Several decades ago, a Russian cosmonaut returned from his first venture into space and proudly announced that he had been into the heavens and could now verify that God was nowhere to be seen. This finding, of course, fit nicely into the atheistic picture of reality that prevailed in the Soviet Union of those days.
More than simply a glib pronouncement on the non-existence of God, however, the remark was expressive of what has come to be known as “scientism.” Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, provides a good definition of scientism: “Scientism is the scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.”
Put even more simply, scientism is the belief that whatever cannot be experienced by the senses, i.e., seen, touched, heard, etc., simply does not exist. First and foremost, this means that God does not exist because he cannot be subjected to scientific observation and proof.
One of the most well-known gurus of scientism was the late Carl Sagan, best known for his popular television series “Cosmos.” Sagan was unrelenting in his insistence that the methods and speculations of science are absolutely necessary for the proper understanding of all reality. Science, then, surpasses any other form of knowledge, including religion. In the “religion” of scientism, only matter is eternal. “Mother Earth” was for Sagan the only god to be worshiped, as is the case for many who espouse New Age thinking.
In his book “Cosmos,” Sagan wrote that “our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?” (p. 243).
But scientism has now taken a curious turn. Several years ago scientists at the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, Maryland, performed experiments that convinced them that what religion calls the moral conscience is, in fact, nothing more than basic brain activity. Remaining true to the tenets of scientism, these scientists would allow no explanation of moral action other than the claim that that’s the way our brains are wired.
What is interesting, however, is that, instead of using science to discredit religion, these scientists seem to be claiming that what people of faith have known all along can now be substantiated by the scientific method. It’s an intriguing twist, but in the end scientism reigns supreme.
Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua Greene, as good an example of scientism as anyone, has stated that his goal as a scientist is “to reveal our moral thinking for what it is: a complex hodgepodge of emotional responses and rational (re)constructions, shaped by biological and cultural forces . . .” There it is. For Greene — as for all serious proponents of scientism — not only do conscience and morality have no objective meaning or content or even less do they come from God, the human person is ultimately understood to be no more than the product of cultural and biological forces.
This way of thinking is becoming more and more acceptable in what has been called our “age of science.” It has infected even people of faith. Recent studies have shown that a good number of Catholics believe that they must choose between science and faith because the two are not compatible. And for those who think it must be one or the other, faith is losing. Nowhere is it more obvious than in the implicit — and even explicit at times — agreement that conscience is, in fact, nothing more than what I think and feel about a particular subject. My own personal thoughts are understood to be little other than the effects of the culture in which I live. And so, even for some Catholics, the moral conscience has little to do with God or his revelation or the natural law. Rather, conscience has everything to do with how I, as an individual, perceive reality.
In an age of relativism such as ours it is vitally important that we appreciate that God is the source of all truth and meaning. He created that world and all that is in it. It is his law that governs right behavior. It is his truth that informs and binds every human conscience. It is his truth that is communicated authoritatively by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (No. 1783).