Christian faith and science are often viewed as being in conflict in Western culture today. It’s important to understand that science is practiced within a worldview—a specific way of viewing the world, especially what counts for knowledge. Increasingly, people believe that the only things that count for real knowledge are those that can be scientifically verified. Scott and Sean interview Talbot philosopher JP Moreland about his new book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. Dr. Moreland will connect faith and science in a way consistent with a Christian worldview.




Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics here at Talbot School of Theology in Biola University.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here today with our colleague, Professor J.P. Moreland. Of the numerous books we could talk about, J., we want to talk today about your newest one that's just come out called Scientism and Secularism, subtitled: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology.

You've done a great job with this book. It's not for the faint of heart intellectually. It's for people who really want to think hard about some of the prevailing ideologies that shape our culture and may inadvertently shape the way people think today. So, J., thank you for doing the book. What motivated you to write this particular book at this time?

J.P. Moreland: Well, it's great to be with you guys and to have this opportunity to talk about this most important question. This November turns my 50th year of being a Jesus follower. I have just seen the culture go crazier and crazier, especially in the last 15 to 20 years.

Barna did a recent study to try to determine why there were so many millennials, let's just say people from 35 down, are abandoning the church and even Christianity. It was interesting that all six of the reasons they discovered have nothing to do with relationships or the youth group not being fun, but they were intellectual. They were things like, "I can't express my doubts or I get shunned." "When I ask questions, nobody knows the answer." One of them was that, "The church doesn't help me understand how to relate what I believe to modern science."

So I have seen this ideology, which we'll define a little bit later, do terrible damage to the church. It has weakened us, it has marginalized us. People do not take ethical or religious claims seriously any longer. So this ideology is something every parent, every youth director, every thoughtful layperson has to be able to spot and know how to respond to it.

Sean McDowell: J.P., the title of your book is Scientism and Secularism. What is scientism and why is it so dangerous?

J.P. Moreland: Well, that's a great question, Sean. Scientism is basically a view about knowledge and its limits. It says that the only way that you can know something is if you can prove it in the hard sciences. If you can quantify your data and test it in a laboratory in physics or chemistry or neuroscience, then you can really know it. But if you can't, then it's nothing but hot air or personal opinion or emotions or something like that.

I've you've ever been witnessing to somebody and they say, "Well, you can't prove that scientifically," well, they're saying that if you can't prove it scientifically, you can't know it. And that's scientism. I was at a dinner engagement where I was giving an evangelistic talk to some fairly well-educated unbelievers who were invited. I was told that one gentleman had his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins and hated Christians. That was encouraging.

Well, sure enough, when this gentleman came in and walked over to the hors d'oeuvre table before the meeting, he says to me, "Hey, say, I understand you're a philosopher and a theologian." And I said, "Well, I give it my best shot." And he said, "Yeah, I used to be interested in that kind of thing when I was a teenager. But when I matured and grew up intellectually, I came to realize that if you can't quantify your data and prove it in the laboratory, it is nothing but a bunch of idle opinion and hot air."

So scientism is the view that you can only know what can be proven in science, and if a statement is made that's ethical or religious or in some other ... artistic, then it can express your private opinions and feelings. But you can't know it's true. So if you try to push it on me, then you're legislating religion or morality, whereas if someone said, "There's hydrochloric acid in this beaker," nobody would say, "Hey, dude. You're legislating chemistry." Because we know chemical claims, but we can't really know religious claims. Maybe they're true, but who knows?

Sean McDowell: You make a distinction in the book, and we're going to kind of dive into the weeds here a little bit. I think it's really important to understand the heart of what you're arguing. The distinction is between strong scientism and weak scientism. Can you explain what you mean by that?

J.P. Moreland: Absolutely. The gentleman at that dinner party was expressing strong scientism, which is that science is the only way that we can know reality.

The problem with that is that it's self-refuting. Now, what in the world does that mean? Well, if something is self-refuting, it makes itself false, like the statement, "No statement is longer than three words." That statement is itself longer than three words, and so it's self-refuting.

Again, "I can't utter a word of English," would be self-refuting. Or, "There are no truths," is self-refuting. The statement, "The only way that you can know truth is through the hard sciences," is not something that itself could be known to be true through the hard sciences. There's no way to test that in a laboratory. So the statement makes itself false.

When that gentleman told me that he used to be interested in ethics and religion until he grew up and realized that science was the only path to knowledge and truth, I let him talk about two or three minutes and then I interrupted him and I said, "Listen, I'm having a problem with what's going on here. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask a question." I said, "You've made 20 or 30 assertions in the last few minutes, and I can't think of a single one of them that could be quantified and tested in the laboratory. If I'm wrong about that, please point out which statement you've made that could be tested in a lab. But, you see, if I'm right, then by your own standards, sir, all you've been doing the last two or three minutes is spewing hot air, idle opinion and personal feelings."

Well, he turned about three shades of white and changed the subject and, I'm not kidding, very quickly. So strong scientism is self-refuting because it says, "The only way we know reality is through the hard sciences." Weak scientism says, "Well, we might have some kind of minimal rational beliefs outside the hard sciences," so they'll say there are some things that are kind of minimally reasonable outside science. But the claims of science are vastly more rational than are the claims of other fields.

So, for example, they may be willing to grant that to common sense and to religion there may be some evidence that there's a soul or something like that. But now that neuroscience has moved into this area of study, and since science is so vastly superior, it ultimately trumps that minimal evidence that you might have from non-science. So science is still the trump card here either way.

Scott Rae: So you're saying essentially that weak scientism holds that anything that's not empirically verifiable is sort of like a second-class citizen when it comes to knowledge?

J.P. Moreland: Absolutely. That's exactly right. Absolutely.

Scott Rae: Let me get at one other element. You said a little bit about how the culture has been influenced by scientism. But how would you say that that's seeped into church and to people who hold to a robust Christian faith?

J.P. Moreland: Well, it has seeped into the church because it has caused Christians to abandon the life of reason and to substitute for it a modern version of faith. Faith today means the simple choice to believe something. It's usually arbitrary. In fact, as one dear woman put it to me, "The more reason you have for believing in Christianity, the less room there is to have faith." So faith is a choice to believe in the absence of reason.

Now, why would people in the church start adopting that and relying overly on personal testimony and personal experience with God, which are both important? But we can't use that solely, the Mormons do that. And we need more than that.

Well, the reason is that we have been bullied into believing that reason is on a the side of atheists, because reason can only be found in science, and science ... that view tells us that religious claims can't be rational. So reason doesn't play any role there in the life of discipleship.

Scott, we have so many young people, according to a study by The Navigators who go to college from good youth groups, and they lose their faith because while they were in church they were told what to believe, but they weren't told why. Now, why would parents and youth directors not do that? Well, I think the answer is that they don't think that reason matters all that much. I believe that's because they have bought into scientism without knowing it.

Scientism is in the drinking water. So you just have to wake up and live to absorb it. You don't have to know the term. But if you actually live in a culture that tells you that the medical doctor has more authority than the pastor, because the medical doctor bases his advice on what we can really know and the pastor only on what we have to choose to believe, then that's why I think it's damaged Christianity.

Scott Rae: Let me push on this a little bit further. What's been the impact culturally that you've seen from this scientism being in the drinking water, to how we view ethics and morality?

J.P. Moreland: Boy, that is such a good question. Well, in my book, Scientism and Secularism, I have a whole section on the harm that scientism has done to ethics and morality. The fundamental idea here is that if you make a moral claim, like, "It is wrong to have sex before you get married," kids are going to say, "Well, you know, that's a nice faith thing, but nobody really knows that that's wrong. That's your opinion, or maybe that's the Bible's opinion. But there are a lot of people who have a different opinion. And there's no way to know who's right, even if anybody is right." So what this has led to is more relativism and what we might call post-modern constructivism, where people now feel free to join groups that create their own reality. And truth means that it's accepted by my group. "You have your truth. I have my truth. If you try to tell me your truth then you're being intolerant and bigoted."

And so the reason again is that since you can't test ethical claims in a physics lab or in the hard sciences, then ethical claims are mere expressions of individuals' or groups' feelings and attitudes. So this leads then to more relativism, because there's no one that's true, no one has truth, or certainly no one knows whether they've got the truth.

One other thing, Scott, this has been led to the shift from authority to power. Authority is the right to be obeyed, because what you're doing is intrinsically right and we know it. So if we hold that certain moral views can be known, then there is authority behind those who express them. But if everything is relative and we can't know the truth in ethics because it's not scientific, then all you're left with is power, where one group tries to impose its views on everybody else.

That's why we're seeing the political chaos today, is because people are trying to gain power to have their views enforced since there's no longer any moral authority, since there's no moral knowledge.

Sean McDowell: J.P., let me ask you this. It seems like in the past two or three years we've seen people just avoiding common sense scientific truths, in particular related to gender, because of somebody's experience or feelings. Is this the result of scientism, in the sense in the book you say that truth shifts to "the immediate satisfaction of desire"? Or are we seeing the emergence of a new kind of authority in the self and the feelings above science?

J.P. Moreland: Well, I think it's actually both. I think the former is leading to the latter. Let me try to explain here.

I think that this really is the result of scientism, because what you do is you say that the concept of gender is not a scientific concept, biological sex may be, but gender is a socially relative belief of culture.

So we can know a biological sex, because that can be proven scientifically, but that's got nothing to do with gender, which really involves how a person feels or sees themselves. So gender then is brought outside the realm of science, which then makes it unknowable. And if nobody can know how many genders there are or what gender a certain person is, then guess what? We're free to do anything we want in that area, because nobody can tell us we're wrong. Why? Because they don't know anymore than we do.

So I do think then that there is a new authority that has replaced common sense knowledge. And that authority is whatever the group that I belong to says is real and true, as long as what they say makes me feel safe and okay about myself so I can live a life pursuing the satisfaction of my desires.

And, Sean, the thing I'm trying to tell people is that if you want to get to the bottom of this, it really is a shift in what we believe as knowledge. And scientism is really the culprit. It is what secularized Europe, and it is what is secularizing America. Now, there are other things of course, but this is at the rock bottom. That's why in the book Scientism and Secularism I help people identify this ideology and have a rational response to it. It's very important.

Sean McDowell: J.P., I think it's brilliant that you tie the heart of scientism to the question of not only authority, but what counts as knowledge. At the university, that's what we do, is we explore and try to learn and understand knowledge. So I'm curious if you could talk about how scientism has shaped the university, and maybe ways that a place like Biola, a Christian school, can push back on that and actually offer a more holistic sense of knowledge that humans can better flourish with that worldview?

J.P. Moreland: You're so right. In the university, if you are a professor in the humanities, let's say you're a professor in sociology or literature or philosophy or something of that sort, and somebody asked you, "Professor, are you trying to tell your students the truth?" They could get fired by answering that question, "Yes." Because, are you trying to give your students knowledge about reality? They would freak at the very question.

Now, if the question is, "Are you trying to give them the truth of what [inaudible] believed?" Of course. But if you give an ethics exam and the questions were, "Is this right?" And you were supposed to say true or false, you could literally be taken to the dean's office, because you would be legislating morality to your students in the test.

Now, if you asked, again, "Was Aristotle a virtue ethicist?" Well, you could say true or false on that. But if you asked the question, "Is abortion wrong?" or is some virtue right, you couldn't do that.

At Harvard, this literally happened. Someone [inaudible] business ethics at Harvard years ago. The problem was that none of the faculty could agree on what virtues, if any, should characterize somebody in business. And so they had no idea what a business ethicist would do. Who knows? Nobody can agree on this.

So I would say the university is in absolute chaos. They've grabbed for a naturalistic and even a somewhat Marxist worldview, just to give some meaning to their lives, and they're indoctrinating our students into what are called social justice universities, because there's no knowledge outside the hard sciences.

Scott Rae: J., just to underscore your point about business ethics at Harvard, years ago Chuck Colson, one of his good friends was giving a nice sum of money to Harvard to start ... had an endowed chair in business ethics and started a business ethics program, and Colson told him point blank, "You're wasting your money, because Harvard can't teach ethics." And the guy pushed back really hard and said, "I don't believe you. In fact, I challenge you to go and say that to the faculty and students at Harvard." And so Colson took him up on it. He went around to all the Ivy League schools, including his alma mater at Brown with a lecture entitled, Why Harvard, Brown, Yale Can't Teach Ethics.

Those, actually, they're available. In fact, we'll put a link to that in the transcript of our podcast. The transcript of Colson's talk at Harvard is still available to folks, even though he did that years ago.

J.P. Moreland: Wow, Scott. That is unbelievable.

Scott Rae: That was probably 30 years ago that that happened.

Let me go back to a couple different things. You used the term "moral knowledge" here, which I think most people in our culture would say is an oxymoron. How do we know things about morality, as opposed to them just being opinions?

J.P. Moreland: Well, first of all, we don't have to answer that question before we can know something. There is a view in philosophy called particularism. That's the idea that there are cases of things that we can know without having to know how we know them.

That, "I had coffee this morning." I know that. But there are all kinds of theories about how you know it, because memory's unreliable sometimes. So you can't say, "Well, I know it because I remember it," because that's going to invite the question, "How do you know your memory was reliable in that case?" And you're going to end up in an infinite regress.

Another example is, "I know two and two is four. I know that I am feeling a pain in my ankle right now. I know that kindness is a virtue, not a vice and so does everybody else." So there are some things we know without having to know how we know them. Those are basic, basic truths in the various areas of life, like math, ethics, beauty, and things like that. Now-

Scott Rae: That's a great point. In fact, I've found that people actually ... the claim to know something, something about morality, is stronger once they are a victim of injustice.

J.P. Moreland: There you go.

Scott Rae: In fact, we found that people actually become pretty rigid absolutists about morality, and they claim for sure that they can know when they've been a victim of injustice.

J.P. Moreland: Oh, I was in a guy's dorm room and he was espousing relativism, so I said, "Okay, I've got to get out of here, but thanks for the time." And I started walking out with his stereo. The guy said, "You can't do that." And I said, "Well, I've lifted weights for years. I don't need help. I can carry this out." And he said, "No, no, no. I mean ... " and I said, "You're not telling me I shouldn't do it are you? Because I'm a relativist. I think you're right. And I think music helps me in my quiet times with God in the morning." This guy all of a sudden thought it was absolutely wrong for me to steal stuff from him. So that illustrates your point.

Scott Rae: Exactly.

Sean McDowell: J.P., what's a stereo? I'm a little ... I'm sorry. I ... I couldn't resist.

J.P. Moreland: That was so good. You got me, dude. I mean, I'm a dead man.

Sean McDowell: Let me ask you, we've got a couple more questions for you before we wrap up, but part of the critique that you raised against scientism is that, number one, we can know things apart from science, but also that science itself relies upon philosophical assumptions. What do you mean by that? Tell us what some of those assumptions are.

J.P. Moreland: Yeah. Well, science makes a number of assumptions. For example, it assumes that the laws of mathematics and logic are true. It assumes a certain theory of what truth is. Namely, truth is some kind of correspondence with reality. It assumes a view of what a good explanation is or what knowledge is. It assumes that the universe is objectively ordered and that our minds and our senses are suited to be able to know the external world.

Now, the problem is, every single one of these assumptions, Sean, every on of them, is being rejected by a large portion of the academy today. Every one of them. The task of clarifying the assumptions of science and justifying them is a task for philosophy. Because if we cannot justify the assumptions of science, then science cannot be taken as a reliable guide to truth, because something is no better than its assumptions. So if we can't justify those assumptions, we're going to have to interpret science as being useful but not true. We just have to say, "Well, the theories of science help us make predictions and develop technology, but they're just pragmatically useful. But that doesn't mean they're true."

So scientism undermines science, because it undermines the attempt to state and defend its assumptions, and that's a task of philosophy. So scientism turns out to be an enemy of science, not a friend.

By the way, Sean, all of the things I mentioned, the laws of logic and math, the nature of truth and so on, are things we know, but we don't know them to the methods of science.

Scott Rae: So, J., you would ... let me see if I've got this right. You would say that there's no conflict between Christian faith and science, but there's a conflict between Christian faith and scientism?

J.P. Moreland: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Scott Rae: Is that right?

J.P. Moreland: Science is wonderful. As I say in the book, 95% of scientific claims have nothing to do with Christianity. I don't care if methane has four hydrogen atoms or 15. It doesn't make any difference to me. The rest of the 5%, I'd say 3% have actually supported Christianity, the discovery of the universe had an origin and it's fine-tuned and so on. And 2% are problems. But it's interesting. They don't count against God or the Resurrection. They usually are problems with the early chapters of Genesis.

So the difficulties, there are some difficulties raised by science. But I think there are answers to that. But in any case, you're right. Science overwhelmingly is a friend and it's something Christians should go into and embrace. But scientism is a very dangerous ideology.

Scott Rae: J.P., thank you so much for hanging out with us and telling us a little bit more about your book. We recommend all of our listeners, this is a book you ought to get a hold of. Because even though it is sort of a trip into the weeds periodically, one of the things you do so well is you write with such clarity, and it's easy to understand. You take people pretty high up there in the altitude, but it's always clear where you're going and the points you're trying to make. So we're very thankful, not only for your work in this book, but your work on other areas integrating philosophy, science and Christian faith.

So we want to recommend his book, again, Scientism and Secularism, subtitled: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. J., thanks so much for being with us.

J.P. Moreland: It has been my privilege, guys.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. J.P. Moreland, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. That's Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically.

If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.

View Episode Transcript