May 6, 2007
The Paradox of Secular ScientismBy Jeffrey Osonitsch
It has become an accepted tenet of conventional wisdom to begin all discussions about science and nature with the understanding that religion has no place in such debates and that, in fact, faith is diametrically opposed to reason and scientific thought. To this end the concept of classical education, including any mention of God has been thoroughly removed from all Western public schools and replaced with a rather drab and mundane scientism.
This, however, need not be and was not always the case; in fact, Christian scholars had been on the cutting edge of scientific thought since the Middle Ages and the application of human reason to theological and later scientific questions has been a hallmark of Christianity since its very beginning - a fact which is evident to anyone who has read the work of Augustine and Aquinas, among others. How, then, did this notion of religion as the enemy of science first take root? And what are the dangers it poses to man and society?
The rise of radical secularism in philosophy and government first emerged as a formidable force in eighteenth century France and was characterized by an antipathy to objective moral standards and a belief in the perfectibility of man which spawned the humanist search for an egalitarian utopia and led to the horrors of the French Revolution. When this political philosophy was apparently validated by science, it proved to be a witches' brew which led directly to the bloodiest century in human history, the twentieth.
Its manifestation in science (the consequences of which I will discuss later) came about a century later with the publication, in 1859, of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. In this landmark book the British naturalist was the first to present a cogent evidentiary argument in favor of the theory he labeled natural selection - the theory that all life on earth evolved naturally - and quite by accident - from a single common ancestor over millions of years. This work and the strong feelings it inspired in its supporters and opponents alike marked the fork in the road which permanently split science from religion.
In his much vilified, yet misunderstood Papal address at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI lamented this gradual severing, by Western academics, of faith from reason - a process he believes has done great harm to both theology and science. He also compared the secular left's adherence to relativism to Islam's concept of the nature of God as not bound by reason, contrasting these concepts with the Christian tradition (inherited, in part, from the Greeks) of a rational God in whose image rational man was made. Christian doctrine teaches that God in creating the physical universe bound it to immutable laws and thus there is a divine order to it that may be theorized upon, observed, and explained by man. To Christians proof of God's adherence to His laws may be deduced from His incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ for the purpose of the redemption of man before God. Were He so inclined and not bound by His own nature, God may have simply forgiven man for his rebellion without ‘putting on' human form to suffer and die on the cross. That He chose the latter is clear proof to Christians of the existence of a Divine order to the universe.
This uniquely Christian concept is precisely the reason science developed in Medieval Europe and not in the East. Christianity then is not the enemy of science; on the contrary, properly understood, the Christian faith and reason are the two inseparable sides of a single coin.
Nevertheless, in his 1890 Autobiography Darwin's friend and apologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), who famously debated Darwin's theories with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873) at Oxford University in 1860, wrote that religion "is the deadly enemy of science." In 1880 he published an essay entitled Science and Culture in which he argued that religion and classical scholarship should be replaced by science as the focus of education.
To the extent Huxley's essay helped form the foundation of the secular scientific movement this movement was built on very shaky ground indeed. In it he grossly distorts many of the main pillars of Christian doctrine, replacing them with an offensive and false caricature which tended to support his agnosticism. He claimed that Christian belief taught that "all material existence was but a base and insignificant blot upon...the spiritual world, and that nature was, to all intents and purposes, the playground of the devil." This assertion contradicts the classical Christian concept that evil is merely a corruption of the good and that when God first beheld the physical universe He "saw everything that He had made, and it was very good." (Genesis 1:31) This dismissive and erroneous remark of Huxley's is also contradicted by the Christian belief that in the last days, Jesus will return to resurrect His elect into new physical bodies to inhabit the new earth. Clearly the physical universe is seen by Christians not as "base and insignificant" but as God's crowning achievement, His masterpiece.
Huxley also mocked the fact that Christians "learned that the earth is the center of the visible universe" while ignoring the fact that virtually every culture in history held this belief prior to the breakthroughs of Christian scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. He neglects to mention that the scientific achievements of these Christians in no way contradict true Christian theology. And he also fails to acknowledge that such theories as heliocentrism and evolution were questioned just as vigorously by dissenting contemporary scientists as ecclesiastical authorities. And the house arrest (it was not a death sentence as popularly believed) which was imposed upon Galileo by the Church in 1633 was punishment for his defiance of a Papal edict not to advocate his theory as fact (only to offer arguments for and against it) until it had been proven scientifically. The fact that heliocentric theory has since been disproven (The sun is the center of our solar system, not the universe) seems to be lost on the secular scientific community; in retrospect it appears the Church was correct to urge caution.
In response to Huxley, the conservative poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) published an essay, Science and Literature, which defended classical education against this creeping scientism. In it he writes, "those who are for giving to natural knowledge, as they call it, the chief place in education of the majority of mankind, leave one important thing out of their account: the constitution of human nature." He adds, "The instinct for beauty is set in human nature, as surely as the instinct for knowledge is set there, or the instinct for conduct." As Arnold suggests, Huxley's belief that science should replace the study of literature, history, and religion in education is far too narrow and leads to a very dangerous place. That is, a purely science based education devoid of the restraints placed upon it by a background in ethics and morality and reinforced by a historical knowledge of the cruel lengths to which men will go to control and dominate his fellow man is simply to sow the seeds of chaos and war to be reaped by posterity. Huxley, a Hobbesian at heart should have understood the existential danger such a philosophy poses to civilization.
Huxley also curiously states that man, unlike other animals, is endowed with a "moral sense and with freedom of the will." It is unclear from his writing whether he feels this moral sense is due to biology or culture but what is clear is the inherent contradiction in such a belief without acknowledging the Author of such a moral sense: a purely biological or cultural morality would, by definition, differ according to time and place; but as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his books Mere Christianity and the Abolition of Man the universal moral code, written on the heart of human beings, has remained unchanged throughout recorded history. It is true, of course, that certain individuals, such as the sociopath, may have been born without this inner knowledge of right conduct, but to say this proves it does not exist is like saying that since some are born lactose intolerant it follows that humans have no capacity to digest dairy foods; or that because some are born color-blind that proves there are no colors in the visible universe.
There is also a distinct difference between moral virtue and mere convention. When a person enters into a home in Japan without removing his shoes he is guilty of bad manners. In the United States, when a person removes his shoes upon entering a home, it is considered presumptuous and in poor taste. This is a purely cultural difference and is not evidence of an inner or universal morality. On the other hand, to cut your host's throat while stealing his watch would violate the God-given universal moral code prohibiting such acts. The immorality of such an act is a fact which transcends both time and place and was acknowledged as such by every civilization in recorded history.
This idea of science without the moral restraints of revelation, tradition, faith, and conscience - restraints explicitly rejected by the radical secularist followers of Darwin and Huxley - may have been due to what Lewis has called "chronological snobbery" or the belief that the current age need learn nothing from previous ones. Whatever the cause the results are self-evident: when given free reign 19th century English pseudo-science, detached from faith and coupled with the bastard step-children of 18th century French secular political philosophy - namely Marx and Nietzsche - can quickly become a Frankenstein's monster.
When the Godless, humanist political movements ascendant in the eighteenth century, which already lacked a firm moral foundation, were seemingly confirmed by the theories of agnostic science and augmented by an equally amoral pursuit of scientific knowledge, the results were truly horrifying. With the clarity of hind-sight we see what should have been predictable: that however unintentional, the ‘progress' begun by these secular scientists inevitably led to the practical efforts of people like Margaret Sanger and Adolf Hitler. After all, what are abortion, eugenics, the creation of a master race, and the final solution if not an acceleration of Darwin's principle of natural selection? Is this not Social Darwinism writ large?
The dogmatic pursuit of scientific knowledge artificially divorced from the reality of a Creator is a corruption of the scientific method as practiced by men of science since the Christian Scholastics founded the world's first universities in the Middle Ages. When scientific progress began to be viewed as its own end rather than as a means to achieve some higher moral purpose, it became corrupted not by religion but by hostility to it. History's greatest scientists such as Galileo, Newton, and Copernicus were all faithful Christians. Newton spent more time studying the Bible than the cosmos. And Darwin, arguably the founder of the secular scientific movement, only lost his own faith in Christ after his ten year old daughter died in 1851. It is entirely possible that his motivation in pursuing his hypothesis was, for the grieving father, more a bitterly personal quest to disprove the existence of God then a dispassionate pursuit of truth.
When science lost its moral foundation through hostility to religion, it became preyed upon by another corrupting influence: politics. And once infected thus, science slowly transmogrified into scientism, or the religious advocacy (by elites within the scientific, academic, journalistic, and government communities) of consensus-based theories whereby a majority-rule mentality takes the place of the traditional scientific method. Under this system theories need not be proven, only agreed upon, and once agreed upon, these dogmatic beliefs become the stuff of enforced orthodoxy and woe to anyone who dissents from the majority.
This new scientism is then used as a means to justify extreme and dangerous political orthodoxies. It is how the dubious and scientifically unsupported claims (namely that the use of pesticides to control mosquito populations have a catastrophic ripple effect across the food chain) of an obscure writer named Rachel Carson led to the ban on the use of DDT as an insecticide, which in turn resulted in the loss of tens of millions of lives to a disease (malaria) which had been all but eradicated by Western science. The human cost, particularly in Africa, was disregarded by a preening elite of self-satisfied Western secularists who abused science to institute a new and infinitely more insidious form of imperialism affecting mostly poor, third world people. One wonders how long the ban would have lasted had it been Europeans dropping dead by the thousands daily.
Similarly dubious scientific claims are made to oppose such things as over-population, man-made climate change, the use of bio-engineered foods, and nuclear power. These are clearly political movements dressed up as science and have had some truly bizarre results. For example, some proponents of secular scientism are in the weird position of rejecting the consumption by humans of bio-engineered foods while supporting efforts (through cloning, selective abortion, euthanasia, DNA manipulation, embryonic stem-cell cultivation, etc.) to bio-engineer human beings themselves! They then propose to mitigate the unproven harmful effects of the consumption of bio-engineered foods by increasing the malnutrition and starvation which inevitably result from its ban.
They seek to save the planet from the scourge of global, ‘man-made' climate catastrophe, but rather than applying their collective genius to the task of learning how mankind can best cope with the realities of a warming planet, they seek instead to prove that man himself, through capitalism is to blame for the phenomenon. They do this in spite of the similar warming (and cooling) trends throughout geological history and on several other planets in our solar system uninhabited by man - a clear indication that the phenomenon is solar, not man-made.
They then seek, in spite of the potential cost of millions of lives through the likely increase in poverty caused by the implementation of such radical eco-political policies as the Kyoto Protocols, to limit the potential for global economic growth through their opposition to the use of such technologies as nuclear power and the burning of fossil fuels needed by modern economies by overstating their harmful effects. These restrictions will impact worst those in the developing world least able to withstand the economic repercussions. This is not a magnanimous or moral application of science for the betterment of mankind, this is raw power politics. The cosmopolitan proponents of centralized, global power here seek to use science not to serve, but to control. Coincidence or not, Earth Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the birth of Communist pioneer Vladimir Lenin. It appears green is the new red.
This is the terrible paradox in which the secular scientific community finds itself: because they cannot acknowledge that God created the Universe and gave man dominion over the earth they must often advocate public policy positions which adversely affect mankind in favor of other species or the planet itself. They are presumably in the curious position of preferring poor Africans have less access to clean water, adequate sanitation, and economic opportunity so that polar bears can have more glacial ice on which to hunt.
Secular scientists are afflicted with a sort of tunnel vision: they see only that which is directly in front of their face; anything on the periphery is ignored or rejected. The existence of a Creator is the most prominent example and is the most reasonable assumption one can make to account for the universe. This is not to say that we must blindly accept the story of creation as explained in the first chapter of Genesis as literal truth; in fact St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the Church Fathers, cautioned against such an overly-literal interpretation.
In the biblical account of creation God is said to have completed His work in six days; but are these days the same as ours - that is one complete rotation of the earth on its axis? Perhaps; but since He created not one but billions of stars, it is reasonable to consider whether the scriptural "day" is the equivalent of our twenty-four hours or something much more. In fact in 2 Peter it is said "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years." But since in the beginning God created time this day can mean virtually anything. Christian's believe that for God time is not merely linear or progressive as we understand it. For God yesterday, today, and tomorrow are the same. This is the reason the concepts of ‘free will' and ‘destiny' are not necessarily contradictory: just because God has already seen what decisions we will make does not mean we were not free to make different ones.
It is entirely possible that were God to have revealed the Book of Genesis not to Bronze Age man but to us moderns with our relatively sophisticated understanding of physics and mathematics He would be more technically specific and less cryptic or symbolic. But since the story of creation was revealed over three thousand years ago it may have been allegorical or a condensed version of the whole story mankind was then capable of understanding just as later, during His ministry on earth, Jesus would use parable when teaching all but His closest disciples. The fact is, the Bible was not meant to be merely a recitation of history but rather a guide by which mankind may be redeemed before God. In this respect, it is entirely appropriate that the geological history of the earth is given just a cursory treatment. In the fullness of time the truth will be revealed. In the meantime, we can think on it, study it and draw educated conclusions; but I'd wager that in the end these will tend to confirm the Biblical accounts - not contradict them.
Nevertheless, being neither a scientist nor theologian I do not pretend to have the answer to such questions; being a man of both faith and reason I do accept God as creator because without Him we (scientists included) are in the impossible position of explaining how everything came from nothing.
The secular scientists, on the other hand, refuse to accept the idea of a Creator, thus they seek not merely to explain the orderly functions of His creation but to rationalize away the very existence of God Himself. And here we see another paradox: the self-appointed paragons of reason and human intellect are doomed to fail in their futile search for ultimate truth and meaning in the universe because these answers lie in the one place they cannot look.
Moving from creation to evolution, it is Darwin's contention that man was not created by a loving God but developed, perhaps in some mystical primordial soup - growing and shedding, through the process of natural selection, limbs and organs along the way. If this is true then the conduct of all earth's creatures, including man, must be ruled by what is merely individually expedient to ensure survival so that one might pass on favorable genes to the next generation. This process, if true, would also mean such virtuous but self-defeating human instincts as altruism, mercy, tolerance, and self-sacrifice would have been bred out of existence many thousands of generations ago. In the place of such virtues, Darwinism gives an intellectual stamp of approval to such vices as selfishness, cruelty, and intolerance as mere physical survival becomes the main concern of all men rather than worries about the salvation or damnation of the eternal soul. This is the slippery-slope of secular scientism.
On a more technical level, the unreasonable and almost religious adherence to Darwin's evolutionary theory and the concomitant nature worship it inspires in the secular scientific community and its supporters is quite problematic: one hundred fifty years after his theory was first postulated enough unresolved issues (The problem of spontaneous generation of life, a complete absence of transitional species in the fossil record, the Cambrian explosion, lack of evidence to support macro-evolution, the concept of irreducible complexity, etc.) remain to render his theory just that - a theory. These problems include issues Darwin himself anticipated and hoped future scientists would resolve. Yet in spite of the unsettled status of the theory, skeptics and dissenters are routinely dismissed, mocked, and black-listed so quickly by believers it makes the inquisition seem positively tolerant and open-minded by comparison. It is indeed an ironic twist that to the extent the prospect of being labeled a heretic by the Church was among the reasons for the birth of this peculiar movement it has itself tolerated no dissent from its often unsupported consensus beliefs. Like the Rwandan Hutus turning the tables on the Tutsi, the oppressed have become the oppressor. Why? Because to question evolution is to put God back into the picture and this is simply unacceptable to those whose religion is secular scientism. Like the pagans of old their god is creation, not its Creator; thus to question their theories is akin to denying the resurrection of Christ to a Christian or the prophet-hood of Mohammad to a Muslim.
On the question of evolution there is no clear consensus among believing Christians, however the Catholic Church, for its part, while taking no official position on the subject is nevertheless open to the concept of Theistic evolution - the theory that if Darwin's evolving species' were dominoes, then it was God's hand that set them up and toppled the first one. Since I myself am not a scientist the details of the scientific debate here are beyond both my capacity and the purposes of this essay; however from my (layman) point of view, I would say that believing mankind and this wonderful and orderly universe of ours ‘just happened' through a series of accidents is akin to suggesting that random chunks over time fell from a block of marble to reveal the form of the Blessed Mother cradling the lifeless body of our Lord Jesus rather than crediting the vision, inspiration, talent, and genius of Michelangelo for creating the Pieta. Likewise one simply cannot fully understand or explain nature without an acknowledgement of and appreciation for its Creator.
Clearly faith in God need not and should not be a disqualifier when discussing scientific questions. A proper foundation in the moral as well as the physical laws of God's glorious creation should be a requirement of a well-rounded educational curriculum. And the moral restraints placed upon science by faith need not be a hindrance to discovery and progress, but merely a rudder to help point progress in the proper direction. And if this means that certain core beliefs of the secular scientific community need to be re-evaluated this does not mean mankind is regressing to a past mired in superstition and unreason. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if we have made a wrong turn somewhere along the line we will be no nearer our destination by stubbornly continuing on; it is truly progressive at such times to double back to where you veered off track and find the proper path.