Trifid Nebula NGC6514 [Courtesy NASA] Ceiling of central rotunda, National Museum of Art of Catalunya

What is "scientific materialism" and how does it enter into the science-religion discussion?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017


Recently several books written by prominent authors have been published that attack religious belief as merely a natural phenomenon at best, and a pernicious delusion at worst. The four most prominent authors are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who collectively are often called the "new atheists" [Dawkins2006; Dennett2006; Harris2006; Hitchens2007]. One of the key criticisms that these authors level against religion is that it cannot withstand a withering investigation by the methods of modern science. Richard Dawkins mentions "the great prayer experiment," a 2006 study where prayers were offered on behalf of patients undergoing surgery at several U.S. hospitals, but failed to find any significant difference in outcome, as proof positive that no God exists [Dawkins2006, pg. 85-90]. In this same vein, Daniel Dennett, asks for a "forthright, scientific no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many" [Dennett2006, pg. 17].

It is worth pointing out that many creationist and intelligent design writers, who on virtually every other principle are at opposite poles from these atheist scholars, implicitly presume the same underlying tenet that religion must be empirically testable -- much of their literature consists of attempts to "prove" that God (or some supernatural entity) exists and created the world.

Scientific materialism

This common underlying worldview is known as "scientific materialism" or "scientism." As defined by twentieth century philosophers William James and Alfred North Whitehead, for instance, scientific materialism is the belief that physical reality, as made available to the natural sciences, is all that truly exists [Haught2010, pg. 48]. It is clear that there is little room for religion in this philosophical system, since religion involves faith in unseen and presumably empirically untestable entities.

But religion is not the only victim of this worldview. If we fully accept scientific materialism, we would also have to discard art, literature, music, and many other fields of human endeavor that are essential aspects of our modern world. More importantly, we need to ask what is the status of scientific materialism itself under this worldview. As John Haught observes [Haught2008, pg. 45]:

But if faith in God requires independent scientific confirmation, what about the colossal faith our new atheists place in science itself? Exactly what are the independent scientific experiments, we might ask, that could provide "evidence" for the hypothesis that all true knowledge must be based on the paradigm of scientific inquiry? If faith requires independent confirmation, what is the independent (nonfaith) method of demonstrating that their own faith in the all-encompassing cognitional scope of science is reasonable? If science itself is the only way to provide such independent assessment, then the quest for proper validation only moves the justification process in the direction of an infinite regress.

Along this same line, we could ask what are the scientific materialist underpinnings of the scientific ethic for seeking knowledge. Scientists presume and often assert that truth seeking and academic honesty are not merely locality- and time-dependent ethical standards, but instead are binding on all people at all times. But what makes this standard so universally and absolutely imperative? What "experiment" can one perform to deduce this universal principle? [Haught2010, pg. 116-117].

In any event, the overwhelming majority of science-religion philosophers disagree with the premise that God or religion in general is best studied as a scientific hypothesis. As John Haught observes, "thinking of God as a hypothesis reduces the infinite divine mystery to a finite scientific cause, and to worship anything finite is idolatrous" [Haught2008, pg. 43]. Anglican theologian Keith Ward notes that "the question of God is certainly a factual one, but certainly not a scientific one." Instead, "[i]t lies at the very deep level of ultimate metaphysical options" [Ward2008, pg. 30]. For additional discussion, see God hypothesis.

Along this line, C. David Pruett of James Madison University observes that much of the warfare between science and religion has resulted from "boundary infractions," where one discipline or the other oversteps its bounds. Certainly religion has violated this boundary numerous times, ranging from the Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo in 1633 to modern attempts by creationists to have their fundamentalist views taught in public schools. But scientists have also been guilty of infractions, notably when it preaches the dogma of scientific materialism in the science-religion arena [Pruett2013].

Scientists and faith

When scientists ridicule religious faith, it is worth observing that scientists also take faith with them into the research laboratory. As British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has noted, modern science, as it developed in the West, was based on a faith in the existence of rational, discoverable laws [Whitehead1967, pg. 17-19, 27]:
Faith in reason is the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness. It is the faith that at the base of things we shall not find mere arbitrary mystery. The faith in the order of nature which made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith.

Similarly, British physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne has observed [Polkinghorne1998, pg. 104, 124]:

The first order experience of the scientific community strongly encourages the sense of discovery, the belief that we are given to know more about the universe than was the privilege of our predecessors. In fact, without that belief, a great many of us would not have undertaken the long apprenticeship and weary labour which are an indispensable part of scientific research. ...
The scientist and the theologian both work by faith, a realist trust in the rational reliability of our understanding of experience.

British philosopher-theologian Keith Ward observes that religion and the scientific materialists have more in common that either might like to admit [Ward2008a, pg. 51-52]:

At a usually tacit level of awareness, both the atheist and the theist participate in a common faith. They both believe that reality is intelligible and that truth is worth seeking. What theology adds is that the existence of God -- that is, of Infinite Being, Meaning, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty -- provides an adequate justification of this belief, as well as an answer to the question of why the universe is intelligible at all.


In summary, the scientific materialist worldview is fine for the normal enterprise of scientific research. Indeed, a reasonably naturalistic worldview is essential for the process of empirical investigation. But there are large areas of human endeavor that do not fit well into the scientific materialist worldview, including much of the humanities -- music, art and literature. More importantly, scientific materialism cannot be derived from itself, and thus must be accepted as an article of faith. Even the more general precept that the pursuit of knowledge is a good and worthy endeavor must be accepted on faith, as it cannot be confirmed by scientific investigation. For additional details, see Atheists, God hypothesis and Methodological naturalism.