ReVision

Scientism

It's not science we distrust.

Worldly Winds (4)

O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge – by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. 1 Timothy 6.20, 21

The rise of science
I suppose that next to being called a racist, being labeled a “science-denier” is about the worst tag with which one could be branded.

In our day science holds a near hegemony over the truth. School curricula are all about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), while the arts and humanities have been shunted to the side. Disciplines focusing on human life and society are being reduced to hard sciences, and everything from the workings of the mind to the longings of the heart and the development of social institutions have or are being reduced to some form of numbers-crunching.

Science, we are told, gives rise to truth, and only those truths demonstrated by science can be counted as truly true. It might be thought that the scientific enterprise emerged from some confluence of secularism and materialism – given the dedication of those worldly winds to knowing this world and all its parts and patterns in strictly physical terms.

In fact, the modern scientific enterprise arose from within the Christian community, led by thinkers who believed that the world and everything in it are gifts from God to be known, ordered, cared for, used, and enjoyed with gratitude. The early literature of science, including that of some of the most revered names in the scientific endeavor, is rife with attestations of the sovereignty, beauty, wisdom, wonder, goodness, and mystery of God which is revealed and can be known through the study of creation.

Science is a means of knowing, using protocols proven to yield understanding of the properties of things in the cosmos and of explaining how they work together. Science is a source of truth, but not truth as the apostle Paul understood it and as Christians seek to know it. For in the teaching of Scripture, everything and all the truth everything represents comes to us from God, is sustained for us by God, and finds it full and true expression as it returns glory to God (Rom. 11.36). But the scientific enterprise long ago jettisoned all sense of needing to refer its findings to God; thus what science yields is strictly relative truth, that is, truth as defined in terms of material reality and its uses. Truth as science explains it is true but incomplete, and it can even be deceitful to the extent it is used to obscure rather than elucidate the knowledge of God.

In our day the form of science that confronts the souls of most people is a hot wind emanating from within the scientific community which is described as scientism.

Scientism defined
Those for whom science has become the source of truth dismiss all other truth claims as false, irrelevant, or yet to be proven by the scientific method. Richard Dawkins speaks for this view when he writes that science “can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth” (“The Insidious Attacks on Scientific Truth,” The Spectator, 19 December 2020). Whatever other “truths” may be known – as through the arts or religion – don’t really matter, unless they can be reduced to science and therefore tested and replicated.

Scientism is not the same as science. Science is a valid and reliable resource for understanding and making best use of the world around us. In a very real sense, science is a gift of God through the Christian community for the wellbeing and flourishing of the world. It is a flawed endeavor, of course, as is every endeavor involving fallen, fallible, foible-ridden people. Science has limitations on what it can investigate and therefore understand by its methods and means. But that science is a great gift and necessary resource for improving human life cannot be denied.

Scientism, on the other hand, is a development from within the scientific community which troubles even many scientists, as Atul Gawande explained in the June 10, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. Dr. Gawande insists that science must understand its limitations, and it must accept the fact that the knowledge science acquires is never “completely settled” but “just probable knowledge.” When people express distrust of science, it’s not really science but scientism and its overreaching claims that they resist.

John Gray, himself an atheist, calls on such “evangelical atheists” as Sam Harris and Daniel C. Dennett to back off their attacks on other forms of knowing, especially religion, because even their approach to science is a kind of faith. Mr. Gray acknowledges that science only works because it borrows foundational assumptions from the Christian worldview. He regards the evangelical atheists as deluded about the nature of science, humankind, and morality, and as less than forthcoming about the religious nature of their own program. His is a voice of Gamaliel amid the hubbub and ruckus of secular propagandizing and bullying.

But the tendency toward scientism is latent within the scientific community. Dr. Gawande writes that truth-seeking is a community endeavor, “a group of people – the bigger the better – pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline.” But he also insists this is the work of scientists and the scientific method. And it is just such hubris and exclusivity that leads to scientism and provokes many to resent and even distrust the scientific community.

Problems with scientism
The worldly wind of scientism can get into the sails of our soul from a variety of sources, including public television, public schools, advertising (“a panel of scientists reports…”), and of course, the media and the Internet.

Scientism is a blustery gust of hot air cloaked in clouds of scientific knowledge, and its aim is to dislodge every other wind from your sails and own the direction of your journey. Scientism directly attacks the authority and reliability of Scripture, gleefully displaying the many ways “science” shows the Bible to be wrong. The prophets of scientism are determined to shut down or shout down every truth claim that can’t be written up in a scientific report, so they can heap scorn on believing students and dishearten Christian witness. Similarly, the proponents of a scientistic worldview can make us believe that we need to prove our faith, or find ways of making Scripture compatible with the views of science. Scientism also leads us to a misguided view of assessment – goals and progress in churches – by encouraging us to use numbers in a wide variety of forms as the primary means of demonstrating the viability of our faith or the health of our churches.

All these are distractions from the true journey of faith, which we must learn to recognize and resist, looking instead to Scripture as our final standard for all truth, just as did our forebears in the faith who gave birth to the scientific revolution to bring glory to God and benefit to the world.

For reflection
1. Do you agree with those who insist that science is the only reliable source of truth? Explain.

2. If mere numbers aren’t the way to tell how healthy our church is, what is?

3. Do you think the scientific enterprise would be different if it operated with the template Paul set forth in Romans 11.36? Explain.

Next steps – Preparation: Jesus prayed to the Father, “Your Word is truth.” How do you apply that to your daily activities?

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore