The Foolishness of Scientism

Posted: January 5, 2012 in apologetics, atheism, books, science, secularism

Leon Wieseltier, writing for The New Republic:

[The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions by Alex Rosenberg] is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.

Unfortunately, the defense of science became corrupted in certain quarters into a defense of scientism, which is the expansion of scientific methods and concepts into realms of human life in which they do not belong. Or rather, it is the view that there is no realm of human life in which they do not belong. Rosenberg arrives with “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions,” and “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” (I have cited most of them above.) This is because “there is only one way to acquire knowledge, and science’s way is it.” …

IN THIS WAY science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. …

THIS SHABBY BOOK is riddled with other notions that typify our time. Rosenberg maintains that atheism entails materialism, as if the integrity of the non-material realms of life can be secured only by the existence of a deity. Reason does not move him, no doubt because of the threat it poses to the physicalist tyranny. He asserts, as would anyone who does not live in Congo, that “most people are nice most of the time,” because “we were selected for niceness,” which is all we need for ethics. He calls this “nice nihilism,” since it promotes moral values without moral beliefs. As for “Hitlers, Stalins, Mao Zedongs, Pol Pots, and Osama bin Ladens”—the people who are not nice most of the time—“biology has the answer”: there are always variations in inherited traits. But the variations cannot be the answer, because they are the question. Moreover, most people are both good and bad, neither devils nor angels. Rosenberg is untroubled by such complications. He is untroubled by everything under the sun. The man’s peace of mind is indecent. “We know the truth,” he declares sacerdotally in his preface. “Some of the tone of much that follows may sound a little smug. I fear I have to plead guilty to this charge …” Once upon a time science was the enemy of smugness.

  1. Taylor Hircock says:

    Having interacted with a fair amount of people who identify with the modern secular/atheist movement, I wholeheartedly agree with the trend and ideology that this article describes. The second paragraph especially gives some quotes that are so absolutist that I would have thought even an atheist would shy away from (“given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious”). Yet it appears to be a highly celebrated form of progress among them. In the instances I’ve seen this paradox brought up to them, it’s been done a bit weakly which draws demeaning responses (something like “atheists have just as much faith as Christians because they trust their chair to hold them” followed by “the faith of Christianity is about nonsense and fairy tales without proof while atheists base their faith on reason”).

    The redefining of faith in this instance to the rules of their ideology is what makes it congruent yet burns bridges of comparison or discussion. Lately this has gotten me thinking about the usefulness of typical apologetics and discussions with skeptics. It seems to me like we are trying to take Christianity and apply to it the “golden standard” of science and enlightenment reasoning to try and prove ourselves to them. Of course Christianity is inseparable from God/supernatural influence/truth claims which makes it easy for them to ridicule these apologetics as not meeting their standard for the basis of faith. Matt, I know you’re much more well read and likely have more experience in these things, so I’m curious to hear what you think about this in light of the article and if you think there is still a medium for useful discussion or debate with atheists

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