Lawrence Principe on science’s origin myth

Lawrence Principe on a species of scientific fundamentalism

The point is that [John W.] Draper [d. 1882] and [Andrew D.] White [d. 1918] were illegitimately transporting the emerging social stratification of their own era backward into earlier times. By constructing the notion that two rival camps – scientists and religionists – had existed throughout history, they set up an inherent and essential rivalry between science and religion that did not exist as such. Interestingly, despite their explicit use of a military metaphor, they implicitly – whether consciously or unconsciously – borrowed the imagery and structure that characterized the history of religion itself. They created a litany of martyrs – most notably Bruno and Galileo, but also Roger Bacon, Michael Servetus, and others – and a hagiography of sinless and oppressed reformers and visionaries that populated the scientists’ camp. They implicitly recast scientists as prophets and priests, the recipients of special favor and enlightenment, who brought forth truth and struggled to spread a gospel of science and progress against the darkness and ignorance of the pagans (i.e., the old priesthood of religion). In this way, they co-opted for themselves all the drama and emotional power of the story of the early Christians persecuted by – but finally victorious over – oppressive Roman paganism. This origin myth of science laid the foundation for setting up science as a religion of its own.

This origin myth of science remains extraordinarily powerful today, and it stands at the core of scientism. It is constantly repeated uncritically by a host of popular books and television programs, and as a virtual shibboleth by the prophets of scientism. Indeed, it has been my personal experience that it is dangerous (or at least foolhardy) to question its orthodoxy around those of a scientistic persuasion. I remember receiving an email from an undergraduate student in the sciences who had recently read some of my publications on early modern science. He was literally distraught because I had demonstrated that the heroes he had been taught to revere – Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and the like – were actually…religious believers. How could this be, he asked. For him, it was a crisis of faith, with all the characteristics of a crisis of religious belief. And indeed it was, his faith in the origin myth and the religion of science had been shaken. I fairly regularly get mail from members of the public who have read my more popular books and lectures, and while I routinely critique the claims of both religionists and scientists, I rarely hear anything negative from the religious side. But when I present well-established historical evidence that undercuts the simplistic warfare version of the Galileo and the church narrative, or enumerate scientific and logical features of medieval theology, or, perhaps worst of all, point out false historical claims or sloppy reasonings made by scientistic prophets like Carl Sagan, then the criticism, the expressions of disbelief, and the declamations of ulterior motives fly freely. Two features emerge: first, any positive statement about historical figures traditionally placed in the religion camp is unacceptable. Second, most such critics rely entirely on the origin myth mentioned earlier, and simply will not accept any evidence to the contrary, responding to such evidence with a simple no or by repeating now-discredited accounts. This is why I must conclude—as others have done—that the strong scientism of the modern day is not merely a religion, but is in fact a kind of fundamentalism.

from “Scientism and the Religion of Science,” in Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, Eds. Daniel Robinson and Richard Williams (Bloomsbury, 2015), 50-51.

Readings on Scientism

How does one register the possibility that the sciences may exceed their epistemic competencies without coming across as altogether anti-science? Theologians (and philosophers and humanities scholars) can be received with suspicion when they try to suggest that our proper esteem for the sciences has its limits. When concerns to this effect are voiced by theologians in particular, though, they’re all too quickly mistaken for back-door campaigns for some form of religiously motivated scientific revisionism (e.g., creationism), even when such machinations are in no way part of their intentions. The sad result is that legitimate concerns about the place of the sciences in contemporary culture, and the reach of their explanatory power, go unheard. (And to be sure, thereby hurting the practice of the sciences as much as other disciplines). In contrast to this trend, what I think would make for a positive change of pace would be a more frank discussion of the potential the sciences harbor for crowding out non-scientific forms of cognitive discourse — that is, that it would become ingredient to accounts of the status and achievements of the sciences that they also make it a point to alert us to the live threat of scientism. If you’d care to, you can follow up on this topic in works like these: