Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 10.

Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 10.

Chapter 12 is entitled, Scary Mom and the Atheists: How an Enlarged Faith Reveals the Limits of Science.  Wallace relates how his mother would put him and his brother to bed, turn off the lights but remain in the room, then jump up and grab them and scare them.  For some reason, she found this hilarious; needless to say, nine year old Paul did not.  He says he spent much of his youth scared of being scared by his mother.  This had the effect of him finding it amusing when people get suddenly scared without there being any real danger; also Halloween became his favorite holiday.  He says every Halloween he would write down his fears and then laugh at them.  He says laughter has a way with fear, like love, laughter drives it out.

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett

Beginning in 2005, with the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, the so called New Atheists (also known as The Four Horsemen), Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens rose to fame.  Wallace found himself morbidly fascinated.  He says:

For years, I read the Horsemen’s books, lurked about their blogs, and came to know a number of atheists personally.  My fascination persisted long enough to baffle me: Why should I care so much?  It was a scary question.  As a professor of physics and astronomy, I told myself that I care because the New Atheists say science (of all things) disproves the claims of faith.  During my seminary years, I told myself that I cared out of theological interest.  But what really frightened me was the possibility that the New Atheists were right…

Perhaps my fascination resulted from my own unconscious unbelief.  I began to ask myself, “Do I need to grow up and face the truth? Does a larger freedom await on the other side of faith?  Am I a closet atheist?”  The thought terrified me, but today I view the New Atheists with the kind of bemused curiosity reserved for things that used to scare me but don’t anymore, like lava and Scary Mom.

Wallace says he’s not afraid anymore for two reasons.  First, he tried on atheism; but it didn’t fit.  He couldn’t pull it off.  He opened himself to the very real possibility that he didn’t’ believe in God, but never felt the click of discovery.  It never felt true.  He says his belief in God had so merged with his deepest identity that he couldn’t cast it aside.  He says: “Stop believing in God?  I might as well stop believing in my own existence.”

Second he says, his faith has shown him the limits of science.  Science reveals how the universe works; tells us deep truths about the nature of energy and matter and our material origins.  But science cannot reveal all things, and it does not address whole classes of questions that are important to everyone – questions concerning good and evil, purpose, and meaning.

Jesus and Mo, August 17, 2011

Wallace refers to the August 17, 2011 “Jesus and Mo” cartoon (written by an atheist and wonderfully hilarious, but not for the easily offended religious person).  Wallace says:

Jesus is right: science is limited by its refusal to make stuff up, if by “make stuff up” he means taking seriously anything that’s not grounded in the methods and theories of science.  If this is what Jesus means, then we all make stuff up every day.  We have to, because no one lives their lives in strict accordance to the truths and methods of science alone.  And everybody lives according to virtues like love that have nothing to do with empirical science.

Science can shape the way you think.  It can prevent you from believing nonsense.  It provides an infinite supply of wonder.  But science alone will not help you navigate the challenges and heartbreaks and joys that are part of every human life.  In this sense, science is hollow.  It will not give us morally satisfying to Jesus’ question: “Why are we here?” and “What is the purpose of beauty?” It can’t console a mother who has lost a child.  It can’t tell us how we are to live.  It can’t fill our everyday lives with meaning and direction.  Science alone will not tell us how to respond to injustice or oppression or violence.

Wallace wants us to consider the unavoidable question: What is a human being?  Science answers that question from a strictly material standpoint.  A human is an organism within an environment.  Just like any other organism; there is no qualitative distinction between Homo sapiens and any other organism.

Chemical Composition of the Human Body

On a more basic level, science says a human being is a collection of trillions of atoms.  About 62% of these atoms are hydrogen, 24% are oxygen, 12% are carbon, and 1% are nitrogen; traces of calcium, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, and about fifty other elements are also found in the human body.  Science also tells us that these atoms must be arranged in a very particular and complex way, and thanks to billions of years of evolution, they have been.  The atoms themselves are neither living nor conscious, but when they are arranged in this way, both life and consciousness somehow emerge from them.

Wallace says this is both weird and wonderful: but also quite limited.  To see this, let’s ask Christianity the same question: What is a human being?  He says, like science, it says we are creatures, organisms in an environment.  It not only acknowledges but embraces the wonder and mystery of our physical bodies of atoms and molecules and cells and evolution and consciousness.  Wallace says Christianity contains all this.  It recognizes and celebrates our physicality.  In his view, faith has no argument with scientific accounts of Homo sapiens.

But it goes further.  It takes what science says, interprets it, and “makes stuff up,” in the words of cartoon Jesus.  Its data set includes and surpasses the biological and physical to encompass the emotional, social, and spiritual.  Faith takes into account not only the objective features of the human body but also the subjective experiences and meanings of millions of individual and communal lives.

So when it comes to human beings, faith says we are organisms that bear the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  Many ideas have been proposed about the meaning of that phrase.  Some say it means we have skills and capacities that sets us apart from other animals; such as reason, creativity, or the use of language. Others say the image of God is relational.  We relate more intimately with God and with each other than other creatures do.  Wallace says:

However you think about the image of God, it’s clear that love has something to do with it.  Scripture and Christian tradition say we were created out of love and for love.  God, in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28, 1 John 4:8) is love.  The Gospel of Mark tells the story of a scribe who asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?”  Jesus replies, “The first is, ‘Hear of Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:29-31).  Love is why we are here, and love is how we should live…

You won’t learn about any of this from science.  The divine image is not a scientifically verifiable idea.  Neither is love. Science also cannot contradict these things. They simply exist in the land beyond science.

If everything beyond the borders of science is made up, then the question is not whether we should make stuff up; it is what kind of stuff we should make up.  As followers of Jesus, we reach for love, a very fine made-up thing indeed.  And our faith is nothing less than a love story big enough to contain science and the cosmos it reveals, open enough to take all question, and generous enough to set all human creatures free to laugh at everything that scares them.


17 thoughts on “Review of “Love and Quasars: An Astrophysicist Reconciles Faith and Science” by Paul Wallace, Part 10.

  1. Good point, Klasie. When religious people seek to address the issue of atheism, they should do so by engaging in the best arguments of atheists, and engaging the best atheist thinkers, not the worst or weakest. And vice versa.


  2. OK, as the token atheist around here, I have to observe that people of faith take their impressions of the big name activists in the media.And atheists often do the same about people of faith. As if anyone on this board would consider Kenneth Copeland, Paula White and Franklin Graham as representative of their beliefs.

    If we are going to be honest about these matters, we should start by clearing away the silly caricatures. And popular writers, Christian or atheist. As documented 3 years ago here n this site, my own journey to atheism did not contain these things. And I am still happy to acknowledge the brilliance and eloquence of my friends of faith. After all, I like hanging out here.


  3. ” First, he tried on atheism; but it didn’t fit. He couldn’t pull it off. He opened himself to the very real possibility that he didn’t’ believe in God, but never felt the click of discovery. It never felt true. He says his belief in God had so merged with his deepest identity that he couldn’t cast it aside. He says: “Stop believing in God? I might as well stop believing in my own existence.””

    Wallace’s story brings this to mind:

    ” “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.
    To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” (Thomas Aquinas)


  4. Doing humility “right” is a difficult task. So easy to come across as a self-righteous a**. Not that we shouldn’t try, though, because the opposite – arrogance – is equally off-putting.


  5. Michael Z.
    that was a very thought-provoking comment . . . . I’m blogging on a ‘patheos evangelical’ site that has both aggressive atheists AND extreme far-right fundamentalists . . . . .

    the similarities are amazing


  6. Both extremes seem to think they’ve achieved some sort of “better than thou” status, yes. Tribalism at its worst.

    –> “For atheists, this superiority is almost always presented as intellectual, as if all religious people were chimpanzees incapable of logical thought.”

    An atheist co-worker of mine once hit me with the statistic that Washington state had the highest education level of any state in the nation along the lowest church attendance. His comment: “Smart people don’t fall for that religious stuff.”

    Of course, I had to counter with the fact that a lot of highly intelligent people DO believe in God, but that ricocheted off his deflector shields.


  7. –> Mule – “Funny. They’re imaginary questions, but answering them the wrong way will usually bring a well-armed young man of military age, maybe several, to your doorstep”

    That’s some good insight there, Mule!


  8. For atheists, this superiority is almost always presented as intellectual, as if all religious people were chimpanzees incapable of logical thought. For fundamentalists, this superiority is almost always couched as moral superiority, as if irreligious people were all egregious sociopaths with no moral compass.

    I wonder if this matters.


  9. What I find interesting about militant atheism is how similar it is to religious fundamentalism: it’s based on the belief that you have the only true set of beliefs and that members of all other faiths are morally or intellectually inferior. And psychologically, both militant atheism and religious fundamentalism seem to attract people who want to live in a very black-and-white world where they can be reassured that they are good and right and superior to others.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of people who fall somewhere in the middle of the doubting / agnostic spectrum who are there just because they’re trying to stay open-minded, intellectually honest, and humble. In my opinion that’s a much healthier place to be than either of the extremes – there’s a real fragility to any sort of faith that won’t let you even consider the possibility that you’re wrong.


  10. I remember the penultimate argument I ever had about abortion. I started repeating the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence – ‘0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55`. My (agnostic) respondent asked me ‘Why are you reciting the Fibonacci numbers?” I replied “When did you become aware that I was reciting the Fibonacci sequence?” “At 21” he replied. “I’d have caught it sooner if you had written them out on a napkin, though.”

    Mule – “So, were the numbers before 21 not Fibonacci numbers, or did your recognition of the sequence make them Fibonacci numbers?”

    Agnostic – “Don’t be obtuse. Of course, they’re all Fibonacci numbers, even the first one. You have the numbers and the algorithm that produces them.”

    Mule – “So, when does a zygote become human? When we recognize it as human? Or does the algorithm that produces it also count as part of its humanness?”

    Agnostic – “That’s a religious question.”

    Mule – “How do we solve religious questions? ”

    Agnostic – “Well, they used to be solved by whichever side could muster the largest or best-equipped number of young men of military age. That approach turned out to be counterproductive, so we decided to allow every individual to answer them as best they see fit. They’re imaginary questions anyway.”

    Mule – “Funny. They’re imaginary questions, but answering them the wrong way will usually bring a well-armed young man of military age, maybe several, to your doorstep”


  11. It’s astonishing how quickly adults forget what it was like to be a child.

    As far as the “New Atheists”, I think it’s best to remember the context of their appearance in the aftermath of 9/11 when both sides of the military conflict were draping themselves in piety. Agree or disagree, like or dislike, they did start a public conversation that needed to be had and sadly is just as relevant today as it was 19 years ago.


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