Francis Philips recently wrote an article called "How to respond to a young friend who has come under Dawkins's spell" for the Catholic Herald. In the article, Philips presents the following sort of argument (where I'm probably being more charitable than I should be):
1. Scientism, the view that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, is false.
2. If (1) then science cannot tell us about whether God exists.
3. Therefore, science cannot tell us about whether God exists.
In support of premise (1), Philips only offers the story of a neuroscientist who recently made a visit to Lourdes and remarked that they had not ruled out the possibility for people to have immaterial spiritual experiences of some kind (whatever that is supposed to mean).
In response, I will first discuss scientism and it's relation to theology. Then, I will discuss religious experience and whether such experiences give us good reasons to conclude that God is likely to exist. I will forego discussing whether or not Philips accurately represents the view she attributes to Dawkins*.
is likely false, but not for the reasons given by Philips. Scientism is the
statement that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge, but
is not itself a scientific thesis. It is therefore self defeating.
But whether or not scientism is false has nothing to do with whether or not there is a god. Whether or not
there is a god is a proposition which one has to argue for
independently of arguing for the falseness of scientism. Even though scientism is likely false, it could
still be true that science could tell us whether or not God, under a
particular conception, actually exists. That would just be to say that
although there are interesting and legitimate non-scientific questions,
God's existence is not one of them.
In order to support the idea that science cannot answer questions about God's existence, theists have to actually argue either that:
The evidence raised by science that is supposed to show that God does
not exist does not actually support a thesis of that kind, or;
5. Not only is scientism true, but any statement about God whatsoever will be independent of science.
Notice that even if one could show (4) and (5), one would only justifiably end up with a weak form of agnosticism (and
here I mean "agnosticism" in the sense of Huxley). All it would show is
that science doesn't answer the question of whether God exists. And,
despite the protestations of some theists, one can happily be an
agnostic without ever wanting to jump ship; for some people, agnosticism
really is the final conclusion on the matter. To support
theism, one would need to show that:
6. It is likely that God exists based on such-and-such an argument.
One cannot simply state that scientism is false and then justifiably jump to (6); (6)
requires it's own degree of evidence and/or argumentation. And even if
one could show (6) to be the case, one should not jump to:
7. It is likely that Catholicism is true.
burden of proof is still on the theist. The theist might want to assert that
science cannot answer theological questions. But without actually
arguing for any of the relevant points (4)-(7), all the theist has is empty
As for the claim that some experience of some kind tells us anything about whether there is a God, one can simply argue that the best explanation of the available facts is that such experiences have non-divine origins. Note that**:
8. The particular kind of religious experience that one has is aligned with one's culture (Amazonian tribes who are isolated from Western society do not spontaneously start having dreams about Jesus);
9. Psychological and/or anthropological explanations of religious belief are capable of explaining the global diversity of such beliefs in great detail and even capable of predicting what sort of beliefs are likely to appear in various cultural contexts (Boyer, 2001). Theistic belief systems are typically unable to explain such diversity and are incapable of predicting what sort of beliefs one would find where (or why it is that the beliefs found in different cultures are mutually logically incompatible);
10. Explaining such experiences in terms of theism introduces additional objects (namely, supernatural beings) into our ontology that we could have done without.
(8)-(10) are enough to support the thesis that the best explanation of religious experience is naturalistic (namely, that the experiences reflect something about the kinds of animals human beings are, rather than something supernatural). (8) and (9) state facts which are difficult to explain on theism, while (10) is supposed to introduce an intuition about parsimony (i.e. if we can explain all of the relevant facts without positing a god then god should not figure into our best understanding of the world).
* Dawkins does not appear to have ever claimed that religion disproved the existence of God.
** This is similar to an argument presented by David Hume in his "Natural History of Religion".
Pascal, B. (2001). Religion explained. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Philips, F. (2012, November 30). How to respond to a young friend who has come under dawkins’s spell.