The headlines lately have not been encouraging for believers. A Gallup poll shows that the percentage of Americans who believe in God has fallen to 81 percent — a 10 percent drop over the past decade and an all-time low. This accelerating trend is particularly pronounced among young adults. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 18-29-year-olds are disproportionately represented among the so-called “unaffiliated” — atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated.
Pastors and other religious leaders attribute this trend to many factors: young people who were raised outside the church, unfamiliarity with liturgy and church culture, even COVID-19.
We found another answer in our national survey to examine the root causes of this growing disbelief: a misunderstanding of science.
Perhaps surprisingly, our study found that the perceived message of science played a leading role in the loss of faith. We found that scientific theories about the unmanageable evolution of life led more people to reject belief in God than did concerns about suffering, disease, or death. It also showed that 65 percent of self-identified atheists and 43 percent of agnostics believed that “the discoveries of science [generally] make the existence of God less likely.”
It’s easy to see why this perception has spread. In recent years, many scientists have emerged as celebrity spokespeople for atheism. Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Bill Nye, Michael Shermer, the late Stephen Hawking and others have published popular books claiming that science makes belief in God unnecessary or implausible. “The universe as we observe it has exactly the properties we should expect if there was no underlying purpose, no design…nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” Dawkins famously wrote.
Yet there is a big gap between the message and the reality. Over the past century, important scientific discoveries have dramatically challenged science-based atheism, and three in particular now tell a decidedly more favorable story.
First, scientists have discovered that the physical universe had a beginning. This discovery, supported by observational astronomy and theoretical physics, contradicts the expectations of atheist scientists, who have long described the universe as eternal and self-existent—and therefore, without the need for an external creator.
Instead, the evidence for what scientists call the Big Bang has confirmed the expectations of traditional theists. Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped make a key discovery in support of the Big Bang theory, noted the obvious connection between its assertion of a cosmic beginning and the concept of divine creation. “The best data we have is exactly what I would have predicted if I had nothing but the five books of Moses…[and] The Bible as a whole,” writes Penzias.
Second, discoveries from physics about the structure of the universe reinforce this theistic conclusion. Since the 1960s, physicists have established that the basic physical laws and parameters of our universe are fine-tuned, against all odds, to make our universe capable of hosting life. Even slight changes to many independent factors—such as the strength of gravitational or electromagnetic attraction, or the initial arrangement of matter and energy in the universe—would make life impossible. Scientists have discovered that we live in a kind of “Goldilocks Universe,” or what Australian physicist Luke Barnes uniquely calls a “Lucky Universe.”
Not surprisingly, many physicists have concluded that this incredible fine-tuning points to cosmic “fine-tuning.” As the former Cambridge astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle has argued, “a common-sense interpretation of the data suggests that a superintelligence played tricks on physics” to make life possible.
Third, molecular biology revealed the presence in living cells of a sophisticated world of informational nanotechnology. These include digital code in DNA and RNA – tiny, intricately engineered molecular machines that vastly exceed our own digital high technology in their storage and transmission capabilities. And even Richard Dawkins has admitted that “the machine code of genes is unusually computer-like”—suggesting, it seems, the activity of a master programmer working on the origin of life. At least the findings of modern biology are not what one would expect from blind materialistic processes.
All of this highlights the growing discrepancy between the public’s perception of the message of science and what the scientific evidence actually shows. Far from pointing to “blind, ruthless indifference,” the great discoveries of the past century point to the exquisite design of life and the universe and, perhaps, an intelligent creator behind it all.
Stephen K. Meyer directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University. His book, The Return of God Hypothesis: Three Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (HarperOne) is out now.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.