Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part column series.
Our growing understanding of science has revealed that our existence is only possible because the universe seems fine-tuned to allow it, Langley writes.
Ignorance is no excuse anymore.
In 2012, scientific literacy is not an optional extra for mission-minded Christians. It is essential.
If we are to be able to talk to ordinary people about their doubts and misgivings about faith and God, we need to be able to answer the questions and challenge the assumptions of the popular (and populist) atheists whose ideas have formed at least some of those doubts.
Many of them, in the name and language of science, espouse a philosophy of "scientism" – a belief that any and all questions that matter can be answered by science.
If Christianity is to be relevant to a world of genome-mapping and large hadron colliders, Christians need to be scientifically literate.
And that involves some familiarity with scientific apologetics, key scientific theories and the philosophy of science. This column and the two parts that will follow provide just a taster of the kinds of ideas every Christian leader could do with knowing – and sharing with those they serve.
No. 1. Science pointing to God: The finely tuned universe.
We're lucky to be alive. In fact, we're lucky to be here at all. And when it comes to the question of the "fine-tuning" of the universe, we are lucky there is a "here" at all.
Our growing understanding of science has revealed that our existence is only possible because the universe seems fine-tuned to allow it.
Often called "the anthropic principle," fine-tuning has been much discussed in secular scientific circles. Fred Hoyle, a Cambridge astronomer and mathematician, himself an atheist, famously said:
"A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."
The facts in question relate to conditions at the beginning of the universe and what physicists call "constants."
These are numerical values in scientific calculations that are believed to be universal and constant, like G, the gravitational constant, essential in calculating the force of gravity.
Just after the Big Bang, all the matter in existence was evenly distributed and gravity is what caused atoms to start clumping together, eventually forming planets, stars and galaxies – pretty essential preconditions for life.
If the force of gravity had been stronger, all matter would have concentrated together, eventually collapsing back in on itself.
If it had been weaker, atoms wouldn't have come together and those all-important planets and stars would not have formed.
Moreover, if the speed at which matter rushed away from the universe's starting point (its "rate of expansion") had been slower or faster, even by miniscule amounts, similarly disastrous consequences (for us and all life) would have been inevitable.
Margins for disaster
That some necessary conditions need to be met for things to be the way they are is hardly earth-shaking news.
But, what makes fine-tuning so compelling for many scientists is not that some aspects of the universe happen just to be a certain way. It is that the basic laws of the universe (expressed through constants), if they were even slightly different, would have meant that such conditions would never have existed.
Fine-tuning is impressive because life is possible anywhere in the universe.
The sheer number of constants that allow our existence, the inexpressibly fine "margin for error" (really a margin for disaster from our point of view) points, for many scientists, believers and unbelievers alike, to the universe almost "expecting" our arrival.
Consider these "margins."
● If gravity was changed enough to make you one billionth of a gram heavier or lighter, there would be no stars, no planets, no human beings.
● If protons were not 1836.1526 times more massive than electrons, many of the chemical compounds essential to DNA would be so unlikely to form that life would be impossible.
● If the ratio of nuclear strong force to gravitational force had been different by less than one quadrillionth (1/1016), there would be no stars.
And the margin of disaster (quite literally) is even smaller when it comes to stars of the "right" size (for life) forming.
Some of the "new atheists," of course, have argued that fine-tuning does not point to the existence of God, some going so far as to say that it provides an alternative theory.
Without such fine-tuning, they say, we would not be here to notice. While true, that does not remove the need to ask why, in the same way a person who escaped a 50-gun firing squad might ask how they escaped.
The fact we are alive, that we are here at all, is surprising and unlikely. It is not a proof of God, but a pointer that poses important questions.
Jonathan Langley is editor of Catalyst. This column first appeared in BMS' Catalyst publication, which can be read in full here.