Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the June/July Edition of First Things.
Is science really at war with religion? Pamela Winnick’s answer is a firm and worried yes. And in A Jealous God she demonstrates that this war threatens not only religion but science as wellwith the threat coming from the very people who perceive themselves to be science’s most dedicated defenders. The ideology known as philosophical scientism is erasing the boundary between science and politics as it continually blurs crucial distinctions between objective knowledge and subjective belief.
As a result, trust in scienceearned over the last few hundred years by advances that have materially improved the human conditionis eroding. For example, 56 percent of respondents to a recent poll conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University agreed that “scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society.”
Science, properly understood, is a method for gaining and applying knowledge about the workings of the physical and natural worlds. Science is apolitical. It is also amoral. Its purview is the three-dimensional universe and its elements, which scientists can observe, identify, measure, and test.
Scientism is almost the mirror opposite: Where science is objective, scientism is subjective. Science is about gaining information. Scientism is about proselytizing for a belief. Science is a means. Scientism is an end. Where science sticks to facts and testing hypotheses, scientism purports to convey Truth.
It is important to distinguish these contrasting approaches. Genomic science, for example, tells us that humans share many genes in common with animals. But it was scientism speaking when journalist John Darnton wrote that Darwin’s theory of evolution means that the universe is “godless” and that “we are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable.” Similarly, science can tell us that an embryo is a distinct human organismthat is, a nascent human life. It cannot, however, tell us what moral value this entity should be accorded.
With this in mind, it is clear that science is not the “jealous god” against which Winnick warns in her withering attack. It is scientism, which promotes a stark materialistic utilitarianism as the way to achieve progress. Moreover, I came away from reading A Jealous God convinced that scientism’s real target is not necessarily religion. (After all, some believers in scientism also claim to believe in God and may even be self-proclaimed Christians.) Rather, it is the belief in intrinsic human dignity and moral worth that scientism really disdains because that view is seen by its adherents as inhibiting science and restricting human freedom.
Orthodox religion is loathed by scientism’s adherents precisely because believers energetically promote the sanctity of human life as the paramount value in society. This means that there are limits, a concept that is anathema to scientism’s adherents. (Orthodox believers are not the only ones who stand up for the equal dignity of all human life, of course. Winnick is described in the book’s publicity material as “a secular Jewish Democrat.” The noted civil libertarian and atheist Nat Hentoff is one of the nation’s most eloquent defenders of the equal dignity of all human life.)
Early on, Winnick wrenchingly demonstrates the potential antihuman consequences of pursuing scientism’s view of scientific research. During the late 1960s and into the 1970s, scientists conducted human experiments on living fetuses, justified by the philosophical assertion that fetuses are only “potential” human life.
One such experiment, which won the Foundation Prize Award from the American Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology, is described by Winnick in sickening detail: “In a 1968 study called the ‘Artificial Placenta,’ a twenty-six-week-old fetus, weighing more than a pound, was obtained from a fourteen-year-old girl, presumably from a therapeutic abortion. Along with fourteen other fetuses, it was immersed in a liquid containing oxygen and kept alive a full five hours.” The study itself explains that the fetus made”irregular gaspmg movements, twice a minute, … but there was not proper respiration.” Once the pumping of oxygenated blood was stopped, however, “the gasping respiratory efforts increased to 8 to 10 times a minute …. The fetus died 21 minutes after leaving the circuit.”
Back then, the notion of the sanctity of human life was still strong, and when this and other living fetal experimentsinjecting drugs into fetuses in utero, for examplewere publicized, there was an outcry. But as Winnick notes, thanks in large part to the then fledgling field of bioethics, “the stage was set: the invention of ‘potential life’ would give researchers moral carte blanche to destroy, desecrate, and replicate human life.” This is the agenda advocated by many proponents of human therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem-cell research today, with considerable success. In 2004, New Jersey legalized the creation of cloned human embryos, their implantation in wombs, and their gestation through the ninth month, requiring their killing only at the very point of birth.
Winnick also explores how, beginning in the 1960s, the materialistic values of scientism were insinuated into the life-sciences curricula. At that time, apparently in reaction to the government’s support of physics and other hard sciences after the lunching of Sputnik, several biologists formed the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which Winnick claims was created to promote the theory of evolution as “biology’s path to prominence and recognition.”
Led by Bentley Glass, a eugenicist who “promoted population control, and advocated the establishment of genetic ‘clinics’ to weed out the ‘defective,'” the study group berated the “Judeo-Christian worldview” and demanded knocking humankind off the pedestal of exceptionalism. “There was,” Winnick writes, a “subtle political side to the reduction of man to a mere animal. If man is no more than a creature of instinct, he is malleable to state control; he can be trained and bred like any other species.”
There was also a strong scientism exhibited in the group’s sponsored books, mixed with a push for population control: “To BSCS leaders, biology wasn’t just science; it was politics, their politics. Not only did biology now include the functions of living beings, it also included responsible parenthood. In BSCS parlance, responsible parenthood did not mean a parent’s responsibility to clothe and feed a child; what it really meant was the responsibility to have as few children as possibleor better yet, none at all.”
The resulting textbooks did not improve science education. Indeed, complaints about our students’ poor science performance have only grown.
The answer? Apparently more of the same. Winnick reports that the National Academy of Sciences has developed a new curriculum, which once again mixes progressive politics in with scienceincluding the belittling of religion and the promotion of population control.
Winnick also tackles the heated controversy over the teaching of evolution in high school and whether students should be told about heterodox countervailing theories in science class. This is an important topic worthy of in-depth research and crackerjack reporting. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is missing, making this section the weak link in an otherwise mostly very strong book.
Part of the problem is that the author spends far too much time on the old young-earth-creationism debates that are now firmly settled to be religious teaching. This leaves far too little space to devote to current, more-complex, and more-intriguing controversies such as the substantial challenge being mounted to philosophical and scientific Darwinism by proponents of Intelligent Design.
As a consequence of her too-light touch, I was left wondering whether most high-school science books limit their presentation of the theory of evolution to the science, or whether students are also inculcated in philosophical Darwinism that misuses Darwin as, in Winnick’s words, “a pulpit for non-belief. “
Winnick regains her footing in the closing chapters of A Jealous God, where she exposes the shameless hype of those pushing the miracle cures that we have been told for years are just around the corner. First it was fetal-tissue implants. Then it was gene therapy. Then it was embryonic stem-cell research. Then it was human cloning. Winnick points out how those who voiced reasonable ethical qualms about many of these emerging technologies were derided as religious fanatics and antiscience Luddites. And she notes that, far from being objective scientists, many advocates for these technologies argue from deeply felt ideological biases and have financial interests that are almost always ignored by a scientism-compliant media.
A Jealous God is a powerful and important book. It not only proves that the current science debates are often not actually about science, but it persuasively demonstrates that we are in danger of becoming dominated by the amoral values of philosophical scientism to the detriment not only of religion but of science itself.
WESLEY J. SMITH is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. He is currently researching a book on the animal-liberation movement.