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The Cult of Dawkins: Science as Religion

Prior to the late eighteenth century, a majority of those involved in the rise of the natural sciences were individuals with sincere religious convictions.[1] Their new approaches to science were underpinned in various ways to religious assumptions, particularly grounded in a Christian understanding of an ordered universe. As such, religion had a significant positive role in both the emergence and persistence of the modern sciences. Later, with the commence of the Victorian era, came the “Age of Doubt”, and though the seeds of religious uncertainty were sown in cultural debate and scientific inquiry, it was nonetheless still acceptable for men of science to engage in honest conversation on both fronts, using their knowledge of science and religion to shed light on either side.[2] This sunny, catholic nature of men, however, is now out of fashion. Rather, it is regarded as dim. With the rise of the new atheists, science, and all that it entails, is placed on a pedestal, or rather, the plinth of a shrine. The terms of debate and the climate of opinion has changed for the worse. Science has been elevated to a religious-like status. Led by men such as Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, and Sam Harris, the promotion of science as a religion has taken popular culture by storm, making science-worship a genuine feature of the intellectual landscape. Worshiped and adored, science is regarded as the elite form of knowledge, if not the definitive way of knowing, and everything else is negligible.

The prominence science is given in our culture and society is plain to see. Science has become a byword for reliability and prestige, it attracts massive funding, it has test tubes, charts, flashing diagrams, and, of course, it simply stands above criticism. Other disciplines have taken note of the world’s fixation with science and, now, the study of economics has begun to gravitate closer to mathematical and scientific models without embracing the nuances of society and human interaction. Our society’s obsession with science, however, has been taken a step further. To some, science is now a way of life, a worldview – a religion. Often termed “Scientism”, the devotion to science and the ideological belief that the sciences encompasses and answers all, has caught on in the 21st century. It, too, is neatly wedded to the new atheists and their battle-ready bearings. Individuals of this movement, the fervent devotees to this religion, assert that they are but the children of the enlightenment pursuing the only reasonable source of knowledge on both sides of the grave; namely, science, the “culmination of the renaissance” as Peter Atkins puts it.[3] Philosopher Bertrand Russell is a notable forerunner of this movement, believing that there are in fact no limits to the scientific method: “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”[4] Russell is certainly not alone in this view. For instance, the chemist Harry Kroto claims that “science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.”[5] Invoking for its authority the power and the glory of the Western scientific tradition, these views have become increasingly popular within today’s humanistic culture. Seen in Russell’s and Kroto’s bold claims, the new atheist’s attempt to push science into the realms of religion is found where science, under his careful guidance, assumes its role as the sole system of belief in which rational men should place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their blind devotion. From biology to metaphysics, Science’s narrative is the narrative. Ardent followers of scientism maintain, too, that science exclusively offers robust and reliable answers to their take on the questions of meaning and value (or the lack of meaning and value for that matter): “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Clearly, science has become a metanarrative, a religion. The worship of science rests on the thesis that the sciences have to be true—for who would so doubt?—and that it is only the sciences that bear the torch of truth. To members of this religion, theology is not science and belief is not knowledge.

Appealing to men’s depraved will to oppose and put away the notion of God, these ideas have been swiftly picked up by the media and thousands all over the globe. The key figures of new atheism are now, indisputably, international celebrities. Despite its popularity, however, scientism brings with it several necessarily bleak implications. For a start, naturalism and downright atheism are two logical inferences from the doctrines and creeds of scientism as Daniel Dennett establishes here: “There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology – and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon.” Explaining away the mind as a chemical reaction, religion as an illusion, thought as a mere gag or reflex is self-defeating in itself. To what end are these things done? For what cause? Philosopher Mary Midgley neatly sums up the mess scientism creates: “It is all very well to eliminate God from the intelligible universe but eliminating ourselves from it blocks all sorts of enquiries.”[6] As with Kafka’s bleak take on his characters place on earth, men, once seen as a link in the great chain of life connected both towards the heavens to God, truth, and meaning, and downward to lower life forms, are now connected only downwards, with disastrous consequences. Scientism is not merely devastating, but contrary to reason as well. While scientism claims to disengage from normative, moralistic views, to create a clearer path led by the godhead of science, scientism is, in itself, a normative, moralistic view. It is a worldview. It lays claims to questions beyond its limits. To apply science to “every aspect of existence” is akin to using a mass spectrometer to find the price of real estate, the cause of the Second Boer War, or, more pertinent to matters discussed in this article, the value of life and the meaning of existence.[7] Evidently, there are matters which science simply cannot comment on, where science comes to an end.

Ultimately, the largest problem of scientism does not lie in its failure to stand up to sound thought. Rather, scientism is idolatry and nothing less. It lies in direct contradiction to scripture’s teaching of authority and infallibility by explaining religion and God away as the mere products of a chemical reaction, a trick played on us by a malicious neuron. Scientism and the worship of science has much to say on everything, having neither bounds nor limits with the new atheism’s leading proponents as its devoted bishops and priests and The God Delusion, its creed. It grapples with reason to give human beings, placed on this earth as stewards over creation for the glory of their heavenly maker, a less important role in the grand scheme of things, being but mere masses of atoms that hardly count. Science is a brilliant tool for working with Dennett’s “stuff” of matter. It has given us a means to investigate the general revelation of God and, to a certain extent, a way to exert dominion over creation. Through the natural sciences, believers can come to greater awe and understanding of God’s power, his order, and majesty as demonstrated through his creation. However, science is not to be revered nor exalted. Science is not transcendent. As scientism preaches its gospel, fraught with intellectual garble, Christians must recognize that it has overstepped its mark. Where idols of wood and gold no longer appeal, scientism and the worship of science steps into place. “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12).

[1] Mcgrath, Alister. Inventing the Universe: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God. London, Hodder Paperback, 2016.

[2] Lane, Christopher. Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2012.

[3] Lennox, John C. . God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Lion Hudson, 2009.

[4] Russell, Bertrand. Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays. Lexington, KY, CreateSpace, 2014.

[5] Cited by Brown, Andrew. “Science is the Only Road to Truth? Don’t Be Absurd.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 July 2011, Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

[6] Midgley, Mary. “Against Humanism.” Against Humanism | New Humanist. Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

[7] Lennox, John C. . God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Lion Hudson, 2009.