Scientism and the worship of the scientific method is a seductive dogma and is drawing converts to its underlying religions -- atheism and agnosticism. And we daily see its impact.
One of the nation's most prestigious newspapers puts out a weekend edition that prominently features an essay on some very trendy topic. A few weeks ago, this prestigious space was turned over to a Harvard professor, Stephen Pinker. The professor has become this generation's Pied Piper promoting a dangerous dogma of scientism, one without a grounded sense of what is right and what is wrong.
His essay was stunning ... in several ways. It was a celebration of 200 years of human progress and supported by a torrent of statistics documenting how much human life has improved in these last two centuries. Here is a sample to encouraging factoids that support his thesis: In the 30 years since 1988, the U.S. homicide rate has been reduced from 8.5 people killed per 10,000 to 5.3; poverty has been reduced from 11 percent of our populace to 3 percent; despite the fact that we are richer and today drive many more miles, we spew only 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere rather than the 20 million discharged in 1988.
Over the same period on the global scene, oil spills have been reduced from 46 to a mere 5; globally nukes have reduced from 60785 to 10325; world poverty has been cut from 37 percent to 9.6 percent. Malnourishment has almost disappeared.
The good news goes on. Throughout most of human existence on the planet, a newborn's lifespan on average was 30 years. Now that average is 71 years, 81 years in the developed world. In the last 200 years, we're become smarter. The average I.Q. has increased by 30 points. (Aside: the I.Q. test was developed a little over 100 years ago.) We have become less prejudiced against minorities, women and gays. And finally, we work fewer hours, eat better, travel more and have more leisure.
But why? What has been the cause of all this human progress? The author's answer: The Enlightenment is working. He describes this complex, historical period as a time when "our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking." In truth, the Enlightenment was a time when men like John Locke, Adam Smith, Rousseau and Voltaire worked to "replace superstition and magic with science." And these men and others rebelled against the dominant intellectual force at the time, the Catholic Church. But that is a simplistic, one-sided story.
From the time of the Apostles, the Church has been a force for human flourishing, recognizing and spreading the sanctity of the individual. In the name of Christ, it has fed the hungry, ministered to the sick and especially spread knowledge and learning. During the long Dark Ages, its monasteries preserved and advanced knowledge, both secular and religious. Saints like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas built on Plato and Aristotle and advanced the Rule of Reason and concepts, such as "all men are created equal," that are foundational to democracy.
Founders of the scientific method, such as Copernicus, Galileo and Roger Bacon were devotedly Christian. And, yes, the path of history was often rocky and there were Church leaders and secular monarchs who clung to their authority and resisted many Enlightenment ideas. But that period of resistance to the legitimate use of science is long past. And frankly that is a faded red herring.
Who was it that took these fruits of science and spread them throughout the world? Not a committed core of atheists and secular humanists. Tens of thousands of Christian missionaries left their comfortable homes, not only to share their religious beliefs in an all-loving God and the sanctity of the person, but to bring the knowledge and technology of the West to improve the lives of the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the New World.
There are, also, the hundreds of Jesuits priests who knowingly faced torture and death to bring religion and civilization to the North American Indians during the 1500s and 1600s. The modern martyrs, like Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe stood up to the Nazis and died at their hands in a concentration camp. And there are the thousands of priests, nuns and laity, like Father Damien the Leper of Molokai and Mother Teresa of Calcutta who embraced the victims of repulsive diseases to care for their needs and ease their deaths.
Then there is the illegitimate use of science. Unmentioned in this rosy paean to the Progressive era is the dark use of science, the use freed from the guiding hand of the Gospels: the widespread and often state supported use of abortion and sterilization to limit populations, often minority populations.
Overlooked, too, by the author is the death toll caused by the 20th century wars, which together with a few other skirmishes brought about the deaths of a total of about 123 million people, 37 million military deaths, 27 million collateral civilian deaths, 59 million victims of genocide, mass murder and state-induced famine.
The instigators of these horrors were three progressive reformers, Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Each of whom unleashed science to advance his "progressive" social reforms. Each, too, a committed atheist and made a religion of science.
While Professor Pinker is probably a more benign man than the three monsters above, he has committed that same intellectual error: dogmatic scientism, a dogma reduces all truth to what can be verified by the scientific method. To reduce knowledge only to that which can be observed by our senses is to limit knowledge to ''how" things happen and never to the deeper "why'' questions, ultimate questions such as: What is the purpose of my life? What are worthy life goals? Why be good?
This criticism of scientism is no mere abstract argument. Scientism and the worship of the scientific method is a seductive dogma and is drawing converts to its underlying religions -- atheism and agnosticism. And we daily see its impact. Without the strong pull of religion, people have little resistance to our toxic culture of drugs, selfish sexuality and self-interest. Scientism is hardy the foundation of a healthy democracy, let alone a human life.
But there is pushback against this new dogma, even at Harvard. Two weeks ago, the newly formed Thomistic Institute at Harvard held a conference on "Christianity and Liberalism." The organizers planned for approximately sixty attendees. Over 200 faculty and students showed up for what has been described as a stunning and fascinating conference.
There is much more encouraging news. Little fires are being lit all around us. Easter is coming!
- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.