Scientism: Is it a “Religion” or is it Science?

Our children are growing up in a post-Christian culture in which the public often views people of faith as irrelevant or even, in some cases, extremist. In his book Scientism and Secularism, J.P. Moreland articulates a way of friendly engagement with the prevailing worldview of Scientism.

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

IN HIS BLOG POST Be Careful, Your Love of Science Looks a Lot Like Religion, Jamie Holmes writes, “Science is usually equated by proponents of this view with empiricism or, in many fields, with a method of inquiry that employs controls, blinding, and randomization. Now, a small group of contemporary psychologists have published a series of provocative experiments showing that faith in science can serve the same mentally-stabilizing function as religious beliefs.” What is this thing called “Scientism?” It is said to be an excessive or exclusive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques. It names science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values.

Okay. But what does that mean? The claim that scientific judgement is akin to value judgement is often accompanied by the normative claim that scientific judgment should be guided by so-called epistemic or cognitive values. Epistemology refers to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. We can immediately recognize the “religious” language in the above definition: e.g., justified belief. The problem with such a viewpoint is this: Justified by whom and against what ultimate truth?

Much of this worldview, which is actually a secularization of nature and existence, is rooted in the Enlightenment, during which time philosophers decided that reason and individualism should prevail rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by seventeenth-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent promoters include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. We must remember that worldview means a set of presuppositions (assumptions that may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world. Scientism is, accordingly, a worldview. Admittedly, Christianity is also a worldview.

A presupposition is something assumed or supposed in advance of the evidence. Generally, a presupposition is a core belief—a belief that one holds as “self-evident” and not requiring proof for its validity. A presupposition is something that is assumed to be true and is taken for granted. Of course, there is a pejorative quality to this term. Synonyms include prejudice, forejudgment, preconceived opinion, fixed conclusion, based upon a priori knowledge. To be fair to this concept, a priori knowledge simply means knowledge possessed independent of experience—that knowledge which we cannot help but bring to our experience in order to make sense of the world. Some philosophers, such as Locke, believe all our knowledge is a posteriori—that the mind begins as a “blank slate.” In order to level the playing field, we must all come to realize that every worldview, whether secular or Christian, contains a degree of presupposition. Christianity, however, has been coming up true and accurate more and more as science and archaeology uncovers empirical proof of the accuracy of the Bible.

Charles Colson, in his book How Now Shall We Live, writes, “We must show the world that Christianity is more than a private belief, more than personal salvation. We must show that it is a comprehensive life system that answers all of humanity’s age-old questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning and purpose?” (Colson and Pearcy, 1999, xi) [italics mine]. The Christian worldview breaks these huge questions down to three distinct categories:

  • Creation. Where did we come from, and who are we?
  • Fall. What has gone wrong with the world?
  • Redemption. What can we do to fix it?

Christianity is a Worldview

Colson believes the way we see the world can change the world. As believers, in every action we take, we are doing one of two things: we are either helping to create a hell on earth or helping to bring down a foretaste of heaven. We are either contributing to the broken condition of the world (part of the problem) or participating with God, through his Son and us, to transform the world to reflect His righteousness and grace (part of the solution). This requires us to see reality through the lens of divine revelation. Arguably, the term worldview may sound abstract or “philosophical” (indeed, it may even sound like a “head in the clouds” perspective); a topic that must be relegated to college professors and students in the halls of academia. Keep in mind, however, that understanding and acknowledging one’s worldview is tremendously productive.

Christianity cannot sit back and consider itself a mere belief system, reduced to little more than a private feeling or “experience,” completely devoid of objective facts or physical evidence. In their book Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell consider evidence for matters such as the reliability of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the historical (actual) resurrection of Jesus from the dead, revealing strong historical evidence that confirms the Christian worldview. If we have the authentic words of Jesus claiming to be God, evidence that He genuinely performed miracles, and confirmation that Jesus rose from the grave, then Christianity is undeniably true.

Naturalism, the other side of the coin, permeates Western culture, claiming that only physical things exist and that all phenomena can ultimately be explained by the combination of chance and natural laws. This worldview underlies much rejection of metaphysical causes or origins. The New Atheists take particular aim at intelligent design and the deity of Christ. Interestingly, naturalism has absolutely no explanation for the origin of matter or life, the existence of consciousness, the nature of free will, or objective morality. This quest is  true regardless of geopolitical position. All of mankind asks these basic questions. In any event, Anthony Flew (in Licona, 2010, p. 115), a former atheist, said “The occurrence of the resurrection [has] become enormously more likely.”

Scientism as Religion

In 2013, a study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology​ found that when subjects were stressed, they were more likely to agree to statements typifying science such as, “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.” When people felt anxious, they esteemed science more highly than calmer subjects did, just as previous experiments have shown to be the case with religious ideals. Therefore, beliefs about science are often defended emotionally, even when they’re wrong, as long as they provide a reassuring sense of order. That is to say, beliefs about science may be defended thoughtlessly—even unscientifically. Scientism, accordingly, seems to both religious and scientific outlooks as a soothing balm to our existential anxieties. What we believe, the parallel implies, can sometimes be less important than h​ow ​we believe it. This would indicate that a deep faith in science as the only means for explanation of the origin of matter and life, and the meaning existence, is a form of irrational extremism.

Does this view merely negate scientism, or does it also indict Christianity? This is not meant to be a cop-out, but the answer depends on individual worldviews. In other words, if a believer in Christ refuses to consider science at all, stating it has no explanation for the natural world, he or she is viewing the world with eyes closed, misunderstanding all they see. Moreover, such an individual is ignoring the numerous scientific discoveries proposed by Christians and theists over the centuries; please note the wide range of scientific fields represented below (philosophy of science; botany; astronomy; physics; mathematics; chemistry; electricity and electromagnetism; biology, microbiology, and neurobiology; subatomic theory; psychiatry; neuropsychiatry; genetics; information theory):

  • Robert Grosseteste, patron saint of scientists, Oxford, founder of scientific thought, wrote texts on optics, astronomy, and geometry.
  • William Turner, father of English botany.
  • Francis Bacon, established inductive “scientific method.”
  • Galileo Galilei, revolutionary astronomer, physicist, philosopher, mathematician.
  • Blaise Pascal, known for Pascal’s Law (physics), Pascal’s Theorem (math), and Pascal’s Wager (theology).
  • Robert Boyle, scientist, theologian, Christian apologist, who said science can improve glorification of God.
  • Isaac Newton, discovered the properties of gravity.
  • Johannes Kepler, astronomer, discovered planetary motion.
  • Joseph Priestly, clergyman and scientist, discovered oxygen.
  • Michael Faraday, established electromagnetic theory and electrolysis.
  • Charles Babbage, information theorist, mathematician, pioneer in computer programming.
  • Louis Pasteur, biologist, microbiologist and chemist renowned for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Lord Kelvin, mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. 
  • J.J. Thompson, credited with the discovery and identification of the electron and discovery of the first subatomic particle.
  • Johannes Reinke, phycologist and naturalist who strongly opposed Darwin.
  • George Washington Carver, American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor who believed he could have faith both in God and science and integrated them into his life.  
  • Max Born, German physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics. 
  • Michael Polanyi, appointed to a Chemistry chair in Berlin, but in 1933 when Hitler came to power he accepted a Chemistry chair (and then in 1948 a Social Sciences chair) at the University of Manchester. Wrote Science, Faith, and Society.
  • Rod Davies, professor of radio astronomy at the University of Manchester, known for his research on the cosmic microwave background in the universe.
  • Peter Dodson, American paleontologist who has published many papers and written and collaborated on books about dinosaurs.
  • Charles Foster, science writer on natural history, evolutionary biology, and theology.
  • John Gurdon, British developmental biologist, discovered that mature cells can be converted to stem cells. 
  • Paul R. McHugh, American psychiatrist whose research has focused on the neuroscientific foundations of motivated behaviors, psychiatric genetics, epidemiology, and neuropsychiatry. 
  • Kenneth R. Miller, molecular biologist, wrote Finding Darwin’s God.
  • John D. Barrow, English cosmologist based at the University of Cambridge who did notable writing on the implications of the Anthropic principle.

J.P. Moreland

In his book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland (2018, p. 16) writes, “As the ideas that constitute scientism have become more pervasive in our culture, the Western world has turned increasingly secular and the centers of culture (the universities, the media and entertainment industry, the Supreme Court) have come increasingly to regard religion as a private superstition. It is no surprise, then, that when our children go to college, more and more of them are just giving up on Christianity.” Scientism claims that only the “hard” sciences can discover and explain reality. It also believes everything else is based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing. Moreover, scientism believes reliance on religious explanation for the origin of matter and life has yielded no reality at all. Simply put, theology and philosophy offer no truth whatsoever and, accordingly, are of no repute.

I find it fascinating that Christian theology does not make the same stinging conclusion about science. As we saw above, many great scientists, inventors, and discoverers throughout history (including many contemporary pioneers in science) were or are Christians or theists. Each of them believe God’s general revelation (that is, the natural order of things and the origin of matter and life) speak loudly of God as our intelligent designer. I, too, hold this view. Nanoscientist James Tour said, “Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science, it will bring you closer to God.” This is the basis for the Teleological Argument that (i) every design has a designer, (ii) the universe has a highly complex design, therefore (iii) the universe had a designer.

Atheism Requires More Faith Than Not Believing!

Postmodern culture has made every attempt to destroy truth. It teaches that the idea of truth and morality are “relative” to the circumstance, person, or era; that there is no such thing as absolute truth. This zeitgeist is prevalent in academia today in our public schools and most (if not all) secular universities. The postmodernist thinks not believing in ultimate truth or metaphysical explanations regarding the universe means one is “enlightened” and, therefore, not reliant on “dogmatic thought.” Interestingly, despite the postmodern belief that there is no absolute truth or morality, society seems to behave as though it exists. Yet these supposedly bright and enlightened ones insist that “truth” is merely a social contract defined and maintained by the powerful to remain “in power.” Admittedly, truth has fallen victim to modern culture. The modern ideas of tolerance and pluralism are a direct result of taking God out of the equation.

The term “university” is actually a composite of the words “unity” and “diversity.” Our universities should allow for the pursuit of knowledge and truth through such unity.

I find it curious that liberal secularists insist on tolerance, yet they have absolutely no tolerance for non-secular worldviews. This is non-tolerance! Perhaps they see “tolerance” differently than the rest of us; they seem to think it does not simply mean treating those with different ideas respectfully and civilly. If you think they are not using disrespect and intolerance to defend their “religion” of naturalism and scientism, then log on to YouTube and find a couple of debates to watch between believers (such as Dinesh D’Souza, Ravi Zacharias, Ken Ham) and the so-called New (or “militant”) Atheists (which includes Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins). In nearly every instance, and despite some atheists with a background in science, they attack Christ, Christianity, and, more typically, the believer rather than providing a convincing argument against intelligent design.

It is rather easy for the postmodern secularist to avoid confronting or defending the notion of intelligent design and creation science because he or she rejects the idea of absolute truth and the Law of Non-contradiction at the start. Rather than engaging in an intelligent point/counterpoint debate, the postmodernist goes about town moralizing to everyone about the importance of tolerance without having to explain the inherent contradiction presented by his or her closed mind regarding all things spiritual or metaphysical. This smacks of intellectual fraud. They simply do not practice what they preach—especially toward Christians. Why is this? One thought is because Christianity is truth, and Jesus knew the world would reject his followers in the same manner they rejected Him. Truth, on one hand, sets us free. But it also confounds and convicts those who reject it and peddle a counterfeit reality.

There is a degree of “political correctness” in this attitude. Even many churches have been corrupted and misguided by the unsustainable notion that pluralism allows for tolerance. Many have allowed their theology to be watered down and have permitted the authority of Scripture to be undermined in favor of society’s “evolved” or “advanced” ideas on morality. Unfortunately, many Christians and their church leaders have become an accomplice to the denigration of truth. This is a conscious and deliberate disobedience of the Great Commission presented to the body of believers by Christ before his ascension (see Matt. 28:16-20).

A Dangerous Division

Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, though a prominent critic of intelligent design, has claimed he is not atheistic. Science and religion cannot conflict, he believes, because they deal with different subject matter: science is about empirical facts, whereas religion is about meaning and morality. Unfortunately, many of today’s Christians are falling for this rather dangerous division of science and theology. As a result, they are ill-prepared to give an answer for the faith they have in the gospel. A negative side-effect of this lack of preparedness is the tendency to either shy away from defending the gospel or doing so from a militant or insulting position. Neither of these reactions are within the scope of 1 Peter 3:15:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (NIV).

We cannot allow the surgical division of science and Christianity to persist. As noted above, many Christians have made groundbreaking scientific discoveries over the centuries. In fact, the list I provided is incomplete. Space does not allow the listing of all scientists who were Christians or theists. It is also important to note that because all truth is God’s truth, the Bible and science are not diametrically opposed. The means by which the New Atheists make this claim is unfair. It is literally a comparison of apples to oranges. To say that science can explain every aspect of creation is to misuse applied or experimental science when the proper tool is “historical” science. We cannot test the past to see if certain empirical theories are possible. We do not have a time machine.

Further, no one has been able to “create” the building blocks of life (the necessary enzymes, proteins, and genetic code) in a laboratory. No one has an explanation for the origin of biological information needed to establish Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Modern science knows full-well that, ultimately, life is a molecular phenomenon. All organisms are made of molecules that act as the very building blocks required for origin and operation. Living cells require a constant supply of energy to generate and maintain the biological order that keeps them alive. This energy is derived from the chemical bond energy in food molecules. The proteins, lipids, and polysaccharides that make up most of the food we eat must be broken down into smaller molecules before our cells can use them—either as a source of energy or as building blocks for other molecules. The breakdown processes must act on food taken in from outside, but not on the macromolecules inside our own cells. It’s as if we have tiny nuts and bolts, gears and pulleys, of biological “equipment” inside us. How brilliant is that? We are like the pocket watch found on the ground in the woods by a hiker; we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, with highly intricate biochemical and physical operations, that can come only from a “watchmaker.”

Although it contains one, Christianity is not merely a worldview. Nor is it simply “a religion.” If it were, then it might deserve the reputation of being a narrowly pious view of the world. Thankfully, Christianity is an objective perspective on all reality, a complete worldview, that consistently stands up to the test of practical living. Additionally, it is about our relationship with the Creator. We become one with Christ when we choose to make Him Lord and Savior. This is a great litmus test for deciding whether a particular “branch” or “sect” of Christianity is genuine. Accordingly, we can admit that “false prophets” have arisen. I’m reminded of Jim Jones and David Koresh. Today’s atheists love to talk about all the people murdered over the centuries in the name of Christ. They don’t respond well to the rebuttal that millions were murdered by people who were not followers of Christ, typically in the interest of genocide: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin, Ho Chi Mihn, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Il-Sung, Augusto Pinochet, and (drum roll please) the worst, Mao Ze Dung.

References

Colson, Charles, and Pearcy, N. How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House), 1999.

Licona, Michael, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2010.

McDowell, J. and McDowell, S., Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2017.

Moreland, J.P., Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 2018.

America’s Fentanyl Crisis

Every day 91 Americans fatally overdose on an opioid drug. It may be a prescription analgesic or heroin–4 to 8 percent of people who misuse painkillers transition to heroin–but increasingly it is likely to be heroin’s much more potent synthetic cousin fentanyl. In the space of only two years, fentanyl has tragically escalated the opioid crisis. This drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and able to enter the brain especially quickly because of its high fat solubility; just 2 milligrams can kill a person, and emergency personnel who touch or breathe it may even be put in danger. Unfortunately, many people addicted to opioids as well as other drugs like cocaine are accidentally being poisoned by fentanyl-laced products.

Although fentanyl is a medicine prescribed for post-surgical pain and palliative care, most of the fentanyl responsible for this surge of deaths is made illicitly in China and imported to the United States via the mail or Mexican drug cartels. Its high potency and ease of manufacture make it enormously profitable to produce and sell. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), one kilogram of fentanyl can be purchased in China for $3,000 to $5,000 and then generate over $1.5 million in revenue through illicit sales in America. Thus, distributors of illicit drugs are eager to adulterate heroin or cocaine powder with fentanyl or put it in counterfeit prescription drugs, such as pills made to look like prescription pain relievers or sedatives. Last month, for example, a wave of deaths in Florida was linked to fake Xanax pills containing fentanyl.

Deaths from fentanyl and a handful of other synthetic opioids tripled from 3,105 in 2013 to 9,580 in 2015, and those numbers are likely underestimates; some medical examiners do not test for fentanyl and many overdose death certificates do not list specific drugs involved. Thus far, New Hampshire has recorded the most fentanyl overdoses per capita; an NIDA-funded study found that in 2015, almost two-thirds of the 439 drug deaths in that state involved fentanyl. Although most who fatally overdose on fentanyl are unaware of what they have taken, news of such fatalities has unbelievably driven some people with severe opioid addictions to seek it out. Part of the cycle of an opioid use disorder is increased tolerance, causing diminished response to the drug, which leads users to seek products with higher potency so they can experience the euphoria they initially felt. Roughly one-third of opioid users interviewed as part of the study in New Hampshire knowingly sought fentanyl.

The fentanyl problem is already a high priority for policymakers. Last month, NIDA’s Deputy Director Wilson Compton testified before Congress on the science of fentanyl, accompanied by representatives from the DEA, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the CDC, and other agencies. Diplomatic and law enforcement efforts to cut off the supply of illicit fentanyl and the chemicals needed to manufacture it will be important, but the emergence of very high potency opioids–which can be transported in smaller volumes–will make addressing supply increasingly difficult. Thus, a public health strategy to address the opioid crisis and overdose epidemic is more important than ever.

First, we must improve pain management and minimize our reliance on existing opioid pain medications. Second, treatment centers and healthcare systems must make much wider use of available, effective medications for opioid addiction (Buprenorphine, Methadone, and extended-release Vivitrol). Third, the opioid-overdose reversing drug naloxone needs to be made as widely available as possible, both to emergency first responders as well as to opioid users and other laypeople who may find themselves in a position to save a life. In cases of fentanyl overdose, multiple doses of naloxone may be needed to reverse an overdose, and additional hospital care may be needed. All individuals who overdose on opioids need to be linked to a treatment program to prevent it from happening again.

From the blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Dir., National Institute on Drug Abuse
April 6, 2017