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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How To Be A Good Atheist

How To Be A Good Atheist

A few years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a  review of a book called: 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, co-edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. On Amazon the book is described thus:

“50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists presents a collection of original essays drawn from an international group of prominent voices in the fields of academia, science, literature, media and politics who offer carefully considered statements of why they are atheists.”

Hart’s original article can be found at the First Things website, but here’s a snippet of his sigh-ings against what he delicately calls the “sheer banality of the New Atheists”:

 

“How long should we waste our time with the sheer banality of the New Atheists—with, that is, their childishly Manichean view of history, their lack of any tragic sense, their indifference to the cultural contingency of moral “truths,” their wanton incuriosity, their vague babblings about “religion” in the abstract, and their absurd optimism regarding the future they long for? . . .

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, I can only say that I have arrived at it honestly. In the course of writing a book published just this last year, I dutifully acquainted myself not only with all the recent New Atheist bestsellers, but also with a whole constellation of other texts in the same line, and I did so, I believe, without prejudice. No matter how patiently I read, though, and no matter how Herculean the efforts I made at sympathy, I simply could not find many intellectually serious arguments in their pages, and I came finally to believe that their authors were not much concerned to make any. . . .

I came to realize that the whole enterprise, when purged of its hugely preponderant alloy of sanctimonious bombast, is reducible to only a handful of arguments, most of which consist in simple category mistakes or the kind of historical oversimplifications that are either demonstrably false or irrelevantly true. And arguments of that sort are easily dismissed, if one is hardy enough to go on pointing out the obvious with sufficient indefatigability.”

Moral Idiots

Atheist delusions

Towards the end of his brilliant and devastating critique of contemporary new-atheism, David Bentley Hart writes, of professional academics:  

“Admittedly, I am still talking about only a small number of particular individuals here, and those manifestly moral idiots.  Living in the academic world, moreover, I am acquainted with their kind to a perhaps unhealthy degree.  Some of them are, however, influential, and it is not entirely insignificant that their ideas – which at one time would have been rightly regarded by almost anyone as the degenerate ravings of sociopaths – are strangely palatable and even compelling to many of their fellows.

Their voices may, then, be acute manifestations of a more chronic condition.  If nothing else, their ideas demonstrate how easy it is even for educated persons today to believe – for no reason other than unreflective intellectual prejudice – knowing that how genes work is the same thing as being authorized  to say what a person is or should be.

This is one of the many reasons that I suspect that our contemporary “age of reason” is in many ways an age of almost perfect unreason, one always precariously poised upon the edge of – and occasionally slipping over into – the purest barbarism.  I suspect that, to a far greater degree than we typically might imagine, we have forsaken reason for magic: whether the magic of occult fantasy or the magic of an amoral idolatry of our own power over material reality.

Reason, in the classic and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist.

A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint.  Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom.  In Christian tradition, reason was praised as a high and precious thing, principally because it belonged intrinsically to the dignity of beings created in the divine image; and, this being so, it was assumed that reason is always morality, and that charity is required for any mind to be fully rational.

Even if one does not believe any of this, however, a rational life involves at least the ability to grasp what it is one does not know, and to recognize that what one does not know may not be the only kind of genuine knowledge there is.”

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