Atheist Scientists in Church

On Tuesday, Biologos featured an article written by Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. The occasion for the article is the release of Hutchinson’s new book. In Monopolizing Knowledge, Hutchinson engages scientism, which he defines as “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” This erroneous view, held by many inside and outside the sciences, “is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today.” Or to put it another way, the problem is not science versus religion, but scientism versus religion.

Hutchinson is right. And, as he points out, scientism has its own history and values and biases. Today, it shows up everywhere: in academia, where even those in the humanities feel the need to employ scientific categories; in churches, where, on the left and on the right, the mantle of science cloaks ignorance; and in the world of science popularization, where over-interpretation and over-selling of science is a daily occurrence.

Now it appears that scientism is showing up in a less conspicuous place: the home. On Wednesday, the Huffington Post published a piece written by Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology at Rice. She and her colleague Kristen Shultz Lee recently released the results of a study which indicates, among other things, that a sizable fraction of atheist scientists periodically take their children to church. There are a host of reasons for this, ranging from a desire for community to spousal influence, but the one that caught my eye is this: because of their identity as scientists, study participants “wish to expose their children to all sources of knowledge (including religion) and allow them to make their own, informed choices about a religious identity.”

Despite the appearance of the word “knowledge,” this strikes me as an example of Hutchinson’s scientism. Here, the scientific virtue of objectivity emerges; Howard writes, “One study participant, a chemist raised in a strongly Catholic home, said he came to believe later in life that science and religion are not compatible, but what he wants to pass on to his daughter — more than this belief — is the ability to make her own decisions in a thoughtful, intellectual way.” Therefore he takes his daughter to church. And presumably, to the mosque, temple, etc.

This evokes the ideal of a scientist brooding over her data, thoughtfully analyzing it, subjecting it to various tests, looking for patterns, seeking theory. There is much to be said for such a tack. It is rational. It appears for all the world to be fair and balanced. Yet it is not self-evident that this approach, which works so well at the lab bench, works as well everywhere else.

Moreover, as Hutchinson might remind us, the notion that one can stand above the fray of competing worldviews, carefully analyze them, and eliminate all but the best is itself the product of scientism, a distinct worldview with its own values, history, and biases.

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