Is it possible that the more certain you are about a proposition, the less likely it is to be true? The idea is not merely counterintuitive. It’s silly. And yet, atheist evangelists sometimes make this argument, citing strength of faith as evidence that Christianity must be false.
Religion and Certainty
Though doubts may sometimes be inevitable, for a Christian, the preferred state is certitude. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). What is described here is a high level of certainty, characterized by taking irrevocable steps in reliance on revealed truth in fact being true, often at great cost should that certainty be misplaced, as with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. (Hebrews 11:17). So it can reasonably be said that Christians (and Jews) should aspire to a high degree of certainty about the truth of the things they believe.
Christianity vs. Science
Apologists for atheism sometimes try to say that the desire for a high level of certainty somehow discredits faith. They proceed by attempting to set faith in opposition to science. But this is a false opposition. Science should never be in competition with faith, for at least two reasons. One, in a very real sense Christianity sponsors science, by providing the intellectual foundation for the scientific method. Two, science is by definition confined to study of nature, and religion is by definition the study of supernatural reality. According to the National Academy of Sciences,
Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.
Just so. And yet, many atheists continue to insist that science somehow disproves religion.
Atheists who nonetheless worship science as the substitute for God seize upon this element of faith to argue that science is superior: it does not make demands of certainty, as religion appears to. Scientific knowledge is always open to revision, when a better hypothesis comes along, and scientists even take pride in not having complete certainty about the conclusions yielded by scientific inquiry.
But this presents a false view of science. Imagine arguing to most scientists that evolution isn’t a true explanation of biological development, or that the universe had an actualizing agent from outside of itself, or that something can’t come from nothing. These assertions would be met with derision, not just disagreement. Why? It’s because they have a high degree of certainty about those matters. Scientists don’t call it “faith,” but they certainly do have absolute or near-absolute certainty about conclusions from science, notwithstanding that science is merely a process, not a set of conclusions.
And that’s in addition to certainty about underlying yet often unexamined principles that are taken not just on a high degree of certainty, but absolute certainty, like the shared orientation toward truth, and its desirability. Like the objective nature of the observed universe; that it is out there distinct from our mere cognitive impression of it. Like the fundamental desire to know: curiosity as a positive good.
Differing Projects for Understanding
More fundamentally, however, science and religion are qualitatively such different endeavors that it makes no sense to compare them in this way. Religion and science are not only not in opposition, but are different projects with different goals and different subjects upon which one might be more or less certain. There is no reason to suppose they would be the same, with respect to certainty about the conclusions one draws.
The process of science (and it is only a process) depends upon skepticism of its own conclusions. That’s just what the process is. For the process to work, one is to remain skeptical about scientific conclusions concerning nature. Skepticism about the results of the scientific project is a positive good; necessary to the process.
Religion is not a process, but rather a set of beliefs, and not only that, but a set of beliefs about matters beyond science. It depends not upon skepticism, but upon philosophical agreement with the proposition that there is something more to reality than nature.
Only by comparing two completely unlike things—scientific process with religious doctrines—can atheist polemicists attempt to lead us to the backwards conclusion that greater certainty means less certainty.