[Originally published as Counting To God: Another Atheist Who Became a Christian]
Douglas Ell graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with degrees in math and chemistry. He then went to the University of Maryland, where he earned a Master’s degree in theoretical mathematics. Not satisfied with only three degrees, he also went to law school and graduated magna cum laude. After that, he began his career as an attorney.
When he was a child, he went to church, but the older he got, the less he believed in God. By the time he was in high school, he wrote to his minister and stated that he no longer believed in God. His minister wrote back and gave him a book to read, but Ell never read it. By the time he got his law degree, he was a full-fledged atheist. In his new book, Counting To God, he describes what he believed at that point in his life:
It seemed you could explain just about everything with logic and science. It seemed God had no place in our modern world. I treated God like a joke. (p. 19)
In his early thirties, Ell had a son, and this caused him and his wife to start attending church. Ell treated it like a social club, but he did notice something: Many of the people in the church he attended (including the minister) had an inner peace that he could sense. He wanted that peace, but didn’t see how he could have it, because he didn’t believe what they believed.
In his mid-forties, a new career opportunity forced him to spend a lot of time on airplanes. As a result, he started reading about science, mathematics, and religion. The more he read, the more he saw a connection between the three. He eventually saw seven specific ways in which science and mathematics support the existence of God:
1. The evidence that the universe had a beginning
2. The apparent “fine tuning” of the universe
3. The complexity of life and our inability to discover a naturalistic explanation for its origin
4. The fantastic, futuristic technology that exists in all of life
5. The mounting evidence against neo-Darwinian evolution
6. The specialness of earth
7. The mathematical nature of the universe
I find it interesting that he categorized the evidence for God’s existence in exactly this way. Most of his categories (certainly 2, 3, 4, and 6) are just specific examples within the argument from design. Science clearly shows that the universe and earth are finely tuned to support life, and the amazing complexity of life indicates it is a direct result of the design process. I understand his reasoning on these points. The argument from design is what turned me from atheism and started me down the path of becoming a Christian. However, some of his other points aren’t very convincing to me.
For example, consider #5.
I don’t see how evidence against neo-Darwinism gets you any closer to a belief in God. After all, neo-Darwinism is just one possible explanation of how life became complex. Even if neo-Darwinism is completely wrong, that doesn’t tell us anything about God’s existence. It just tells us that one proposed explanation for life’s complexity is not correct. Furthermore, I know and have read several theists who have no problem with neo-Darwinism. In addition, there is at least one prominent atheist who has serious problems with neo-Darwinism. As a result, I see no connection between the evidence against neo-Darwinism and the existence of God.
In the same way, while I agree that the first part of #3 (the complexity of life) is strong evidence for the existence of God, the other part (our inability to discover a naturalistic explanation for its origin) has little to do with it. There are lots of things about our universe which remain a mystery to science. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a naturalistic explanation for them. It might just mean that we don’t know enough to understand those particular issues. I have never been a fan of a “god of the gaps” approach to science, and that seems to be what #5 and the second half of #3 are all about.
Despite the fact that I am not on board with all seven of the ways Ell thinks science and mathematics support the existence of God, I do think his book offers a lot of great insights. Consider, for example, the way he looks at life and its design:
Compare human beings, with 30 trillion exquisitely interconnected cells, to the most primitive bacteria. We have astonishing added hardware: legs, arms, hearts, eyes, ears, and on and on. We have amazing “apps”: all of our senses, muscle coordination, subconscious regulatory processing, and the killer “app” of all existence: human consciousness and reason. Yet we have the same operating system as the bacteria. We and that bacteria and all life run off Life 1, designed 3.5 billion years ago. (pp. 118-119)
Now, of course, I disagree with his timescale, but the point is profound. All the scientific evidence points to a single operating system that runs all life, from the most “primitive” to the most “complex.” When human engineers design something, it generally goes through many revisions before it becomes reliable and efficient. Nevertheless, science indicates that there has only been one operating system for life. No upgrades, no fundamental changes – just hardware and apps that are added on top of the operating system. That points to incredible design!
I am glad that Douglas Ell took the time to examine the evidence and come to what I consider the most reasonable conclusion. I pray that his book helps others to do the same.