Scientism and Secularism - A Review

Depending on who you talk to, you may find yourself in a conversation with someone who thinks there is a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. This typically happens on the fringes of both Christianity and the so-called scientific community. If there is a group of Christians who find science antagonistic toward their religion, it is often (but not exclusively) fundamentalists. And, beyond the realm of actual science, there are secularists the suppose that the information of science fundamentally undermines the tenets of religion.

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Secularists who claim that science undermines fundamental religious claims are not, however, actually proclaiming the superiority of science. Instead, they are presenting a case for what is better known as scientism. According to J. P. Moreland, scientism is “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of religion.”

In his recent book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland argues for a distinction between science and scientism. He also argues that scientism is fundamentally corrosive to society and leads people away from truth.

In popular culture, scientism has overtaken other religious systems as a dominant plausibility structure. In other words, it is how many people make sense of the world around them. Not only does this often displace belief in God, but it undermines the ability of those who hold to scientism to accurately evaluate competing, non-scientistic perspectives that might provide better access to truth.

Scientism has influenced several of the shifts our culture has witnessed in recent decades. The first is that it has taught people that science sums up the totality of accessible knowledge, while religion is blind faith divorced from reality. This myth may help people coexist, but it does much less to encourage the pursuit of truths that cannot be known empirically, much less fairly evaluate those that haven’t adopted the current orthodoxy of scientism.

A second shift caused by scientism is the pursuit of immediate gratification instead of honest pursuit of truth. All the truth that can be known is knowable by science. Scientism claims that all there is in this world is material. Therefore, there are no consequences to pursuing whatever comes easiest to hand.

That leads to the third major shift caused by scientism, which is the adoption of a minimalist ethics. This rejects the idea that there is a good or bad, apart from the apparent benefit or harm measured by surveys, metrics, and calculations. This, of course, leads to bad science, where those who expound the conclusions that naturally and obviously arise from their data can be ridiculed, ousted from tenured posts, and assaulted if their conclusions go against the presuppositions of the mob. If scientism is true, and measured harms provide the evidence of actions to avoid, then what is not measured cannot be wrong.

Moreland is right to note that scientism is a significant problem, and that it is pervasive in our culture. His book rightly shows how fake-science, which is what scientism is, leads to militant secularism. Therefor his book serves as a warning for Christians to identify the influences of scientism, particularly in their own homes, and root them out.

Scientism and Secularism is a book for Christians trying to figure out what is wrong with the world. How have we gotten to the place where there are intelligent people who will argue in public that all decisions must be made based on empirical evidence? Moreland traces some of the influences that led to the current situation, but, more significantly, he explains why scientism is wrong and even self-refuting.

At points this book is a little dense for the average reader. Moreland is communicating some complex philosophical ideas as clearly as can be, but there is a level of complexity in his arguments that cannot be reduced without detriment. This book will most benefit those who have some background and interest in philosophy. At the same time, if a reader is willing to plow through the sections where Moreland is a bit more technical, then there is much to be gained for the educated laity. It offers both warning and antidote to a philosophical movement that is growing in strength and is threatening to displace both sound science and well-formed orthodox Christianity in the minds of many both inside and outside the church.

The Importance of the Pursuit of Truth in Science - A Book Review

Alice Dreger’s recent book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, is about several things. It discusses her work in advocating for rights for intersex and transgender people. Though she spends over a hundred pages on that topic, that biographical data is largely an entry point into her broader discussion of problems within the academic community of ideologues undermining scholarly work and attempting to control the content and outcome of academic discussions.

Although I don’t agree with Dreger’s ethics in many areas, her main point is important. Her contribution to an understanding of the unwholesomeness of the relationship between science and social justice movements is vital as we pursue open conversation about a just social order.

Dreger’s thesis:

Science and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom. Without a just system, you cannot be free to do science, including science designed to better understand human identity; without science, and especially scientific understandings of human behaviors, you cannot know how to create a sustainably just system.

In light of this, Dreger notes,

Yet it seems that, especially where questions of human identity are concerned, we’ve built up a system in which scientists and social justice advocates are fighting in ways that poison the soil on which both depend.

In other words, there is a problem right now where ideological advocates for social justice are undermining legitimate attempts to understand the human condition unless the scientific evidence agrees with the advocacy group's accepted narrative. Particularly in the area of identity advocacy, legitimate scientific study is thwarted through an openly hostile atmosphere to explanations that run counter to the desired storyline.

Dreger provides several examples of this. First, in her own account, although she is an avid advocate for intersex rights and openly supportive of transgender identity groups, she was viciously attacked for her work in defense of a scientist who dared to explain the transgender psyche differently.  Mike Bailey of Northwestern University is openly an advocate for transgender rights, but since his peer reviewed research undermined the accepted narrative, and because he made his case in an insensitive manner at times, he was deemed a danger to the transgender identity movement. Thus, he was mercilessly and falsely attacked by strong advocates within the transgender advocacy movement. When Dreger, a trained historian, investigated the accusations, she found them to be either gross misrepresentations of truth or entirely false. This led to a central advocate for transgender rights seeking to destroy Dreger’s career and being publically hostile.

There are several steps to this method of advocacy, which Dreger admits to using in a less nefarious way. She outlines four steps, 

blanketing the Web to make sure they set the terms of debate, reaching out to politically sympathetic reporters to get the story into the press, doling out fresh information and new characters at a steady pace to keep the story in the media and to keep the pressure on, and rhetorically tapping into parallel left-leaning stories to make the casual bystander “get it” and care.

These methods were used against Bailey, Dreger herself, as well as other cases Dreger outlines in the book. Her objection to these is not to the methodology used, but to the truthfulness of the accusations. In the cases she highlights, there were clear factual errors that were being intentionally promoted through this form of social advocacy. Dreger also highlights several other cases in less detail where individuals have been warned off of pursuing further research and publication on significant topics because of similar scare tactics by belligerent advocates.

Tying the title back in, Dreger notes that Galileo himself faced resistance in his life to his empirical conclusions. It was only because of his perseverance in the face of persecution that he was able to disrupt the scientific status quo. While Dreger oversimplifies that debate, making it largely a conflict between religion and science, her point is well made that the geo-centric model may have persisted for longer without Galileo’s persistence. Going where the evidence leads is vitally important for the pursuit of Truth.

In closing her book, Dreger writes, 

Here’s the one thing I now know for sure after this very long trip: Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.

In this, I am profoundly in agreement with Dreger. She comes at this from the perspective of atheistic empiricism, convinced there is an objective order in the universe. I come at this as a theistic Christian, certain there is objective order in the universe because there is a Creator who ordains and sustains that order. We agree on the desire to pursue truth and justice, but our concepts of justice are shaped by our beginning points. This is the point of disagreement, but one that we should be able to discuss respectfully.

This is a good book. It is well written and engaging. Her prose is lively and draws the reader in. This is a book that is worth the time and effort to read.

For my predominately Christian audience, I will note that Dreger uses language and discusses some topics in a way we would not consider appropriate for dinner conversations. There are points early on where her advocacy for liberalized sexual ethics is a bit tedious for those not so inclined, but the main point of the book is sound and well-made.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.