Scientism Strikes Back

In a recent essay in The Christian Post, I warned of the danger of taking the wonderful scientific method of focus on nature alone in the work of science, and foolishly making it an entire way of life-twisting science into a degrading religion, ignoring God and diminishing people. When we focus on nature alone, both our own spirits and the Spirit of God are missed-simply because they are not strictly observed within the natural phenomena. Spiritual things are not like chemicals or bodies, because "Ignoring the Spirit in our lives as whole people is a foolish disaster, a kind of dangerous blindness, a debilitating religion, pagan Scientism," I said.

This modern error has been a major concern of mine for years. As a professional philosopher of science, I invented the term "methodological naturalism" in an essay that the respected Christian Scholars Review published in 1983. The very fact that we choose to focus on natural realities while we do science means that the Spirit and powerful spiritual realities are still there when we remove our valuable scientific blinders of "methodological naturalism." Naturalism as a method is an essential disciplinary blinder, a useful choice for focused professional and student work. In contrast, Naturalism as a religion-Metaphysical Naturalism, or Scientism-is a personal blindness, an unwise denial of spiritual reality, a commitment to dull one's spiritual senses. (This powerful distinction I made 30 years ago has been picked up by many others, whether they are Christians or not, and if you Google "methodological naturalism," my name still comes up as the inventor.)

On April 14, Scientism struck back. Again. In a one-hour interview on National Public Radio, Dr. Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics at Arizona State University, argued "on the basis of science" that the natural world is all that there is.  While interviewed by Krista Tippett in the program "On Being," he brazenly rejected the biblical writings as mere imaginings of bronze-age peasants, long before the liberating discoveries of modern science. He mocked the very idea of eternity or even of human purpose, let alone God, Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. To Dr. Krauss it is liberating to think of ourselves as mere matter, purposeless matter. He enthusiastically embraced the position that we humans have no significance. At the conclusion of his remarks he boldly informed his audience, "You are far more insignificant than you ever imagined." Such is the terrible human sacrifice required by Scientism.

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As I listened to Dr. Krauss, and then re-listened on the web, two biblical passages providing points of contrast came immediately to mind. In Genesis 2:7 we read how the Lord took a nearly worthless, purposeless hunk of dirt, shaped it, and breathed his Spirit into it to initiate the human race. In that breath, the first "living human" was created. If we attend only to the dirt, only to the matter and energy of our bodies, Dr. Krauss is right-we are far more insignificant that we could ever imagine. However, everyone still recognizes humans as different from the rest of nature-giving testimony to the power of the breath of God's Spirit to transform dirt into awesome value. In spite of the human degradation taught by his Scientism, I would guess that his wife is human, and that he treats her better than dirt. How about his children, too, and his students and coworkers? It is safe to say that he usually, implicitly, recognizes some of the unique value that our Creator invested in every human. Nevertheless, the destructive doctrines of Scientism dull many people to the most menacing dangers in our society-such as dysfunctional schools, domestic violence and abortion. The continuing insidious indoctrination into Scientism at many of our schools now saps the spiritual vitality of America and other nations.

Teaching the natural facts can be proper science, teaching that natural facts are all there is promotes pagan Scientism. Actually, most "science" classes in high school and college teach only some of the products of science, the natural principles and processes that natural scientists have uncovered. However, the actual work of real scientists who uncover additional principles and processes-as in searching for cures to diseases, alternative energy sources, new metallic alloys, formulas to make computers faster, and such like-is something else. This precious work of real scientists takes much more than natural processes. Real scientists rely on creative imagining, acute attentiveness, personal devotion, dream interpretation, brain storming, and prayer-all processes of the human spirit, all made possible by the eternal Spirit.

Even when Dr. Krauss insists "You are far more insignificant than you ever imagined," he inadvertently reminds us that we do "imagine." We all are spirit. Without spirit there would be no science. Science is driven by spirit-including the desires for solutions to problems, satisfied curiosity, fame, reward and success. It is a necessary professional irony that only a spirit can engage in science with its methodological naturalism. It is brazen professorial absent-mindedness to then insist-well after the work of methodological naturalism is over for that day-that there is no eternal Spirit, or even that there is no human spirit.

The Biblical text of Romans 12:1 also comes to mind, where we learn to "offer our bodies as living sacrifices," and that our living sacrifice is "our spiritual service." Wow! Consider these four simple dimensions of that wise teaching: [1] Our bodies have great value; otherwise there is no real sacrifice. [2] Our sacrifice is as living, thriving human bodies, full of the abundant life that Jesus continues to give through his ministry and grace (John 10:10). [3] This continuing sacrifice of our living bodies is spiritual, certainly something more than dirt or even complex dirt, protoplasm-in-action. Of course, a "living sacrifice" is explicitly beyond the knowledge reach of any natural science, within its proper disciplinary focus on physical matter and energy, the limits required by natural science's methodological naturalism. And [4] living sacrifice is service, significant benefit to God's purposes, to others, and to ourselves.

Biblical teaching was never ignorant of the seeming insignificance of human life. Dr. Krauss' Naturalist doctrines are as old as the hills. Though repackaged as Scientism, this is still an evil ideology demeaning all humans, all images of God, all children of our Creator-whether this ideology shows up as the religion of our schools, of our government, of our businesses, or-heaven help us!-of our neighbors. In a profound double irony, while natural scientific discoveries helped people understand that the earth is not the center of the physical universe, natural science has been the excuse, the spiritual cover, for refocusing much of human effort away from the true Center of the whole universe back to the mere earthy part of humanity, back only to the mere dirt from which we are miraculously made. When is it time to reawaken the spirit? When will diminished humanity re-discover the Spirit?

Naturalism, including its present surrogate Scientism, may be the main evil ideology from which holy Scripture protects us, reminding us that our nearly worthless bodies are still endowed by the Spirit, and telling us that what we do in our temporal bodies is eternally, spiritually significant. It is the diminishing of humanity into mere flesh that fans the flames of further human degradation that seem to rage so powerfully in our time.

While Krauss claims "You are more insignificant than you ever imagined," Christ claims "I came to give abundant life-life in all its fullness." Thank you, Christ!

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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