03.09.14 10:45 AM ET

Should Scientists Believe in Miracles?

A massive new study shows that believers are open to science, but think science should also be open to miracles. But that misunderstands the entire point of scientific inquiry.

A provocative new study sure to get attention over the next few weeks was presented at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) . Elaine Ecklund, director of Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program, and author of the groundbreaking, controversial Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, presented the study. Titled  “Religious Understandings of Science (RUS),” Ecklund’s study looked at public perceptions of science and religion from a number of angles. More than 10,000 Americans were interviewed, including many scientists and evangelical Protestants.

Consistent with Eklund’s early work, the study found that the religious beliefs and practices of scientists were similar to those of the general public. It also found that nearly half of America’s evangelicals believe that “science and religion can work together and support one another.” Eklund is optimistic that this provides a “hopeful message for science policymakers and educators, because the two groups don’t have to approach religion with an attitude of combat.”

Affirming that “science and religion can work together” is, on the surface, good. Most of us can recall our mothers saying such things when we were toddlers. But there are some clues that this may be a shotgun wedding. Eklund’s study also shows nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants—a demographic permeated with promotion of young earth creation and intelligent design—and 38 percent of all Americans believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”

Believing that “science and religion can work together” but that science needs to include “miracles” in its explanations is not a foundation for a long and happy marriage.

Science has a long and fascinating history with miracles, and has earned its success largely by explaining phenomena without recourse to the miraculous. When science was young, the invocation of miracles was commonplace. Isaac Newton, for example, explained how gravity from the sun keeps the planets in their orbits, but he couldn’t explain how those planets got into those nice orbits and all travelled around the sun in the same direction and in almost the same plane. So Newton invoked the miraculous and argued that God must be the explanation: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets,” he wrote at the end of his famous book about gravity, “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Newton’s explanation for the solar system was thus a combination of natural and supernatural explanations.

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About two centuries later, the most famous invocation of a supernatural explanation was developed by William Paley whose Natural Theology Darwin read voraciously as a young scientist. “Suppose I had found a watch upon the ground,” asked Paley, “and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place. ... [W]hen we come to inspect the watch, we perceive ... that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose. ... [T]he inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.” Paley goes on to compare the watch to an eye, arguing that if a watch implies a watchmaker, then an eye implies an eye-maker. The miracle-working eye-maker, of course, can only be God.

Newton’s argument about the planets and Paley’s about the watch are both examples of science invoking miracles to provide more complete explanations. At the time they were proposed they were uncontroversial. But a few decades after Newton, Pierre Laplace explained Newton’s miraculously organized planets: a large, slowly rotating cloud of matter, which was the original state of our solar system, will both compress and flatten under gravity, and produce what we see. Saturn's ring system is a familiar example of such a flattened ring of material. Laplace went on to write a wide-ranging text explaining the mechanics of the heavens without using miracles. In the same way, Charles Darwin developed a theory that eventually explained how to produce an eye without the help of miracles.

The success of science at explaining complex phenomena without using miracles has led to a deep intuition that invoking miracles is not a promising way to explain things. This has nothing to do with science being “anti-religious.” It is rather, a deep insight into the “nature of Nature.” The world studied by science is deeply rational on its own terms, and capable of producing things of wondrous complexity without any miraculous assistance. By analogy, nobody expects plumbers to invoke miracles to explain their work. Plumbers are never accused of being anti-religious because they won’t invite an exorcist to help remove an especially troubling blockage in the drain.

Unfortunately—and this is what makes Ecklund’s study so fascinating—the realization that nature is “natural” rather than “supernatural” often plays out as a competition between a worldview with God in it and one without God. The fact that science seems deaf to claims that this or that phenomena should be explained by invoking a miracle leads to religious complaints that science is irrationally committed to naturalism and hostile to the idea of God. However, Ecklund’s study and her earlier work have shown that religious beliefs are common in the scientific community. Apparently the scientists doing the actual work don’t draw this conclusion.

The real conversation—and this is the one we don’t have because of all the shouting—should be about the remarkably ordered world that science has disclosed and what that might mean. In my book The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in a Fine-Tuned World, I suggest that a world that can produce such wonders without miraculous assistance is the greater miracle—and the reason why so many members of the scientific community have no trouble with conventional religious belief.