Evil In the Air That We Breathe: New Book Explains the Dangers of Scientism

Reviewing J. P. Moreland's new book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.

By Tom Gilson Published on October 13, 2018

Take your choice: Which do you agree with more: America needs more faith and religion, or America needs more reason and science?  Those were your two options for a question in a recent research study on what’s polarizing America. I’d call the question itself polarizing. I wanted to answer “All of the above,” but they didn’t offer that option.

I had come face to face once again with a biased view of knowledge — one that’s both irrational and deeply damaging. It’s called scientism, and J. P. Moreland — whom I have long considered one of today’s most important authors — explains it in depth in his excellent new book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.

Scientism pits faith against reason, religion against science, as if a person has to choose one or the other. It’s a “dark, hideous, and I dare say, evil” notion, says Moreland, defining it as “roughly, the idea that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality.” That leaves everything else, including moral and spiritual truth, “based on private emotions, blind faith or cultural upbringing.”

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This view of knowledge pervades everything around us. We live in an expert-driven culture, and “expert” always means scientific expert. Although Moreland correctly emphasizes the hard sciences in his definition of scientism, it spills over into the social sciences as well. Is it good for children to grow up with two same-sex “parents”? Answer: What does the research say? Another question: Is abortion harmful to women? Answer: Run the statistics and find out.

If you can’t count and measure it, you don’t have an answer, or so the belief goes. Try to answer with timeless moral knowledge instead, and people will look at you like you’re wearing a powdered wig and pantaloons. It’s “unscientific.” It’s just your “private opinion.” And “don’t you dare push it on anyone else!”

Scientism is Seriously Wrong

Scientism considers science the one true path to real, rational knowledge. It’s got a problem, though: It’s irrational; completely self-contradictory, right off the bat. Moreland asks us to consider scientism’s core belief, that “only what is testable by science can be true.” Where’s the laboratory where scientists have tested that statement? There isn’t one, and there couldn’t possibly be, because it isn’t a scientific statement. If we took it seriously as true, we’d have to reject it as false. Or you could put it this way: It couldn’t be true unless it wasn’t! That’s what self-contradiction is all about.

But it’s worse than that. Moreland goes so far as to call it evil. Note carefully that the problem isn’t science. Moreland started out as a scientist himself, and retains his love for it. But there’s all kinds of harm in the scientistic attitude that science is our only source of knowledge.

Scientism Dismisses Much of What We Know Is Real

For one thing, it rules out knowing much of the most important truths of the world: that morality is real, for example. Moral knowledge isn’t just opinion, it’s real knowledge. We know that it’s wrong to torture babies for fun. Granted, I’ve run into people who’ve tried to say it’s merely cultural opinion. I don’t mind stepping up and telling them they’re wrong. Or asking the question a different way: Is it okay to torture sexual minorities for fun? Usually at that point they’ll agree, it’s really wrong.

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By seeking to explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry, scientism reduces human beings to something a lot less than the morally significant persons we are. People ask, “How do we know when an unborn baby becomes a human person?” — as if personhood were something you could weigh and measure in a laboratory. How have we forgotten that people are intrinsically valuable, just for being human? A lot of the reason for this has to do with a scientistic view of knowledge.

Scientism is the Enemy of Both Science and Spiritual Knowledge

You’d think that with its high regard for science, scientism would at least be at home in that realm. It isn’t. Scientism is actually science’s enemy, for science depends on all kinds of knowledge that science can’t prove. (This takes us back toward that self-contradiction problem once again.) Science needs to assume, for example, that truth and beauty are values worth pursuing. Those values are good and true, but not because anyone discovered them scientifically. It’s actually the other way around: Science works because people know we should pursue truth and beauty.

But above all its other harms, scientism rules out all spiritual knowledge. Atheists chant their mantra, “Prove your god to me scientifically!” They treat the Creator of the world as if He should be part of that world, testable by its physical laws. Their scientism blinds them to all the most fundamental, eternally crucially aspects of reality.

Their scientism blinds them to all the most fundamental, eternally crucially aspects of reality.

The effects are devastating. “Most former Catholics … believe that science and religion often conflict with each other,” says one study, with emphasis on “former.” The same goes for previous Protestants, especially young adults. Scientism rarely pushes young people away from science, but it does drive many away from their religious beliefs.

Moreland’s closing plea in this book is that we learn to integrate spiritual and scientific knowledge. Too many people, believers included, still think science tells us all we can truly know, and Christian faith is only what we can “believe.” They should know better. Scientism fails on far too many points. We need a worldview as deep and broad as Christian theism to sustain a wide enough view of knowledge — science included.

We’ve Got to Get Up To Speed On This

Scientism is irrational and harmful, yet most of us live in its assumptions anyway. It’s “the intellectual and cultural air that we breathe,” says Moreland. It fills our world so pervasively, few see it for what it is, much less know how to stand against it.

We need to see it; to recognize it for what it is. For that reason, every person interested in science or in moral and spiritual truth owes it to himself to read this book. Scientism has done more than enough damage. We’ve got to expose it for the false, evil error that it is.

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  • Ameribear

    More of us need to take the time to avail ourselves of resources like these if we want to become truly effective against this rising tide. It doesn’t take much digging to expose all the fallacies and self-contradictions atheism is riddled with.

  • Andrew Mason

    I think it’s fractionally more complicated than this article presents. The binary divide faith and religion v reason and science is obviously flawed, arguably designed to produce a result, and yet recent research demonstrates that America needs more religion – it reduces STD chances etc. Of course that assumes that STDs etc are bad, which is a moral judgement not a scientific one, so dependent on reason and religion, which isn’t one of the options given.

    Getting further down to the bit about the high priests er I mean scientific experts driving the culture, and whether it’s good for kids to be raised by homosexuals, or whether abortion harms women, that assumes that data can be collected and analysed without bias skewing the results or interpretation, and it can’t. In effect the high priests of scientism demand that their opinions be kowtowed to because it’s Their opinion, and any studies which disprove Their opinion (yes my casing is deliberate) are clearly religiously biased. Those who reason otherwise are heretics to the faith who must be punished.

    As for the point about when unborn children become a human person, what is personhood, and why does it have value? Aren’t the scientismists arbitrarily defining things as having value then using those arbitrary standards to determine whether other things have value?

    Theology was once seen as the queen of the sciences. Seems to me that view is needed once again as so many are confused about what science even is!

  • Irene Neuner

    Indeed the conversations in my church seem to be greatly sympathetic or determined by whatever is pumped into the culture via mainstream media.

    It is interesting though because I am in the Bible Belt. California Christians are much more careful about worldviews.

  • Trilemma

    America needs more reason and science and less faith and religion. Science produces more knowledge whereas religion doesn’t.

    People naturally want answers to their questions. If science can’t answer them, then people look to religion for answers. However, religion is created by humans and reflects the culture that created it.

    When it comes to morality, science can’t prove any particular behavior is moral or immoral. Religious morality is simply the morality of the culture that created the religion. That’s why the morality depicted in the Old Testament is so different from the morality depicted in the New Testament. Different cultures.

    Scientism is not science. Scientism is unwarranted faith in science that science can answer all questions. Scientism tries to apply science where science doesn’t apply. Scientism is faith based just like religion.

    • you already got in, no need to try harder.

      There are three forms of thought:
      – Lowest is logic
      – Broadest is reason
      – Highest is Faith

      Faith is basing oneself in God. Reason, thinking exclusively in the intellect, is totally blind and impossible without Faith. Logic, thinking while using the senses, is the smallest and lowest form of thought.

      The sciences were created by the Church and can only exist within the Church. This is because they are founded on two principles:
      – The earth is not divine
      – All is intelligible

      This can only be explained by knowing God as God by how the Church knows God.

      The Old Testament describes God delivering the Israelis to the birthplace of humanity and teaching them how to survive in the desert and form the basis for the coming Church

      What God commands the Israelis to do is survive at all costs.

      The New and Eternal Covenant is far more advanced and is the Church proper. The Church exists to reunite humanity after the fall by reordering us the correct way.

      That you claim to be a Christian, but then claim that Christianity is just a “cultural thing” is insane,

      How is Christianity cultural when it is so advanced that humanity has rejected it for not being as base as mere worthless culture?

  • Michael Fugate

    So when the Bible story claims the God told Abraham to tie up his son Isaac and sacrifice him, then let Isaac go, this wasn’t torture? What would you do if this were your child? What would you as a child think?

    So you are saying morality is real and the Bible is not a guide to morality – good to know.

    • The “what if this were your child?” question is always asked out of context, and never as informative as the questioners think it is. I can’t put an actual link in here, but do a search on Google for “gilson thinking christian isaac abraham sacrifice” and you can read why.

      • Michael Fugate

        So what you are saying – and I love it – Abraham was a man of his times. Woo hoo! culture and morality change – you admit it. There is no objective morality. God you are a genius!

        And this is not about the sacrifice – it is about the torture. Are you that clueless?

        Just because science can’t answer every question – doesn’t mean religion can answer any question.

        • Culture changes. Is that supposed to be a non-Christian belief?

          Moral knowledge and moral beliefs change. Is that a non-Christian statement?

          Your triumphalism is sadly funny.

          This passage is really too deeply woven with context (both historical and theological) and pathos to handle properly with someone who only wants to mock it. I recommend you read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for a sober view on it. You might also want to check your view on the treatment of women and children through history, for you’ve confused a Greco-Roman view with a Judeo-Christian one.

          • I should probably add this: I expect you, like dozens of others I’ve interacted with, will accuse me of ducking the question. I’ll answer in advance. What I wrote is simply true: This passage is too complex and context-dependent to discuss meaningfully with someone who only wants to mock it. And since that’s true, I don’t feel responsible to invest much time trying to have that impossible, meaningful discussion with you on it. You can read the book I suggested instead — if you really want an answer, that is.

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