Atheist Argument about the Scientific Method

An argument from atheists that has been annoying me lately goes essentially like this. If you were to destroy all the books of religions and all the books of science, in a thousand years, the religious books would not come back (because they are fictional myths), but the science would (because it is rooted in fact). I have heard this argument from both Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais. I will explore three reasons why this is a non-starter for the atheist critique of Christianity in particular.

The Historical Problem: the scientific method ain't inevitable

The problem with this argument is manifold. First, they pretend like most moderns who are ignorant of history, that the scientific method and technological progress just happened because men stopped bothering with religious dogmas and started looking at this world for a change. The reality is that the scientific method was itself the product of historical circumstances that were never created earlier in human history. The philosophies and theologies of the rest of the world tended to view the material world with suspicion. Only the three great monotheistic religions viewed the material world as creation, something inherently good, true, and beautiful. It's good, so we should want to know it. It's true, so thinking minds such as ours can know it. And it's beautiful, so it attracts us to it through wonder. It is not a mistake of history that Christendom invented modern science. I would simply reply, "So in the past 10,000 years of human civilization the scientific method itself was invented how many times? Oh. Only once and only in a Christian ethos. So why do you think that if you obliterate that ethos you can still arrive at the same conclusions?"

The Epistemological Problem: there are things outside of science that are still true

The second problem with this argument lies in the presupposition held by all small-thinking new atheists, which is the only type of knowledge that is worth having is the knowledge produced by the Natural Sciences. If all literature were wiped out, and our knowledge of it, then entire categories of knowledge would be lost and unrecoverable that the atheist and the theist would both agree are true. For instance, historical records, biographies, and accounts would be lost, and those are rooted in true things that really occurred. History is not the end result of the Natural Sciences, and though archeology would help us glimpse into many past cultures, it would never be as complete as the historical accounts recorded by these people or about them. So when we say, "I don't believe in anything science cannot prove!" Every right-thinking person should immediately response, "Can science prove the validity of that statement? No? Then you cannot hold to that belief because it is self-refuting."

The Biblical Problem: it's not what you think it is

The third problem with this statement is that it thinks the Bible is in the same category as most other religious texts of the world. Most religious texts are what we can call "Wisdom Literature". That is, they are collections of wise sayings and religious sayings that amount to a practical and theoretical framework. The Bible contains Wisdom Literature, but is not reduced to that. See, most people think the Bible is a book. It is not. It is a collection of books that range across thousands of years from dozens of authors and dozens more of editors. Different books have different origins, as some were the product of oral communication and some were drafted for the Temple liturgies directly in written form. Each book was written in a different time period for different reasons and a different audience. Books like Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, and Ecclesiastes are indeed Wisdom Literature. That is the genre they belong to and operate accordingly. But other books are vast historical chronicles, like 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and, surprisingly, 1 and 2 Chronicles. These attempt to cover decades in a few sentences, and then will spend chapters on a few years, because they have a specific audience and intention in mind with their books.

Now then, we must move on to a more proper understanding of the Bible in order to show how this argument holds no water. As I said above, the Bible has a few Wisdom books within it, but also fiction, poetry, parable, fable, history, theology, and more. But the thing you really have to grasp is that the Bible, this particular collection of sacred books, is entirely historical. It is the written account of a particular people's dealings, often mysterious, with the God of the Universe. This is book, not of a guru's sayings, or the principles of an enlightened mystic on a mountaintop, but it is principally the encounters with the living God. To miss this is to continually get the Bible wrong, as all new atheists, and most Christians, do constantly. The very reason why it is a difficult book is because it is not a book, but a collection of books where real men and women wrestled with the Deity. In some of these accounts, the people got it way wrong, but it was still recorded in this collection of sacred books precisely because it is the historical dealings of people with God. Today, we lump it all in together and land ourselves in trouble when we hit the "dark passages" of Scripture, thinking that the actions of this or that man is always approved of by God simply because it is written down in the book. That is just not true.

Concluding Thoughts

Science is an invented thing that came out of a shared understanding about the world. The more rooted in the theistic worldview a culture is, the more science can be itself and operate under its own sphere of first principles and logic. If we could obliterate all knowledge and all texts, science could indeed be restored, provided that the historical and epistemological realities underneath were restored as well. If in the aftermath of the deletion of knowledge there arose a world of gnostics who had two gods and saw the material creation around us as evil and despotic, science could not exist. If such a world sprouted pagan naturalists who worship nature, then science cannot exist as we know it today, because nature and the gods are the same, and it would violate the divine. Only in a worldview that sees the material world as good, true and beautiful can science take root, for science makes truth claims about the world it studies.