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Book Review: “Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology” by J.P. Moreland

Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology provides an introduction to and critique of the philosophical position of scientism.

Moreland defines scientism as “the view that the hard sciences–like chemistry, biology, phsyics, astronomy–provide the only genuine knowledge of reality” (Kindle location 263-271, hereafter citations are also Kindle locations). He provides several examples of how he’s encountered this belief in various realms.

The strength of the book is found in Moreland’s arguments that scientism is self-refuting, the possibility of nonscientific knowledge, several principles theism explains that scientism cannot, and the attempt to integrate science and Christian thought. For example, when arguing about scientism being self-refuting, Moreland notes that the claim of scientism itself is a philosophical claim that cannot be tested through the hard sciences. But he goes further, noting that many are aware of this significant difficulty in the theory and instead argue that it can be a kind of first principle. But again, such an attempt to insulate the claim from scientific inquiry itself is a philosophical endeavor, essentially establishing the first principles of knowledge on a basis that those principles themselves reject.

Moreland also offers a condensed form of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism: basically, if we agree that evolution is true and that naturalism is true–all that exists is the material world–then, minimally, we have at least some small reason to believe our cognitive facilities may be untrustworthy.

Where Moreland struggles is when he tries to outline the vast influence he believes scientism has in our culture. Essentially anything Moreland perceives as a societal ill can be tied back to scientism, in his view. Universities having any sort of secular slant? Scientism is to blame. People believing evolution is true? Scientism is to blame. Specific instances of perceived moral decay? Scientism caused it.

The problem with this is it begins to read more like a screed against positions in disfavor with Moreland than a tightly argued philosophical attack on scientism. A specific example can be found in chapter 3, entitled “How scientism changed the universities.” After an introductory quote from Dallas Willard, who taught at USC from 1965-2013 and is thus taken, apparently, to be broad evidence for the totality of experience at all universities, Moreland argues following another scholar (see below) that American universities followed a specific, three-stage path from 1880-1930 that went from a “Religious Stage” through a “Scientific Stage” before ending up at a “Humanities and Extracurricular Stage” (Kindle location 561-570). Tellingly, Reuben is the only citation of any study in the entire chapter–a work from 1996 about which Moreland states “I have relied on Reuben’s insightful analysis for much of what follows in this chapter” (Kindle location 639).

But following this brief look at what is surely a substantial claim (did all universities in America follow this pattern? based on what evidence? what other studies back up this data?), Moreland goes on to state that the central problem is found in the fact/value distinction and, allegedly, that science became the only knowledge that universities–all of them, apparently–valued (577). This, in turn, de-centered Christian monotheism “from the cognitive domain” and led to the impossibility of having unified curriculums or even “justifying why one discipline should have anything at all to do with another…” (588). One may well wonder how such a claim can be justified when there are such clearly inter-related disciplines as critical theory or intersectionality on the rise which explicitly demand convergence of numerous disciplines, but one also wonders what the evidence is for these claims to begin with. More importantly for the thesis at hand, the question is whether scientism is specifically and verifiably to blame for such a shift in university cultures. Moreland states that it is rather explicitly, but does little to actually support that claim. The same goes for many other things he views as societal ills–scientism is clearly at fault for them all. How? It’s unclear.

Another problem is that Moreland, as he has elsewhere, is quick to assert that his own vision of reality just is the only possible biblical view of reality and so those who disagree with it just are influenced by scientism and secularism and ought to be condemned. In a revealing passage, Moreland writes:

Thus, the ‘dialogue’ between science and theology or biblical exegesis is really a monologue, with theologians asking scientists what the latest discoveries allow them to teach:
Homosexuality is caused by our DNA? No problem. The Bible doesn’t teach the immorality of homosexuality anyway. We have misread it for two thousand years.
Neuroscience shows there is no soul? No problem. Dualism and the soul are Greek ideas not found in the Bible, which is more Hebraic and holistic.
A completely naturalistic story of evolution is adequate to explain the origin and development of all life? No problem. After all, the Bible isn’t a science text.
Studies in the human genome suggested human life did not begin with Adam and Eve? No problem. We can reread the historical narrative in a new way.
And on and on it goes. (Kindle location 1025ff)

Moreland, of course, sees scientism to blame for all of this. Christians and even theologians, he asserts, are so steeped in scientism that they cannot see past it and instead conform all of their theological beliefs to the latest fashionable science. But Moreland doesn’t establish his claim in reality. This lengthy passage shows his feelings about all of these developments, but it fails to account for the fact that without scientific discoveries that may challenge interpretations of Scripture, these discussions wouldn’t be possible in the first place. That is, he complains about he lack of “dialogue” between science and theology, but is apparently upset when that dialogue leads some to differing conclusions from himself, which conclusions, of course, can only be due to the theologians total capitulation to scientism.

Never mind that science and theology have informed each other for much of history. Note that one of Moreland’s complaints is not “Exploration of space and mathematical models have shown that the Earth revolves around the sun? No problem. The Bible doesn’t actually teach that the Sun revolves around the Earth.” Never mind that Moreland would almost certainly hold that latter position, and that such a revision of reading the Bible did in fact take place. Never mind that some theologians actually did turn to seeing divine accommodation in Scripture when it came to scientific truths instead of demanding that a re-reading of the Bible make it so that the sun did not literally rise. No, this is an issue that Moreland himself agrees with, so it can’t be due to scientism, right?

These examples show a weakness in the book that is unfortunate, because on some other counts it is quite strong. Moreland is keen to cast aspersions on rival theological positions and to blame scientism for more than he can establish in reality that it may make readers of the book less interested in those parts of the book he does establish fairly well. For example, his critique of the possibility of rational thought given a purely scientistic worldview is spot-on, and his analysis of how scientism is self-defeating ought to seal the deal for most readers.

Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology is a brief but solid critique of scientism contained within a broader attack on secularism in general. What’s unfortunate is that Moreland seems to see the latter as not just entirely encompassed (or at least caused by) the former, but also that he does so without reason for making such an equivocation. The book thus ends up as an uneven look at an important topic.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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