It’s become rather fashionable, at least amongst some miffed religious people, to say that atheism is the religion of our age. Particularly in response to the vehement and “missionary” zeal of Richard Dawkins, it’s said that he and his ilk are the priests of this new religion. That, if you will, Dawkins (like Kalou in a previous post) doth protest too much. The argument goes that if Dawkins really believed in the self-evident rightness of his position he would not need so extravagantly to unleash his venom on the religious. Surely religion would wither on the vine under the white heat of his rationalism and logic. All the atheist need do is wait, smirking if he wants to, but he does not need to get so worked up about it. Although I doubt that Dawkins is as rational or as logical as he purports to be, I do not subscribe to this “atheism is a religion” hypothesis. But there is something in modern western culture that does operate in a way that is strikingly analogous to a religion, or at least to a religious ideology. It is what I am calling “scientism”. Not, please note, “science”. The process of scientific enquiry is related to scientism, and provides it with some of its organising principles, but they are two entirely different concepts.
The “-ism” ending indicates that scientism is an ideology, while science is a methodology. The methodology of science is resolutely analytical – it proceeds by breaking things down into bits (often literally) and then trying to understand the chains of cause and effect that link the bits together. And crucially, science tests out those connections by experiments of one kind or another. It is always concerned to isolate the chains into the shortest possible links. It wants to arrive at a place where it can say with confidence that this singular cause has this singular, repeatable, effect. It is necessarily and deliberately reductive. It is also stunningly successful and powerful as a source of understanding and explanation. Provided, that is, that it is directed towards answering the right questions, which for science are properly always questions about what and how. The question, for example, “To what purpose?” is not only meaningless to science, but anathema. Science even has a word for it, and it’s just about the most devastating insult that can be directed at a conscientious scientist: to accuse him or her of teleology. Teleology, unfortunately, is exactly what most people are interested in, and it’s incredibly difficult to avoid it in normal speech. The most innocent-sounding statement can harbour teleological shame. Some plants have bright flowers in order to attract insects to assist them in pollination. True enough, surely? Not at all. It is true that some plants have bright flowers. It is true that bright flowers attract some insects. And it is true that insects so attracted will often carry pollen to other flowers. But it is not true, and indeed it is totally ridiculous, to suppose that plants deliberately evolved bright flowers with the objective – the purpose – of inveigling insects to pollinate them. We humans are obsessed with purpose, but purpose is the one thing on which science can never legitimately shed any light.
And this is the crux of the danger posed by scientism. Scientism is the notion that scientific enquiry is the only legitimate way to understand the world, and that by extension those things that science cannot elucidate are unimportant, meaningless, irrational, non-existent, or all four. To think about purpose is therefore to delude oneself; to strain after it is wilful disobedience. Well, analogous to sinful, in fact. This is not the only point of connection between scientism and religion. Because science is necessarily analytical and reductive (good things in themselves because of their explanatory power) it also tends to deal with matters that are increasingly not open to observation by the average person. For example, most of us used to know what we should eat, because our mothers (and usually it was mothers) told us what food was good for us. Now we are dependent on scientists to explain what nutrients we need to consume, and to point to the foods that contain them. Or the pills that contain them. Scientists have become scientism’s priests. We can no longer be trusted to decide these things for ourselves, because truth is hidden from our view, and only the priests have access to that truth. And just as in religion, there is often dispute amongst the priests that only other priests can adjudicate. Today’s report on UEA’s school of climate science was just such an example. The inquisitors of the Scientific Assessment Panel found that no heresy had been committed, so we can breathe easy. The point I’m making has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the UEA’s research (I for one am no climate sceptic, and I’m not suggesting that there’s been any whitewash here); rather I’m drawing an analogy between scientism and religion. Scientism also shares with religion a desire to clear the field of competitive ideologies. It’s no longer sufficient that we believe in scientism’s unquestionable truth: we must not be exposed to temptation from rivals. Although I have no truck with creationism, I do feel uneasy about the way in which some of scientism’s priests want to suppress its very expression. Heresy is every bit as live an issue for scientism as it has historically been for religion.
Religion first began to undermine its credibility, and to open itself to ridicule, when it tried to out-science science. When it tried to portray its myths as if they were analogous to scientific explanations. Scientism will do the same job for science it we’re not careful. Science is by far the best tool for posing and answering questions of what and how that we have ever established. Good scientists know, and take pride in, the fact that science is useless for thinking about questions of why, or of purpose. If science allows scientism to tempt it into trying to out-religion religion, it will do the same kind of damage to its credibility that religion has already done to its own.