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Scientism as the New Fundamentalism

Sep 17, 2008

The term ‘fundamentalism’ is today taken as a term of derision. It is used in a pejorative sense. It is now used to refer to those who are bigoted, closed-minded, not open to reason and evidence, and pushing a narrow agenda. Unfortunately, many in the scientific community today can be described as fundamentalists.

Real science is about following the evidence where it leads. It does not have pre-determined agendas, and it does not engage in witch-hunts against those who do not buy the reigning orthodoxy. Scientism, on the other hand, is guilty of such things. Much of what passes for science these days is nothing more than scientism.

Among other things, scientism is about making basic philosophical claims, such as the claim that truth and knowledge are only to be found by means of the scientific method, and what science cannot deal with cannot be really known or shown to be true.

Examples of scientism are easily found. Writing in 1970, Bertrand Russell said this: “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

Chemist and science writer Peter Atkins put it this way: “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” The late Carl Sagan made this bold – and unscientific – claim: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

Or as Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson remarked, “All tangible phenomena, from the birth of the stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and torturous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”

These are all philosophical claims of course. They cannot be proved by the scientific method, but must be held as faith commitments. Thus we have scientists making claims about issues which science itself cannot properly comment on. They have an a priori commitment to philosophical naturalism, and will not allow any fact or evidence to get in the way of their pre-existing faith in materialism.

Scientism, then, rules out ahead of time anything which is not natural or physical. There is no supernatural or metaphysical reality in its view. Thus there can be no creator of the universe. Evolution must be held to, despite any evidence to the contrary, because belief in God is just not allowed by those who embrace scientism.

Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin is perfectly candid about all this: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Thus scientists who are committed to scientism have become the new fundamentalists, and they will not allow any competing views to be heard. Indeed, they will hound dissenters out of the public square. Many examples of this come to mind, but the most recent concerns a scientist who has just resigned from his position as director of education at the Royal Society in the UK because of pressure – indeed persecution – from those committed to scientism.

Michael Reiss, a biologist and Church of England minister, made the modest proposal to have all sides of the debate discussed in science classes: both evolution and creation. He said in classrooms it was more effective to discuss both sides of the issue instead of simply telling students they are wrong to believe in creation.

There was of course an immediate uproar about this, so much so that Reiss was forced to resign. According to press accounts, “The Royal Society reiterated that its position was that creationism had no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum.”

So much for real science being allowed to run its course. What we have here is the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of scientism. It is all about running any dissenters out of town. Some would undoubtedly rather burn people like Reiss at the stake, but that may be a bit too radical at this point. But the result is just the same: Reiss has been silenced by his critics, and proper scientific debate has been stifled.

It seems that scientism and ideology have won here, while genuine science is the real loser. As Lord Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said: “I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

It is clear that the new fundamentalists today are the atheists and secular humanists within the scientific community who have managed to hijack scientific debate, and turn legitimate science into illegitimate scientism.

news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7619670.stm

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16 Responses to Scientism as the New Fundamentalism

  • Hi Bill,

    Great article. This kind of persecution truly is a worrying trend.

    While criticism of Darwinism is badly needed in our schools, I worry that even if we acheive this the full evidence for God’s creation will not be presented in the science classroom. Teaching the flaws of Darwinism is a good start, but what about evidence of important Biblical events like the flood or the evidence for a young earth? How can we ensure these important truths are conveyed to our children? And are there any particular books you could recommend on this topic which are a good starting point for someone like me without any background in science?

    Denise Abbott, Perth, Australia

  • Thanks Denise

    Yes it is an uphill battle in Australia to get anything other than the “Darwinian Fairytales” (to use the late Australian philosopher David Stove’s phrase) into our classrooms. As to books, I might refer you to an earlier post of mine where I list a number of good books on science and faith, and creation and evolution: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/03/09/readings-in-science-and-creation/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Alas, we will always face opression I guess.

    This area is a thing I have a lot of trouble with. With the belief that the world is only so young, etc.

    I guess being brought up in a secular household, without the bible, its very hard when you compare the bible’s veiw on the earth’s age.. with say, carbon dating. It is certainly something that troubles me however to compleately rule out debate is simply idiotic at best, and for those who claim to have a logical (and reasonable) mindset, morally bankrupt at worst.

    Dale Bates

  • Dale,

    I agree that the sad thing is the outright closure of debate. There is no room (by their own admission) for dealing with issues such as laid out in:

    Batten, Don, ed., The Creation Answers Book. Creation Book Publishers, 2007.
    and
    Sarfati, Jonathan, Refuting Evolution. Answers in Genesis, 1999.

    (references taken from the link to Bill’s other article).

    To take your own example, few people without a science background understand that the process of carbon dating (generally speaking all radiometric dating) requires that certain assumptions be made. At least with carbon-14 dating the atomic half-life is within the span of recorded history, and results can be cross-checked with other records.

    Sadly the general population has taken the supposed “validity” of carbon dating and applied it to other radiometric dating methods spanning much larger time periods, but which cannot be cross-checked against other records.

    However, even that assumption of validity is readily refuted by other geological data depicting catastrophic events (eg volcanoes), thus overturning the fundamental premise of uniform gradualism inherent in any long-ages interpretation.

    John Angelico

  • John,

    Thanks for you response. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly a reformed christian and so I accept and believe the bible’s teachings about everything.

    Indeed, Francias Schaffers “Genisis in time” is a book that I have enjoyed (all his works, actually), however when dealing with geomorphology and carbon dating although I understand that there is an inherent assumption made when dealing with the theory, unfortunately if know one knows that there is debate over that assumption, then all you get is horrified looks from people when you challenge it.

    Does it seem like sometimes, we are the only ones that care about truth?

    Dale Bates

  • Dale, yes I sensed that we were not on “opposing sides” 🙂

    I have to agree that we are often the only ones caring about the truth.

    Our difficulty is that humanists in their various guises have redefined the truth (as Schaeffer explained).

    Thus we hold to absolutes, but the prevailing “philosophical atmosphere” holds to no absolutes, and “the truth” is a meaningless idea. There are as many truths as there are people, they say.

    This makes it difficult to argue philosophically with a humanist/relativist, because we have to confront them with the impossibility of their position, and then they accuse us of not respecting them (and thus their position). They drag us into an argument from within their worldview, where we always “lose.”

    I am still grappling with Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics (Schaeffer studied under him) as a means of avoiding that problem. It’s slow work though 🙂

    John Angelico

  • John,

    I am dealing with an entierly different area, and that is Islam. Living in central melbourne, and having muslim friends, we have quite spirited discussions about faith, and revelation.

    We certainly don’t worship the same God. It’s pretty hard, and testing, but God willing I’ll stick to it.

    Presuppositional apologetics is the area that I’ll move into next once I have the tools to battle islam ;), well, hopefully anyway…

    Dale Bates

  • Thanks Dale

    For what it is worth, here is a top twenty list of books on Islam: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/07/31/top-twenty-recent-books-on-islam-terrorism-and-jihad/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • John,
    Regarding post-modernism, as you expressed it,
    “There are as many truths as there are people, they say.”
    Is that – proposition(!) – true?
    The fallacy of post-modernism is that it cannot stand up> One has to assert a proposition in order to deny propositions; one has to use logic in order to deny logic; one has to claim an absolutism for post-modernism which it denies to to anything, and anyone, else.

    On logic: if one asserts that truth is utterly relative, including contradictory statements, one cannot then claim that post-modernism is true. First, one would then be smuggling back into the scheme a notion of truth which has ostensibly been rejected. Second, I challenge a post-modernist to state his theory without invoking the Law of Non-contradiction. He has to say that the opposite of his theory, viz. that absolutes are essential, is false. The moment he does so he has abandoned his position.

    One other thing: when the post-modernist insists that truth is not only relative, but individual, i.e. that something can be “true for me, but not necessarily true for you”, he is confusing both himself and others. What he means is that the something (whatever it is) is CONVENIENT OR HELPFUL – but being personally convenient has nothing to do with whether or not it is true. I can claim that snakes are venomous creatures: that is not merely an objectively true statement, it is also a personally INconvenient one!

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Dale,
    re horrified looks from people when you challenge current assumptions re geomorphology and carbon dating. Perhaps its best to keep to simple questions which educate and let people reach their own conclusions: E.g.

    1. Why do most geologists date coal and diamonds as being millions of years old – yet all coal and diamonds tested show a carbon dating age of labout 100,000 years old?

    2. How come wood carbon dated at less than 100,000 years has been found in lava dated at millions of years old?

    3. How can lava known to be only decades old, be dated by a reputable laboratory to be millions of years old?

    4. I know of no satisfactory explanation for these actual discrepancies. Do you?

    Peter Newland

  • Dear Bill,

    I’ve never been a Darwinist or a Creationist.

    I had the benefit when I was a young adult of having good rambling discussions with a Priest over these sorts of issues.

    The message that was stressed to me, and which I have retained, is that it wasn’t the method that God used that was important but the fact that nothing could have occurred without God’s direct intervention.

    Its comforting to know that God is so awesome and all powerful that He could create an entire universe including man in 6 days or even less, or that God is so patient and eternal that He could create the entire universe including man over a period of billions of years.

    I personally prefer to believe that God took billions of years to create the universe.This keeps reminding me that whilst Man appears to be such an insignificant aspect of a several billion year creation process, the reality is that Man is absolutely central to the creation story so much so that God sent his Son to become Man to redeem us.

    There is a genuine sense of awe and wonder in looking at what science has discovered and revealed to us about the make up of our universe and the make up of the human being. However, it is easy to be seduced by science and unfortunately too many are seduced.

    Christian creationists and Christian evolutionists need to join together on the 2 central issues that unite them -firstly the fact nothing could have been created or evolved without God’s direct intervention and secondly that neither creationsism or evolution has any value without the God’s second intervention of sending His Son into the world.

    This will never stop atheistic scientism but for those who are often in leadership positions in our communities (and who are often vacillating value free persons) the combination of Christian creationists and Christian evolutionists may be enough to show that there can and should be constant discussion over both creationism and evolutionism in all areas of society including schools and universities.

    John Ryan

  • Dear John
    I can appreciate your genuine desire for unity in discussion of science but the Bible and I have a bit of problem with your solution. What you regard as only a minor disagreement is in fact a serious disregard for the authority of God’s Word. Genesis & Jesus himself clearly state that all of creation was spoken into existence in 6 literal days. Why do believe the Bible in one part when it says that Jesus died for your sins and rose again but deny the fact that the same God created the world in six days. Is it no wonder Atheists believe the bible is full of myths & legends when even Christians will not fully trust God. I would rather believe God who was there than a scientist who wasn’t unless you believe they are the same.
    Lyle Hutchinson

  • John Ryan thinks that God’s method of creating wasn’t important, but I have documented that the other Bible writers and Jesus Himself disagreed. To them, the time-frame, order of events, and specific people named were vital to their teachings. See Genesis: Bible authors believed it to be history—‘The important thing is that God created, isn’t it?’

    One important reason for rejecting the “God used evolution” nonsense is what it entails about God’s nature. The antitheist Jacques Monod was not impressed:

    The more cruel because it is a process of elimination, of destruction. The struggle for life and elimination of the weakest is a horrible process, against which our whole modern ethics revolts. An ideal society is a non-selective society, is one where the weak is protected; which is exactly the reverse of the so-called natural law. I am surprised that a Christian would defend the idea that this is the process which God more or less set up in order to have evolution (emphasis added).

    The Bible teaches clearly that death is the “wages of sin” and the “last enemy”, the result of the sin of a literal first man, Adam. Conversely, evolution is a theory that death was an important part of the creative process. I explain further in Church of England apologises to Darwin: Anglican Church’s neo-Chamberlainite appeasement of secularism.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • I am a Christian, but do not believe that any one person or group of persons has all the truth. Christians answer, “Well, bless God, I have it right here!” and hold up a Bible; then proceed to interpret that Bible according to their own cultural preconceptions. Baptists, Catholics, Scientists-we all have this bizarre tendency to claim we know everything.

    This attitude precludes learning anything else: what would be the motivation, since we already know everything. This is arrogant and inhibits growth.

    The Bible is many books in several genres: poetry, history, allegories, etc. To interpret poetry as history is to misinterpret, To use, for example, the Parable of the Seed as a horticultural model is to misinterpret-and scattering seed on rocky soil because Jesus spoke of doing so is like insisting on the literal interpretation of everything else in the Bible.

    We all need to admit we don’t know everything, and considering the scope of our subject (God) we aren’t going to know everything any time soon.

    Je’ Czaja

  • Thanks Je

    But I’m afraid I don’t share your epistemological scepticism here. You speak much more like a postmodernist than a Christian. Sure, because we are finite and fallen, we will never know everything perfectly, nor are we expected to. And yes Christians will have disagreements in many areas. That is also expected.

    But that does not mean we can never come to a knowledge of the truth. The Bible says hundreds of times that followers of Jesus can have a real grasp of truth, and can have strong certainty of what they believe. To deny this is both to reject the clear teaching of Scripture, as well as to condemn us all to relativism and perpetual doubt.

    I am not ready to abandon such strong assertions as the following:

    John 8:32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
    John 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.
    2 Tim 1:12 I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.
    Heb 11:1 Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
    1 John 2:20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
    1 John 5:20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.

    There are many more such biblical texts. Humility is admitting we will not know everything. Arrogance is telling God that he is wrong and that we cannot know anything. While we can never have exhaustive truth in this life, we can have sufficient truth, because God has promised us this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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