It was hardly the first time there has been a lively discussion of the relationship between belief in God and the lessons of science on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. But it may have been of the most civil and engaging discussions before one of the largest audiences.
The official title was “Is there Truth Beyond Science?” The setting was Shannon Hall of the Memorial Union Theater, with virtually all of the 1,165 seats were filled, mostly with students. The sponsors ranged from a variety of student organizations like Badger Catholic to Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics @ UW-Madison as well as university departments of philosophy, integrative biology and the religious studies program. Upper House coordinated the logistics.
On the stage were Dr. John Lennox, a Christian mathematician at Oxford University, and Dr. Larry Shapiro, an atheist philosopher at UW-Madison. They set the tone for the evening with humor and mutual respect but that did not keep them from sharp disagreements about whether God exists or whether Jesus’ resurrection is plausible.
“Is science the only legitimate locus for truth?” asked Dr. Jeff Hardin, professor and chair of Integrative Biology at UW-Madison, who moderated the public conversation. “Are the historic claims that Christianity makes still valid in this era?”
For Lennox, the ultimate reality in God, manifested through Jesus. He said he has no trouble reconciling his belief in Jesus as God incarnate who died and was resurrected with his life as a world-renowned mathematician.
For Shapiro, belief in something unobservable like a divine being requires evidence and “you can’t empirically prove that God exists.” He hastened to add that he believes in moral concepts like right and wrong and free will, but not in life after death. “This is the life I have and I must make the most of it,” he said.
Both of them agreed that there need not be a conflict between belief in God and science. “God exists outside of time and space,” Shapiro said. Where he has an issue is when the claims of religious doctrine conflict with what we have learned from science about the age of the world, the evolution of species.
Lennox argued that one of the issues in the faith-science debates is that scientists think of God more like the Greek gods who toyed with humanity and do not understand the more nuanced conception of God now held by many Christians and other belief systems.
But for Shapiro, whose 2016 book The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural is Unjustified tackles one of the central beliefs of Christianity, the evidence for such an event is too slim to be credible.
A miracle, he said, “is a violation of the laws of nature by divine intervention.” He said the stories of Jesus’ resurrection came from authors removed by several decades from the event based on accounts from people who lived in an era of deep superstition.
“The less probable an event,” Shapiro argued, “the stronger the evidence needs to be to justify belief in that event.” In his view, the resurrection does not meet that test.
Lennox countered that people’s experience of their belief in Jesus and his resurrection transforming their lives in profound ways is “a strong piece of experiential evidence.” He agreed that “resurrection is highly improbable” but that “God can feed a new event into the system” beyond what normally can happen. He also referred to Jesus’ own words anticipating resurrection as well as the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible that Christians have interpreted as foreshadowing Jesus.
Ultimately, both Shapiro and Lennox agreed that there is truth beyond science and, they agreed that sometimes folks who share their positions undermine their own arguments.
Lennox said some of his fellow Christians take a stance of “close your eyes, commit intellectual suicide and just believe.” He responded that “wishing a thing would be true doesn’t make it true.”
Shapiro, meanwhile, said that some atheist authors take “such a mocking, disdainful tone toward beliefs held by so many.” He called attempts to “defeat by ridicule an unfortunate strategy.” Lennox, in turn, acknowledged that some Christians “can be very aggressive toward atheists.”
Ultimately, both had a laugh when they learned that each has a picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in their respective offices – the deity of Pastafarianism, originally a satirical answer to Christians in Kansas who wanted to mandate the teaching on the intelligent design theory of creation in public schools as an alternative to the study of evolution.
Sometimes, even on a contentious subject like God and science, laughter can cross a philosophical gulf.