A Book Review
The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith
(Kregel Publications, 2019)
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“The first gulp from the glass of science will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”1
It is fast becoming the most tired of truisms to declare that religious faith and the latest findings of science are irrecoverably incompatible. I will never forget a formal debate on the subject in which the atheist spent several minutes reading a list of Nobel Prize-winning scientists who were atheists. The implication was that one cannot be a real scientist today and still believe in God. Drinking from the glass of modern science will necessarily lead to atheism, we are told ad nauseam. But this has not been my personal experience as someone trained in the field of biochemistry. I’ve found little difficulty in reconciling my faith in God and my research in protein chemistry. Therefore, the recently published story of a biochemist’s conversion caught my attention.
Like many of us, Dr. Sy Garte absorbed the worldview of his parents. This belief system seemed complete: it asked the big questions and offered ready answers. Yet at a very early age he detected some discrepancies. His training in the sciences and subsequent career as a biochemist would cause him to further question the worldview his parents had meticulously instilled in him. The worldview was atheistic communism.
Garte’s family had been devoted Marxists for several generations. Despite their Jewish heritage, religious practice was deliberately excluded from his upbringing. He was taught that religion was inherently evil, being “based on lies” that “had the explicit purpose of enslaving and oppressing humanity throughout history.”2 He accepted the anti-theism of his parents, even going so far as to laugh at the idea of believing in God.
Yet after decades as a scientist, Garte converted to Christianity. He had indeed drunk deeply from the glass of science with over 200 publications in genetics, molecular epidemiology, and cancer research, and, at the bottom, he found Jesus. He traces his journey to the bottom of the glass in his book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith. The account of his conversion offers an engaging synthesis of science, history, apologetics, and personal testimony that challenges the myth that faith and science cannot mix.
Science and Atheism
Garte begins tracing his journey by discussing various marvels of modern science that compelled him to ask the “scientifically forbidden” questions: “Why? Why did life evolve? Is there a purpose or direction to evolution? Is it all just based on chemical accidents?”3 His story is an example of something that C. S. Lewis observed about the nature of scientific inquiry: the questions we ask will determine what we discover. “Nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her,” Lewis wrote, these questions forming a kind of stencil that determines how much of the truth we will ultimately see.4
Early on, Garte detected an inconsistency between his family’s stencil (atheistic materialism) and their insistence on fighting injustice. If justice and mercy were the result of blind, amoral forces, why was it so crucial not only to uphold these at all costs, but hold others accountable for failing to? “After all,” he thought, “aren’t those capitalists simply acting out in the extreme the pseudo-Darwinist prerogative of survival of the fittest?”5 How it could be that through the evolutionary law of tooth and claw we humans had evolved to a point at which we could transcend it?
His training and career in the sciences would do little to quell this doubt. Quantum mechanics, chaos theory, complexity, and the mystery of fractals forced him to further question his confidence that science could explain everything.6 Garte wrestled with three origins that defy scientific explanation: the origin of the universe, of life, and of human consciousness. In particular, his work in the field of DNA translation and transcription enabled him to see that the origin of the mechanism of evolution is something of a singularity, not unlike how the laws of physics arose from the big bang. He writes that “the origin of life was a ‘biological singularity,’ since before the origin of life, the laws of biology (in particular, the law of evolution by natural selection) could not operate.”7
As he dove deeper into the glass, it became increasingly clear that what he was learning could not be crammed into his materialist’s cosmos. Science was telling Garte that there are more things in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in his materialism.
The realist in me saw the contradictions, the dead ends and false starts, and concluded that the universe is trying to tell us something, something that we haven’t really wanted to hear: “Sorry, guys, the easy stuff is over. Nice work with classical mechanics and momentum and relativity and the Hardy-Weinberg equation and Mendelian inheritance. Great stuff. But now comes the hard part. And you are going to need a larger computer.” Or perhaps we’re going to need a whole different approach to how things work and how they came to be.8
Science tells its stories in one dimension, and though what it reveals is marvelous, there are other dimensions to reality that it cannot by its very nature investigate. He writes that “rational induction, objective reproducibility, and other vehicles mass-produced by the Rational Materialism Transportation Co.” have taken us wonderfully far in understanding the natural world and in improving our daily lives, but they also lead us down roads where large stop signs stand in our way. This is an important message that our culture needs to hear repeatedly, especially from scientists like Dr. Garte who have paid their dues within the discipline and have seen the stop signs for themselves.
Garte does an excellent job of explaining these fascinating phenomena at a popular level, showing the reader how science reveals its own limits while pointing to the validity of other ways of knowing. This realization was a vital part of Garte’s own journey, as God would speak to him through other means, such as dreams, relationships, and beauty. He had to learn to trust other sources of data beyond science.
In addition to the more personal aspects of his journey, Garte discusses some charges against the truth of Christianity, some of which he had to reconcile for himself. These include more classical apologetics issues such as the problem of evil, the claim that Christianity has been an oppressive force in history, and the charge that the Bible is anti-science. In particular, his defense of the argument from reason is superb, as he links it to the problem of the origin of human consciousness. If consciousness is “nothing but” an illusion, as materialism necessitates, “then human reason, a product of that illusory consciousness, would itself be illusory, and it would be impossible for humans to actually know anything to be true based on reason, which, of course, would be a product of that illusory consciousness.”9 Not only does the materialist account of nature fail to account for consciousness, it fails to account for materialism.
Science and Evolution
An important feature of Garte’s story is how a practicing scientist, working in a field dominated by the evolutionary paradigm, went from atheism to belief in the God of Genesis. In my own experience, I encountered more resistance to theism in the biological sciences than in fields such as mathematics, chemistry, or physics. Something within the field presents a formidable barrier to belief. Garte indicates that this is partially the result of the acceptance of the Neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis of evolution (NDMS), which is an outdated but well-known formulation that can support atheism.
The NDMS purports that given enough time, the power of natural selection acting on random mutations is enough to account for the remarkable diversity and complexity of the biological realm. This model is elegant, was well-supported by evidence available at the time of its formulation, and is easily grasped by the mind. As a result, it quickly became entrenched in the scientific imagination. Yet the stencil of which C. S. Lewis wrote quickly hardened into dogma — no drop of teleology was allowed in its glass. Garte agrees that this is incompatible with the Christian worldview, contending that “the idea that evolution is blind, with no purpose or direction, is not consistent with a Christian view of an actively creative and omnipotent God.”10
Garte works to dispel some of the myths that have grown up around evolution. He gives a short history of the theory from its beginnings with Charles Darwin down to the NDMS. He discusses how the field has now moved on from this older model, as it is no longer the best fit for the evidence emerging from fields such as molecular genetics and developmental evolution. He summarizes some of the latest findings that are leading many to question the gene-centered (or ‘selfish gene’) approach at the heart of the NDMS.
A fascinating discovery is that there seem to be built-in constraints and deliberate pathways along which evolution proceeds, all of which imply teleology. In other words, evolutionary processes are beginning to show the real hallmarks of intentionality in direct challenge to the neo-Darwinian interpretation. Garte contends, and I heartily agree, that this is an exciting development in our understanding of evolution that Christians from all sides of the creation/evolution debate should welcome. He introduces the reader to what is called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) — a new formulation that seeks to expand the tools that evolution uses beyond those of random mutations and natural selection. There is more to evolution, in other words, than is dreamt of in the NDMS.
Garte writes that the EES powerfully suggests that the mechanisms involved in evolution are far more complex than we could have imagined. The picture, in fact, looks more like the Divinity of Romans 1:20 whose ways are higher than ours. And just as Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity put to rest many end-of-physics assessments of the early 20th century, Garte makes a case that the EES could be poised to do the same in biology. One can hope that Garte will write on the EES in the future, as we need knowledgeable and engaging popularizers to keep the church abreast of these latest discoveries.11
Science and Fables
One aspect of Garte’s approach might not appeal to every reader. Throughout the book he uses original fables as illustrations. These stories involve dialogues with God that some may find irreverent. For example, one fable depicts a conversation between God and Albert Einstein who, somehow, remains an agnostic though he is in heaven. I found these imaginative excursions to be light-hearted and quite in-line with Garte’s Jewish heritage, which often depicts God in humorous discussions.
Science and Faith
The Apostle Paul wrote that creation plainly reveals God’s eternal power and divine nature such that all mankind is without excuse in failing to seek Him. One might wonder how these divine attributes can display themselves in the narrow fields of modern scientific inquiry, especially since its disciplines are deliberately structured such that divine intervention is excluded. As Garte’s testimony teaches us, even under such limitations, science can point to God. It remains up to us to pursue the ‘scientifically-forbidden’ questions that science inspires.
Blaise Pascal wrote that in Creation “there is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”12 This observation is perfectly in keeping with our God of love who desires mankind to seek Him by faith. Thus, science can only point us toward where it cannot go. This is a lesson that we all must learn when it comes to blending faith and science. Garte’s book is an excellent contribution to that end.
Rebekah Valerius holds a BS in Biochemistry from the University of Texas at Arlington and an MA in Apologetics from Houston Baptist University.
- Sy Garte, The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2019), 200. Though this quote is attributed to Werner Heisenberg, Garte acknowledges that there is some controversy associated with this claim. He shares the following quote from Heisenberg’s article “Scientific Truth and Religious Truth”: “I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.”
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 22.
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 76.
- C. S. Lewis, Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 223.
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 23.
- Dr. Garte is credited with discovering that the structure of DNA can be expressed mathematically as a fractal. See: Seymour Garte, “Fractal Properties of the Human Genome,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 230, no. 2 (September 2004): 251–60, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtbi.2004.05.015.
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 107.
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 50.
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 158.
- Garte, The Works of His Hands, 76–77.
- Editor’s Note: It may well be the case that the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis opens up evolutionary theory to teleological processes that are vastly more plausible than natural selection operating on random mutations in accounting for the development of the astonishing diversity and organized complexity we see in living organisms. However, there is also increasing skepticism about the “tree of life” and common descent (see Casey Luskin, “The New Theistic Evolutionists: BioLogos and the Rush to Embrace the ‘Consensus,’” Christian Research Journal vol. 37, no. 03 , CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/new-theistic-evolutionists-biologos-rush-embrace-consensus/), and the Christian Research Institute (CRI) maintains the position that common descent is untenable (see, e.g., Hank Hanegraaff, “Did God Use Evolution as His Method of Creation?” Christian Research Insittute, https://www.equip.org/bible_answers/god-use-evolution-method-creation-2/). Moreover, CRI holds, as Intelligent Design theory insists, that design in nature, including biology, is scientifically detectable (see Jay W. Richards, “Thinking Clearly about God and Evolution,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 35, no. 01 , https://www.equip.org/article/thinking-clearly-about-god-and-evolution/; Thomas Cudworth, “Olive Branch from Karl Giberson,” Uncommon Descent, April 15, 2010, http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/olive-branch-from-karl-giberson/#more-13010).
- 12 Peter Kreeft. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 69.