Christianity vs. Scientism

No religion: What was Lennon summoning? For starters, a world without “divine” messengers, like Osama bin Laden, sparking violence. A world where mistakes, like the avoidable loss of life in Hurricane Katrina, would be rectified rather than chalked up to “God’s will.” Where politicians no longer compete to prove who believes more strongly in the irrational and untenable. Where critical thinking is an ideal. In short, a world that makes sense.

In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion’s “DNA.” They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including “imaging” studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to “no heaven…no hell…and no religion too.”

Such is the premise of an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times, entitled “Science and religion: God didn’t make man, man made gods” by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer. Everything that needs to be said about these individuals, especially the former, is revealed in the attribution center at the end of the article:

J. Anderson Thomson is a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Clare Aukofer is a medical writer. They are the authors of “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.”

It may be true that the influence of the “New Atheism” is waning in society, but merely because there is waning influence does not mean that there will be no influence, and more distant still the idea that the challenge of atheism is going away anytime soon. And with this op-ed we see the standard method of operations of such people: they are attempting to pass off their dogma not as a “religious argument,” as it really is, but as “informed science.” That’s the goal of scientism– to make “religious” claims that somehow get more credence than the “religion” arguments they are trying to counter.

The authors of this piece, of course, would lambast any idea that they are “religious” in any way. They, ostensibly, define “religion” in terms of the belief in a supernatural force or entity, and, for that matter, everything that is done in the name of a supernatural force or entity.

In order to make their purpose palatable– eradicating the idea of god and religion– they focus entirely on the negative of religion. They cite two examples– Osama bin Laden and those who claimed Hurricane Katrina reflected God’s will.

Those two examples do make religion look pretty bad. But does this mean that it is better to imagine a world with “no religion”?

What does a world with “no religion” look like? Osama bin Laden would not have a religious ideology to justify his ambitions, perhaps– but does this prove somehow that he would not have still harbored the same ambitions but would have found another ideology in order to justify them? After all, a world with “no religion” still has Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot still in it. A world with “no religion” is also bereft of Jesus of Nazareth, Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the innumerable people who do good things in the name of “religion.” Is that really the world in which people want to live?

The argument may seem profound but ends up being extremely facile. Most “religious” people would entirely agree that Osama bin Laden acted terribly and sinfully; most “religious” people would also agree that it was inappropriate to declare that the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina represented “God’s will.” Do the authors really want to argue on the basis of extremes? If so, that means that on the scientism end, the nuclear weapon, and the Holocaust and the persecutions of Stalin and Pol Pot, are representative. Does this mean that science is an entirely polluted affair, since its developments and technologies are so often used to end life and perpetrate oppression? Should we start advocating the elimination of science from our world and our lives?

Of course not. The authors act inappropriately throughout their article to presume that “religion” has only led to evil in the world. Religion can certainly be used to justify evil; so can science, so can nationalism and political ideology, and so can a host of other ideas and practices. That does not make religion, or science, or politics, or nationalism, inherently evil. It says more about the people abusing them than the ideas themselves.

But “religion,” as these authors are clearly using the term, is in some ways quite too broad and in important ways not broad enough. It is too broad because it does not differentiate between belief systems and does not take into account the self-critique present in religions like Christianity. Christians see what Osama bin Laden did and those who said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s will and see sinful acts and sinful people that by no means represent what God is trying to accomplish in the world through Jesus Christ. Christians will agree with these scientists in saying that “religion” is abused to justify all kinds of evil; nevertheless, Christians understand that this is a distortion of true religion, a lack of understanding of how God would have us to live through the example of His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 2:3-6). These scientists see religion as the problem; Christians more properly see the distortion of religion to serve human ends as the problem.

And Christians are also willing to see the distortion of science to serve a religious dogma also as a problem. At first, many might read such a statement and wonder how it can be, since so many Christians disagree with the current theory of macroevolution on the basis of what many perceive as “religious dogma.” But we are really continuing our critique of the definitions of “science” and “religion” as used by these authors. They want to define “religion” broadly, encompassing all supernatural belief systems, but of course do not want to define religion generically as a belief system. Why not? The minute they do so, their own religion– scientism– is exposed for what it is.

Scientism is the belief– and it is a belief, not based on empirical evidence, and it undergirds a philosophy of existence– that science is able not just to ascertain the nature of our physical universe and its properties but can also provide the answers to the questions of existence. In scientism, everything is subject to science.

We can see how this plays out in this article. In the first quote given above, “critical thinking” is subtly defined as “accepting the claims of scientists over that of religion.” A world without religion, it is claimed, is a “world that makes sense.” They say that “empirical evidence” supports the conclusion that “humans created god, not the other way around.”

So where is the evidence for any of this?

For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it.

Like attachment, they are mechanisms that underlie human interactions: Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes of Health showed that when test subjects were read statements about religion and asked to agree or disagree, the same brain networks that process human social behavior — our ability to negotiate relationships with others — were engaged.

Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies.

Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes that “it is often beneficial for humans to work together … which means it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals.” In groundbreaking research, he and his team found that infants in their first year of life demonstrate aspects of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, even fair and unfair. When shown a puppet climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the helpful puppet. They were able to make an evaluative social judgment, in a sense a moral response.

Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist who co-directs the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has also done work related to morality and very young children. He and his colleagues have produced a wealth of research that demonstrates children’s capacities for altruism. He argues that we are born altruists who then have to learn strategic self-interest.

What is proven in these studies? Humans need attachment, especially some form of protector. Neural networks are dedicated to these needs– the parts of the brain used to process human social behaviors also process religious claims. Humans tend to favor reciprocity and have tendencies toward anthropomorphization and tribalism. Young children have an innate sense of right and wrong and altruism.

Now let us notice how the authors leap from substantiated science to unsubstantiated interpretations and claims regarding the science (that is, the leap from science to scientism).

Regarding attachment and a protector:

We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.

Regarding tribalism:

Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our “groupish” tendencies.

Regarding the moral intuition of infants:

Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection.

Where is the proof for any of these claims?

How can any of these claims be tested according to any process that can be deemed “scientific”?

These, mind you, are the authors’ main “proofs” that humans invented gods, and not the other way around.

But Christianity can make counter-claims regarding the same evidence.

That humans seek after attachment and protection– and especially the idea that the same parts of the brain control social behavior and religion– are completely aligned with the Christian view of the Triune God, One God in Three Persons, one in relationship, who made man in His own image, seeking relationship (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23, Acts 17:26-27).

Infants and young children have an innate sense of right and wrong– and what does Paul say in Romans 1:19-21 but that humans have an innate sense of who God is based on His eternal power and divine nature as present within the creation?

It is quite rich, in fact, for these authors to claim man’s moral intuition as evidence for scientism. After all, Dawkins himself– for whose foundation the lead author serves as trustee– declares the altrustic impulse of man as an form of evolutionary “misfiring” in his book The God Delusion. The evolutionary model has no room for intuitive senses of right and wrong, especially when it motivates humans to act in ways contrary to their “evolutionary advantage.” Yet it makes perfect sense if there is a Creator who fashioned the universe not just with materialist underpinnings but also metaphysical ones, including a sense of justice.

Christianity confesses that humans tend to be tribal, deriving from the events surrounding the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Christianity agrees that tribalism poses a problem, but suggests that the solution is found within the Church of Christ, since Jesus died to break down the walls of hostility between people so as to allow all to be one in Him (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:11-18, 3:10-11, Colossians 4:11). Scientism can only declare that tribalism is so– and notice how the authors have not mentioned how tribalism often has nothing to do with religion per se, since tribalism also can involve nationalism, dedication to sports teams, dedication to a geographic area, etc., without any religious impulse whatsoever.

Scientism is a religion– it professes confidence in science as the Explainer of all things through the mechanism of its evolutionary theory. But there’s no scientific experiment to justify such confidence or such a conclusion. Scientism’s claims are ultimately philosophical, much to the chagrin of its adherents.

Just because the science is legitimate– and we are not disputing the actual scientific evidence here– does not grant such legitimacy for the conclusions. If one wants to believe the authors and think that the evidence suggests that man created god, one is certainly able to do so; but let us not pretend that “science” teaches this, or that the evidence must be interpreted in that way. Scientism is a worldview and it tries to fit all evidence into that worldview; Christianity is a worldview, and it tries to fit all evidence into that worldview. It might well be that some pieces make more sense according to the perspective of scientism; a competent and honest person will grant that other pieces make more sense in the Christian perspective. Neither perspective can be proven through some empirical process. And it should be noted that the Christian perspective on things has incorporated new evidence within its existing system for 2,000 years and still tries to understand all things through Christ (Colossians 2:1-10). Scientism, in its 200 years, has gone through far more violent tossings and turnings, and no one is able to predict where it will head over the next 100 to 2,000 years, if humanity lasts that long. It would not surprise me in the least if, in 4011, if mankind is still around, that science has a completely different view of the world than it does now, and anyone who would dare hold to the worldview of science ca. 2011 would be derided as much as there is derision for those who hold to what is deemed as a “pre-scientific” worldview. Yet, in 4011, Christianity will still be incorporating new evidence within its existing system, seeking to understand all things through Christ.

We have left for last the ultimate whopper of this article:

Beyond psychological adaptations and mechanisms, scientists have discovered neurological explanations for what many interpret as evidence of divine existence. Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger, who developed what he calls a “god helmet” that blocks sight and sound but stimulates the brain’s temporal lobe, notes that many of his helmeted research subjects reported feeling the presence of “another.” Depending on their personal and cultural history, they then interpreted the sensed presence as either a supernatural or religious figure. It is conceivable that St. Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus was, in reality, a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.

The scientific evidence is that when certain people have the faculties of sight and sound blocked but have their temporal lobe stimulated, they perceive the presence of something else. “Depending on their personal and cultural history,” the authors say, people interpreted the “other” as supernatural or religious. Notice the caveat: it is dependent on their personal and cultural history. What happens if you put an atheist to this test? What does this prove? Some people in some circumstances might perceive physical phenomena as supernatural. But this cannot prove– or even make a sensible claim– that all claimed supernatural phenomena fit this paradigm.

And then the whopper– “it is conceivable.” Well, it can be conceivable that there are purple men who live on Venus. We can conceive of a lot of things; we’re creative humans. But what is “conceivable” here? That Paul’s Damascus moment was “a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.”

Really? How is that conceivable?

A young man who is aggressively persecuting a sect of people who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and King, has a seizure on the road, and his unconscious is forming this idea that he is entirely wrong, that Jesus is King, and he must now serve Him?

Where is the evidence for that? Would it not make far more sense that whatever “vision” Saul would have received would have in fact validated his hostility and his persecution of this sect? Where is the evidence that any such event has ever led to the dramatic turnaround as seen by Saul of Tarsus?

The big piece of evidence that undermines this theory, however, is that Saul was not alone when the event happened:

And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but beholding no man (Acts 9:7).

And they that were with me beheld indeed the light, but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me (Acts 22:9).

We should note that there is no inherent contradiction in these passages; the men with Paul heard the sound of speaking but did not understand the voice, and they saw the light but did not discern Jesus within it.

But look at what this shows– the event was not just something happening in Saul’s mind! There are eyewitnesses to the fact that something happened, and it was external to Saul. Therefore, this postulate by the authors completely fails, since it cannot make good sense of all the evidence. Perhaps there is a naturalist/materialist explanation that could be made for what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus, but it surely is not this one.

This goes to show the desperation of the argument being advanced. The explanations of scientism for the events described in Scripture never make sense of all the evidence. They certainly cannot be proven by any empirical method. In the “world that makes sense,” contrary to the view of the authors, the explanation provided by Scripture– in this instance, that Saul of Tarsus had a supernatural experience and revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ that completely transformed his understanding– makes better sense of all the evidence than any naturalist/materialist explanation so far offered. Look at what very intelligent and highly educated people are willing to suggest in order to maintain their dogmas of materialism and scientific causes: a man totally changed everything he believed because of “a seizure caused by temporal lobe epilepsy.” And, somehow, those around him were affected by the same malaise.

There is a conflict afoot, but it need not be between science and religion. The conflict is between Christianity and scientism. Christianity affirms that there is more to our reality than we can perceive, and that the most sensible explanation of our reality is rooted in the Triune God who is the Creator of the universe, having made mankind in His own image, seeking relationship, in a world marred by sin and death because of his own transgression, able to find redemption through the grace and mercy offered by God through the Son, who became flesh and lived the perfect life. Scientism is based on the belief that there is nothing beyond the perceptible universe, and attempts to make sense of all things in materialist/naturalist ways through the mechanisms of macroevolution. These are two worldviews that are going to be in conflict. These are two worldviews that have vastly different philosophical presuppositions and assumptions, and most importantly, one will never be able to be “proven” over the other through some empirical mechanism(s).

It is high time for those advocating scientism to be open, up-front, and honest about their dogmas, their claims, and where the science ends and where the interpretive mechanisms of scientism begins. After all, that’s what people who think critically are willing to do– they are willing to separate evidence from conclusions, and subject both evidence and conclusions to critical scrutiny. I would not count on that happening, however– for then the emperor will be discovered to be naked, the dogma will not be able to bear the load that it is carrying, and people will see just how more sensible Christianity is than scientism. Let us be willing to properly use critical thinking skills, and let us try to make the best sense of this world!


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