Monday, November 12, 2007

Authentic Christian Humanism

One of the most disappointing things about some of the recent tensions between science and religion is the rupture it represents in the smooth flow of history. There isn't any rationally compelling reason why scientists can't have deeply held religious beliefs, or why Christians cannot pursue science with as much passion as anything else, but because of a few ignoramuses on both sides of the present Kulturkampf the fun is being spoiled for everybody. Since one of my own particular professional interests is the history and philosophy of science, I am keenly aware of the important and valuable contributions made by religious figures to the growth and development of natural philosophy. I have been especially interested in the biological writings of St. Albert the Great, for example, as well as the speculations of such writers as Erasmus, St. Thomas More, and others who contributed to the rise of humanism in the 16th century. Because the rise of humanism coincided with a resurgence of empiricism and materialism during the same period, some religious writers today are unreasonably suspicious of anything that they think smacks of "secular" humanism, including what some think to be an excessive devotion to science, dubbed by some "scientism".

This is unfortunate, but for the most part it seems to be confined to largely evangelical circles. However, some Catholics are also jumping on this bandwagon, and it is interesting to consider how this banal idea that there could be a significant disconnect between scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledge managed to infect the otherwise healthy academic credentials of the Catholic Church stretching all the way back to the time of St. Augustine and beyond. Now John Farrell has posted a fascinating essay on the question, Is the Church Indifferent to Science? at his blog, in which he suggests that this new trend of Illogical Positivism threatens to undermine the Church's capacity adequately to integrate contemporary science into its broader message to the world. As John writes in his peroration, "there is nothing to fear in the workings of the natural order", and I would add only that there is everything to fear in a movement that seeks to divorce the passionate study of the natural order from the passionate love of God and his creation.


Roland said...

I have not seen the term scientism used in quite the way you describe. As I understand it, scientism refers to a religious-style faith in science, often tied to an assertion that science is the only valid epistemology.

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on an instance where a young-earth creationist was awarded a Ph.D. in geosciences. This was controversial among left-wing scientists, who claimed he was undeserving of the degree because he did not share their belief in science as a dogmatic worldview, but only treated it as a working paradigm.

Fr Hugh said...

Thanks for this post!