What is Scientism?

Why do an annual sermon series on “Better Conversations?”

Every year we take a break from preaching passage by passage through the different books of the Bible, both Old and New Testament in order to talk about “how to talk.” Why? We do this because we feel that it is the way the message of Jesus becomes unignorable in our city. It is simply not enough for pastors to preach sermons or books to be written.  This is not the primary way people should hear about the good news of Jesus. The primary means in the plan of God is that ordinary Christians would have great conversations with those in their lives and that those conversations would eventually lead to a discussion about Jesus. Even Jesus’ own methodology was this way. During his 3 year ministry he not only spoke to vast crowds but he sent out 72 disciples two by two into every town and village to have great conversations (see Luke 10).

Our Humble Hopes for this year’s series: “How to Talk about Science”

By the end… you might see clearly that science and Christian faith are not at odds but should be used together to actually increase the glorification of God as Creator and redeemer.

By the end… you will truly be less fearful when “science” comes up in conversations… and… therefore you will not intentionally or subconsciously shut down a big conversation before it has the chance to unearth the true source of all life: Jesus Christ

By the end… you will not only stick in these types of conversations, but you will be excited when science “comes up” because you realize that it is a prime opportunity to bring up your faith in a creator God and then move the conversation toward the life and hope your have found in the person and work of Jesus; because all creation was made through him and is held together by him (see Colossians 1:16).

Now, I want you to envision yourself having a conversation with someone in your life with whom, if “science” came up your heart-rate would increase, your palms would sweat and more likely than not you would steer the conversation in another direction.

Are you thinking of that person? Great! By the end of this mini-series we hope you will stay engaged with this friend and feel confident to dialogue…

      1. Reverently about science
      2. Thoughtfully about science
      3. Discerningly about science
      4. Prophetically about science

Let me explain these 4 aspects of better conversations:

Reverently

With a better understanding of what “science is” and what “science is not” we should be people who speak warmly of science and its past, present and future blessings to our world. At the same time, e should avoid the American proclivity to these extremes:

(a) WAR WITH SCIENCE

(b) WORSHIP OF SCIENCE

Science & Christianity are NOT fatal foes. One does not have to die for the other to live.

John Lennox’s Illustration: Potassium and Water vs. Hydrogen and Oxygen

Many assume science and Christian faith are explosive like when Potassium and Water bond (video). But actually, if we see rightly, the dynamic combination is more like when Hydrogen and Oxygen bond to form to H2O which brings refreshing, life giving water.

An honest study of the history of science will reveal that the Christian understanding of God and science work perfectly together… almost as if they were designed that way. 

Christianity teaches that a personal and rational Creator ordered the world in such a way that the personal and rational creatures he made in his own likeness might look at His creation to know Him more… to sufficiently understand its “orderly-ness” and see that order and design as beautiful to their eyes and minds. This cyclical process of discovery and worship, discovery and worship, discovery and worship should continue unendingly and continue an ongoing relationship of wonder, love, and progress between the Creator and the created. This process actually fulfills mandate God has given to man to have dominion and rule the world as God’s representatives.

Think of Adam in the garden, systematically observing, distinguishing and organizing through classification and naming the animals. This was the science of Taxonomy!

Therefore, we should converse “reverently” about science; not just to be relevant in our scientific culture, but to be participants in the world of science for the glory of God and the advancement of our relationship with him. Because, science is a major part of God’s good plan for his world and our lives as human beings. If I might be most bold; I could even say that to fail to do science would be a malfunction or missing the mark of our original design. This Bible calls that sin. 

Thoughtfully

These “Better Conversations” series are really what we might call “Missionary Education.” So the science nerds amongst us might be a little underwhelmed by the content because these are most definitely not science lectures. They are a bit more lecture-y than our normal passage by passage preaching style, but if anything they are lectures on the “philosophy of science” not scientific theories themselves.

Francis Schaefer once wrote “If a man goes overseas for any length of time, we should expect him to learn the language of the country to which he is going. More than this is needed however, if he is really to communicate with the people among whom he is living. He must learn another language, that of the thought-forms of the people to whom he speaks. Only so will he have real communication with them and to them. So it is with the Christian Church. It’s responsibility is not only to hold to the basic, scriptural principles of the Christian faith, but to communicate these unchanging truths “into” the generation in which it is living.”

The language of our generation is unmistakably scientific and so we should want to learn to speak and engage thoughtfully in these matters as a way to translate the gospel into terms that are understandable by our generation and age. 

Discerningly

With thoughtful reverence for science now in place, how do we use the God-given gift of discernment to keep the conversations on point, making the main things the main things?

A couple of notes about discernment. First, be aware of the often unspoken assumption that creeps into many conversations these days. That is, by default, when any non-scientific belief comes into conflict with a scientific belief, it is the “scientific” belief that should prevail. Big ears are required to hear this often unconscious bias toward scientific knowledge. 

Next, inevitably in a conversation of science related content their will be red-herrings and rabbit trails which pop-up. This is because there is so much to talk about. So many discoveries happening all the time, and so many fascinating topics to discuss. However, discernment means seeing these rabbit trails as potentially purposeful distractions or just inadvertent, yet still helplessly distracting, whirlpools of “scientific speculation.” It’s okay to stop the conversation from going there are redirect it back down a trail that you discern will lead to more fruitful topics.

Finally… I believe we should take responsibility for a  fellow man, to help them discern just how much prominence “science” occupies in their hierarchies of hope and trust. Most people need help seeing that. Don’t assume they know what they sound like when they talk! We should help them be introspective so that they might consciously choose these hierarchies rather than absorb them from the surrounding culture.

Prophetically 

In the course of a long conversation or set of conversations with a friend or family member, there should probably come a time when prophetic challenge is the appropriate next step.

A simple question like: It seems like you trust that science, given ample time, will be able to solve every human problem… is that true?

Or you might say: Even if science can resolve most of our struggles in this life, what does can it tell us about life after death?

Challenge is not swear word!… it’s not even a 4-letter word!

If we hope to move people toward the worship of God it is probably going to take some prophetic challenge along the way. But notice this is the last in my list. Only after you establish the other four qualities of conversations will you be ready to do prophetic challenge well.

Throughout this series we hope to give you some real practical handles to grab hold of as you step into this prophetic realm. We know that this element of conversation is a struggle for most of us. This is partly because we are humans and partly because of our times and geography. PNW’ers aren’t known for confrontation. But I think that LOVE demands it and it will ultimately show itself to be for their good.

What’s missing from my list?

Keen scientists that you are, you may have noticed that our primary goal in this series is not to change anyone’s mind with regard to the value of science.

Moreover, if you are here today and you would not identify as a Christian or a religious person this series is not primarily meant for you. Having said that, we are so delighted that you are joining us today and trust that if you come for all four parts of this series you will be educated on science and the true Christian understanding of its importance in our world.

We are unapologetic in saying that our primary audience is Christians who struggle to stay meaningfully engaged in conversations of science and faith. We want to help you grow in your ability to have great conversations around these topics. We believe that the more great conversations are had in this city, the better chance our city has to discover Christ and live into a fuller existence in God’s world.

Now for our first topic….

Talk #1: What is Scientism?

(hint: it’s not the same as Scientology)

Romans 1:19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

As we said earlier: Science and Christianity are not logically or existentially at odds…

  • The first scientists of what we would call modern science almost all shared the outlook of Christianity. They believed not only in the idea of a deity or higher power, but they believed in the personal God of the Old and New Testaments. That is, Yahweh who made himself know in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death on calvary’s cross, and rose bodily on the third day following his death. They believed that it was THIS GOD who made the world we now study. He is a reasonable God who created a reasonable universe and thus we could use our own God-given reason to discover the universe’s form. Scientists like Francis Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Faraday, Maxwell were all real Christians and paved the way for the scientific revolution.
  • Moreover, the influence of Christian scientists really didn’t wain even into the 20th century. Between 1901-2000 over 60% of Noble Laureates were Christians. There was no real conflict between being a scientist and having faith in the God of the Christian Bible.
  • So you might say that the “so-called” WAR between science and religion is much less a real war and more like a “Promoters Trick.” Claims of vitriol and repulsion where used to sell tickets, sell books, and sell new ideas. And so, for Christians it is a good practice to acknowledge this often false narrative in conversation and refuse to engage in the pugil impulses that this profiteering has created. 

Having said all that, this does not mean that real disagreement and real debate has not be had between the realms of science and faith. There are real questions and debates to be had. We should have them, but have them in the light of historical honesty and not fables and fairy tales. 

As we look at the history of these debates, it is of utmost importance that we acknowledge a significant and profound shift in the way people think about science over the last few decades. This shift can be traced back to the trust that many prophets of science and intellectual elites now place in science that they did not before. This shift is real and it can be linked to very recent linguistic shift that we should understand a pay close attention to.

It is the shift the use of the term “scientism.”

This shift in language tips us off to much larger subterranean shift happening in the general population. Let me explain.

The term “scientism” was first invented by peers in the scientific arena to speak against, in their opinion, the laughable and extreme position that some “out-there” scientists were taking that science could give us answers to EVERY type of question we might have about our world. And so in its original usage, it was derogatory slur — like a jab amongst colleagues use to belittle the nonsensical views that some scientists who were putting way too much trust in what science was and could do. Almost to shame them back into conformity with the accepted philosophy of science. 

However, in recent years the use of the term has shifted dramatically. Now “scientism” is no longer derogatory, but gladly accepted and used by many in their own self-identification. 

Q: Why is this seemingly fringe linguistic shift important?

A: Because it reveals a far greater shift taking place in the larger society.

How, you ask. You see, its not that the proponents of “scientism” have changed their beliefs. Instead, what changed is their comfort level with being “primarily” associated with their belief system. Why the change in confidence for many intellectuals? Well, it is not that they suddenly became braver people. Instead, they perceive when they look at the landscape around them, that their once “out there” views are no so “out there” anymore. They deduce that being identified with this once fringe view of science will no longer affects there careers, reputations, public opinion in the same way it once did.

Why not? Because they feel and recognize that their position is now much closer or at least digestible to the average citizen and fellow scientist. This is the tectonic shift they we should care about and must understand.

If you are unsure of this logic, just think about how shifts in public pions can be recognized by listening to how politicians speak and self-identify. They are taking their cues from the masses, as they begin to speak about things that they have always believed, but with new language and confidence. 

So, when a once derogatory slander is no-longer avoided, but owned, it tips us off to a much larger societal shift and we should pay attention. I believe this shift in the the use of “scientism” highlights the fact that much of our society — especially in urban cores like Seattle — now respond positively or at least neutrally to the claims of “scientism.”

At this point thinking people should be asking these questions:

  • What does “scientism” propose?
  • What does it promise that is increasing its appeal?
  • What does it explain that is scratchy an itch for so many people?
  • Who are its prophets and what makes them so believable to our generation?

What is “Scientism”?

Let’s look more closely at what scientism actually is. But before we do, let me remind us again that not everyone who is a scientists holds to “scientism.” There are many scientist who believe in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Deism. But we must look closely to see why the relatively new “ism” of scientism is creating such a buzz.

[From Oxford Scholarship Online]

“Scientism is, roughly, the view that only science can provide us with knowledge or rational belief, that only science can tell us what exists, and that only science can effectively address our moral and existential questions. As Alex Rosenberg says, scientism “is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything,” the view that “science provides all the significant truths about reality.” Or, as Leslie Stevenson and Henry Byerly have it, it is “the view that knowledge obtainable by scientific method exhausts all knowledge . . . that whatever is not mentioned in the theories of science does not exist or has only a subordinate, secondary kind of reality.” Scientism can thus stand for a number of exclusivity claims about science. More often than not, scientism is adopted implicitly and at best half-wittingly… It…appears to be more “in the air” than pinned down on paper as a philosophical position.”

I think it is fair to say then, that Scientism, in its truest form, is the worship of Science as only and ultimate. Therefore, I don’t think it is a stretch to categorize it as a religious perspective.

But rather than tell you why that is, it is often best to hear it flow out of the mouths of the worshippers themselves. Here is a long excerpt from one such prophet of scientism, Steven Pinker in an article written for New Republic Magazine called “Science is not your Enemy.”

Listen for the dogmatic/religious overtones (bolding added by me for emphasis).

Pinker writes: “In which ways, then, does “science” illuminate human affairs? Let me start with the most ambitious: the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives. This is the traditional territory of religion, and its defenders tend to be the most excitable critics of scientism. They are apt to endorse the partition plan proposed by Stephen Jay Gould in his worst book, Rocks of Ages… according to which the proper concerns of science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria.” science gets the empirical universe; religion gets the questions of moral meaning and value.

Unfortunately, this entente unravels as soon as you begin to examine it. The moral worldview of ANY scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered (made small-minded) by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistakenWe Know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We Know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We Know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We Know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We Know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have NO goals that pertain to human well-being. There is NO such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And We Know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical (the Christian church’s) authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

Now listen to the shift from religious doctrine to religious worship.

Pinker continues: “Moreover, science has contributed—directly and enormously—to the fulfillment of these values. If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by “science.”

The most obvious is the exhilarating achievement of scientific knowledge itself. We can say much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life. Better still, this understanding consists not in a mere listing of facts, but in deep and elegant principles, like the insight that life depends on a molecule that carries information, directs metabolism, and replicates itself.

Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.”

You can hear this same religious (worshipful) tone in another prophet of scientism, Richard Dawkins. Hear how he worships with his full self (mind, will, emotions) the beauty of the natural laws. Watch the first 3 minutes of this clip from a debate with Reverend Rowan Williams here.  

Q: Why should we pay attention to and understand this shift “FROM” valuing and using science to help us understand God’s world, “TO” a religious worship of the natural laws, ideas, and beauty of science itself?

To answer lets look again at the fuller argument of Romans 1.

Romans 1:16-25 [Paul writes]

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

Answer: When we shift our worship from God the Creator to the creation, we put ourselves in the path of God’s wrath and we fail to live in correct relationship with both our creator and his creation. That should bother us if we ourselves might be guilty of this error and/or if we know people who might fall into this category. Should it not?

You say Pastor Dave, calm down. Most people don’t hold this kind of dogmatic religious view of Science, so its not a Romans 1 problem for me or themand you would be correct. However, we must understand the way ideas move and flow within cultures, and eventually change people and cultures.

In his book “The God who is There,” Francis Schaefer highlights the pattern he has found when studying the history of ideas in western society. He traces 5 patterned steps for a new idea or worldview entering the public consciousness. 

The 1st step: PHILOSOPHY

The 2nd step: ART

The 3rd & 4th step: MUSIC & GENERAL CULTURE (pop culture)

The fifth step: THEOLOGY

Here is my point.

No Israelite believed in God’s promises as much as Moses, but he still led hundreds of thousands of people out of the only homes they had ever known and into the wasteland of the desert. How? because he was a prophet of the people who believed so deeply in his calling from God that other people followed him. Yes, they followed begrudgingly at times, but they followed none-the-less.

Scientism is no different… it has it’s prophets. Their are people who believe so deeply in the “god” they follow and listen to that others are following them. And so, we must listen very closely to how these prophets speak, we can determine where they will lead people. Maybe begrudgingly at first, or half-heartedly, but they are leading them none-the-less. It is the prophets or philosophers of scientism that set the language that will set the belief structures for a whole generation of people who believe in science over and above all other things or beings, or powers.

Starting with the so-called elite thinkers of our Western culture… “scientism” has moved from the realm of philosophy down into the arts and clearly is now reigning in the world of pop culture. Simply peruse the offerings of a Netflix or Amazon Prime to discover its place in our collective language. And, I believe it has stepped in to the realm of popular Christian theology as well.

If you listen closely, you will hear the worship language in the way people talk about science; and most Christians are not immune to this. We must have big ears to hear this worship language and then have the compassion it takes to call it out for what it is, so that, they might make a conscious decision the next time they use that same tone of trust. 

 

So what then should our theology of science be?

Well first off, let’s just acknowledge that for many Christians we have already reversed the question in our minds and we more often ask: “What should our science of theology be?” Again, this is just another way to discern the impact that the scientism is having on us all. 

Our theology should be this: God created all, including us, and gave us the capacity to explore and understand his creation to better worship him and steward the planet he has given us to rule as co-heirs with him.

But to ignore this shifting sand even within Christianity is to deny the evidence (a faux pas of science). The shift away from this good theology of science to a science of theology is seen in our conversations even within the church. The evidence demands us to ask these questions:

  • Is our willful ignorance an error worthy of confession and repentance?
  • Is our participation with this shift a willful de-glorification of God as Creator and designer?
  • Is our unwillingness to talk about these matters openly an implicit glorification and worship of creation as the highest beauty out there?
  • Or worse! Is our silence on these matters a form of self worship?

You see the problem with “scientism” from a Romans 1 perceptive is even deeper than at first glance. It’s not only that we fail to acknowledge God as God, and instead, choose to implicitly or explicitly worship creation and the natural laws in place of God; but when we see it for what it is, “scientism” is actually self- referential worship. Follow me. Who was it that noticed the patterns, named the phenomenon, predicted the outcomes of experiments, and codified the natural laws for the rest of the world to know about? It was human minds and intellects. And this I think is the really ghastly face of scientism.

In the end, Scientism will lead to the worship of the man, the creature. We worship ourselves and all our ability to learn the universe, over and against the proper ends of good science which should be the worship God himself

For the believer in scientism, we must say that the greatest mind in all the cosmos is the human mind and not the mind of God.  And it isThe human will that is the greatest will, desireing to know these truths. And it is human love to that is the greatest love, using the natural laws we’ve discovered to love our fellow man. All of the this over and above any possibility of aGod who the Bible teaches s the greats mind, will, and love which exists and shares these higher qualities with us.

So is there danger in our current trajectory?I THINK YES.

This kind of self-referential worship will eat away at you from the inside, like a worm that is never satisfied. Self-love and pride will not relent and in the end it will not deliver you, but destroy. For we should know by now we humans are incapable of saving ourselves. 

Even for those of us not fully committed to “scientism” as the complete answer, we are probably affected by its movement in our culture and society.

Francis Schaefer wrote this 50 years ago: “A serious question to be faced as to whether the reason why modern men reject the Christian answer, or why they often do not even consider it, is because they have already accepted, with an implicit faith, the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.”  (i.e. scientism).

It seems to me that we can no longer throw up our hands and plead ignorance to the effects of Scientism on the modern man and woman. We are all affected in some way by its powerful cultural momentum.

And so, I think we must learn how to talk about the place of science in God’s world with:

      1. Reverence
      2. Thoughtfulness
      3. Discernment
      4. Prophetic Challenge

If we hope to stir up a fresh consideration of our Creator and Savior, and not leave people where many are now, stuck and staring down a dark tunnel, when we know fully well that if they do not get unstuck and out of the darkness, the next hint of light they can hope to see next is the blinding light of God’s wrath bearing down on them (Romans 1), we must do something. We must say something. We must stick in the conversations which might guide them out of the tunnel. 

This is our act of love to have great conversations that might lead to this realization. 

  • What if it happens to be a conversation with you that helps someone consider afresh weather it makes more sense to worship “Science as science” or “God as God?”
  • What if it happens to be a conversation with you that encourages someone to re-engage the other half of revelation that comes from God’s Word?
  • What if it happens to be a conversation with you that makes someone think the next time they watch a nature documentary: “Wow that is amazing…AND… I wonder WHO might be behind that.” 

My friends, most people will never read Romans 1 before they become a Christian. So dare I propose that it might be your job to teach them what it Romans 1 teaches so that they can wrestle with its implications?

Conclusion: Better Conversation is our love language.

Let me end by giving you 6 practical questions you can ask in conversation with others.

  1. What do you think of this cake analogy? (Science can answer What, How, not Why)
  2. Do you think someone can be a serious scientist and believe in Christianity? Why?
  3. How do you think your belief in science shapes your worldview (your other beliefs)?
    3a. If a current scientific paradigm was scientifically proven false — say Darwinian evolution — what would be the effect on your life or belief structure?
  4. Do you think the world’s top proponents of “scientism” are unbiased?
  5. If there is a God, how do you think he would talk about science? (WWJS)
  6. When you say “Science says…” what hypothesis, theory, law, research are you referring to?

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