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 a 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.
Continue reading “Yes to Science; No to Scientism”