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What is Scientism?

Scientism is the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values.

Is Scientism a real thing or just an insult?

Scientism is used as an insult by denialists, e.g. anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers, in a dismissive way. Think of terms like “snowflake”. Same difference.

Regardless, Scientism is actually a real criticism that has its own, legitimate place in dogma-related discourse.

When many people talk about scientism as a criticism, they are referring to a dogmatic view of science. This view originates from a miscalculation of what the reasonable limits of science are. It is true, of course, that science has been of nearly unlimited value to human life and will likely continue to contribute enormously to all kinds of human endeavours. But we have to “keep it real” when it comes to its limits.

Science can tell us a whole lot of things, from how the body works to how the universe works, what things are made up of and how we can control certain aspects of our surroundings in a more potent way. We can use it to make our lives easier. So what can’t science do?

What science can’t do, where it’s limited, is making conclusions. What do I mean by this? Well, take Sam Harris’ proof for the absence of free will, for instance. He states that “the brain reacts to stimuli according to a pattern that arose through its previous thought patterns and genetic configurations” (paraphrasing). This is true. Scientifically speaking, our brains our initially the product of genetic configurations and develop different “neural pathways” according to the thought patterns we most often use, fortifying these in order to make easier, faster judgements. Considering that the world is most often regarded as a long, diverse chain of cause/effect relations, one might conclude that there is indeed an absence of free will. But here’s the thing: science can only provide us with the middle part of the equation. The first part, the definition of free will, is a philosophical concept. As is the last part, which combines different datasets and evidences into a conclusion. Science is the thing that provides the evidence. Hence the saying: “philosophy without science is lame, science without philosophy is mute”.

Another thing science can’t do, is make implication-decisions or moral decisions. What do I mean by this, exactly? Well, look at self-driving cars, for instance (something with which I have a bone to pick, but that’s for a later article). Self-driving cars have lead to a number of moral conundrums. Such moral conundrums that we may be tempted to ask ourselves, “ought we even try to do this?” This question, however, hasn’t aptly been answered, and it has been a rare occurrence that this question has even seen the light of day when it comes to media. Science tends to simply do things because it can and wants to experiment with things in order to gain more knowledge. It is, in this sense, amoral. Amorality, or perceived amorality, however, is often dangerous because it tends toward immorality. Simply put; if you fancy yourself amoral, you might be tempted to do immoral things for easy gains under the mistaken impression that your deeds have no moral effect.

Luckily, scientists are humans and ostensibly are somewhat philosophically educated. They, therefore, tend to realise the potential consequences of their experiments and projects. In these cases, they might consult philosophers on how to approach these moral conundrums, like we see in the examples of the self-driving car or genetic modification.

Scientism, then, is the unrealistic approach of the capabilities science has. It is often the denial of such things as the limits that science has, or the belief that only science can come to objective truths about the universe. Science, rather, can only provide us with measurements and answers to very specific questions. This doesn’t subtract anything from it’s impeccable use to get us to a more pleasant or productive life, it’s just being realistic and understanding that any worthwhile answer to any of the big or smal questions will be a result of both science and philosophy employed in unison to tackle it.

How does that relate to Atheism?

As is understandable, many atheists attach great value to science as a non-dogmatic way to get to the truth of important issues in the world. The problem here is that many atheists do so emphatically and border on the (if not are straight up) dogmatic.

Many atheists profess the honest belief that science will solve all world mysteries. And, I hold the personal hope that science will solve a whole lot of the world’s problems. But the fact is that many atheists simply don’t know, understand or believe that science has its limits. This is a shame, because it chips away at the rationality many atheists pride themselves on.

The similarity is, of course, striking between a theist who says “There is no truth without God”, and an atheist who says “There is no truth without science”.

Of course, the science perspective is a lot more reasonable, but it is no less a dogmatic perspective.

So how is Atheism in any way political?

When we are talking about political ideals, we are talking, most broadly, about opinions that reflect a perceived ideal state of affairs as pertaining to government or public affairs. It is in this case that we may already see the angles in which atheism is a political ideology which most closely resembles the ideal of ‘secularism’. Secularism is an ideology that heavily relies on the separation of church and state. It is the opinion that the state should not be under direct control, or under control of the church or any other religious institution. Remember the “religious institution” part, it’s fairly important where we are about to go. We find the source of the modern separation of church and state in the enlightenment period in Europe, where philosophy gained traction over dogmatism and people realised that the clergy class and the ruling class were synergetic in their exercising of power. The church supported the government’s rule and used religion to “whip” public support for that government. The government, in turn, would support piety and enforce religious rules where the church was unable to do so. The important thing, then, is to realise that secularism is a result of the separation from church and state and is directly analogous to it.

Secularism, then, is the ideology that a government should not enforce religious rules because they are religiously established, this does not, however, prevent the government from enforcing religious rules that were voted on and passed through a democratically elected parliament. This makes sense, because if it were the case that religiously motivated laws were a priori non-enforceable, we would be limiting the freedom of speech and the “marketplace of ideas” that liberal democracies such as those in the Western hemisphere thrive upon. There is a name for this, though, and it is called “separation of religion and state”.

When confronted with the fact that atheism is a political ideology (an accusation often launched towards Muslims), and not just a status of belief, atheists will often be quick to point out that they are secularists and that atheism is not a political ideology. We may be tempted to accept this, were it not that atheist ideology ranges farther than mere secularism. It is true that many atheists support a secular state, that is to say, a state that does not take orders from any church or attaches more value to the judgements made by certain churches. Atheism ranges farther than secularism, because it attacks, head-on, the political arguments made by the religious right. Above all, there is a clear political orthodoxy, which is more or less enforced, depending on what sections of the ‘atheist community’ one tends to hang around in. Perhaps above all, though, there’s a cult of personality going on in most of these groups, where people are seen as authorities not due to their arguments, but because of what they meant for the movement. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are held in high esteem. All three of these have contributed significantly to the atheist movements.

Atheism, as a political ideology, goes a smidge farther than mere secularism, venturing well into the realm of the separation of religion and state. One example of this is the discussion on abortion. Though there is always bound to be overlap here and there (such is after all the nature of political ideologies, they’re not explicit orthodoxies), generally speaking, we can classify atheist ideology as being “pro-choice”. In fact, in large swaths, we can paint a picture of atheists as being roughly progressive when it comes to social issues. Most will support euthanasia, some sort of welfare, etc. We can even say that the atheist political ideology is fairly technocratic (technocracy, government based on technical experts). Atheists rely on science very much and will at various times use scientific findings as their basis for political opinion.

All of this is not necessarily to pass judgement on the atheist ideology. Like all other kinds of ideology, they raise necessary and often worthwhile questions about the way we live in our societies. It is, in their own way, valuable. It is to say, though, that maybe the atheist community of free thinkers, as they often referred to themselves in the early 2000s, should focus more on the “free-thinking” part than on the community part. If they don’t, they might lose that which is most valuable to them and to any kind of political movement; original solutions for current problems.

American Atheists & The ACA

American Atheists and the Atheist Community of Austin are big proponents of the non-theist = atheists. I have already mentioned Aron Ra, regional director of American Atheists. He had previously served as president of the Atheist Alliance of America. I also mentioned Matt Dillahunty, an American atheist activist and the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin.

American Atheists

Their Wiki:

American Atheists is a non-profit organization in the United States dedicated to defending the civil liberties of atheists and advocating complete separation of church and state.[1] It provides speakers for colleges, universities, clubs, and the news media. It also publishes books and the quarterly American Atheist Magazine, edited by Pamela Whissel.[1][2][3]

Their about:

American Atheists is dedicated to advancing the civil rights of atheists, promoting separation of religion from government, and providing information about atheism. Over the last fifty years, American Atheists has fought to defend the separation of religion from government with legal actions, lobbying the federal and state government, and engaging in protests and other public actions to ensure that the rights of atheists are protected.

American Atheists

Their vision:

American Atheists envisions a world in which public policy is made using the best evidence we have rather than religious dogma and where religious beliefs are no longer seen as an excuse for bigotry or cause to receive special treatment from the government. We fight for religious equality for all Americans by protecting what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between state and church created by the First Amendment.

What we can see here is an honourable position to take, preventing religious doctrine from infecting policy, we can also see that a numbers game would be important to them. The more people on their “side” the more support they would have and therefore the non-theist = atheist is a useful tool for them. Atheism is being used as a political tool to further an agenda and numbers are required to do this.

Please note, this is not an “atheist agenda”. This is an agenda by people who are using atheism to push it.

Ultimately I think their goal is a sound and just one. I also think we should be aware of what they are doing, the things they say, and why they might be saying them.

Atheist Community of Austin (ACA)

The Atheist Community of Austin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state. The ACA serves the local Austin community through outreach programs, providing informational resources and various volunteer activities. In addition, the ACA serves the community-at-large through free online portals including informational wikis, regular audio/video podcasts and interactive blogs.

We are affiliated with a number of national and international groups devoted to atheism, freethought, or secular humanism.

About the ACA

Again, we can see a positive goal, separation of church and state, positive atheism etc, and again we can acknowledge numbers are important to further the agenda.

One thing that does annoy me about atheist groups (he says posting from a mostly atheist/agnostic blog) is the divisive nature. It is one of the things dislike about politics and religion. The divisive nature of them. I’d like us to work together to do what is best for humanity and work together as the entire human race rather than our separate tribes. Of course, when you have some tribes, like the religious ones, claiming they have the truth and the way and try and infect your politics and policies based on their religion which at the very least has aspects that are demonstrably false, you do have to take a stand against them. You have to have this divide.

So whilst I have the luxury of discussing things with folks online, either as myself in debate groups on facebook, or as Answers in Reason on twitter, doing my best to have fair and reasoned discussions as possible, I do understand the need for the split, and I understand the need for the numbers.

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