Science and Religion

An Intellectual Poverty

Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, my best friend and I had a serious falling out. We had been friends — inseparable buddies — since our very first day of secondary school, when I mischievously pushed him into the rector, wearing his Batman academic gown, as we passed him in the corridor on our way to class. That was my first ever detention. My friend, who got the nickname ‘Electro’ for his phenomenal abilities in science, did exceptionally well at Maths, Electronics, and Physics. I was somewhat more pedestrian; preferring Art, History, and English. We survived school and went on to university. He went to Glasgow to study Physics and I went off to seminary in Salamanca, Spain — so much for the incompatibility of science and religion.

In the final year of his undergraduate, my friend was ‘approached’ by a recruiter from the British security services and found himself working at GCHQ in Cheltenham. Everyone in our small group of friends was interviewed by the government ‘vet’ charged with doing due diligence on our friend, and this was all very exciting. But he went on to do things he couldn’t tell us about — but that never stopped us asking. By pure coincidence, his grandfather was a parishioner of the Dublin church I had been attached to as a sub-deacon, and my friend and his family came to Ireland to visit him when he landed up sick in hospital.

His mother and the oldest girl stayed in a nearby hotel, and my friend, his brother, and youngest sister stayed with me. It was great to catch up with them, but of course they were concerned for their grandfather. One fateful evening we all ended up in the hospital at the same time; my friend and his family visiting and me doing pastoral rounds. Naturally, I had dropped in on their grandfather for a chat and before leaving read a psalm and said a short prayer with him for his health and recovery. In the main atrium, later, I collided with my friend and his family — and he was wearing a dark expression. ‘Is everything alright?’ I asked, thinking perhaps they had been given bad news. I was assuming their grandfather was only in for a routine treatment. ‘I am fine,’ he responded coldly, before adding ‘I will speak to you later.’ And he did.

That evening I went home and prepared some food for my houseguests, and, after eating, my friend asked: ‘Did you visit our grandpa tonight?’ I told him I did, and that he was looking well. And then came the explosion. Somehow my visiting his granddad equated to his granddad being given the last rites, and somehow that equated to me going out of my way to ‘terrify a vulnerable old man with backward superstitions.’ My friend was worried for his grandfather and there were other things going on I had earlier been made privy to, but this left me gobsmacked. Whatever way the shouting match twisted, it ended with me insisting that he tell me if he thought that I was stupid. ‘Of course you are,’ he barked as his face betrayed his regret. More quietly he added: ‘You have to be stupid to believe all that God stuff. Just stay away from my granddad, right.’ We didn’t speak much until they flew back home, and those — whatever our farewells were — were the last words we ever spoke to one another. Our friendship shattered with that disclosure of contempt.

At the heart of the secular worldview rests the dogmatic assumption of the backwardness and stupidity and ignorance of religion, and beside it sits the doctrine of the infallibility of science; a messianic scientism that holds with a blind faith the belief that science will solve all our problems and ultimately save us. This is the religion of the real ‘true believer’ because this is not science. The beauty and usefulness of science as a tool is that it is falsifiable. Scientism is not falsifiable. It is a quasi-scientific superstition — and it is a place of darkness and horror. Scientism put to the service of the state saw the faithful of this religion — people like my friend — work for ‘the greater good’ in the production of munitions and drones that would kill over a million innocent people in Iraq, including terrified and vulnerable old men.

Scientism is the great intellectual poverty of our age. It assumes its own intellectual superiority, but what it imagines to be ‘intellect’ is mere technical competence; the ability to programme circuits and switches to ‘behave’ in a desired way. This is not intellect. The Church, for all its failings — and there are many, stands on the back of the greatest intellectual tradition in the history of human civilisation. Theologians and moralists of the Christian tradition may not have the technical know-how to put a satellite into orbit around Mars, but we have always known why it is wrong to drop napalm on villagers and launch drone strikes on weddings.

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