Thursday, July 24, 2008


Scientism is the purported belief that science provides the only source of knowledge and understanding of the world, and the only source of value and meaning in life. Almost no-one holds this belief, and the vast majority of scientists would agree that in addition to science, there is ethics and morality, logic and mathematics, literature, and art in general. However, the development of science has progressively eroded the historical and cosmological claims which Christianity, Judaism and Islam were dependent upon, and when the combination of scientific belief and humanist morality further threatens religious dogma, the modern theist will often attempt to mis-represent scientific-humanist beliefs as 'scientistic'.

When, in 1616, the heliocentric Copernican worldview was declared to be heretical by the Catholic church, and when, in 1633, Galileo was convicted of heresy for advocating such a worldview, the Catholic church would, no doubt, have referred to the Copernican worldview as 'scientistic', if such a term had been available to them then. Heliocentrism contradicted scripture in numerous places, and such an attempt to remove man from his central position in the universe was clearly part of an attempt to extend science beyond its legitimate scope.

When a modern theist argues that science is not the only source of knowledge, the real intention is not to acknowledge the existence of ethics, philosophy and art, but to open the door to divine revelation, holy scripture, and other so-called 'spiritualities', as alternative sources of knowledge. In particular, the theist takes what is belief without evidence or reason, refers to it as 'faith', and suggests that faith offers an alternative source of knowledge, almost like a type of additional, parallel information channel to that provided by empirical, rational science. In reality, this is nothing more than an attempt to re-brand blind, ignorant belief and wishful thinking.

Another, closely allied, strategy employed by the modern theist is to argue that belief in science is itself a faith. Such claims depend upon an attempt to re-define the meaning of the term 'faith' so that a belief in anything becomes a faith. Correctly defined, as noted above, faith is belief without evidence or reason. In contrast, both scientific beliefs, and belief in the scientific method itself, are beliefs supported by reason and evidence. There is copious evidence for the success of the scientific method, and an understanding of Bayesian probability provides an understanding of why the scientific technique is so successful. Science, then, is clearly no faith.

The modern theist, wary of the success of science and humanism in Western society, is careful not to openly advocate their theism, but to construct first the paper-tiger of scientism, as an imaginary enemy, from which religion is then to provide sanctuary and salvation. On the contrary, a worldview which includes a moral system based upon rationality rather than religious decree, a scientific understanding of the physical world based upon reason and evidence, and a fully-rounded population, appreciative of the arts, philosophy and literature as well as science and technology, is the means by which the human race will be capable of progressing.


John Fisher said...

"Correctly defined, as noted above, faith is belief without evidence or reason."

You may be entering into a dialogue of the deaf if you define Faith thus, because what a Christian means by the term is the exact opposite. Thus e.g. W.H. Giffith-Thomas: "[Faith] commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence [...]"

River Dee said...

Couldn't agree more regarding your arguments on faith, have read Richard Dawkins expressing similar views in "The God Delusion." A good point to make is that when people simply fence-sit and state science and religion are the same thing, one should point out they are in fact complete opposites. Science relies/is based on truth and evidence and opposes misunderstanding, whereas religion thrives on misunderstanding so that it can explain life/the world by what you have described as "faith", that is, hoping for the best with a complete lack of evidence.

Doug Hudson said...

"... is the means by which the human race will be capable of progressing."

Progressing to what though? And do we want it? Currently the only thing the human race seems to be progressing toward is a situation where the majority of humanity leads a life of tightly-controlled serfdom in order to maintain the luxurious lifestyles of the rich and powerful.

It's probably the topic for another article, but I am really interested in the question, What should we be aiming for? It's a bit like the idea of Leto Atreides' "Golden Path". Once we all agree on the answer to that question, we can then set our minds to how to go about it.

Bob said...

Scott Adams put it more briefly:
"Atheism is a religion in much the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby".
It's my favourite quote.

Anonymous said...

It's only anti-theists who ascribe this view of faith to Christians. We think we've got good evidence for our beliefs, historical and philosophical. You might think we're wrong, but that's a different proposition from accusing us of holding beliefs irrespective of the evidence.

Anonymous said...

What we need is some more human sacrifice and pagan idolatry here.

Gordon McCabe said...

An impressive set of contributions. Let me try to respond to some of them.

A couple of commenters have suggested that, contrary to my claim, religious faith is actually based on evidence and argument. However, if true, this would transform religious faith into falsifiable belief. If the central historical claims of a religion such as Christianity can be shown to be inconsistent with the historical evidence, and if the arguments advanced for the existence of the Christian God can be refuted, then Christian belief has been falsified. Well, in fact, most of the key historical claims of Christianity have been shown to be inconsistent with the historical evidence, and all the arguments proferred for the existence of God have been refuted. The survival of religious faith is therefore based upon the fact that it is independent of evidence and reason, as in fact many of its adherents will acknowledge.

Doug raises a very important question when he asks, 'To what should we be trying to progress?' I would reply: As a fundamental principle, if there remains widespread suffering in the world, then progress requires the reduction of this suffering.

Specifically, the primary sources of suffering at present include war, terrorism, famine, and disease. Religion contributes to all these sources of suffering: it accentuates and creates the tribal differences which contribute to the causes of warfare; the religious attitude of unquestioning belief contributes to the motives for acts of terrorism; through dogmatic decrees, such as the proscription of contraception, religion contributes to the causes of overpopulation, and thereby contributes to the causes of famine; and through dogmatic decree, religion aspires to prohibit certain types of medical research and treatment, thereby impeding attempts to reduce the amount of disease in the world.

War, terrorism, and famine are, of course, also caused by multiple economic and political factors. Weakening the influence of religion would not itself eliminate these sources of suffering; solving these problems requires an interdisciplinary effort in politics, economics, ethics and science. Nevertheless, weakening the influence of religion is a necessary condition for solving these problems, and reducing the amount of suffering in the world.

Jonathan said...

I like the way you write. With energy and yet in a moderate, calm tone. Powerful and respectful of those you disagree with.

To me Faith has three possible meanings I think. One is what you say : a 'belief without evidence or reason'. In other words, I want to win the lottery tonight. And so I will. That is my belief.

But it could be something different, but similar: Again ' belief without evidence or reason' - but here the evidence or reason that is lacking is not any possible kind or type of evidence or reason, but that type of evidence or reason demanded as sufficient by a particular epistemological community (i.e a Western scientific one).

Thirdly, faith is much closer to 'trust'. I trust that my Mum will pick me up when she said she would because I know her, and I know she loves me etc. Here her existence is presupposed and undoubted and a lot more besides. I think this was what Jesus meant by 'have faith'.

Odd besides, that the Protestants of the World should have to be tainted with brushes applied against The Magisterium and its pronouncements (i.e against Gallileo).

As a theist, to me Solar System heliocentrism is no problem at all. Why would it be? Surely it is humanism not theism that puts man at the center of the world, if u know what I mean?

Still, I know what you mean about the shame that attaches to theism
for many theists. Maybe if they were listened to and riciculed less by those hostile to metaphysics and faith, this feature would be less apparent?

Your closing lines are sumptious and wondrful. Again, as a theist I have no issue with that optimistic vision, and nor does God, I'd suggest.

We must always return to the question: What is this God that we are denying the existence of?

Gordon McCabe said...

Cheers Jonathan. It is rare indeed that one gets the opportunity to be wondrous and sumptuous.

MrPete said...

Gordon, you might find Hugh Ross' book "Origins of Life" of some interest. It provides a set of falsifiable hypotheses for divine creation. 100% of its references are mainstream scientific journals.

I was honestly surprised. Didn't think that could be possible.

Google Hugh Ross Origins of Life

Gordon McCabe said...

That would be the creationist, Hugh Ross, then.