Theists and Atheists: Futile Confrontations

Ludwik Kowalski
Professor Emeritus
Montclair State University

Norms in social and physical sciences were recognized by the sociologist R. Merton. No similar norms can be identified among those who make claims about existence or non-existence of God. Most aggressive theists are not theologians and most aggressive atheists are not scientists (1). The prevailing positions among these groups of people are "we are better than you" and "our mission is to change you." Such poisonous conflicts are dangerous; killing in the name of attitudes toward God--revolutionary Communism, Inquisition, and other holy wars--are widely known. Is it desirable to have such confrontations? Is it possible to end them? If yes, then how? The main purpose of this presentation is to address the last question.

God is a spiritual entity existing in our spiritual world only. Trying to justify/deny God's existence by performing laboratory experiments is as inappropriate as trying to justify/deny the age of our planet by quoting from a holy book. Methods of validation of claims in our material world (using logic based on reproducible experimental data) are not the same as those in our spiritual world (using logic based on holy books). Such a position, put forward by the evolutionary biologist S. J. Gould (2), is known as "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). Many theologians who are also scientists, and many scientists who are also theologians, accept NOMA. Experts are usually tolerant and respectful toward each other. Feuds about God's existence would probably disappear if NOMA became a norm among all educators, secular and non-secular.

Some believe that agreements between scientists and theologians can be achieved via close cooperation (3). The author tends to disagree. Cooperation may or may not develop in the distant future (4); what is likely to be more productive is conceptual separation, at least initially. Separation will allow theists and atheists to rethink and reformulate basic ideas and methodologies. Debates between theologians who are also scientists, and scientists who are also theologians, however, are likely to be productive. Such experts are natural leaders for all debates.

The use of the word theology, instead of religion, is deliberate. To discuss religion one would have to address differences between theologies, political exploitation of theism, political exploitation of atheism, etc. Such topics are worth addressing, but not in a short presentation. In one respect, theology is like mathematics, not science. Mathematicians start with axioms (initially accepted truths) and use logical derivation to justify consecutive claims, called theorems. Once proven, a theorem cannot be rejected, unless a logical error is found in the derivation. One similarity between theology and mathematics, however, should not prevent us from seeing important differences; one of them has to do with disagreements about axioms. Such disagreements among theologians are frequent; disagreement among mathematicans are rare.

Science is very different; here claims are justified, in the final analysis, by experimental observations, not by pure logic. A scientific claim becomes valid after it is confirmed in reproducible experiments. Furthermore, scientific validations are always tentative; scientists know that future experiments might result in rejection, or partial rejection, of what has already been accepted (5). They do not say, "scientific truth is eternal;" they invent models, which are believed to be useful approximations of reality, not the "absolute truth." Several conceptual models (mechanical particles, mechanical waves, electromagnetic waves, and quanta), for example, have been used successfully to explain different experimental facts about light.


1) L. Kowalski,
2) R. J. Russell, “Bridging Science and Religion: Why it Must be Done” ?
3) S. J. Gould, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria;" Natural History March 1997, 16-22.
4) L. Kowalski, "Futile Confrontations Between Theists and Atheists;" American Atheist; First Quarter, 2012; p 28.
5) T. Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions;" Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.