Separating science from scientism, and why it mattersWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Debates about science and faith are as old as the church and as numerous as the stars of the cosmos. Ancient pagan thinkers mocked Christianity as a superstition fit for children and the unlearned. Modern secularists claim that science has disproved the Bible and rendered God obsolete.
In reaction, some in the faith community have adopted a suspicious and even adversarial stance toward science. They assume the worst motives behind scientific inquiry and are apprehensive of future discoveries that might somehow undermine their faith.
Thankfully, there are other more moderate voices, past and present, who recognize that faith and science are not in opposition. But science can mean different things – even contradictory things – to different people. Definitions are important, otherwise we’re just talking past each other.
That being the case, men and women of faith need to ask: Which understandings of science, broadly defined, should we affirm, and which should we challenge?
The origins of science
From ancient times until the 19th century, what we call science was known as natural philosophy. The Greeks were the first to make a concerted effort at understanding nature via reason and observation, rather than relying on mythological explanations for how the world worked. Yet even as they gradually jettisoned their Olympian gods, they relied as much, if not more, on metaphysical speculation as on experimental evidence. Their approach and conclusions, most fully developed in the writings of Aristotle, held influence for nearly two millennia, until the time of the Renaissance.
Starting in Mediaeval Europe, however, things began to change. Christian scholars laid the groundwork for what we call the scientific method, combining careful observation, rigorous reasoning and empirical experimentation to study the world of nature. They also created the university as a place to pursue and share their discoveries. Because they believed in a Creator God who is rational and free, they also believed his creation could be understood and was worth exploring. Roger Bacon and William of Occam, Copernicus and Kepler, Galileo and Newton and countless others made their scientific breakthroughs fuelled by their faith in God. Put simply, it was Christians who invented modern science.
The advent of scientism
With the Age of Enlightenment, philosophical materialism began to take over scientific inquiry, its early ripples growing into crashing waves during the 20th and 21st centuries. Christian faith was pushed to the periphery and recast as the enemy of reason and scientific progress. Coincidentally, it was during this period that natural philosophy was rechristened as science, with its current boundary markers as the exclusive province of cold, hard facts based on naturalistic assumptions. Materialist thinkers grew bolder and bolder in claiming that scientific evidence is the best and only explanation of reality. All other areas of knowledge – ethics, philosophy, religion – are nothing but subjective opinion at best and outmoded superstition at worst.
This is what philosophers of science, both religious and secular, have labelled scientism. It’s a dogmatic, fundamentalist belief that science is the only source of truth worth knowing and can explain everything or will one day be able to do so. Anything science can’t explain isn’t real – it’s like a unicorn, the product of wishful thinking or self-delusion. There is no God or spiritual realm, only the physical universe. Scientism has become the popular religion of Western culture. It has a creation story (mindless random chance); a system of ethics (no absolutes, follow your own truth); an eschatology (no ultimate purpose, just the heat death of the universe); a priesthood (scientists as unimpeachable experts); and a central message (science is not to be questioned, only trusted).
For all that, scientism makes for a rickety worldview. Its core tenet, that nothing is true unless it can be proven empirically, itself cannot be proven empirically, and is thus self-refuting. Likewise, the claim that nothing but the material universe exists is a metaphysical belief that is not scientifically provable. The idea that everything began from non-existence giving birth to existence is logically absurd. Moreover, there are many things we know to be real by reason and experience that cannot be proven empirically or reduced to mechanical explanations – consciousness, beauty, love, justice, historical events, to name a few. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our (natural) philosophy.
The beauty and goodness of science
There’s a deep irony in how scientism, with its materialist assumptions and metaphysical blind spots, undermines the empirical science it seeks to promote. The insistence that anyone who questions those assumptions is “anti-science” often sounds more like a heresy trial than a scientific discussion. Unfortunately, it has led some in the faith community to an equal and opposite extreme: dismissing the findings of science with the wave of a hand and a few Scriptural prooftexts, as if God weren’t the author of both Scripture and nature. In so doing, they play into the hands of the secularists by perpetuating the idea that faith and science are at war. As early as the 5th century, the great theologian Saint Augustine warned against this danger:
“Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [regarding the study of nature]; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.”
When secularists overstep the boundaries of science into scientism, Christians should be prepared to push back and answer them. But to do so, we need to develop something of a proper understanding and appreciation of how science works. There’s a continuous dynamic to scientific inquiry: observations are made; theories are proposed, tested and revised; conclusions are reached, but always open to further investigation. There are things about our universe we’ve discovered that we can know for certain, and others we’ve only begun to explore and can only speculate about. To deny either of those realities is to be anti-science in a real sense.
Science is a beautiful and good gift from God. Scientific and technological advances have contributed incalculable benefits to every area of modern life: medicine, transportation, communication, food production, manufacturing, light and heat and running water – the list is endless. More than that, God has created a wondrous, mysterious cosmos, and given us the ability to explore and appreciate it, to his glory. This is what drove the earlier pioneers of modern science, and it continues to drive men and women of science who are also men and women of faith. Many of them are leading lights in their respective fields, working at the world’s top universities, doing research inspired by their faith in God and their sense of wonder at his creation.
As followers of Jesus, we’re called to worship God, not science or nature. But we can and should delight in science and nature, learning more about them and discovering fresh insights into how they point to the God who made them. The great commandment includes loving God with our minds, and Scripture also instructs us to be ready to give a defense of our faith to those who may ask us. Science is not only one of the most opportune topics in which we can fulfill those commissions. It’s surely also one of the most exciting.
Sources and further reading
Paul Copan, “Science is no enemy of Christianity,” The Gospel Coalition, January 28, 2019.
James Le Fanu and John West, “C.S. Lewis’ views on science and scientism,” Be Thinking, accessed May 24, 2022.
Casey Luskin and William Dembski, “William Dembski on scientism, science, and Christian faith,” ID the Future, accessed May 24, 2022.
J.P. Moreland, “The rise of scientism: How to identify – and defeat – Christianity’s greatest ideological foe,” Talbot Magazine, June 4, 2019.
J.P. Moreland, “10 things you should know about scientism,” Crossway, September 19, 2018.
Keith Plummer, “Why scientism can’t explain morality or reality,” Cairn University Triquetra, December 1, 2021.
Subby Szterszky, “Christian professors at top universities pursue the great commandment,” Focus on the Family Canada, July 28, 2020.
J. Warner Wallace, “The dangers of ‘scientism’ and an over-reliance on science,” Cold-Case Christianity, February 11, 2015.
Image source: NASA
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox