Yes to Science; No to Scientism

There is a lot of confusion in the debate between science and religion (I use the term “religion” here as it relates to Christianity).

Science is a wonderful, glorious thing.  But scientism is the troll under the bridge that just loves to prance around when it can.  Science is way of knowing the physical and natural world – observe, measure, hypothesise, experiment, drawing conclusions and verification of the conclusions – and has enormously enriched and refined our knowledge of the world.  As Spandau Ballet so memorably sang in True, “I know, I know, I know this much is true.”  And this is the point – science is a search; a search for what is true; it is a search for Truth itself.  In this sense, it is, as G. K. Chesterton noted, “[Physical science] is either infallible or it is false.”  He adds with his usual razor wit, to mix these up is to confuse the role of a medical doctor who tells us that this or that food will kill us; but it is for the philosopher to say whether I ought to be killed.

Scientism is the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, and this can take the forms of a strong or weak scientism.  The “strong scientism” is seen no more clearly seen than in the current debates around religion and science, especially from the fiercest critics of religion – the “New Atheists” (of whom there is nothing new at all), and which Alistair McGrath reminds us, that scientism is not only alive and well, but has “become the official ideology of the movement.”  John Crosby writes, “Scientism takes the paradigm for knowledge and truth to be the knowledge and truth gained by the natural sciences.  To the extent that philosophy or literature or religion is not amenable to the methods of natural science, it is treated as a sub-standard form of knowledge” (A. J. Ayer and his ‘Vienna Circle’ pals in the 20’s and 30’s and their logical positivism are foundational to the present situation).  It is quite perverse though how this has happened!  It creates a false distinction, as though one has to choose between science and nonsense, which is nonsense!  Scientism is a shame and a sham!  Nothing but an epistemological reductionism masquerading as an enlightened, open-minded, free-thinking and progressive world-view.

This was exemplified in a 2019 science and religion debate between John Lennox and  Peter Atkins over at Unbelievable?  These two are extremely clever men, but one is a Christian (Lennox) and the other an atheist.  The problem is that despite Lennox being a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, Atkins, with quite staggering arrogance, still dismisses Lennox’s Christian faith as immature, telling him and all other Christian/religious people  to “grow up!” It is this kind of allegiance to a scientific-only worldview (i.e. scientism) that even makes Richard Dawkins look sluggish.  Atkins made some good and interesting points, but overall, he only served to prove one thing: that he is so deeply locked into an epistemological method of scientism, with its great reduction and dismissal of any other form of knowing, that he does, in fact, look silly.  He betrays the almost universal consensus that there are non-scientific ways to knowing, as the famous atheist Bertrand Russell once admitted, in acknowledging that mathematics (of which Lennox is a professor!), is a doorway to religion and mysticism.

I do wish Atkins could argue properly with Lennox, rather like the early 20th century debates between Christian G. K. Chesterton and atheist George Bernard Shaw, who could properly argue but still hold a meaningful friendship.  Atkins despises Lennox and all other Christians, and it is at this point the meaningfulness of debate breaks down.  Once, when preparing for a debate, a rotund Chesterton said to a skinny Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think there was a famine in England!”  Shaw replied, “And to look at you, anyone would think you caused it!”  Sadly, this kind of banter born out of mature relating and friendship is lost to many who hold to scientism.

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The strangeness of it all

As I continue my reading journey into the rich and beguilingly complex tradition of Christian theology, I see more and more the inane ‘meh-nes’ of the challenge.  It’s not that I have a silly mentality that says “I have it right and you have it wrong”, irrespective of the facts or the evidence; it’s just that why would I espouse something I didn’t in fact think was right?

Gilbert K. Chesterton was no fool, and even a hundred years ago he recognised the pre-Richard Dawkins/George Bernard Shaw challenge to Christianity.  We forget all too easily that these challenges, if indeed they can be called that, are in fact very old, if not tired and weary challenges, to what is, arguably, a highly sophisticated if not nuanced discussion.  Chesterton made mention of “this halo of hatred around the Church of God.”  Of course there is.  This is a factual, true statement of the fact that where the True Church is, there will be opposition, hatred, persecution or whatever.  The Gospel draws and repels in near-as-damn-it equal measure!

It is not a surprise that Shaw begat Dawkins, in precisely the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach begat Karl Marx; Marx begat Freud and Freud begat Jean Paul Satre.  This begetting is as tedious as the begetting in the bible, but it serves a comparably important point:  We are where we are because of where we have come from.  Kierkegaard challenged the mid-19th century aggressors of Christianity, just as Chesterton challenged (in much funnier terms) the late 19th – early 20th century aggressors.  The point is that they are all of a piece:  a seemless woven thread of enlightenment…..wait…. of toxic enlightenment worldview that is simply blinded to a wider reality of knowing.  That’s why Paul Tillich asks – following Aquinas – why modern man, in this age of technology and specialisation, fails to ask questions about being, or about the God who is the Ground of all Being – a “fragmentation” of thought he rightly says is “symbolised only by the demonic.”

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Nothing to Proclaim

Last night I attended the excellent ‘Holy Ground’ event put on by Exeter Cathedral.  It was only my third visit but whenever I can’t go I often hear reports of what was on and how it went.

I really like the willingness of the Exeter team to reach beyond the pre-existing boundaries, to host speakers who will challenge and dare I say, yes I dare, upset/offend.

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As a worship experience, God is worshipped in wonderful Trinitarian language, and Christ is proclaimed through thoughtful, contemporary liturgy.

Last night after the Eucharist service, we listened to the guest speaker, Tony Windross.  I’d never heard of Tony, an Anglican minister somewhere in Cornwall.  He presented his case as his book title says, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith’. 

I sat there and listened; I tried to really listen, and see if I could hear anything worth dying for; indeed anything worth living for; anything that didn’t tear up my epistemological foundations with sweeping assumptions and generalities.

But it seemed to me that Tony had nothing to proclaim.  I totally agree with him that the Church-in-the-pews for too long has lived in the toxic environment of infantalisation and anti-intellectualism.  I myself have commended a book arguing the same things in Relating Faith, a book written by one of the cleverest Christians I know!

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