THE IDOLATRY OF SECULAR SCIENCE
Arthur Jones argues that Christians have to learn from and reject both the modernist and post-modernist enterprises
Dreams and Desires
We are living in a time when the whole culture is radically changing. One of the characteristics of such times - which gives a feeling of strangeness - is that the worldview which is passing away can actually be accentuated. Instead of the modern giving way to the postmodern it can seem that it has become hypermodern. The old idols of science, technology and economic growth are being worshipped with exemplary devotion. We believe as fervently as ever that science is the way to gain true knowledge. In the media, science captures the headlines, and its best-selling authors claim that it is now the intellectual centre stage.
'...if you aren’t someone who can talk in general terms about scientific as well as nonscientific issues, you aren’t civilised.' (Steve Jones)1
We continue to pursue that scientific knowledge in order to gain technological control over the world (the human as well as the natural). We want that technological power in order to achieve constant economic growth. And the goal of all this? A consumer paradise: the freedom to accumulate consumer goods - especially the latest technological wonders - and the time to enjoy the latest leisure and holiday experiences. In post-election euphoria (or despair!) it is worth reflecting on the fact that all the main political parties tacitly support that modernist agenda. But meanwhile the foundations have been crumbling.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
Many developments have come together to undermine the faith in science. Ironically one has arisen from science itself. For three centuries, science has been dominated by a materialistic worldview based upon the belief that the universe is like a gigantic mechanism. Much popular science remains trapped in that worldview - witness Richard Dawkins’ description of living things as ‘survival machines’.2
Yet this century’s ‘new physics’ (relativity, quantum theory, chaos theory) has blown apart the scientific materialism of the past in a series of stunning advances. Matter has been deposed, to be replaced by concepts such as organisation, complexity and information. Mystery has returned through the front door as scientists develop theories that take us way beyond common sense, indeed to a reality that is impossible to visualise. Science is shifting away from reductionism in a movement as profound as anything in its history. 3
But this is not all. The horrors of modern warfare, environmental damage and global pollution are now often blamed on science, leading to widespread disillusionment and cynicism. Try as they may, scientists can not wash their hands of all responsibility. More importantly, forty years of detailed work in the history and philosophy of science - and, more recently, in the sociology of knowledge - have shown that science’s claim to be uniquely objective cannot be upheld.4
Like all human activities, the sciences are a mixture of good and bad, and operate within frameworks of belief that can and must be critically examined. Many people conclude from this that pluralism and relativism have won the day - and just as well, they add, since the ‘grand narratives’ have always functioned as tools of oppression and violence. That claim must itself be critically examined, but clearly it is not possible to return to the age of scientific innocence.5
Which way should Christians go? We cannot wholeheartedly embrace either modernity or postmodernity, but we must learn from both. We must vigorously oppose the pluralism and relativism of the latter, without retreating to the equally idolatrous faith of modernity in scientific reason.6
Keep Yourselves from Idols
If only we could leave it there! Sadly, these matters affect us much more deeply and seriously than we often realise. The point about our worldview is that it is not necessarily what we say it is, or even what we think it is. In these modern times of shallow education, our capacity for self-deception is very great. Worldviews are seen in how we actually live. And there’s the rub. Most of us Christians live our lives on the basis that the secular worldview is true. We have all been so immersed in it (and the mass media make it all-pervasive) that, almost unawares, we find it totally convincing. On every hand it is justified and glorified by the “successes” of modern science. Which is why we must be critically aware of science’ s true place in the scheme of creation (i.e., creaturely relative to God). We have already noted science’s pre-eminence in the modern trinity of science, technology and economics. We allow those idols to govern our life and thought. They shape school curricula in every subject (Christian education concerns the whole curriculum, not just RE!). But this is still near the surface. When the objectivity and power of science is regarded as undergirding secularism, then it is the secular faith in individual human reason that is sustained. It is by our reason alone that we are expected to judge every (public) situation and issue and come to a decision. In education - as the goal of individual rational autonomy - it is far more than “teaching children to think for themselves”. Everywhere it is the exclusion of values and beliefs, of God and faith.
Given the secular assumptions (No Way to follow; no Truth to heed; tacitly a meaningless universe in which we must create our own meaning), the individual’s right to choose for his/herself becomes the absolute moral priority that overrides all others.7 It is expected that every family and community will portray commitment, not as a necessary moral requirement (e.g., to the first commandment, and to the Gospel in the case of Church), but merely as one among many possible options. All are morally (as well as physically) free to join or leave. To stand against this is to draw the ultimate cries of abuse: intolerance, fundamentalism, or , in education, indoctrination.
All social institutions therefore (communities and families included) are now seen primarily as organisational arrangements. Such arrangements tend to be constantly changing and ephemeral. When problems arise, the solutions will be in terms of better management or professional therapy (from counsellor, social worker, psychiatrist etc). Overall these are the key social roles today.8 Because we have absorbed this all-pervasive individualism, we even read the Bible in its terms, seeing its claims on personal piety, but not those on social justice.
In their schools, our children must be exposed to all options so that their right to choose is respected. In RE they learn about, egg, Islam and Hinduism as well as Christianity. Of course, what they really learn is that no religion has a compelling claim to be treated as true. They are placed at the centre of the moral universe; they are trained to be secular liberals. In reality it is a great deception. Options are certainly not presented in most subjects, certainly not in science! On the contrary, the total absence of reference to God and faith underlines the irrelevance of God to most of life.9 Secularism claims to provide the political and educational settings in which all are free to choose their own life, where no view is imposed, and where the state and school are neutral between competing worldviews. In reality, secularism is one more totalitarian option for private and public life which is an enemy of the Gospel of Christ. Only the continuing faith in science hides its nakedness. And again it is worth remembering that all the main political parties play to this secularist tune.
The Gospel as Public Truth10
We can not claim that the Gospel is God’s Truth for all of life unless our church communities are the living proof that it is. The public realm is not religiously neutral. All states in their public affairs worship some god or gods. All schools are religious schools. We are called to the re-discovery and re-establishment of Christian community and culture - i.e., to a real Christian distinctiveness in a pagan world. But that is a hard task - a life and wallet commitment. When we pray for revival, we must remember what it will entail!
Arthur Jones is Research Consultant for Curriculum Development to the Christian Schools’ Trust. He is also a part-time science and religion lecturer in the extra-mural departments of London and Bristol Universities.
Notes: 1. S Jones. In John Brockman, The third culture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, p 24. 2. R Dawkins, The selfish gene. Oxford: OUP, 1989, 2nd Ed, 352 pp. 3. Paul Davies & John Gribbin, The matter myth: towards 21st-century science. London: Viking (Penguin), 1991, 314 pp. 4. See, egg, Alan Chalmers, What is this thing called science? Open University Press, 1982, 2nd Ed, 179 pp, and Steven Shapin, The scientific revolution. University of Chicago Press, 1996, 218 pp. 5. Roy Clouser, The myth of religious neutrality. University of Notre Dame Press, 1991, 330 pp. 6. See Lesslie Newbigin, Proper confidence, London: SPCK, 1995, 105 pp; Richard Middleton & Brian Walsh, Truth is stranger than it used to be. London: SPCK, 1995, 250 pp; D A Carson, The gagging of God. Leicester: Apollos (IVP), 1996, 640 pp. 7. Paul Marshall, Liberalism, pluralism and education. In J Shortt & T Cooling (Eds), Agenda for educational change. Leicester: Apollos (IVP), 1997, ch 2, pp 45-56. 8. Alasdair MacIntyre, After virtue: a study in moral theory. London: Duckworth, 1985, 2nd Ed, 252 pp. 9. See Lesslie Newbigin’s books, esp Foolishness to the Greeks. London: SPCK, 1986, 156 pp (see pp 39, 67, 140. 10 See Lesslie Newbigin’s books, esp, The Gospel in a pluralist society (London: SPCK, 1989, 244 pp) and Truth to tell (London: SPCK, 1991, 90 pp).
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