis of the requisite building blocks, let alone assembly into a complex system. That’s how clueless we are. I have asked all of my colleagues—National Academy members, Nobel Prize winners—I sit with them in offices. Nobody understands this. So if your professors say it’s all worked out, if your teachers say it’s all worked out, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
So, if we have no idea how life could have started on Earth by chance chemical reactions, where else might it have come from? Another materialist hypothesis, proposed by Francis Crick (who, with James Watson, discovered the structure of DNA) is that life (presumably microbes) may have arrived on earth from outer space, perhaps on an asteroid, having arisen on another far-off planet! If this were true (however, fantastical it sounds), it just pushes back the problem of how life initially arose from our planet to another planet!
It therefore seems that the most reasonable and straightforward hypothesis is that life was created. This, again, simply requires accepting the ‘idealist’ view that mind is a more fundamental reality than matter, rather than the ‘materialist’ view that that matter is the only fundamental reality.
Quantum weirdness, heaven and miracles
It strikes me as ironic that the more that physicists have investigated the fundamental nature of ‘matter’, the less it seems that it fits with the materialist view of reality. Indeed, at the sub-atomic level, the constituents of matter (and energy) appear more ‘supernatural’ than ‘natural’ – such is the world of quantum physics. Here are some of the key features of the sub-atomic world, that are sometimes referred to as ‘quantum weirdness’:
- In the early twentieth century, it was discovered that light, which was known to behave as a wave (i.e. electromagnetic radiation), could also behave as particles (photons). Conversely, it was found that subatomic particles, such as electrons, could also behave as waves. This is known as ‘wave-particle duality’.
- It was then discovered that it’s not possible to measure simultaneously the position and the momentum (i.e. rate and direction of travel) of a wave-particle. If its position is measured, its momentum can’t be measured, and vice versa. This is known as the ‘Heisenberg uncertainty principle’.
- Even stranger is what is known as the ‘observer effect’. To put it colloquially, this refers to the finding that a wave-particle (e.g. light or an electron) behaves as a wave when it is ‘left to its own devices’, but behaves as a particle when its behaviour is observed or measured!
- Alfred Einstein was unhappy with all of this ‘quantum weirdness’ of the subatomic world – it seemed so counter-intuitive and contrary to our ‘common-sense’ experience of reality. Indeed, it implied that the basis of reality is very different from what our five senses (and therefore our brains) tell us it is! So, with two colleagues called Podolsky and Rosen, Einstein calculated that, if quantum physics was actually true, it predicted a phenomenon called ‘quantum entanglement’ which Einstein thought couldn’t possibly be true. This refers to the idea that, if two particles are ‘quantumly entangled’, they can communicate instantaneously with each other however far apart they are. Thus, even if two entangled particles are in different galaxies billions of light years apart from each other, a change in one particle will immediately cause a change in the other particle. According to Einstein’s well-established ‘Theory of General Relativity’, this is impossible because this theory states that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So, in the example I have given, it should take billions of years for a change in one particle to be communicated to the other particle in the far-distant galaxy. However, experiments have shown that quantum entanglement is true – entangled particles do communicate with each other instantly – faster than the speed of light!
The inconsistencies between General Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory are, in fact, much more profound than just dealing with quantum entanglement. As we have seen, Quantum Theory explains the nature of reality at the sub-atomic level; by contrast, General Relativity explains how ‘big’ objects behave, from molecules to stars and planets. The problem is that General Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory are incompatible with each other – General Relativity doesn’t work at the subatomic level and Quantum Theory can’t predict the behaviour of ‘big’ objects. A striking example of this incompatibility is highlighted by Joseph Selbie in ‘The Physics of God’ (2017): this is that Quantum Theory predicts that a cubic metre of space contains 10122 times more energy than is predicted by General Relativity. That’s an unimaginably big difference – 106 would be a millions times difference and 109 would be a billion times difference, but we’re talking about a difference of 10122 times. So where is all of the energy that’s required by Quantum Theory, but ‘undetectable’ by General Relativity? This brings us to ‘String Theory’ and a particular version of this called ‘M-Theory’. This predicts that the massive amount energy that’s not seen by General Relativity is present in other dimensions of reality that scientists have no instruments to detect, but that intersects our Universe and is almost infinitely larger than our Universe. In M-Theory, these other dimensions are called ‘Non-localised 2-dimensional Branes (or Pre-Space)’ – Joseph Selbie proposes that these dimensions (that he calls the ‘energy-verse’) are the location of Heaven! Thus, although this proposal cannot be proven at this time, and M-Theory itself has not yet been validated, this could be a point at which science and theology coalesce – where the distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ dissolves.
Another development of String Theory is called the ‘Holographic Principle’ of the Universe. This postulates that our 3-dimensional Universe can be likened to a holographic projection of a 2-dimensional template at the boundary with the 2-dimensional Pre-Space. This could explain the phenomenon of quantum entanglement discussed above because distance and time have no meaning in Pre-Space; thus, two entangled particles that appear widely separated in our projected Universe are effectively in the same place as each other in the Pre-Space template, thereby explaining how a change in one particle instantaneously affects the other.
An important implication of the Holographic Principle for the Christian understanding of Creation is put thus by Joseph Selbie in ‘The Physics of God’:
Perhaps the most significant implication of the holographic principle is that the universe is being continuously created. Most conceptions of the creation of the universe…suggest that, after an initial creative event, physical creation remains as a permanent and independent reality. The holographic principle suggests otherwise. It suggests that if the energy that is interacting with the two-dimensional hologram in pre-space were withdrawn, the three-dimensional holographic projection of the universe would cease to exist—instantly. Furthermore, it suggests that the physical universe has no independent and enduring reality, that it is wholly dependent, moment by moment, on the information and energy originating from the nonlocal, two-dimensional energy-verse.
This is clearly consistent with the theological premise that God is both the Creator and the sustainer of the Universe.
I further propose that this hypothetical model of reality, that bridges the boundary between science and theology, also provides a rationale for those aspects of religious belief that are often most troublesome even to believers, let alone those who are agnostic or atheist in disposition – and that is miracles. By definition, miracles are ‘unusual events’ that transcend the normal workings of nature; indeed, many would define them as extraordinary or supernatural events – and many of those would say that miracles are impossible. However, as we have seen above, the science of physics itself now blurs the boundary between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, and facets of reality that were once deemed ‘impossible’ even by Einstein (such as quantum entanglement) are now known to be true.
In ‘God Can’t: Questions and Answers’ (2020), Thomas Jay Oord defines miracles as ‘…unusual and good events that involve God’s causal action in relation to creation’. If, as suggested by Joseph Selbie, what is theologically called ‘Heaven’ and scientifically called ‘Non-localised 2D Pre-Space’ or ‘the Energy-verse’ are one and the same thing, and this is the location of the holographic template that projects our Universe, then the One who created and maintains that template moment by moment is also the One who can manipulate it (in cooperation with Creation). The One I’m referring to is, of course, God. Thus, I propose that Jesus Christ, as God in human form, could turn water into wine, make the blind to see, the lame to walk, and so on, because he could access and manipulate those features of the holographic template projecting the water that became wine, and the organs and limbs of those that he healed. Extending this same proposal readily provides a rationale for the virgin conception and the bodily resurrection of Christ himself. It also shows that it is not ‘anti-scientific’ to hypothesise a role for ‘Intelligent Design’ in the origin and evolution of life, including ourselves, as this could again be determined by how God relates to Creation through the holographic template of our Universe. To paraphrase the earlier quote from Tim Reddish: From God’s perspective, all His acts are natural, not ‘supernatural’.
Let me emphasise that all of the proposals discussed above about Pre-Space/Heaven, the Holographic Principle and so on, are both scientifically and theologically speculative – they are not proven and may not be correct. However, what this discussion does show is that it’s certainly possible to believe what science tells us and to believe in God – they are not incompatible and can be viewed as complementary in an holistic view of reality.
The ‘Lazarus effect’? (Luke 16: 19-31)
It would be reasonable to conclude that much of the discussion above is consistent with there being a ‘Spiritual Dimension’ to reality. However, all the evidence and arguments that I have presented thus far are indirect. So, is there any direct evidence for the idealist philosophy that ‘mind is not dependent on matter’? I would like to propose that there is such evidence, and that this is provided by what are commonly called ‘Near-Death Experiences’ (NDEs). Studies show that about 17% of people who nearly die report NDEs. ‘Nearly die’ in this context typically means that the person was unconscious, comatose, or defined as clinically dead (but with subsequent recovery) at the time of the experience. Collectively many thousands of NDEs have been reported and recorded. Indeed, the numbers of NDEs reported is likely to continue increasing due to the ‘wonders of modern medicine’ in facilitating the survival of unconscious or comatose patients who would otherwise have died. Several ‘materialist’ hypotheses have been proposed to explain NDEs (e.g. hallucinations in an oxygen-starved, dying brain) – but none of these are entirely consistent with the commonly reported features of NDEs by those who have experienced them. For example, about 45% of reported NDEs include an ‘out of body experience’ in which events ‘observed’ by the individual whilst unconscious are often verified by medical staff present at the time. Jeffrey Long is a radiation oncologist who has undertaken detailed studies of NDEs and published an article in the journal ‘Missouri Medicine’ (vol. 111(5), pages 372-380, 2014; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6172100/) that details nine lines of evidence indicating that NDEs are real, rather than imagined, experiences. This includes a review of studies reporting that patients who had NDEs could describe details of their own resuscitation with great accuracy, whereas resuscitated patients who did not have NDEs often made inaccurate guesses about what had happened to them. A particularly remarkable example was described in a study of NDEs published in the highly reputable medical journal ‘The Lancet’ (van Lommel et al., Lancet, vol.358, pages 2039-2045, 2001):
During the pilot phase in one of the hospitals, a coronary-care-unit nurse reported a veridical out-of- body experience of a resuscitated patient: “During a night shift an ambulance brings in a 44-year-old cyanotic, comatose man into the coronary care unit. He had been found about an hour before in a meadow by passers-by. After admission, he receives artificial respiration without intubation, while heart massage and defibrillation are also applied. When we want to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the ‘crash car’. Meanwhile, we continue extensive CPR. After about an hour and a half the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still ventilated and intubated, and he is still comatose. He is transferred to the intensive care unit to continue the necessary artificial respiration. Only after more than a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward. I distribute his medication. The moment he sees me he says: ‘Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are’. I am very surprised. Then he elucidates: ‘Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that car, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth.’ I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself….”
Other lines of evidence for the reality of NDEs given by Jeffrey Long include:
- They are lucid, organized experiences as distinct from muddled or vague experiences as might be associated with hallucinations, delerium or dreams. Indeed, the majority report that during their NDEs they feel “more conscious and alert than normal”.
- NDEs including ‘seeing events and people’ have been reported by several people who had been blind from birth.
- NDEs reported by children under the age of 5 years (who are unlikely to have strongly established religious beliefs or understanding of death) are not significantly different from those reported by older children and adults.
- NDEs experienced by people of different nationalities and different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds are very similar.
There is thus substantial evidence provided by NDEs for a ‘spiritual dimension’ and that ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ can function independently of the brain. But do they provide evidence for the existence of God and Heaven? As described by John Burke in ‘Imagine Heaven’ (2015), many NDEs do include experience of a ‘heavenly place’ that is extremely beautiful and feels ‘ultra-real’. Here, people describe meeting deceased relatives and friends, ‘beings of light’ that they identify as angels and, most strikingly, Jesus himself; some also recount being in the presence of God. Here are extracts from two NDE accounts of meeting Jesus; these are recounted by John and Kathy Burke in their further book ‘Imagine Heaven Devotional’ (2018). The first is an American man:
A radiant, beautiful light came from Him. When He looked at me, His eyes pierced me, they went all the way through me. Just pure love! I melted in His presence. [Jesus’s] eyes were deep, beautiful pools of love, and they were blue. I have since learned that Jews from the tribe of Judah are known to have blue eyes. . . . His words came as the same sound as the water flowing over Niagara Falls. . . . “Tell people they are special and unique, each one. God made every one of His children to have a divine purpose, which only they can accomplish in the earth.”
The second is a Middle-Eastern woman:
When I opened my eyes, I saw brilliant white light illuminating Jesus, the Son of Man, the Son of God. His face was brighter than the sun, and He was so glorious. . . . It was as if Jesus could see through me, reading all the thoughts of my heart. My whole body was shaking. I felt so unworthy to be in His presence. . . . He radiated an amazing love that contained deep acceptance. I felt neither condemnation nor shame. . . . “Welcome home, Samaa,” He said in a voice sweet and gentle, yet also powerful, like the sound of many waters. He opened His arms to me. His beautiful eyes were like blazing fires of consuming love that overwhelmed me. Like a magnet, His love drew me in. . . .
The ‘how’ and the ‘why’
Having spoken at length about the compatibility of science and religion, where they clearly diverge is in their ultimate purpose: put simply, science aims to explain how things happen and religion aims to explain why things happen; or, to put it another way, science investigates the nature of reality whereas religion seeks for the purpose of reality. Unlike human beings, science has no sense of morality – of right and wrong. Thus, for the atheistic materialist, our moral sense is simply a result of evolutionary adaptation, both for the survival of the individual and the survival of the species. Richard Dawkins put this bluntly and starkly in his book ‘River out of Eden’ (1995):
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
As well as denying the existence of God, this statement also highlights what C.S. Lewis aptly called ‘The Problem of Pain’ – if the Creator of the Universe is a loving God, why is there evil and suffering in the world? That’s a very good question, and one that theologians and humanity in general have pondered for millennia; it even has its own word – theodicy. It’s beyond the scope of the topic here but, for me, the most helpful books on theodicy are those by Thomas Jay Oord: ‘God Can’t’ (2019) and ‘The Uncontrolling Love of God’ (2015).
Dawkins statement also unequivocally spells out the materialist conclusion that existence ultimately has no purpose. This contrasts completely with the idealist and, in particular, the Christian view that existence is brimming with purpose. But that purpose is something that no scientist has an instrument to measure, and for which no mathematician can derive an equation – and that is ‘love’. The apostle John tell us that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) and Jesus stated our purpose very simply: love God and love each other (Luke 10:27).
Studies of NDEs report that a common feature of those who have experienced them is a significant change in their outlook on life and the way that they live their lives. In his study (Missouri Medicine vol. 111(5), pages 372-380, 2014), Jeffrey Long stated that 79.2% of individuals reported a moderate to large change in their lives following their NDEs. In the study by van Lommel et al. (Lancet, vol.358, pages 2039-2045, 2001) of patients who had, or had not, experienced an NDE during cardiac arrest (followed by successful resuscitation), those who had experienced an NDE were statistically significantly more likely to report positive life changes two year after the event. These included: ‘understanding purpose of life’, ‘being more loving and empathic’, and ‘understanding others’. Mary Neal, an orthopaedic spinal surgeon, learnt from her NDE that:
…the reality is that we are here for a reason. We are here to learn and grow and change and help others do the same… There is no doubt that the only thing that truly matters is loving God and being a window through which God’s light can shine through this world, and loving each other. (In: John Burke & Kathy Burke, ‘Imagine Heaven Devotional’, 2018).
Finally, coming back to thinking about science and belief in God: C.S. Lewis is best known for writing the novel ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and the other stories about the magical land of Narnia. He also wrote numerous books on Christianity and in ‘Mere Christianity’ (1952), Lewis wrote that ‘…while in other sciences the instruments you use are things external to yourself (things like microscopes and telescopes), the instrument through which you see God is your whole self’. I mentioned earlier that Richard Dawkins’ books suggest that belief in God is ‘deluded’ or ‘childish’, and I also suggested that discounting the existence of God on scientific materialist grounds is narrow-minded. Conversely, I proffer the idea that belief in God is the most sophisticated thing that any human being can do – because it shows an awareness and acceptance of the true, spiritual basis of reality and the purpose which that carries, which is immeasurably more profound than believing there is nothing other than the matter and energy than constitutes our physical world. And the great news is that this is available to everyone – it doesn’t require an understanding of the mathematics of Quantum Mechanics, or a Batchelors degree in Organic Chemistry, or even a PhD in Immunology!
Everyone can know God, be they a child or a centenarian. Indeed, once again it is worth remembering those words of Jesus: ‘Whoever humbles himself like [a] child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18:4).