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Stephen Hawking is a brilliant physicist…

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 3:00 AM Comments (31)

and an absolutely room temperature average member of the British intelligentsia when he stops talking about his field of expertise and starts talking philosophy and religion.

What particularly amuses me is “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

Two things are funny about this.  First, is the suggestion that “religion” (and by that, members of the UK Chattering classes typically mean “Christianity and especially popery”) doesn’t “work”.  I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.  It’s true that religion doesn’t “work” if you are trying to use it to determine how many beans are in jar, or determine the velocity of an unladen European swallow, or analyze the composition of the sun.  But then again, science doesn’t work very well at helping people answer questions like “What’s the point of it all?”  This is particularly true of Hawking’s brand of scientism which says, as Hawking does, that human life is utterly insignificant—like he knows this by looking through a telescope or crunching a bunch of numbers.  The sleight of hand substitution of a shallow philosophical nihlism for “Science” simply points to the fact that another thing science doesn’t do well is prepare you to deal with metaphysical questions.  Indeed, people who turn it into the only way of treating with reality tend to be like the guy with the hammer who treats everything like a nail or the guy who lost his contact lens at the bar but insists on searching under the lampost because its the only place that that has light.  The weird insistence of our Chattering Classes that Science is somehow just about to “defeat” religion is pure superstition, based on absolutely no observation at all and clung to out of pure mindless devotion to group cohesion among members of our Chattering Classes.  If there is any narrative that is being spectacularly disproven by demographics, it is the narrative of the triumph of secular western Europe.  That does not prove “religion” (whatever that vague amorphous term means) to be true.  But it does mean that anybody who claims to live purely by empirical observation is kidding himself if he thinks England’s future is going to be dominated by atheistic materialists.

Which brings me to my next point.  namely, the absurd suggestion that religion is based solely on authority and science solely on observation.  In reality, Christian faith is rooted in both authority and in the experience and observation of millions of Christians.  People become Christian because they have an encounter with the living God, not because some bishop brandished his mitre and threatened them with his Authority.  They accept the authority of the bishop because they conclude that they can accept the authority of Jesus, who said, “He who listens to you listens to me.”  In short, people conclude that Jesus is trustworthy and knows what he’s talking about, even when the bishop is not such an impressive specimen.  Similarly, science is rooted in observation and experience, but scientists (like Hawking) are overwhelmingly treated by many people, especially many secular people, as a High Priesthood mediating truths to the masses by sheer authority.  That’s why Hawking expects his pontifical remarks about the insignificance of man to be taken seriously: because of his authority.  Likewise, when Carl Sagan magisterially declares “The Universe is all there is or ever was or ever will be” he is making a purely theological statement that science has no competence to make—and demanding that we believe it on his authority.  And many New Atheist apostles of Reason are all too ready to prostrate themselve in faith before that Edict of Authority.

These sorts of pristine examples of scientism are particularly common in the Country that Used to be England these days, especially among the allegedly educated classes.  And things like these quotes from Hawking or Sagan often wind up as pull quotes circulating around at the bottom of some atheist’s email. Why?  Not because the quotes are wise.  They are, in fact, wooly-minded nonesense that a thousand cranks in a thousand email bulletin boards might dash off in the midst of some heated argument that is just about to cite Agora as accurate history or compare one’s opponent to Hitler.  No.  The reason the quote gets recirculated is due entirely to the fact that Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan are endowed with Sacred Authority because they are members of the High Priestly Caste of Scientists and therefore must be believed when they make a silly remark about the Triumph of Science Over Religion or pontificate about the non-existence of the supernatural. It’s a classic example of Intellect Worship trumping Intellect Use.

Filed under intellect worship vs. intellect use

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.