secularism

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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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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The State as Ultimate Authority- Leland vs. Hobbes

There is a tendency in the modern age to turn the nation state into the ultimate authority and arbiter among people. Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who focused on political philosophy, remains deeply influential to this day. In his work, Leviathan, he proposes the “social contract” theory of governance in which basically sees the individual as ceding some powers to a controlling interest like the government in exchange for things like protection. What many fail to acknowledge is that Hobbes also felt this would be best implemented by an autocratic state with an absolute sovereign. Yet many modern political theorists continue to fall under this same spell of creating an absolute or ultimate authority of the nation state. Included in this is the presumption of secularism in which an alleged neutral secular government may arbitrate all governance and even international politics.

Moreover, as William Cavanaugh has rather convincingly argued in his The Myth of Religious Violence, what often happens in these cases is that violence is given over to the nation state and whatever violence is perpetuated by that nation state is sanctified as neutral and secular, therefore making it “right.”

Yet these concerns are not new. John Leland (1691-1766) addressed these concerns in his own discussion of Hobbes in his work, A View of the Principle Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in the Last and Present Century (1764):

In Mr. Hobbes we have a remarkable instance what strange extravagances men of wit and genius may fall into, who, whilst they value themselves upon their superior penetration, and laugh at popular errors and superstition, often give into notions so wild and ridiculous, as none of the people that govern themselves by plain common sense could be guilty of… Mr. Hobbes’ scheme strikes at the foundation of all religion… That it tendeth not only to subvert the authority of the scripture, but to destroy God’s moral administration…. it confoundeth the natural differences of good and evil… taketh away the distinction between the soul and the body, and the liberty of human actions…. [Hobbes’ deism] erecteth an absolute tyranny in the state and church, which it confounds, and maketh the will of the prince or governing power the sole standard of right and wrong… – 34-35.

Unpacking this point, we see that Leland argues that Hobbes’ system of government ironically does the very thing that he and many deistic writers of his time accused Christianity of doing–creating nation states where people were obligated to act or believe in certain ways by coercive force–while also going beyond it. Hobbes’ plan takes away any possibility of judging the nation state to be in the wrong. Instead, the “will of the prince or governing power” becomes the “sole standard of right and wrong.”

We see this problem today when nation states are given all authority to kill others. Vietnam, the war in Iraq, and many more examples could be raised. But criticism of such activities is often ceded to internal critique, and the ultimate arbiter is the decision of the nation state.

While some would argue that giving all power to the nation state makes a kind of neutral ground that allows for the flourishing of any worldview, the opposite is often the case, as nation states begin to thwart freedoms of the individuals in favor of the nation state’s supremacy. Though it is possible to arbitrate conflicts of worldview utilizing the nation state as a ground to do so, it also means that the nation state has final authority in such moral decisions.

Intriguingly, individuals often find themselves in the position of defending the actions of the nation state, even when they know that those actions may be wrong. Whether it is allegiance to a political party or person that becomes valued more highly than one’s own moral compass, people begin to dismiss or defend the nation state’s authority to determine right from wrong.

I believe Leland came out well on top of Hobbes and other deists throughout his exchange, and his warning ceding too much authority to the governing powers is well on point.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Sunday Quote!- Tourism, Borders, and the “Other”

mh-cavanaughEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Tourism, Borders, and the “Other”

William Cavanaugh is a favorite of mine due to his fantastic book, The Myth of Religious Violence. I had the chance to snag a more recent book of his, Migrations of the Holy and immediately did so. In the book, Cavanaugh’s main contention is that the “holy” never disappears/ed from the public sphere but rather migrated to the nation-state. As with his previous book, this one is full of insight and discerning comments, such as this one on tourism:

The artificial preservation of local identities is essential to tourism. In other words, the tourist represents both the attempt to transcend all borders and identities and the simultaneous attempt to fix the identities of non-Western subjects within its gaze. (79, cited below)

Cavanaugh’s point is in context of a broader discussion on migrant, tourist, pilgrim, and monk, and he acknowledges complexity to each of these categories. His point is that, in a sense, the very act of tourism both attempts to break down barriers (by going to the “other”) and also necessitates barriers (by upholding and even romanticizing or denigrating the concept of the “other”). It’s an interesting thought which makes one wonder about how we should live our lives in an increasingly “global” world.

How might we live our lives in the world in such a way as to avoid making the “other” into an object for our observation? How can we become “pilgrims” in a world which increasingly demands tourism? How can we sanctify a world which seeks to build barriers?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)

Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T.  Cavanaugh– I review the book which has led me to discuss the ways the category of religion is used to stigmatize the other and also forced me to rethink a number of issues. I highly recommend this book.

Source

William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011).

SDG.

Sunday Quote!- The Invention of Religion

mrv-cavanaughEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

The Invention of Religion

One book which has influenced my thought quite a bit was The Myth of Religious Violence. I recently reread the book and thought I’d share a rather poignant quote:

There was a time when religion, as modern people use the term, was not, and then it was invented. (81)

The notion that religion is a socially constructed concept is essential to Cavanaugh’s work, and he argues meticulously towards this end. His point is not that all so-called “religions” are false. Rather, his point is that the notion that there is such a thing as a secular/religious dichotomy is itself a construct with a historical development. Moreover, this construct, he argues, has been useful for creating an “Other” who is then deemed “religious” in order to separate this Other from spheres of influence. It’s a highly interesting book, and one I recommend strongly. I have reviewed it here.

What do you think? How might you define “religion”? If Cavanaugh is right, how might this notion influence your thought?

Links

The Myth of “Religion”: Constructing the Other as an enemy– Here, I draw out more of Cavanaugh’s claims regarding the usage of the term “religious” and how it is used at times to create an “Other” to repudiate.

Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T.  Cavanaugh– I review the book which has led me to discuss the ways the category of religion is used to stigmatize the other and also forced me to rethink a number of issues. I highly recommend this book.

Source

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).

SDG.

Sunday Quote! – Secularism as necessary in the Political Sphere?

psir-hurdEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Secularism in International Politics

The quote this week is from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, a book which makes me reminisce upon The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavinaugh. The book is about how secularism comes into play with international relations, and how secularism is often turned into the wielding of power of the secularist over the religious other. Here’s a juicy quote explaining one of the products of secularism:

“[T]he objective of laicism is to create a neutral public space in which religious belief, practices, and institutions have lost their political significance… The mixing of religion and politics is regarded as irrational and dangerous. For modernization to take hold, religion must be separated from politics… Laicism adopts and expresses a pretense of neutrality… This makes it difficult for those who have been shaped by and draw upon this tradition [laicism] to see the limitations of their own conceptions of religion and politics.” -Elizabeth Hurd, “The Politics of Secularism in International Relations,” 5.

What do you think of the concept of laicism based upon this quote? Have you heard of it before? What are your thoughts on the possibility of the presumption of secularism in politics?

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T.  Cavanaugh– I review the book which has led me to discuss the ways the category of religion is used to stigmatize the other and also forced me to rethink a number of issues. I highly recommend this book.

SDG.

Guest Post: “Is There Life on Other Planets?” by Greg Reeves

If you’ve been reading the science news lately, you’ll find there has been a lot of buzz about “extrasolar planets”, or “exoplanets” (i.e., planets that orbit other stars).  For an example, see here.  The reason why is in the last several years, the number of exoplanets that we’ve discovered has increased dramatically, mostly due to the Kepler mission.  But regardless of the reason why, one interesting question this brings up is, “Are there other planets that host life?”

This is an incredibly profound question for both the religious and non-religious alike.  For the Christian, the knee-jerk reaction might be “no, of course not, God specially created the life on earth and did not do so elsewhere.” (By the way, I do not necessarily espouse this view.) For the secularist, the presence of life on other planets only adds weight to the idea that life arose here on earth by strictly naturalistic processes.  So what does science have to say about this subject?  Given the sensationalistic popular news articles, one might think the universe is teeming with alien life.  However, the data actually say otherwise.

First, answering the origin of life question, from a scientific standpoint, is incredibly hard.  In fact, after investigating the state of affairs on this problem in order to write a book, it has driven agnostic physicist Paul Davies to proclaim1:

 When I set out to write this book, I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life’s origin…Having spend a year or two researching the field, I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding…This gulf’s not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna.

He goes on to say:

Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There are two reasons for their unease. First they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists…Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding…

Second, even though it is a conceptually difficult phenomenon to study, scientists are incredibly confident that it will be resolved one day.  The main reason why is that the alternative to having a naturalistic origin of life would be a supernaturalistic origin of life, something that most secular scientists not only do not believe in but also that they rule out completely according to their philosophical worldview.

Third, we now know that life on our planet originated in a geological instant.  As soon as this planet became even remotely suitable for life, roughly 3.9-3.8 billion years ago, life began (our earliest evidence for life is between 3.86 and 3.80 billion years ago).  To the secular scientist, this implies that even though we have no idea how, the origin of life must be a very simple, fast process.

Fourth, because the origin of life is simple and fast, it probably is not a finely-tuned process, according to the reasoning of secularism.  In other words, all you need are some minimal requirements (liquid water, a rocky planet, some carbon-containing compounds, and a short window of time) and life will surely appear.  This principle led astronomer Steve Vogt, upon discovery of a rocky exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” (the distance from their star that would allow a planet to potentially harbor liquid water), to state, “The chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.”  (As an interesting sidenote, the particular planet he was referring to may not even be a planet. Of course, we are still discovering exo-planets, and I have been confident for some time that we would find a near-earth-sized rocky planet in the Goldilocks zone.  And lo and behold, we have.  For examples, see here and here.)

So, given this background, is it likely that such “Goldilocks planets”, which are likely to be all over the place in the universe, harbor life?  Well, there are two sides to this story.  As I laid out above, the popular secular point of view (and the point of view portrayed by the media) is that life is inevitable whenever loose conditions are met (background point four).  So of course, whenever you have a planet in the Goldilocks zone, life is inevitable.  This view springs solely from the assumption of naturalism (background point 2) and the fact that life arose on earth quickly (background point 3).  You can easily see this point of view when reading the popular news articles, which are overflowing with unbridled optimism.

The other view is that life is rare in the universe, because all of the prowess of the origin-of-life scientific community has returned a comparatively small amount of promising data (background point 1). In fact, not only has little actual progress been made towards discovering naturalistic pathways towards origin of life, but instead the more we know the more we discover how far away we are.  Problems such as the lack of a prebiotic soup, the irreducible complexity of life, the homochirality problem (all bio-molecules must be either 100% right-handed or 100% left-handed), the difficulty in producing a cell membrane, and the finely-tuned conditions needed to carry out the chemical reactions that produce biological precursors all reveal a much less optimistic story from the point of view of hard science.

The problems for the hypothesis of the naturalistic origin of life don’t stop there, however.  The more we study our planet, the more we realize that an exoplanet needs a lot more going its way than just to be in the Goldilocks zone.  There are a whole host of astronomical and geological parameters that must be exquisitely finely-tuned for life to (1) exist and (2) persist on a planet.  The timing of the formation of the exosolar system, the location of the exosolar system within the galaxy, the type of galaxy the exosolar system is in, the elemental composition of the star and planet, and the existence of stable, long-lasting plate tectonics are just a few of the finely-tuned parameters that must be met for life to exist and thrive.

None of this is to say that we should not be investigating how life could have originated, or whether exoplanets may harbor other life forms.  Indeed, if God did create the universe and life, I am convinced that these scientific disciplines will serve only to glorify Him further.

But these observations do beg the question: which is it?  Is life abundant in the universe, a premise based on one data point and questionable assumptions, or is life rare, a premise based upon the empirical findings of the fields of biochemistry, organic chemistry, astronomy, and geology?  It seems to me that hope springs eternal for the secular exoplanet researcher, but the hard scientific data tells another story.

1. Davies, Paul.  “The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life.”  Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (March 16, 2000)

Dr Greg Reeves holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Princeton University, and is currently an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at North Carolina State University. He is the co-director of the NC State chapter of Ratio Christi. His blog can be found at twobooksapproach.blogspot.com.

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