The Deep Cultural Impact of Scientism
October 9, 2018
Ideas matter. In fact, we are largely at the mercy of our ideas. Emotions are important as well, but while they are wonderful servants, they are terrible masters! The greatest issue of our day involves the credibility and implications of a specific idea. This idea is so pervasive, it is in the very air we breathe even though most have not heard of the idea, or at least its name. That idea is scientism. Because I doubt that many would have this on their top ten list of today’s crucial ideas, let me take a step back and justify its selection.
It is on the basis of knowledge—not faith, mere true beliefs, or deeply felt convictions—that people are given the authority to speak and act in public along with the courage and boldness to do so. For example, dentists have the cultural authority to deliver public lectures and act in certain ways—e.g., fill molars!—and the courage to do both because we take them, quite rightly in this case, to possess the relevant body of knowledge. If my dentist told me that he actually did not know anything about molars, but he did have very deep feelings and faith commitments about them, he would not get within 100 miles of my mouth!
Thus, cultural authority to define a relevant range of reality, truth, and what it is rational to believe is deeded by people in that culture to those who have (or, at least, are taken to have) the relevant body of knowledge. The most important idea in a society is its understanding of who does and does not have knowledge, who gets to define reality, truth and rationality and who doesn’t.
Here is where scientism comes in. It is the idea that the only way—or the vastly, vastly superior way—to gain knowledge of reality and truth resides in and only in the hard sciences. As one advocate of scientism told me, if something like religious, ethical, or related claims cannot be quantified and proven in the laboratory, then the claims are nothing but hot air, mere expressions of feeling that cannot carry any authority.
Scientism has led to cultural chaos in many ways. I shall mention three. First, a Barna study discovered that there were six reasons why Millennials are leaving the church and Christianity. All of them involved doubts and various intellectual issues of which one was key: the claim that the church was not adjusting to the discoveries of modern science. Scientism implies that Christian claims are mere expressions of feeling with no authority to command belief.
Second, scientism has marginalized the church. Given our numbers, our impact on culture should be orders of magnitude greater than it is. Why is this? Because we lack boldness and courage and society believes our religious ideas are irrelevant and not authoritative since they cannot be known. Ever witnessed to someone and he/she responds with “You can’t prove that scientifically.” The person may not know it, but he/she is assuming scientism. If you can prove the Bible is true scientifically, then I have to believe it. But if you can’t, I can reject it since there is no other way outside the hard sciences to know things. Scientism makes one reason stupidly.
Finally, scientism has led to Postmodern Relativism according to which all reality (e.g., gender) is a social construction, and reality, truth, and values are relative to a group with the same feelings. If a science teacher said there was hydrochloric acid in a beaker, no one would accuse him/her of legislating chemistry because we take such claims to be items of knowledge. But one is, in fact, accused of legislating religion or morality if one claims one’s views are true since according to scientism, such claims are unknowable expressions of emotion.
The issue of scientism is one of the most important topics contemporary Christians must understand. In my book Scientism and Secularism, I provide a clear understanding of scientism, explain in detail why it is so dangerous, offer a hard-hitting critique, and finish with advice for how Christians should relate their truth claims to those of science. It may be the most important book I’ve ever written.
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