a busy laboratory scene
Reading Time: 8 minutes National Cancer Institute.) I can smell this picture through my screen.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Of late, we’ve been checking out Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. One of the ways he feels atheists ‘overreach’ involves what he refers to as ‘vulgar imperialistic scientism.’ Oh my, what oh what can scientism possibly be? Today, we’ll find out — and then we’ll see why our author likes this accusation so much!

a busy laboratory scene
National Cancer Institute.) I can smell this picture through my screen.

(Previous Atheist Overreach posts: Conservation of the Law of Worship; Blaming the Wrong People; The Wrong Questions to Ask About Atheism; Avoiding the Burden of Proof; Wingnuts Galore; The Courtier’s Reply; Atheological Metaphysics In MY Apologetics Book?. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. All emphases exist in the original sources unless noted. Also, I don’t use scare quotes without warning you.)

“Vulgar Imperialistic Scientism.”

That subsection heading is a direct quote from this book: “vulgar imperialistic scientism.” Seriously, it’s the Courtier’s Reply on steroids. Here’s how Christian Smith describes his outrage over “a particular assumption that is powerful but rarely explicitly stated” (p. 93):

This assumption is fallacious. It sounds like this: if science cannot observe or discover something, then it cannot be real or true. Stated slightly differently: the only things that could be true or real are those that science can observe and validate. This is what we call vulgar imperialistic scientism. (Not science but the ideology of scientism.)

The moment you hear the accusation of “scientism,” you can very safely check out of whatever else the accuser says. This person has just proven himself way too invested in selling you something false to be trusted. That’s the message of this post.

I just want to point out how silly this entire phrase is before we get rolling on the full explanation of that message.

It’s vulgar, y’all, to insist on the Scientific Method as the way to figure out if Christians’ reality-based claims are true or not. How dare we assume that the natural world is the only one there is! How silly and boorish and childish we are!

We’ll get into “imperialistic” in a minute. Initially, we thought he was misusing “empirical,” but that’s not what’s going on. Friends, it’s much worse than that! I had to work on this one for a bit, but I cracked his code.

First, though, let’s deal with the “scientism” thing. He really, really likes this accusation. 

Real Science Time.

To figure out what scientism might be, first we have to know what real science involves.

Christian Smith goes to great pains to make clear that he certainly likes science books and science writing, and he’s tried his very-bestest to make himself seem like the jolliest pro-science chap in the entire auditorium. However, he does not, does not does not does not, like the basic building-blocks that inform the scientific method itself:

  • Our universe is real — meaning it is objectively factual. It exists, and we are a part of it.
  • Thus, we can know real and factual things about the universe. We can figure things out about it.
  • And thus, the stuff that we figure out about the universe is real and objectively factual.

Then, humans refined the scientific method to figure that stuff out. The scientific method tells us two more things about our universe:

  • Any real and objective and factual things can be reliably measured. In other words, they leave tangible signs of themselves around that we can reliably and consistently test, observe, and measure.
  • If something cannot be reliably tested, observed, or measured in any way, then that’s a very good sign to us that it is not real, objective, and factual.

These are all good things. They stand us in good stead when evaluating claims. With them, we can winnow the false claims from the true ones.

Unfortunately, they do not play nicely with Christians’ false claims.

Resolving a Dilemma.

Now, folks with intellectual integrity would, upon realizing that their god couldn’t be tested, observed, or measured, stop making claims about his existence altogether. Better yet, they’d revise those beliefs to align more with reality.

Oh, but not our intrepid author!

As so many Christians do, he needs a 100% totally for realsies god in the real world, but more importantly he needs one who at the same time cannot be measured, tested, or observed in any way at all.

It’s a real dilly of a pickle!

Like them, then, Christian Smith’s chosen response involves trying to make these foundational ideas of science sound mean, arbitrary, and invalid.

Accusations of scientism accomplish that goal for him. He gets to pat himself on the back for thinking of himself as a logical, rational Christian who loves science, while at the same time he actively sneers at and rejects the very foundations of science.

So: Scientism.

In essence, scientism is the meaniepie exclusion of all non-objective, non-factual, non-measurable phenomena from the evaluation of a claim.

Christians play up this idea of scientism because they need a way to make the scientific method look bad. They can’t use it to establish the validity of their claims, because it’d tell us that their claims are unsupported. So it needs to be demolished as the literal only effective way to gauge and assess claims about reality.

The only downside is that their proposed methods of evaluation open the door to a host of other demonstrably false claims.

The same line of thinking that gives us a resurrected Jesus gives us a resurrected Harry Potter. Angels and unicorns and fairies all pop into plausible being under Christians’ proposed system of claim-evaluation. Once one god becomes possible, so do all gods by using the exact same methods of investigation. And so does the Loch Ness Monster and me being a Space Princess.

Rejecting any claim at all suddenly makes the rejection of Christianity loom high as an option.

Once opened, the door of false beliefs doesn’t close very easily, and it only closes when we stop allowing for any false claims in our lives.

Scientism: Also An Insult!

In addition, our author here wants all people who insist on reality in their lives to feel downright inferior to King Him.

Oh yes. See, King Christian Smith has evolved wayyyyy past needing clumsy reality-based measurements to demonstrate what is real and what is not. Poor widdle us, locked in our sadly provincial views of reality! We just can’t understannnnnnnnd, with our clumsy little brain-minds, how something can be tangibly real and yet leave nothing behind itself to measure objectively using reality-based tools!

To this end, he reaches for language like this (p. 94):

The logic of imperialistic scientism, then, turns out to be internally self-defeating. [LOL NO — CC] It depends on a nonscientific position to take the position that only science authorizes us to take positions worth taking.

Authorizes? Who even talks like that? Like before we can figure out where we stand on McDonald’s or Taco Bell for lunch, we’d better go talk to Stephen Hawking? However, I will say this: if there turns out to be a salmonella problem at one or the other restaurant, I’ll definitely take that into account when making my plans. It’s the findings of the scientific method that inform my stances on a lot of stuff — and has, ironically, even led me to reject some of the popular ideas in my end of the political pool.

He wants to make “science” sound pompous and overreaching, but it backfires dramatically when we remember exactly why he’s talking this way:

Remember, every word he says about “scientism” represents an attempt to make real science look bad because it won’t — can’t, even — validate his claims. He sounds like someone trash-talking an ex.

Scientism: Also a Manipulation Attempt!

This accusation of scientism is just so painfully obvious as a manipulation tool.

But toxic Christians can’t let go of it. You know damned well that if Christian Smith actually possessed any kind of objective support for his claims, he’d be sneering at non-Christians for refusing to convert despite the facts supporting his religion’s claims about its god.

(Because most people would refuse, you know. Credibly establishing the factual existence of their god is only the first part of Christian evangelists’ task. If they ever managed it, their real task would involve moving from there to convincing their marks that this impossibly-cruel, mind-bendingly-evil entity is worthy of the worship of decent people — and then, of course, that this worship is best accomplished in the salesperson’s own group.)

Telling people they’re markedly inferior for trusting reality despite Christians’ unending insults about reality won’t actually convince them to stop trusting reality.

I trust reality. I’m not ever gonna feel bad about that just cuz it’d super help King Christian Smith out if I stopped.

“The Narrow Gate” of Scientism.

But that isn’t even the funniest part of this whole hatred boner this guy has for real science. He writes (p. 93):

And running at even deeper levels, driving imperialistic scientism, are the prescientific presuppositions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism. With all of these assumptions at work, science is turned from (1) one fantastic way to know many things about ourselves and the world into (2) an imperialistic, exclusivist, totalizing source of any and all legitimate knowledge about everything. All comers must enter by the narrow gate of The Scientific Method if they hope to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Knowledge.

Ai yi yi.

However, there’s a method to the madness here.

As I said, we initially thought Smith was just misusing the word “empirical.” I thought so too, at first. But then, I reread the chapter a couple of times.

And I cracked his code.

Dude’s obsessed with “turf” — with territory. He views Christians’ claims about their god as being sacrosanct and inviolable. And atheist scientists are “overreaching” by evaluating those claims.

So he’s seeing this whole thing as a fight over who gets to make truth claims about Christianity and who gets to evaluate them in turn.

In his view, then, Christians 100% own all the Christian things. Thus, it’s imperialistic for scientists to keep encroaching on Christians’ “turf” to demand that all of Christians’ claims about reality be evaluated in the same exact way that we evaluate all other claims about reality. Here, he describes scientists as embarking on a massive military takeover of theologians’ ivory towers, seeking to own everything in Reality-Land!

Oh my word. And a Catholic went there. Considering his specific religion’s rich history of imperialistic takeovers full of blood, steel, and death, this whole slagfest just gets more and more ridiculous.

What “Natural” Involves.

Throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic.

— Tim Minchin, “Storm

Fields of science seek to put forth ideas, create relationships between the natural world and those ideas, test those ideas, and refine them. A branch of science deals in what exists — not what doesn’t exist. In other words, it deals in the natural.

“Natural” means real, and “real stuff” belongs rightly to science. Something that is not natural is imaginary, by contrast. Christians know this very well; they relabel “imaginary” as “supernatural” or “divine.” Whatever term they like best right then, they know that what they describe is not natural.

Sure, lots of branches of study deal in what’s not real. As examples, consider theology, astrology, homeopathy, and even apparently Batmanology. But none of that falls under the broad category of science.

People involved in these pursuits might poorly ape the language and trappings of science — and they do, often. Such attempts fool a solid number of their fellow wingnuts into thinking their false beliefs are in fact based on reality.

That’s why the scientific method is so damned important.

What It Doesn’t.

We’ve never once found a single real thing that somehow couldn’t be tested somehow. Not once, not ever. Indeed, we’ve never once found any kind of supernatural claim that turned out to be objectively true.

In fact, here’s a very partial list of religious claims that turned out to be purely natural in nature:

  • The sun turns out not to be pulled by a chariot of fire-horses across the sky every day.
  • Illnesses are not in fact caused by demons or imbalanced humours.
  • Mental illness in particular is not in fact a sign of demonic possession or particular sinfulness in the sufferer’s life.
  • All those “miracles” religious people claim to have experienced always turn out to be coincidences — or exaggerations/distortions/misunderstandings of events — or completely manufactured lies.
  • Same for all those “heavenly tourism” accounts.
  • We’ve never found anything like gods in any of the various “homes of the gods” around the world, like Mount Olympus.
  • Even Christianity’s mythologized history of how it came to dominance turns out to have a very earthly, understandable flow — no gods required at all.

Similarly, nothing in Christianity is based on what is real, that’s all. And if Christians stopped making claims like that, then they’d never hear a word out of anybody who cares about reality.

However, they won’t stop making those claims. From these claims, toxic Christians derive their sense of entitlement and authority over other people’s lives.

Atheist Overreach represents just one recent salvo in toxic Christians’ battle against science. But from where I’m sitting, it’s sure not atheists overreaching constantly.

NEXT UP: How reality saved me from the false beliefs peddled by Christians! See you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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