How The Scientism Method Leads To Unhappiness, Death, and Disaster

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One of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers recently put out a weekend edition that prominently featured an essay on how much human life has improved in these last two centuries. The author is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whom we have heard on more than one occasion described as the “smartest guy in the country.”

His essay is stunning … in several ways. It celebrates two hundred years of human progress with a torrent of statistics. Here is a sample to encouraging factoids that support his thesis:  In the 30 years since 1988, the U.S. homicide rate and poverty rate have decreased significantly. Despite being richer and driving many more miles than today, we spew far fewer tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere compared with 1988.

Over the same period on the global scene, oil spills have been reduced from 46 to a mere 5; globally, nukes have reduced from 60,785 to 10,325; world poverty has been cut from 37 percent to 9.6 percent.  Hunger, malnourishment, and childbirth deaths have almost disappeared.  Poverty and war are next in line.

The good news goes on.  Throughout most of human existence on the planet, on average a newborn’s lifespan was thirty years. Now that average is 71 years — 81 years in the developed world. In the last 200 years, we’ve become smarter.  The average I.Q has increased by 30 points. (Aside:  the I.Q. test was developed a little over 100 years ago.) We have become less prejudiced against minorities, women, and homosexuals. Pinker reports that in 1900, women could vote in just one country and today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one (Vatican City). (A cheap shot:  the tiny city within a city usually does not hold elections!) And finally, we work fewer hours, eat better, travel more, and have more leisure.

But why?  What has been the cause of all this human progress?  Professor Pinker’s simplistic answer:  “The Enlightenment is working.” He describes this complex historical period as a time when “our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition, and authority with reason, debate, and institutions of truth-seeking.” The Enlightenment was a time when men like John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire “replaced superstition and magic with science.” And these men and others rebelled against the dominant intellectual force at the time, the Catholic Church.  But that is, indeed, a one-sided story.

From the time of the Apostles, the Christian church has been a force for human flourishing, recognizing the sanctity of the human person and spreading it as a concept. In the name of Christ — and omitted from the Pinker postmodern narrative — it has fed the hungry, ministered to the sick, and spread knowledge and learning.  During the long Dark Ages, its monasteries preserved and advanced knowledge, both secular and religious. During the medieval period, nearly all the major European scientists, such as Robert Grosseteste, Albert the Great, and Roger Bacon, were Roman Catholic priests; they saw advancing so-called “natural philosophy” (science) as a means of glorifying God. Christian scholars like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas built on Plato and Aristotle and advanced the Rule of Reason. They advanced powerful ideas, such as “all men are created equal,” that are foundational to democracy. Founders of the scientific method, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and many others were devoted Christians.

And who took these fruits of science and spread them throughout the world?  Not a committed core of atheists and secular humanists. Tens of thousands of Christian missionaries left their comfortable homes, not only to share their religious beliefs in an all-loving God, but to bring the knowledge and technology of the West to improve the lives of the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the New World. These include people such as Albert Schweitzer, the great Lutheran scholar and renowned organist, who gave up his career to be a medical missionary in Africa in the 19th century; dozens of Jesuits priests who knowingly faced torture and death to bring religion and civilization to the North American Indians during the 1500s and 1600s; and a German pastor and Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood against the Nazis and died at their hands in a concentration camp. And hundreds, like Father Damien the Leper on Molokai and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, embraced the victims of repulsive diseases to care for their needs and ease their deaths.

The glowing march of progress Professor Pinker describes was hardly the work of secular humanists like himself, but rather, in large part, by religious people bearing the same supposed dogmas and superstitions he imagines were used to weigh civilization down. It has been their work and the example of their lives, that have lifted so many out of misery.

And, yes, the path of history was often rocky, and there were some Church leaders and secular monarchs who resisted scientific inquiry. But that period of resistance to the legitimate use of science is long past.

But then there is the illegitimate use of science.  Unmentioned in this rosy paean to the Progressive era is the dark use of science, the use freed from the guiding hand of Scripture. Largely overlooked by Professor Pinker is the death toll caused by the 20th century’s wars, which together with a few other skirmishes brought about the deaths of about 123 million people: 37 million military deaths, 27 million collateral civilian deaths, 41 million victims of “democide” (genocide and other mass murder), and 18 million victims of non-democidal famine. The instigators of the largest of these horrors were three progressive reformers:  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  Each used the fruits of unleashed science to advance their “progressive reforms.” Each, too, was a committed atheist and sought to make a religion of science. (However twisted.)

While Professor Pinker is in all probability a more benign man than the three monsters above, he has committed that same intellectual error:  dogmatic scientism. This is the modern dogma that seeks to reduce all truth to what can be verified by the scientific method. This dwarfing and narrowing of knowledge to that which is empirically verifiable is an even greater error than his one-sided picture of the last two hundred years as a progressive march upward to a secular Nirvana. Try to sell this narrative to the war-ravaged masses of the Middle East or starving “citizens” of North Korea. Or, closer to home, to the millions of citizens in the grip of our opioid crisis or the emotionally damaged and physically compromised victims of the progressives’ sexual revolution.

To reduce knowledge only to that which can be observed by our senses is to limit knowledge to how things happen and never get to the deeper question of why­ we are here. Scientism is incapable of addressing, let alone answering, life’s truly important questions:  What is the purpose of my life?  What are worthy life goals?  Why be good?

This criticism of scientism is no mere abstract argument. Scientism and the worship of the scientific method is a seductive dogma and is drawing converts to its underlying religions — atheism and agnosticism.  Today, it is the guiding philosophy of American education from kindergarten through graduate school. Its apostles have created a school curriculum devoid of those ultimate questions. This, in turn, explains why our schools have been so successful as breeding grounds for young agnostics and atheists.

Professor Pinker has become this generation’s Pied Piper promoting a dangerous dogma of scientism, one without a grounded sense of what is right and what is wrong.  He is a major contributor to the formation of a generation of leaders and followers exclusively guided by the Pleasure Principle. As we are currently witnessing, without the strong pull of religion, mankind has little resistance to our toxic culture of drugs, selfish sexuality, and self-interest.  This is not the foundation of a healthy democracy, let alone a human life.


Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.