Digital

Exclusive online content

An Old Approach to the New Atheists

By: Ty Kun
May 16, 2016

he title of Curtis White’s book, The Science Delusion, serves two purposes: speaking to those who fear the impact of modern science; and declaring a challenge to The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins. Along with the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith (2004), Dawkins is one of the most prominent polemicists for what has been called the “New Atheism.” The New Atheists invoke the arguments of neuroscientists and physicists, including such famous ones as Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking. Indeed, their position is that psychology, the study of the soul, is nothing more than neuroscience, which in turn is nothing more than physics.

For White, this system of ideas and assumptions amounts to an ideology, scientism. The God Delusion dismisses human life as a “product of evolution,” White argues, while God Is Not Great (2007) by Hitchens “reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes.” According to The Science Delusion, scientistic intellectuals unconsciously point to something higher than the material through their descriptive language. When Dawkins describes natural selection as “dazzling” and “beautiful,” and Hawking finds the grandeur of the universe “miraculous” and “amazing,” they’re trying to convey awe and wonder, not opine about metaphysics. White believes that their use of evocative, aesthetic language is proof of their ignorance and naiveté. Criticizing scientists’ sloppy use of aesthetic and evocative language is a fair debating point, but falls far short of the refutation White imagines it to be.

He would do better to address scientism’s real failing: the inability to offer a framework that provides meaning and purpose to human life. There are moments of clarity: “the problem for science is that it doesn't know what its own discoveries mean. It can describe the long process of evolution, but it can’t say how we should judge it…Science offers no way of evaluating what its methods produce.” In the main, however, White appears neither comfortable nor conversant with arguments against determinism and nihilism, which scientism presupposes.

White offers a second thesis, even more problematic than his first. It centers on scientism as an agent of capitalist hegemony: “social regimentation, economic exploitation, environmental destruction, and industrial militarism.” White’s notion that Judeo-Christian principles are incompatible with free-markets was persuasively debunked long ago by Michael Novak, and shown to be incoherent and unworkable even longer ago by the thinkers and activists who promoted Christian socialism. Nor is it possible to imagine White assembling a political constituency for his cause. As a matter of theory and practice, atheism and scientism have much more in common with Marxism than they do with capitalism.

In any case, White’s remedy for scientism is a romanticism philosophically tethered to German idealism. He begins with romanticism’s characteristically vague notions of “alienation,” “a yearning,” and “freedom of spirit.” Thus, The Science Delusion approvingly quotes Friedrich Schiller’s opaque contention: “Philosophy is this only: the ‘free recapitulation of the original series of acts’ that serve to make the self and its world.” Romanticism is also very much about denial—not just concerning it’s own obscurity, but about all of the other schools of thought that offer positive meanings and reasons for not being an edgy rebel fed up with the “oppressive” forces of the “establishment.”

White acknowledges that a successful counter to scientism requires more than simple gainsaying, yet he admits that romantic countercultures don't seem to offer much beyond crying “no!” to whichever “power structure” is calling the shots. This confession means that The Science Delusion never meets, or even grapples with, the challenge it sets for itself: offering a clear path out of scientism. White doesn't accept that when it comes to serious thought and conduct, romanticism is hopelessly opaque and petulant.

The Science Delusion is not a success, then, but neither is it a waste of a reader’s time. White offers sharp criticisms of an ominous ideology that is gaining influence in political thought, making clear the unacceptable consequences of accepting scientism’s amoral implications. The prescriptions are doubtful, but his diagnosis of a “clear and present danger” to all that is beautiful, good, and sacred in human life has genuine value.