How Science Became an Idol


I do not oppose science. In fact I advocate for it. But it’s also clear to me that science has been turned into a social weapon. More than that, it has been turned into an idol, and today I’m going to explain (briefly) how that happened.

But before I do, I want you to understand what idolatry really is. Whenever you hold something above critique – above reality – you place it as your god. An idol is that which may not be questioned. Here are two important quotes on the subject, the first from Oliver Wendell Homes, Sr., and the second from Erich Fromm:

Men are idolaters, and want something to look at and kiss and hug, or throw themselves down before; they always did, they always will; and if you don’t make it of wood, you must make it of words….

The history of mankind up to the present time is primarily the history of idol worship, from primitive idols of clay and wood to the modern idols of the state, the leader, production and consumption – sanctified by the blessing of an idolized God.

An idolater craves an ultimate ruleset or pattern, something he or she can cling to, justify themselves by, and defend. That, however, lies well beyond our abilities. To claim a perfect ruleset is ludicrous for a human of our time. We’re not ready to imagine what perfection might look like, much less rules that will attain it.

How It Happened

Science was turned into an idol by a historically visible process. We covered this properly in FMP #90, but I’ll give you a few high points here.

The Enlightenment, while important for the rise of scientifically derived knowledge, also had a dark side, particularly after 1750. It was then that the Enlightenment turned from being for things, to merely being against things. This change imbued the Enlightenment with the darkness of writers like Thomas Hobbes. Here, for example, are two dark teachings from Baron d’Holbach:

We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.

Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interests. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.

This trend was noted by historian Margaret C. Jacob (as well as others):

The new direction taken by the philosophes and writers after 1750 might best be characterized as radical. They removed God and in his place inserted the blind forces of matter in motion.

Nowhere was this strain of philosophy more glaring than in the French Revolution, which was essentially the last stage of the Enlightenment. I’ll spare you examples, but it’s worth pointing out that movements built upon tearing things down are the ones that can spin out of control. As Eric Hoffer noted:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.

What Science Really Is

Science is a process, not a database of approved knowledge. In particular, it is a process of finding errors. When some well-defined idea passes through this process without being shown false, we accept it as a valid theory, even though it will forever remain open to challenge or, more commonly, to revision.

But science, tremendously useful as it is, is incapable of conveying meaning. As Wernher von Braun once said,

Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.

Science, then, is a tool and not a guide… and it is certainly not an idol to be held above all question.

Dogma Versus Dogma

It’s interesting to see the idolaters of science busy themselves attacking Christianity… turning the church from the moral seat of the culture into the “devil” of Eric Hoffer’s quote. To state it briefly, they’re fighting to replace the church with themselves. As a result, Western civilization has been functioning with no moral center for quite some time.

To improve or even to replace the moral center of the civilization would have been fine, but to leave it with a gaping void (again, science conveys no morality or meaning) has hobbled Western civilization badly.

The progress of idolatry over the past few centuries, then, has been to replace perfect divine rulesets with perfect scientific rulesets. And so Europeans had their moral core taken from them – not because they conceived of something better, but because they were continually bludgeoned by intellectuals seeking to tear down rather than build.

And as usual, these intellectuals wished to incorporate state violence, as Allan Bloom noted in The Closing of the American Mind:

Enlightenment was not only, or perhaps not even primarily, a scientific project but a political one. It began from the premise that the rulers could be educated, a premise not held by the Enlightenment’s ancient brethren.

The Solution

The solution to this situation is simply to get back to building and to get over the juvenile obsession of tearing things down. (And yes, to retain science as a tool.)

Most urgently, we need to restore our civilization’s moral core. I think Christianity and Judaism can be repaired and upgraded. But even if not, we must establish a clear and benevolent moral core and then start passing it down from generation to generation.

At one time the West did this. We need to start doing it again.

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Paul Rosenberg