You can’t put God in a test tube. Why not?

I’ve long wondered why Christians and other theists ignore the successful truth-seeking process of science when dealing with whether a god exists. Quite often I’ve been told, “You can’t put God in a test tube.” This phrase, a fairly common Christian retort, is normally stated with a “got you on that one!” inflection.

The implication, of course, is that the Hebrew/Christian Yahweh is far too magnificent, too powerful, and too universal to be subject to human inquiry. The question seems to need no answer, because it’s so obvious that it is arrogant for us, mere humans, to think God is subject to our tests. It’s like standing before a judge in a court of law, demanding to inspect her law school transcript before submitting to judgement. Moreover, if there is testing to be done, a religious person might say, it will be God testing us, not we God.

Theists think—with what seems to me rather opaque logic—that when it comes to being convinced of really extraordinary claims, faith is a more virtuous guide than evidence . . . especially when there seems to be no evidence. What’s more, faith strong enough to ignore or even to deny opposing evidence is better still. This peculiar characteristic puts religionists in the same class as astrologers, fortune tellers, extreme political partisans, dedicated sports fans, and infatuated teenagers.

Moreover, this malady of anti-reason, while a distinguishing mark of religious believers, is rarely applied to the secular parts of their lives. In other words, one doesn’t have to be constitutionally dismissive of evidence to be religious, just be so in one’s religious life. This is a bizarre compartmentalization of superstition in otherwise rational people. One can be a perfectly reasonable, clear-thinking engineer, historian, politician, carpenter, accountant, mathematician, or lawyer while his or her peculiar thinking about theism is kept in its place.

Consequently, the framework of propositions that hold a religion together is a vulnerable structure, unable to stand if examined with the same fastidiousness used to evaluate a medical treatment, financial investment, farming practice, or astrophysics quandary. It is because of this susceptibility that religion, unlike other hypothetical schemes, fights for and is given special protection. In some cultures (and likely in all cultures at some time), even criticism of religion is or has been banned. In Western democracies in the modern age, the more frequent special protection is to give religion a “pass” with respect to verification, taxation, and social respect. Thus it is that religion is widely thought to be a “good thing” even by persons who are not particularly religious. Thus it is that when some moral uncertainty faces a community, it is a group of clergy brought together to expound on morality. Thus it is that religion demands and is largely granted the right to define morality for everyone, its theistic claims seldom questioned and normally not criticized.

But let’s get back to the test tube. I’ve been an atheist for over a half century, yet I’ve never sought to put God to a test. What I put in a test tube is not God (whose existence is at best questionable), but the thinking or theology of anyone who proclaims such an overwhelming proposition with absolutely no evidence. Can I put not God, but believers’ opinion about a god in a test tube? Well, of course! Frankly, to do otherwise would be not only reckless, but would testify to my low opinion for truth, as it does theirs, for “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” not less as believers would have us accept.

That quote from Carl Sagan was based on earlier wisdom, like “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness,” by Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, as well as “A wise man . . . proportions his belief to the evidence” and “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish,” both by David Hume.

You see, I’ve no argument with God, no more than I’ve an argument with Thor, Allah, or Vishnu. My argument is with my colleagues on this planet who insist they know what (I maintain) they can only imagine. Their regard is not for truth, but for what Stephen Colbert called truthiness . . . the preposterous assertion that because we feel something to be true, therefore it is. St. Paul, the Bible says, dismissed the need for substantiation by defining faith as “evidence of things unseen,” as childish an approach to ascertaining fact as one can imagine.

Humans lived and observed their environment for tens of thousands of years before happening upon what came to be called the scientific method. The purpose of science, I’ve heard it said not quite jokingly, is to keep us from believing stupid things. And it works exceedingly well, as our command of the world of matter and energy has shown in just a few centuries. As science discovered more and more, the arena left to superstitions (including religion) became smaller and smaller. Even the most religious people in America now rarely see a warning from God in the reddish total lunar eclipse. Still, many of the faithful are heard to proclaim about any remaining mystery that God is therefore proven. After all, how could my son have been spared in that awful accident?

Their God is shrinking, remaining only the “God of the gaps,” a concept described originally by a Christian lecturer, Henry Drummond, in the 1800s. In fact, it was another Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred German theologian, who said during World War II, “how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We [should] find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.” The actual phrase “god of the gaps” is attributed to Methodist leader and Oxford mathematician Charles Coulson’s 1955 book Science and Christian Belief.

The test tube analogy brings to mind men or women in white coats doing laboratory experiments. But, of course, the phrase actually has nothing to do with labs or chemistry. The point is whether we can use the scientific method to guide our gullible minds in seeking truth. It is not that methods of science can answer all questions, for they cannot. However, it can answer them better than our otherwise undisciplined, subjective casting about in the epistemological dark, seeing phantasms all about. In our yearning for knowledge, there is little disagreement about the acceleration of gravity or the atomic composition of salt, but wide disagreement on what exists supernaturally. Incidentally, virtually no one fights over the former, but many have fought over the latter.

Premonitions, individual proclivities, and earnest feelings are useless tools in the search for reality. But religions do not give up easily. Is there a god? We don’t know. Are there other-worldly visitors from space? We don’t know. We can propose probabilities, but the tools of science come up with nothing. In a bizarre approach to reality, religionists often use this very lack of scientific evidence as proof that science is an unfit guide.

Whether God exists is not a scientific question, they say. While science finds nothing, human imagination finds volumes of contradiction and detail, constructing complex configurations of pure fantasy. No, make that fantasies, for there are almost as many of these illusions as there are human minds to conceive them.



About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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5 Responses to You can’t put God in a test tube. Why not?

  1. ivanbenson says:

    To be fair to the writer of Hebrews (whether it be Paul, or someone else) I think we should acknowledge that he was writing to believers in the Hebrew God, encouraging them to persevere in a stressful life situation in the latter half of the 1st century AD. He was NOT, of course, submitting a document for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Therefore, his statement regarding “faith” being “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 ESV) should not be regarded as a failed attempt at a “scientific finding.” For sharing scientific evidence was clearly never the writer’s intent.

    Superimposing the scientific method on the statement in Hebrews11:1 is like using a ruler to find out how much a person weighs, or putting them on a scale to measure height.

    I am curious about your statement that “natural processes frequently (though not always) end up appearing designed.” Other than your example of a personified puddle and its thoughts (should I say this is a far-from-scientific literary allusion?), I am curious what other examples you might provide.

    Regarding your statement about building a case for deism, not theism – I heartily agree. One step at a time. Whether or not this deity wants to have a relationship with humans is truly a separate question requiring a great deal more experiential information and testimony.

  2. ivanbenson says:

    I always enjoy reading your blog posts; I love the precision in your writing and thinking. There are times that your diatribes are a bit stinging, and I do not always agree with your conclusions, but they are a benefit for me to read and consider. Thanks for that. There are two comments I would make about the above post:

    (1) I think that the universe around us and the matter within us can serve as the test tube to which you refer. And when the scientific method is applied to that test tube there is a striking, resounding result, repeated ad infinitum, i.e. Design. One might argue that this design is the random, chance result of eons of evolutionary progression, or that it points to a designer. I think the latter makes more sense; the ancient teleological argument is still a good one. This is, in fact, the approach to which the Apostle Paul alludes in Romans 1.

    [No doubt you would prefer to put Deity itself into some test tube, but good luck with that. Unfortunately, we will have to be satisfied with examining created things instead of the Creator.]

    (2) Your mention of the Apostle Paul and his “childish” approach which “dismisses the need for substantiation” needs clarification. The quote from Hebrews does not suggest that there is no evidence; quite the contrary. It suggests that there is evidence, and that that evidence is for “unseen” things. In much the same way scientists say dark matter is unseen, but there is evidence (e.g. gravitational force) that it exists.

    • Thanks. I try for precision, though often unsuccessfully. As to your comment, I agree that much of what we observe looks designed. But I disagree that to “look designed” implies “designer.” Natural processes frequently (though not always) end up appearing designed (like a puddle looking at its boundaries and marveling that this hole was obviously designed just to fit it). The history of human beliefs is one in which repeatedly some previously God-caused phenomenon is explained, pushing the assumed “designer” back one level at a time—the famous God of the Gaps. Accepting Paul’s faith supposition to be, in effect, evidence for itself (as I maintain it is) doesn’t get even close to what is demanded of a scientific finding (including on dark matter). Paul’s notion argues for a belief that cannot be falsified, a condition that will cause a proposed scientific finding to be rejected. A proposition that is not falsifiable can be believed without end no matter how wrong it is, something the writer of Romans 1:20 seemed not to recognize. Humanity is full of conflicting religious teachings with negligible (or no) substantiation other than believers’ feelings. Yet despite the circularity in all this and despite the lack of evidence, it is still possible that some religion might be true.

      In other words you certainly may choose to believe a proposed deity is the long sought creator-God. I even admit that your faith object may be the real one out of countless false ones. But going the next step requires more suppositions about this creator’s detailed specs, for at this point you will have only built a case for deism, not theism. In other words, having shown convincingly that there is a god does not mean such an entity has personal relationships with humans, needs to be worshipped, or cares about human prayers, dogmas, and religion—a being that would not necessarily have anything to do with religion at all.

  3. Daniel Hull says:

    In your next to the last paragraph you write: “Is there a god? We don’t know”. That sounds more like the definition of an agnostic than an the atheist you claim to be. Please clarify.

    • Your quandary is understandable. Many people think “atheism” means certainty there’s no god. While it can be used that way, the more widespread meaning is “without belief there’s a god.” The difference is between “I know there are no WMD in Iraq” and “I have no belief there’re WMD in Iraq.” That is like “there is no Santa Clause” versus “I don’t have a belief there’s a Santa Clause.” Because language can be used loosely as well as meticulously, most people would simply say “There’s no Santa Clause,” when what they mean in precise terms is “I don’t believe there’s a Santa Clause,” for unlikely as the Jolly Old guy is, we cannot know he isn’t somewhere we haven’t looked yet. I, along with the majority of atheists, never describe myself as an atheist in terms of certainty. That is why I can say I am an atheist, but cannot say with 100% conviction that I know there’s no god. I suspect I am less adamant about the matter than most Christians are about other gods, that is, they’d be more likely to declare “There is no Vishnu.” At any rate, do the two definitions of atheism lead to confusion? Yep. Does it cause an overlap of atheism and agnosticism? Yes again. For a more careful treatment of the atheist/agnostic overlap, see my May 18, 2013 post “Atheist, Agnostic—It’s So Confusing.”

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