Freethought Today · September 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Third-place college essay contest

On why I choose science

tippens rebeccaRebecca received $1,050 from FFRF for her essay.

I remember the day I first realized that science was at odds with my Christian faith. I was 12 years old, and I had just learned about radiocarbon dating in a junior high biology class.

My grandfather arrived to pick me up from school, and I began excitedly describing the things I’d learned that afternoon before we’d even pulled out of the drive. Still navigating the topics as I recounted them, I concluded by wondering aloud, “The thing is, my teacher says that means the Earth is more than 4 billion years old — but that’s not what they tell us in church. How do we know who’s right?”

To my grandfather’s credit, he didn’t attempt to persuade me either way. He knew the inherent value of questions of this sort and withheld judgment, saying only: “You’ll have to decide for yourself, Rebecca.”

I thought about that a lot in the days, months, even years, that followed. By 15, I knew that I wanted to be a scientist. As my passion for science deepened, my religiosity waned. I came to believe that scientific inquiry is our greatest tool in the pursuit of truth and, frankly, pretty compelling evidence contrary to the existence of any supreme being.

There are some — perhaps most notably the late Stephen Jay Gould — who would argue that science and religion occupy “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they address fundamentally different questions and, in doing so, never actually contradict one another. But my own experiences have suggested otherwise time and time again.

As is typical of religion, the Christianity of my upbringing made many radical claims about our existence: The Earth is 10,000 years old. Humans were created by God in his image and are fundamentally different from all other life forms. We occupy a special place in the universe.

Statements like this are innately scientific, and they simply cannot hold their own against any sort of empirical scrutiny. In the wise words of Richard Dawkins, “A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without.”

As I near the completion of my degree in physics and prepare for my doctoral studies in astrophysics, I could not agree more. Cosmology has no place for God. Its most basic tenets plainly contradict religious claims.

The Copernican Principle, for instance, asserts that the Earth and its inhabitants do not occupy any special place in the universe. And the Cosmological Principle adds that, indeed, there are no “special places” to begin with. On large enough scales, the universe is pretty much the same everywhere we look.

Where would a God even fit into this model? If I put any credence at all in religious doctrine, these inconsistencies would be enough to keep me up at night. Clearly, the “non-overlapping magisteria” argument is patently false.

Other theologians cling to the so-called “God of the gaps,” the idea that God explains that which science yet cannot. But gaps in our scientific body of knowledge are not static. With each passing day, they are shrinking, rearranging, and the scientific community cheerfully embraces them. For every question we answer, new ones arise.

Prevailing theory is updated and improved upon or, when appropriate, replaced entirely. This is the essence of scientific inquiry, and it delights and fulfills me in a way that religion never could.

Anyway, the “God of the gaps” strikes me as a vague and unsatisfying copout. This God lacks any clear capability or purpose. Rather, as Neil deGrasse Tyson aptly put it, it’s little more than “an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”

How could any true believer reasonably invoke this argument? If anything, it betrays doubt and cowardice. It allows the person invoking it to acknowledge undeniable, empirical truths without taking that final, uncomfortable step toward nonbelief.

I can honestly say that I always had doubts. My faith never offered me much in the way of truth. Instead, it taught me complacency. It taught me not to ask questions, because the answer was never anything more interesting than a sort of existential “because I said so.” This was and continues to be reason enough for me to reject religious superstition.

It is not in my nature to stop asking questions or seeking truth, and the scientific method is my means to do so. I can’t help but notice that, time and time again, for every question we pose and every experiment we conduct and painstakingly review, the answer is emphatically not God.

 

Rebecca Tippens, 23, Cary, Ill., is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working toward a degree in physics with added coursework in astronomy and scientific writing. She plans to pursue her doctoral degree in astrophysics with an emphasis on cosmology and/or black hole studies. She’s active as an executive officer in the Illini Secular Student Alliance and as a volunteer for Physics Department’s “Ask the Van” outreach program.

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