C.S. Lewis’ Critique of “Scientism”

C.S. Lewis held to many of the scientific conclusions of his day. Nonetheless, he was often critical of what others have sometimes called “scientism”—a worldview that treats science as a stand-alone teller of truth without a deeper epistemological basis and thus room for a metaphysics; a form of science that makes absolutist exclusive claims that lead it to assume more jurisdiction than its methodological parameters actually allow.

See the following quote from his lecture, “Is Theology Poetry?” or as we might rephrase it, Is Christianity nothing more than aesthetically pleasing mythology?


“The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of ‘Science’ mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience. That grand myth … is not for me a hostile novelty breaking in on my traditional beliefs. On the contrary, that cosmology is what I started from. Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it….

The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula or the remotest part obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory — in other words, unless Reason is an absolute — all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming.

Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficulty is to me a fatal one; and the fact that when you put it to many scientists, far from having an answer, they seem not even to understand what the difficulty is, assures me that I have not found a mare’s nest but detected a radical disease in their whole mode of thought from the very beginning. The man who has once understood the situation is compelled henceforth to regard the scientific cosmology as being, in principle, a myth; though no doubt a great many true particulars have been worked into it.

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Goodreads Review of Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest ReligionConfronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Christianity is the world’s largest religion. And as Rebecca McLaughlin argues, if nothing else just given the sheer mass of those who find its beliefs compelling, everyone at some point should give serious Christianity deep consideration.

If you are not a worshipper of Jesus, I want to commend this book to you and ask you to consider reading it.

A very good and thoughtful book addressing some of today’s most pressing issues re the veracity of Christianity. Believers as well will be both encouraged and stretched by picking up this volume.

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Carl Henry, Scientism, and Coronavirus

In Carl Henry’s classic work and magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, Henry describes modern society’s relationship to science as something of a contemporary, modernist religion — “scientism.”

Now, let’s be clear at the outset in case there be any temptation towards a skewed misunderstanding of what he (or I) am saying: Christianity is not opposed to science or modern medicine. In fact, Christianity is the only proper epistemic basis for science. A naturalistic, materialistic worldview has to borrow assumptions from Christianity in order to even make sense and provide a proper epistemological basis for science—in effect, materialistic modernity “colonizes” what is properly Christianity’s, what belongs (epistemologically) to Christianity as sourced in its worldview and belief in a personal God with his orderly creation. Furthermore, Christianity provides a basis for the sort of medical concern for others that a raw evolutionary “natural selection” on its own cannot justify and actually seems to run against (Mother Nature would actually say, “Just let the weak ones die”). But we digress. The point being—we, Christians, of all people should care about science; we care about medicine; and we should care about the best and most responsible ways of addressing this virus. So to be clear, none of what I’m about to say goes against that.

But as Carl Henry described it, “scientism” is a religion of modernity, which seeks “salvation” by attempting to gain absolute mastery over the natural order (the assumed limits of reality), with scientists as the new order of “priests” who mediate this soteriology (salvation) to us in the form of scientific and medical advancements. “If we can control the natural order, we can control our destiny. We can save ourselves from sickness and demise” (let alone the fact that scientific advancements have also made us better at developing ways to more efficiently destroy each other, like atomic bombs). In short, we put our hope in science and medical advancements. Again, not that we deny the benefits of scientific and medical advancement, but on its own, it falls woefully short. And as an ultimate (in effect, “religious”) hope, it proves to be an idolatry that serves our desire to replace God, another iteration of humanism, we might say, that in fact seeks to make us God.

If Carl Henry were alive today then, I imagine he would say something like this: if nothing else, when this Coronavirus is all said and done, and we’re able to look back and see (1) how much we weren’t able to control the material world as we might want, or at least in correspondence to the degree of hope we put in our science and medical knowledge (i.e., a lot, a lot), and (2) how conflicting our understanding of the data inevitably proved to be (just wait), or how wrong some of our methods showed (again, just wait), may it at least go to show us the bankruptcy of science as the “messiah” our society has held it up to be. May this season deconstruct our modernistic idolatries, show them for what they are, that we may more clearly see Christ for who he is, and put our hope (properly) in him.

The Opiate of Our Masses

Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses.

To the contrary, our opiate is ignoring questions of ultimate meaning. We pursue our careers, work our jobs, give ourselves to our relationships and families, dedicate ourselves to hobbies, pacify ourselves with substance and entertainment, while seemingly ever-avoiding the question, “What does it matter? What’s the point?” We are all going to die someday. So, what of all this will possibly escape death’s menacing judgment of “pointless!” “meaningless!” “trivial!”?

This is the elephant that looms large in the room. And we are content (dare I say, determined) to ignore and avoid it at all costs.

So great is our determination here that we have an unwritten (verbalized) rule for it. We want to privatize religion and its disruptive sort questions along these lines. They’re uncomfortable. “Don’t talk religion and politics,” we say, “(but especially religion)” we mean — that is, if you take religion as something more than sentimental tradition; that is, if you actually believe it to be making exclusive sort of truth-claims.

Some of us are dead set to avoid conflict. “Niceness” (at seemingly all costs) is our culture’s highest virtue. Others of us are far too uncontemplative, or maybe intoxicated with the triviality — “This stuff is all too serious. Take it easy, man.”

So, we keep ignoring that foreboding elephant. We’re like a child who has been given a certain chore to do. We fool ourselves into thinking that by postponing or neglecting it long enough it will just go away or be forgotten.

These questions may be controversial, taxing, and disruptive — they certainly are. And I’m very much aware that it’s quite easier and more soothing to just ignore them. But they are far too important for that.

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“‘Vanity of vanities!’ says the Preacher. ‘All is vanity!'” – Ecclesiastes

Lunatic, Lord, or Liar (C.S. Lewis)

The following two quotations, from Lewis’ Mere Christianity, constitute Lewis’ well known lunatic, lord, or liar argument, sometimes called Lewis’ “trilemma” or “mad, bad, or God.”

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book 2, chapter 3, paragraph 13; chapter 4, paragraph 1.

In short, Lewis argues the only two alternatives besides accepting that Jesus is God is to view him as either an immoral liar or an insane person who did not realize he was lying. Most non-Christians don’t exactly like those two alternatives to this Jesus figure who often seems to them seems like a pretty solid dude–just not God. But Lewis will have none of this riding the fence garbage. A good moral teacher would not claim to be God without actually being so. To falsely claim such, he must needs be either a lunatic or a liar. Thus, as Lewis argues, this common tact of taking Jesus as non-God, non-lord, great-moral-teacher is off the table.