The Theology of Scientism

If there comes a point when one’s view of an idea is so distorted that one can’t be said to really be talking about it anymore, then Dawkins and his fans have long since reached that point with respect to religion.

But I’m increasingly convinced that it is helpful to go over the reasons why their understanding of Christianity is wrong. The subject is well-worth considering.

The topic for today:

If you’re using the phrase “the God hypothesis” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

God is not a hypothesis for the very simple reason that questions about God are not empirical questions.

This is the most consistent mistake of Richard Dawkins: the unquestioned assumption that the issue of theology is, somehow, a question for science to answer pervades his writings.

It is currently popular, in some circles, to say that all questions are scientific questions. The reasons why this is false have been pointed out many times in the past. Still, there are many in our culture who are so used to thinking of science as the paradigm of all inquiry that they seem to find it difficult to understand the thinking behind logic, metaphysics, or ethics.

But to speak of a “God hypothesis” is no more accurate than to speak of a “Modis Ponens hypothesis”, a “the universe is not an illusion hypothesis”, or a “people shouldn’t be selfish hypothesis”.

God, like many of the things that Dawkins himself takes for granted, is simply not subject to the experiment-observation method employed by science. Rather, God is a transcendent entity who is the ultimate explanation of the universe, not a finite, measurable entity within the universe.

And it is for this reason that God is not a scientific theory. A theory is a general description of a causal chain stretching backward in in time up to the present moment. God, by contrast, is (among other things) an explanation as to why such chains can exist in the first place–why the universe has regular patterns so that it can be studied by science at all.

Nor, to address the tired memetic response, does this make the concept of God untestable or unprovable. It only means that the necessary tests are not lab experiments.

So, whether or not one believes in such an entity, it is no more reasonable to demand scientific evidence for God than to demand scientific evidence that an argument isn’t fallacious. It is the wrong category.

If one starts one’s search with the assumption that everything is scientific, it is no wonder that one only finds the scientific. It would be completely obtuse to conclude that this, somehow, discredits the idea of a transcendent God.

And this is where the New Atheists are often accused of a certain intellectual tone-deafness. They seem to believe that, because they cannot imagine anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.

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25 responses to “The Theology of Scientism

  • john zande

    Debilis, it’s really quite simple, but perhaps you just can’t see it. Maybe an example will best explain it all. When a child learns that Santa Claus is fake they do not spend every day of the rest of their lives trying to prove otherwise. They get on with life and move onto other things: Santa-Free!

    The same applies to religion.

    Hope that clears some things up for you.

    • Debilis

      I’m inclined to thank you, if I can say it in a kind way, I’m adding “assumes that refuting Santa equals refuting God” to my list of things that mean one isn’t talking about Christianity.

      I hope that comes across as appreciation. It is really meant to be.

      The short version of that post is this:
      How on earth do you know that God is fake?

      Or, to put it this way: How on Earth do you know that the same applies to religion?

      I’ve just written a post outlining the differences between physical entities (like Santa) and transcendental entities (like God). You’ve responded with “It’s simple, some proposed physical things are fake, so God must be, too?”

      I’ll grant that this is simple. But for those of us who understand the differences between God and Santa, it’s pretty obviously false.

      Reread the post. It explains why treating God as if he were a proposed physical entity makes no sense.

      • Arkenaten

        @ Debilis

        When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast doubt upon the validity of that superstition.

        A very astute observations by Mark Twain on the endurance of superstition in the ages .

        Now perhaps you might be able to understand your difficulty, Debilis?
        Take a few moments to let Twain’s comment sink in…..

        • Debilis

          In this context, I’d say that there are two problems with this:

          The first is only important if you care more about me than about the topic: that I was not “trained up from childhood” in the beliefs that I’ve been sharing.

          But, since you claim that you don’t care about me, that’s beside the point.

          So, on to the second issue: if this is true, then the entire New Atheist project is a vast waste of time. In fact, if it is true, then it can’t possibly be the case that New Atheists are ever former theists as many of them claim to be. If it is impossible for people to ever doubt what they were raised to believe, then a New Atheist is someone who was raised to believe in materialism.

          As such, I find it a clever line, and I agree that people only change their perspective on life with great difficulty. But there’s no reason whatsoever to think that this is more applicable to myself than you, or anyone else. If it is such a truism, it applies to all people.

        • Arkenaten

          There may be little hope of helping intransigent people such as your self, that particular metamorphosis if it happens will be a ”Seen the Light” moment that you will have to initially deal with yourself. However, the world is full of “undecideds” and plenty of children who are capable of discerning the lies you and other religiously inclined are wont to indoctrinate them with and if caught early on in life will not fully succumb to the diatribe and poison which is religion. So Dawkins and co. are playing a vital role, especially in exposing other,more physical ills of the church and especially fundamentalism.

          In Twain’s time the environment in which he thrived almost everyone believed in your god.

          It’s so nice this it not the case today.

        • Debilis

          As I recall, there are many people who seem to have a “seen the light” moment, and move toward belief in theism, rather than away from it.

          You seem very convinced that it only goes toward atheism. Do you have any evidence for this?

          The same goes for the issue of indoctrination. How is the kind of wild disinformation about religious belief, coupled with a complete refusal to question the dogmas of materialism, that goes on at sites like richarddawkins.net any less “indoctrination” than what religious institutions do?

          So, if we’re now living in a time where fewer people are religious, then it seems that there are more children being raised to believe in materialism. How do you know that Twain wouldn’t simply call that another form of indoctrination.

          Personally, I suspect that he would.

          After all, the issue here is over whether or not one is willing to question one’s beliefs, and I don’t see any real questioning of materialism out of the New Atheists. Hitchens, before he died, admitted that he was incapable of it.

          That’s as dogmatic as it gets.

        • Arkenaten

          I don’t bother with the peripherals, I am merely pleased that adherence to god belief and religion is inexorably dwindling.

          I have a similar feeling towards promoters of religion as I do toward those people who once upon a time actually promoted the ”benefits” of cigarettes.

          I am now a non smoker and I can look at my former addiction objectively and I no longer wonder why it took me so long to make the decision to quit: I continually conned myself with bullshit about the bullshit.
          When I was prepared to be honest and acknowledge it was harming me I was able to take the first step to kicking the habit.
          So, in one respect I have sympathy for you and a certain amount of pity.
          And will continue to have, providing you don’t proselytize to children.

        • Debilis

          Based on the numbers I’ve seen, that is far from clear. But your allowed to believe what you’d like, I suppose.

          But I’d say the same to you. I do have sympathy for materialists, though I’d rather they not press their views on children. Particularly when they don’t even try to provide evidence for them–and so blatantly misunderstand basic logical distinctions.

          And, to segue back to the actual topic, that is a real problem. I’ve seen no understanding at all of what I’ve actually outlined.

          I’ve repeatedly been told to “name my God”, to explain my views. Now that I’m doing so, no one seems terribly interested in actually understanding.

          It’s almost as if people were simply looking for a name so that they could simply mock it–rather than because they actually wanted to understand.

          I’m trying hard not to draw that conclusion, but showing some interest in how I actually define God would definitely help.

      • Arkenaten

        ……why treating God as if he were a proposed physical entity makes no sense.</blockquote.

        And here, in one sentence, we see the problem of Abrahamic religious belief.
        Unintentional or not this deity has been anthropomorphised. and this is how 'he' is tacitly treated.

        And this is so patently due to cultural inculcation in the total absence of any evidence physical or otherwise, as outlined in the Twain quote, above.

        It is expressly stated in the Bible's opening gambit of creation, in the meeting with the character Moses and is reinforced across the board, including, but not limited to, the biblical character Jesus of Nazareth and also the so-called -Lord's Prayer. "Our father …..(sic)

        Even you, in all your posts , have utterly failed to arrive at a simple description of this entity you call ''God"

        • Debilis

          An anthropomorphized figure is not how western monotheism tacitly treats God. That’s simply false.

          And it wouldn’t matter even if it were true. It is not the God I’ve been discussing. So, if you’re demanding that this is how you interpret me every time I speak of theism, then all you are doing is admitting two things:

          1. That you’ve never understood what I’m talking about, and

          2. That you refuse to understand or engage with what I’m talking about.

          This means that you’ve never actually addressed the thing I’ve actually been claiming. And it isn’t because it’s too complicated, or a side-step. It is because, when I’m directly telling you what the difference is, you directly refuse to deal with that position and demand that we go back to talking about God as you like to think about him.

          As such, nothing here refutes or addresses anything I’ve actually said.

        • Arkenaten

          1. That you’ve never understood what I’m talking about, and

          Let’s go with this one.
          Please explain your god.

        • Debilis

          That was what the opening post was about.

          Could you meet me half way? What is it about that post you don’t understand? What questions do you have?

          I’d be happy to answer them (particularly now that we’re on that topic). Just read over the post, and let me know what needs clarification.

      • dpatrickcollins

        Well said.

  • Arkenaten

    They seem to believe that, because they cannot imagine anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.

    Well, fortunately for me, I am an Old Atheist ( metaphorically speaking, of course) .

    I am able to imagine a lot of things. I just do not consider that all of them are real….

    • paarsurrey

      @ Arkanaten
      What do you mean by an Old Atheist? Please

    • Debilis

      While I’m sure that you can imagine many things, I’ve not yet seen evidence that you can imagine things that are outside the purview of science.

      So, please elaborate. What types of things outside the purview of science can you describe clearly? What are those descriptions (these can be as long or short as you’d like)? How are they different in kind to physical objects?

      I’d love some real evidence that those who purport to refute these ideas actually know what they are talking about. Answering these questions would go a long way to convincing me that your arguments are informed.

      • Arkenaten

        I am a great fan of science fiction.
        I don’t think one need to elaborate?

        • Debilis

          I think you do.

          I’m a fan of science fiction as well. It presents a lot of wonderful “what if” concepts as to what science might be, or what a world might be like if science worked differently.

          I’m having a hard time thinking of a story which presents a premise that science could not, even in theory, investigate to find out whether or not it is true.

          That’s the point of the name “science fiction”. It is speculative fiction about science–not about other subjects.

          So, being a sci-fi nut (like myself) simply doesn’t mean that one can imagine things outside of the purview of science.

    • dpatrickcollins

      I believe the term “imagine”, upon which the present discussion turns, does not mean “think imaginatively” but rather “envision”, i.e. “grasp.” Thus “They seem to believe that, because they cannot grasp anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.” It is the ability to see outside of one’s presuppositions. Many pride themselves on imagining a potential reality beyond religious faith (which nowadays, is not that great of an accomplishment in my view); few are able to imagine a reality beyond scientific inquiry and principles. This is what I believe the article is addressing.

  • Arkenaten

    .So, being a sci-fi nut (like myself) simply doesn’t mean that one can imagine things outside of the purview of science.

    Maybe your reading listed is restricted?

  • bbrdca

    What many(if not most) atheists fail to understand, and the comments here demonstrate their lack of understanding, is that our current “cultural inculcation” in the west is not largely religious but anti-religious. The idea that man is the measure of all things is at its heart a statement of faith that is culturally celebrated and affirmed.

    Every statement I’ve seen for a human-centric epistemology is demonstrably meaningless by its own assumptions. The prime example of this line of thinking: “In order to be meaningful, a statement must be verifiable either through application of sound logic or empirical observation,” is itself not verifiable through the application of logic or empiricism so is therefore meaningless by its own standards.

    Clearly, they not only misunderstand Christianity but their own beliefs as well.

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