Scientism: When Science Becomes a Religion

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When Science Becomes a Religion

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Probably most of us are at least a little awed, intrigued or captivated by the world of science. It’s hard to not be enthralled by the images of neighboring galaxies coming to us from the Hubbell Telescope, for instance. We might visit a natural history museum and be taken in by its paleontology exhibit or its collection of fossilized dinosaur skeletons. Then there are all the technological advancements that have brought about revolutionary changes to healthcare, medicine, agriculture and the energy and telecommunications industries. There’s really a lot to appreciate about science and technology.  

But in today’s society, many people do not just “value” science. They basically idolize science, seeing it as the solution to all the world’s problems and the final authority on literally everything that is taught, said or done. This idea of “looking to science for all the answers” is promoted in classrooms, particularly at the secondary and college levels, and is a common theme in movies and television programming. 

Even in our daily conversations, we might encounter people who mock us if we voice skepticism about a particular scientific theory or technological application. If we make a statement espousing a belief in God, there are those who will be quick to retort, “You can’t prove that!” The thinking is, “if science says it’s true, it is, and if something can’t be proven by science, it isn’t.” 

The word used to define this extreme reverence for science is scientism. Granted, this might not be a term most people use very often or have even heard of. Still, scientism has invaded Western Society in a pervasive way. We can be influenced by scientism and not even realize it. This can be problematic, as scientism can affect what we view as truth or reliable sources of information, steering us towards faulty ways of thinking.  

What is scientism? 

Before going further, we need to be clear about what scientism entails. In his book, Scientism and Secularism (Crossway, 2018), J.P. Moreland explains that scientism is a doctrine of philosophy and an ideology—not simply another word for science. Many who espouse scientism see it as a replacement for religion, essentially viewing science as the savior of mankind. Writes Moreland: “Scientism is the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality. At the very least, this scientific knowledge is vastly superior to what we can know from any other discipline. Ethics and religion may be acceptable, but only if they are understood to be inherently subjective and regarded as private matters of opinion” (p. 26).  

With scientism, if there are contradictory knowledge claims from different sources, the scientific will always trump the nonscientific. Once a science claim has been adopted, any information from other, non-scientific sources will be filtered and interpreted through that scientific premise. If an idea coming from a nonscientific information source conflicts with an accepted scientific belief, it will be discredited and thrown out. 

It is important to understand that while true science strives to be an objective undertaking, free of personal biases, scientism sometimes involves using pseudo-scientific explanations (that aren’t real science and are deceptive) to push particular agendas, according to Robbie Davidson, author of Scientism Exposed (Celebrate Truth, 2018). He writes: “While science believes a thing because it has been observed or ‘proven’ to be true, scientism on the other hand, believes a thing because science says it’s true. Scientism, therefore, is a school of thought that blindly accords science a heavy superiority without acknowledging the loopholes or non-absoluteness of findings, as done by science itself” (pp. 8-10). Phrases like “Don’t question the science,” “Trust the science,” “Science requires,” and “Science dictates,” are a reflection of scientism, not science. 

The dangers  

With a good understanding of what scientism means, it’s easier to see what the potential dangers are of embracing this mindset. Here are some of the most serious: 

Scientism has its roots in Darwinian evolution, which leads to secularism. “If humans have evolved to what we are today from an accidental, purposeless process, then, clearly, there is no way we could have been created by a God, and consequently, there is no need to believe in Him,” notes Davidson (Scientism Exposed, p. 23).   

Most who believe in scientism also adhere to materialism—the philosophy that nothing exists beyond the physical world. That means there is no God, no spirit realm, and no afterlife. The human mind (including our thoughts and personalities) is viewed as purely physical, consisting of groups of chemicals, neural connections and electrical impulses that operate in predetermined ways—with no spiritual component.

Typically those who espouse scientism are either atheists (denying God’s existence), or agnostics (are unsure whether God exists). Either way, they see no reason to seek a relationship with God. They may devalue or discredit the Bible in their minds, perhaps seeing it as just another information source (one that can easily be overridden by science). 

Moral decay is inevitable. When people don’t believe in God, they see the moral standards spelled out in the Bible as nullified and feel free to live by their own perceptions and desires. They reason there can be no universal moral laws as these kind of standards cannot be “proven” empirically. Explains Jerry Bergman in How Darwinism Corrodes Morality (Joshua Press, 2017): “Humanity is abandoning the idea that the universe operates by ironclad truth because it no longer feels the need to be constrained by such fetters…We no longer feel ourselves to be guests in someone else’s home and therefore obliged to make our behavior conform to a set of pre-existing cosmic rules. It is our creation now and, as such, we humans make the rules. We establish the parameters of reality. We create the world, and because we do, we no longer feel beholden to outside forces” (p. 4). 

This has led to society redefining gender, marriage and family. Practices such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gender transitioning, adultery, divorce, pedophilia and pornography have become acceptable. People find it easier to justify self-centeredness, lying, cheating and stealing. Proliferation of immoral behavior is certain when people dismiss God’s laws.   

It can prevent us from seeing other biblical truths. For instance, we won’t understand biblical passages correctly about the human mind if we try to make these passages “fit in” with scientific ideas. If we accept the geological theories that certain fossil layers refute the idea of a literal global flood, we may start to interpret Bible passages relating to the flood as metaphorical. If we use certain concepts in modern astronomy and cosmology (which teach the earth isn’t special, but rather one small planet that evolved amidst billions of galaxies) as our paradigm to interpret the Bible, we will miss the grand purpose God has for mankind upon this jewel of creation. 

Scientism obfuscates biblical teachings about the purpose for life. In Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Steve Stewart-Williams explains that “On a Darwinian view, not only is our species not as special as we had once thought, but our lives are ultimately without purpose or meaning. Life just winds on aimlessly, a pointless, meandering sequence of events. Sometimes it’s pleasant, sometimes not, but it lacks any overall purpose or goal or destination” (p. 197).  

Andrew Brown comes to a similar conclusion in The Darwin Wars (Simon & Schuster, 2001): “When Darwinian evolution displaced religion with secularism and secular institutions such as psychology, it left many situations vacant. Science has nowadays the prestige that theology once had as a source of authoritative answers to such questions as ‘Who are we?’, ‘Why are we here?’ and others whose answers are not strictly factual or even numerical” (p. 8). By rejecting God, mankind is left with no goal to strive for that transcends this present existence.  

We can start to look to the accomplishments of science and technology to save, protect and sustain us, deceiving ourselves that we don’t need God. For instance, research is underway to perfect artificial wombs, clone humans, create non-natural life-forms from scratch, and reengineer existing organisms—essentially trying to fulfill the role of Creator. Many look to transhumanism (the merging of humans with machines) to try to overcome human limitations and extend life indefinitely. Those who work in agriculture and the environmental sciences put their hopes in cloud seeding (to cause precipitation) and geoengineering (e.g., carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and solar radiation management) to try to gain control over the weather and climate—a role that clearly belongs to God (Deuteronomy 11:14; Job 37:15; Zechariah 10:1).  

This is not to say that utilizing various technological innovations is wrong. However, humanity can become so infatuated with what science can do that it develops attitudes of self-sufficiency, self-reliance and independence from our Creator—the exact opposite mindsets we should have. We can also start trusting those who are promoting or designing the technologies—when they might not have our best interests. 

Science and the Bible are not mutually exclusive. 

It’s important to stress that the concerns just noted apply primarily to scientism, not to science itself. True science is compatible with the Bible. We can look to both for understanding. In fact, science is a wonderful pursuit, if its limitations are acknowledged. 

While there may be some topics in which science and religion both touch on (such as health and basic sanitation), for the most part, the Bible offers understanding that science cannot, and science covers topics that the Bible either does not address or elaborate on. Obviously, science can tell us a lot about the nature and function of the physical earth and universe, and the organic life found in the natural world. Scripture, on the other hand, addresses the spiritual realm.   

But Science can’t provide true explanations to questions like: How did the universe come into existence? What is the purpose for life? Why is there so much suffering in this world? How can we achieve true happiness? Is there an afterlife? What is the nature of paranormal activity? These are topics for religion to shed light on. The problem with scientism is it tries to use science to address these kinds of matters, and the “answers” it provides take us in the opposite direction of God.  

Biblical take-aways  

Scientism is anti-God and anti-Bible, and surely the devil is ultimately behind it. The Bible warns us that Satan is “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31), and that he has deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:9). 

Basically Satan, through scientism and its “experts,” operates in two ways: to try to get us to believe unproven theories and outright lies that take us down destructive paths, and to cast doubt on God’s existence and the validity of biblical truths, as they can’t be “proven” scientifically.  

If we’re not careful, we can get drawn into scientism’s clever snares. The arguments are often presented by high-IQ scientists and intellectuals, and we may start to doubt our own thinking in comparison. Still, we shouldn’t be afraid to question what society is promulgating as “truth.” God will give us discernment and understanding if we ask Him for it (James 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:7). The Bible does caution us to avoid “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20).  

Obviously, we shouldn’t allow secular ideologies to deter us from reading and believing the Bible, nor should we use scientific explanations as the filter through which we interpret the Word of God. If a scientific teaching conflicts with biblical truths, we should dismiss it—rather than try to force it to reconcile with Scripture (which is how a lot of people come to accept theistic evolution—the belief that God uses evolution to create species). Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10 indicates that the Bible, not science, should be the foundational source of all knowledge and wisdom.  

Keep in mind that much of what science presents as “reality” are actually theories, often based on conjecture and assumptions. It takes a certain amount of “faith,” for instance, to believe in macro evolution (the emergence of new species via natural selection) and spontaneous generation (that earth’s first lifeforms arose from nonliving matter). Neither of these concepts can be “proven” in the laboratory or discerned with the five senses. Yet the same individuals who accept unprovable scientific ideas will often discredit Bible truths for “lack of evidence.”  

We need to remember, too, that the ultimate goal of those who espouse scientism is to dismiss God and convince themselves they don’t need Him, so they can live however they desire. A lot of times atheists will hold onto unbiblical ideas, even if deep down inside they know there are logical fallacies in the premises they’ve come to accept. Some theories put forth are blatantly anti-God—for instance, that life doesn’t begin at conception and that human embryos aren’t human (to try to justify abortion), and that both sex and gender exist as a spectrum (to try to validate the transgender agenda).  

The bottom line is while it’s fine to have a healthy respect for science, we shouldn’t put our faith in it. If we do, we are going the way of scientism. The pursuit of scientific information is carried out and presented by imperfect individuals who make mistakes and often have their own agendas. Sometimes their theories have significant glitches and are eventually proven wrong, or researchers might publish their “findings” and even their own peers disagree with them. These are all reasons why we shouldn’t put our trust in science.  

God’s existence may not be able to be “proven” by the scientific method, but still, that is where we need to put our hope, faith and trust. Biblical truths never need modifications and overhauls. God is completely trustworthy and always acts in our best interests. And while science can shed some light for this present world, it’s only God’s truths that have eternal value. Keeping these things in mind will help us maintain the right perspectives about science and scientism, and discern truth from errors. 

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  • RandyMartens77

    Tremendous article, Becky! There is a HUGE difference between legitimate science and scientism, and it's a fine distinction very few people seem to make. Once at a three-day Intelligent Design seminar I attended back in 2004, I had the chance to have a great one-on-one conversation with J.P. Moreland, the guy you mentioned in the article. Very interesting fellow, and quite approachable on a personal level. I'd like to read his book on this topic.

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