Faith, Reason and Scientism

Such a question, increasingly common, is usually not meant to extend a discussion. It seeks to kill the conversation, a rhetorical nail in the coffin — er, conversation. There are variations on the theme: “I only believe what can be verified through observation and by physical evidence.” Or, “Religion is myth and fairy tales; science provides real answers.” Or, simply, “Show me some real proof!” The word “real” meaning, in the end, “scientific.”

The problem, simply, is that science not only cannot provide all the “real answers,” it also cannot provide the most necessary questions.

Seeing the bigger picture here is vital. For many people today, that picture is framed by a common but egregious belief: Christianity and science are mortal enemies, sworn foes waging a centuries-old battle that once tilted in favor of the “repressive” Church but has now swung in favor of science, the fair child of reason and “enlightenment.” This basic mythology permeates nearly every corner of the public square.

Like many modern myths, it ignores fundamental distinctions. It fails to carefully mark the limits of what This Theory or That Method can actually do, in contrast to what This Expert or That Scientist claims it can do. Put another way, there is a fine but life-changing line between something being a helpful tool and being a destructive weapon.

True science is a powerful tool. It consists of knowledge gained through a particular method (the scientific method) involving the study and observation of material things using physical senses, measurements and criteria. Science, then, is concerned with material things, not ultimate questions. The term “scientism,” explained Father Thomas Dubay in “The Evidential Power of Beauty” (Ignatius Press, 1999), “can be deceiving, for scientism is decidedly not science. Rather, it is a philosophy, or, better, an ideology that views the physical sciences as the sole source of human knowledge.”

Blessed John Paul II, in his 1998 encyclical on faith and reason (Fides et Ratio), described scientism as “the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy.” Scientism is not based on the certainty of truth, but on ultimate faith in scientific techniques; it implicitly holds that man can create meaning and re-create himself. Since it rejects any “ethical judgment,” he continued, “the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible” (No. 88). The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that science and technology are tools that must “by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria” and thereby serve the human person “in conformity with the plan and the will of God” (No. 2294).

While many atheists adhere, to one degree or another, to scientistic premises, some recognize the inhuman core of scientism. In his book “The Science Delusion” (Melville House, 2013), atheist Curtis White takes on the “ideology of scientism,” rightly observing that when “science flatters itself that it is the last man standing … it becomes its own enemy. It then puts on the mask of power.” As G.K. Chesterton noted in 1924, we hear often about the “persecution of science by religion,” but that has long ended. “The persecution of religion by science has relatively, perhaps, only begun.… The mystics are very likely to be the martyrs when the psychologists become the kings.” Scientism, however, is self-refuting. As David Bentley Hart writes in “The Experience of God” (Yale, 2013), the central claim that only scientifically based experiments and observations reveal truth “cannot itself be demonstrated to be true by any application of empirical method.” Alas, that stark fact doesn’t make scientism and its poisonous premises any less dangerous or common.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.