Soft scientism in western Christianity…

…or “at least you can rely on science.”

Materialism is the belief that only material entities and processes exist, and virtually all Evangelicals reject it, in principle. Nevertheless it’s now pretty well recognised, if only by readers of The Hump, that living in a materialist society makes it easy to take on board materialism’s assumptions even when opposing it.

There is an unconscious tendency for us to restrict the non-material in everyday life to the miraculous – in the worship-service if you’re a pentecostal, or in the distant past for the cessationist. But a truer test of our theism is if we pray for our daily bread, and give thanks for it as if God really did specifically provide it for us, or likewise if we pray about the weather, and give thanks rather than grumble even if it’s inclement.

A similar unconscious tendency, I suggest, exists regarding science. This is seen in society generally. This is  from a paper about attitudes to biotechnology amongst scientifically “Lay” people in America:

Deference to scientific authority is a central value predisposition shaping support for agricultural biotechnology. Positively correlated with education, deference to scientific authority is the strongest influence on support for agricultural biotechnology in our model.

So Americans having no specific background in science accept the authority of scientists the more highly they are educated. You might expect education to produce a more questioning attitude to any source of authority, but it seems that actually through education you learn to accept the authority of scientists, rather than being able or willing to evaluate their arguments. Is that a good thing? Does it not suggest, rather than critical thinking, indoctrination with versions of the scientistic myth, and very little education in the history or philosophy of science? Is that not the secular equivalent of a mediaeval state in which the citizens know their catechism and accept priestly authority, without really having any grasp of how to acquire the meaning of the inspired text?

But Christians are by no means exempt. One obvious example is Creationist literalism, especially in the form of Creation Science. This opposes the materialists’ denial, by means of an evolutionary material account, of a seven-day miraculous creation, by constructing a new science that validates Genesis 1 as an equally material account of an equally material creation. Science still reveals the whole truth – it just has to be the right science.

But it is no less prevalent in the general traffic occurring on a science-faith site like BioLogos (but I use this example only, in this case, because it’s typical of most of us nowadays). BioLogos specifically rejects scientism, the belief that only science can lead to truth. But for most Christians that overtly naturalistic version of scientism isn’t the real danger: once more, it’s the unconscious version that has infiltrated our minds. We reveal it by defaulting to the myth of “science” as the gold standard by which other things are judged.

This is shown simply in the range of articles on BioLogos. When dealing with theology, the operative word is “exploration”: Do we have to accept a literal Adam and Eve? Is Genesis 1 to be interpreted as metaphorical, or relativized as ancient science, or simply sidelined as one of the errors of fallible human authors? Perhaps kenotic theology fits evolution better than traditional teaching? Maybe Paul was wrong about original sin?

When writing about science, however, the operative word is “explanation”. Inherited mutations demonstrate common descent. The state of play of human evolution. The role of chance in the immune system. “Thank you for your clear explanation of the facts.”

With notable exceptions, such as Ted Davis’ thought-provoking stuff on the history of science, current science is taken as a given. Even controversies within the current scientific paradigm are mostly viewed as examples of “anti-science” if they’re mentioned at all, and that includes a failure to “explore” (or even “explain”!) very relevant controversies with no link to the dreaded creationism, such as the prolonged wars between adaptationists and neutralists, or the disagreements between palaeontologists and geneticists. The very lack of mention of these aspects of science, given the bold challenging of theological assumptions at every turn, demonstrates that the complications are probably not even seen to exist. Worldviews always miss their own blindspots.

One recent comment struck me in particular, from someone having problems with faith not because of anything to do with “science v faith”, but because of the suffering in the world. In response to someone suggesting that many ways could be followed to find truth, his “security blanket” reply was:

I suppose then that my priority is modern science. Seeing as that is free from superstition and, when conducted properly, personal bias. I can trust that science reveals the one, true reality we live in. Therefore I suppose whatever I am to believe in the Bible must fit or somehow be reconciled to that.

I wouldn’t want to hold anyone to a remark made, at a time of difficulty, in a blog post. What struck me more was the lack of response from anybody else on the thread, on a site dedicated to the science-faith interface, to the effect that the “safe place” apparently sought in science was, in fact, not one whit safer than any other human situation, and certainly no more secure than theology.

You can indeed trust both theology and science utterly – provided they are done by angels. Only then would either be “done properly”. But since both are human, and not angelic, enterprises, both are heavily invested with the traditions, biases, prejudices and sins of those performing them. Everyone knows that about theology – in fact in America, in particular, they tend to give up all hope of finding truth even in the words of Scripture – written by fallible humans, you see. But for some reason, science gets a free pass, even though it was written by humans too.

Our friend’s remark assumes that all truth is secondary to scientific truth – even theology must echo, rather than challenge, its pronouncements, as if the subject matter of science were, indeed, actually “everything.” But the remark also shows a complete, but commonplace, ignorance of any of the qualifications to science’s purity and objectivity shown by even cursory reading in the history, philosophy or sociology of science. Or even by just sitting in the common-room of a laboratory, as I did for the few months I was a lowly assistant at a research lab.

Even geography shows up the mythic fiction of a pure, universal science gradually revealing more and more of the truth. David N Livingstone has the rare, if hardly world-shattering, distinction of having three books recommended on our booklist. I’ve just finished his Putting Science in its Place, which goes beyond the history and philosophy of science to show just how locality-dependent all science is. I discovered a little of that here through reading a book by Czech scientist, Stanislav Komárek, but Livingstone deals with it on a broader canvas. As he says near his conclusion:

Taking seriously the geography of science positions the local at the centre of scientific ways of knowing. It confirms that the authorized apportionment between “the natural order”, “social context”, and “scientific inquiry” is a rhetorical device that imposes clarity on ambiguity. It renders suspect the idea that there is some unified thing called “science”. That imagined singularity is the product of a historical project to present “science” as floating transcendent and disembodied above the messiness of human affairs.

Now this is not anti-science, any more than realising that theology too is affected by the historical and local is anti-theology. In both cases, in fact, the refusal to equate the source of knowledge with the acquisition of knowledge is helpful. If we place Aquinas, Calvin or Jurgen Moltmann in their context – and even more so attempt to do the same of ourselves – we will be more likely to learn truth from them, and discern their errors, than if we become “followers” of any of them. That is well-known – apart from the bit about recognising the problems of our own context: people now are adept at filtering even their theological heroes through their own modern worldview, rather than letting them question it.

But the difference between source and study is less well recognised within science, or in those looking at it admiringly from without. Priestley was “wrong” and Lavoisier “right” (once Lavoisier’s ideas are quietly edited to make them compatible with the science we have now). Structuralism, which was politically sidelined in western biology by the power-base of Neodarwinism, has simply been forgotten. The concept of “orthodoxy” in theology is fashionably flexible, but in science there is only “consensus science” and “pseudoscience”.

Science appears to many the one thing you can rely on. But of course, in Christian terms that makes it the idol that stops you depending only on God, and the gospel by which he may be found. That is the measure by which we would measure all things – even science – if we were wholehearted disciples of Jesus.

Christians, owing allegiance to a purer truth in God, albeit glimpsed only partially and provisionally in our theological understanding (we were warned from the start that we see “through a glass darkly”), ought to be at the forefront in demythologising science and restoring it to its proper place as just one of the many tools – fallible tools – God has given us for his service in the world. But I see few signs of that so far.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Soft scientism in western Christianity…

  1. Cath Olic says:

    I agree with the need for “demythologising science and restoring it to its proper place.”

    However, I think you understate the blind spots (“Worldviews always miss their own blindspots.”) for Christians. Some points:

    “But for most Christians that overtly naturalistic version of scientism isn’t the real danger: once more, it’s the unconscious version that has infiltrated our minds. We reveal it by defaulting to the myth of “science” as the gold standard by which other things are judged.”

    And Protestants reveal it by defaulting to the myth of a “science” of evolving hermeneutics as the gold standard by which other things (i.e. “the meaning of the inspired text”) are judged.

    “You can indeed trust both theology and science utterly – provided they are done by angels.”

    The problem for Protestants is that they don’t acknowledge that the theology of the Church IS indeed, in a sense, “done by angels”. Cf. Matthew 16:18-19; Ephesians 3:10.

    The problem is that Protestants don’t believe Paul when he says “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is THE CHURCH of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Cath Olic

    That, I’m afraid, is just the same kind of security blanket – akin to the idea that though scientists make many errors, Science™ never does. Nailing down that Science is the actual problem.

    The Roman Catholic church authorises theologians to do theology in its universities around the world, and as you have said many times, many of them commit grave errors (so that you claim a difference between what a Catholic theologian may say and what “Catholicism” says in, for example, the Catechism.)

    But if you have angels doing your theology for you (whether actually or via an infallible curia), you have no need even to employ fallible human theologians, and will indeed outlaw such things. You just issue the doctrine and get students to read the books. After all, the Watchtower Society manages quite well delivering doctrine from its board of directors infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit, or so they claim. That’s why there are no Jehovah’s Witness theologians.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    The lack of response on Biologos to that particular post you excerpt may have more (hopefully!) benign explanations than a mere abandonment of a post needing defense. Speaking for myself at least, I saw those words too; but thought to myself: “as much as this poster wants … is begging for … argumentation and reason … somebody to pick up the other end of the rope and play tug-o-war with me … that is probably really the last thing he needs. There are occasions where Christians can begin to feel a bit like Job’s friends (in retrospective judgment) where it turns out their silence was wiser than their words.

    Your points about “exploration” being the more operative word in theology while “explanation” seems the more operative word on scientific topics is well taken. But do you think that there is some warranted perspective of an asymmetry between these things in terms of what the difficulty and scope of what each respectively addresses? As Christians, we largely accept here I think, that theology and science are not separate domains, but rather that the latter is a subset entirely within the former. So as difficult as science can be, it is still addressing vastly simpler questions than theology. Yes, science is still facing vast domains of ignorance and exploratory potential, but many of the simple [physical] questions that it is restricted to answering are more readily available to us for direct inspection. It may amount to a trivial “explanation” of merely saying: “whatever is … is”. But even that does carry some strength (under the stronger rubrik of “explanation”) as an answer to those who essentially want to deny what is.

    No doubt, humility should still be the hallmark both within science and the wider encompassing theology since both involve so much that we don’t (and maybe can’t) know. Is it so bad if theology sometimes takes the lead in this particular virtue?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      I too considered the possibility that the remark on BioLogos was left unanawered for pastoral reasons – the main reason I left it be there myself. But given the number of replies he got on every other occasion before and since I felt there must be more to it.

      But I’m unsure about the validity of your last point, certainly in the context of science-faith matters in particular, and BioLogos in special particular as a popular forum for it. Since many of both the articles and the comments on science and on theology come from the same people – scientists “exploring” theology or theologians mentioning (if not always explaining) science – I’d kind of expect the same level of humility in dealing with either side of the equation.

      In the particular case of the science of biology, which is the subject matter in question, not only is the science not simple, but it’s in a profound state of flux looking increasingly like a paradigm shift. Just this afternoon I’ve linked to a new piece by Mary Midgley from a blog by Ed Feser which shows even our best philosophers find plenty to expolre in evolutionary science.

      I still think there’s a tendency (even amongst the not quite so perplexed) to retreat to science as the safest guide. Of course, the very simplicity you mention about its subject matter reveals that to be no better than retreating from the difficult questions to a safe world of train sets in your loft.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I don’t want to sound like I’m detracting overmuch from your main point (what I might here refer to as an ‘asymmetry of humility’), because I’m pretty sensitive to those things myself. Just the other day we had an organization visit our school and do an assembly for the older students that had as its catch phrase: “fight the new drug” (pornography in this case). It was a well-done assembly and I’m glad it is apparently making the rounds of schools here in the U.S. both public/private; religious/secular. So obviously their message was couched entirely in scientific terms … using nice graphics and polished speaking to show how our brain’s pleasure receptors can overload from intensive drug-induced stimuli, causing us to need more and more to get the same buzz. And they moved from that to speak of studies that showed pornography does much the same thing, and helps rip marriages apart then when spouses and real life generally does not live up to sexually inflated imaginations. All presented without one hint of religion … all couched in “now science has shown us …”. I appreciate how they had to keep their message generic in that regard to reach the widest possible audience, but I also couldn’t help thinking how far ahead of science theology is on so many things. I’m almost at loss to parody it because it already parodies itself in reality. Science may one day “show us” why it is not a good idea to murder our neighbors, etc. Again and again scientists scale up and crest new summits only to find the religiously sensitive not only strolling around, but living in long-established domiciles there. I do recognize that not everything shown on scientific grounds was reached by common sense first, but often that does seem to be the rule, though, especially in regard to big questions on how we ought to live.

    I’ve never doubted for a moment that even within the “simpler” domain of science, any sober appraisal will turn up much more fuel for humility than for pride; and especially so for evolutionary science. Which make the culture wars so unfortunate all around in that regard. Got to sell it … when we don’t even understand it as much as we might.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      My phrase used above “…to reach the widest possible audience…” may itself be an unwitting case-in-point for your very thesis. Why should I assume that something must be in “scientific terms” in order to reach the most universal audience? That may bear a lot of discussion right there. But one of the quick answers at least here in the U.S. is that the situation is artificially imposed on us by legalities of our own making. But beyond our provincial concerns in that regard, science enthusiast do make the boast that science has more universal currency than any other cultural trend including religion. I know I have my own (not entirely disagreeable) reaction to that, but do you think their boast is warranted?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Hi Merv

        In one sense I suppose that, once a more-or-less-universal state Christianity gives way to a fragmented religious scene, and then to the forbidding of religion in schools (more over there than over here, but not by much), then science is the only consensus-component of the worldview in which anything like your anti-pornography program can expect universal appeal. Politics certainly won’t cut it in a country so polarised in that regard.

        And so perhaps one should be grateful, from the point of view of a united body politic, for science, since we’ve left ourselves nothing else. But as you point out, it is intrinsically superficial – it can only deal with the important things in life by reducing them out of existence by positivism.

        And it’s still a myth – my main point in the OP was that the monolithic unity of science is no less ficititious than “We all agree that one religion, at least, is true”. And the myth is increasingly likely to fall apart – Steve Fuller’s “prot-science” idea, in which the public begins to doubt the word of scientists on climate-change and such issues, is one factor. The collapse of a central controlling (literally) paradigm like Neodarwinism might lead it to disintegrate altogether as people become disillusioned that the “fact” that dissolved all in its path wasn’t a fact at all, or at least only a minor one.

        That’s not good, because an anarchic smorgasbord of rival “sciences” is no more helpful for society than the present smorgasbord of religions.

        If somehow science could be re-discovered as a servant limited in scope, humble but helpful it might stave that off – but there seems little sign of that as yet – and in any case, you seem to have pointed out by your example in ideological gap which needs to be filled with something. If not science, it ought to be the Gospel – but there are other contenders, like militant Islam or some autocratic reaction to it (just tremble if Trump starts wearing a uniform…!)

  5. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    “If somehow science could be re-discovered as a servant limited in scope, humble but helpful “…

    Like you say in your last paragraph, there are contenders, but … servant to “what” remains the main question! We Christians already know and have the ready answer for that, but for the pluralistic public in general, that particular universal answer is rejected. Secularists do seem to realize that something will fill that “narrative-shaped” vacuum, and they attempt to fill it with science itself which of course is pounding a square peg into a round hole (or more like trying to fill the grand canyon with a tooth pick). But filled, it will be. The situation may be like the parable Jesus told of the person freed from the demon which then went and found seven others to bring back with it to enjoy the swept and cleaned house.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Quite so Merv – your last comment prompted a train of thought that led me from trying to expose a problem, to seeing what “solving” it might lead to sociologically. Which led to pessimistic conclusions.

      Of course, I need to remember that the Christian faith is all about addressing the big sociological problem – which is that the only “system” that can in the end avoid disaster is the kingdom of God. The failure of the alternatives is just one part of the expression of that truth: “These things must happen before the end.”

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