Material-naturalism, like all worldviews, begins with a faith statement; theirs is the belief that all that exists in the universe, including the human world, is ultimately reducible to matter and its physical laws and processes, including the will, human consciousness and religious belief. This is obviously a faith statement because there is simply no way to prove that all that exists is material since the only acceptable methodology of material-naturalists begins with the identification of natural phenomena and thus can only state facts about those observations. Scientism is the science of material-naturalists; they believe that only facts discovered through the scientific method can be true.
The universe is simply an unguided, gradually unfolding physical entity that was neither planned nor purposeful. It just is – it began with an explosion of some substance but neither the source of the material nor of the explosion is known. Scientists are currently trying to identify the origin of the “big bang” by tracing the imprint of cosmic microwaves of sound and light (fascinating since in Genesis – “God said let there be light“). To materialists, Christians believe in God because He fills the gaps in our scientific knowledge. Oxford professor, John Lennox provides an analogy to the “God-of-the-gaps” argument. He notes that just because we know everything about the internal combustion engine does not mean Henry Ford did not exist. Lennox adds, “The world of strict materialism, in which clever mathematical laws all by themselves bring the universe into existence, is pure (science) fiction. Theories and laws do not bring matter/energy into existence.”
Since to the materialists we are nothing but biochemistry acting predictably, famous Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson claims, “We cannot escape the question of free will, which some philosophers still argue sets us apart. It is a product of the subconscious decision-making center of the brain that gives the illusion of independent action.” To the strict materialist, we are simply driven by our bodies – becoming Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler is programmed in our biochemistry. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out the contradiction – “Suppose you are a naturalist: you think that there is no such person as God, and that we and our cognitive faculties have been cobbled together by natural selection. Can you then sensibly think that our cognitive faculties are for the most part reliable? …. There is no particular reason to think they would be: natural selection is interested, not in truth, but in appropriate behavior.” How then could we possibly judge whether one thought is true or good and another false or perverse?
Recently, material-naturalists have begun to study religious belief using terms such as “the moral molecule” or “God gene”. Thomas Bartlett in a review of a number of these works suggests this is not about God and human beings; it is about “trying to discover why we believe…[rather] than … whether anyone is up there looking down.” As a late convert to Christianity I believe that our brains could reveal something of religious beliefs. If I had a brain scan prior to my conversion and another one now, they would reveal a very different brain. Never does it occur to material-naturalists that a Creator God who interacts with the world and human beings would certainly have created us with the structural architecture to accommodate this ultimate reality. A God that desired a relationship with human beings would create the capacity to connect – using a machine metaphor, like cell towers connect cell phone users.
Scientism cannot allow for miracles. Most of us have been educated in seminaries infected with Bultmann’s idea that we needed to demystify Christ or in secular universities. New Testament scholar, Craig Keener breaks this impasse in a two-volume work called, Miracles. He writes, “Not only the Majority World today but also the history of Christianity… is replete with supernaturalist claims. The modern Western prejudice against acknowledging or exploring miracle claims rests not on a total lack of evidence for such claims, even in Western history, but on an a priori insistence that they be screened from consideration.”
Scientism does not stay inside the lab; it infects the entire culture in both overt and covert ways. The fundamental problem is that materialism has no meta-ethic other than the strong overcome the weak. In the abortion debate, a young infant has a host of material names – zygote, information speck, fetus and embryo. Eric Metaxas wisely noted that no one gave these names to the unborn Prince George. Being “with child” carries the true and weighty meaning. Without a larger ethic, humans can selectively eliminate a child in the womb for personal preferences (as is often the case for girls and babies with Down’s syndrome). More radical experiments propose we will soon mechanically supplement our memories. Trendy colognes now include oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust in human interactions, among other things. These are just a couple of many manifestations of material-naturalism gone wild. Most of us also succumb to a few of the materialist solutions. When I took medicine for depression, I did not simultaneously look for the underlying causes, which in my case was a long history of wrong thinking and acting. Orthodox theologian and psychiatrist, Jean-Claude Larchet notes that the medical field treats the person as a “purely biological organism”; he writes “by refusing to consider the spiritual dimension of human persons when we seek to alleviate their physical ailments, we do them immeasurable harm.” In the 1800s, John Henry Newman warned of the reductionism in the secular university whereby soon a biologist with no education in ethics would be making ethical decisions based solely on what can be done versus what should be done.
Each of the three non-Christian worldviews contests a different person of the Trinity. For material-naturalists, the contest is with a Creator God who knows and communes with His people. Thus, the most hotly contested issue in scientism is the origin of man, which we take up in the next post.