Evangelical Futures: The ‘fanatical arrogance of men of science’

‘I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in’ (C.S. Lewis, 1958).

Laura Dodsworth’s recent book, A State of Fear: how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, is a troubling read. It exposes the extent to which behavioural scientists and their ‘psychological operations’ to manipulate behaviour have become a pervasive tool of government. This coercive power over populations has been amply manifest over the past two years, as has the influence of scientists generally; the voices of the SAGEs have been ubiquitous in the public consciousness, like oracles of a national religion, the source of all guidance and authority.

The pretension of science to pre-eminence in directing public life is not new, nor is the danger it presents. Recently I came across a pastoral letter written in July 1968 by my father, James Philip, to the congregation of Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh. It referenced a serious proposal then being considered: that the House of Lords be abolished and replaced with a ‘House of Scientists’, a body of ‘experts’ to apply scientific knowledge and advances in technology for the greater good of society. I was struck by how prescient these words were, and their relevance today, more than 50 years on.

‘The basic fallacy is the assumption that scientists as scientists must necessarily be more qualified to rule the nation or the world than other men. One would have thought that the history of the twentieth century with its grim record of scientific destruction … nuclear powers, the existence of terrifying nerve gases and the possibilities of bacteriological warfare, would tend to qualify the credulous enthusiasm men seem to have for the great ones of the scientific world. But apparently not… . “Within this generation”, one scientist is on record as saying, “the scientist will cease to be the man on tap, and become the man on top. Many scientists have their hands on the controls of political action. This is one of the most optimistic things about the future of man.”

‘This is an optimism that we do not and cannot share, but can only view with the deepest misgiving.’

He went on to discuss by way of example a widely-viewed documentary celebrating (then) 20 years of the NHS, which had examined the ‘science’ of preventing abnormality in children:

‘No-one who has had experience of the heartache and distress brought to homes and families by such tragedies could fail to be thankful for any medical research that seeks to alleviate or prevent the long agonies of afflicted parents and children. But research is one thing, the imposition of control (as implied in the programme) is quite another. And what was so disquieting was to realise just how far medical authorities would be prepared to go (in the name of scientific advancement) in advocating legislation to prevent parents having children if there was the possibility of their being abnormal. … There is a great deal of thinking of this nature in scientific circles today, which strikes at the very foundation of Christian ethics and Christian ideas of human dignity and freedom. Two or three years ago the CIBA Foundation, a foundation for the encouragement of medical and scientific knowledge, gathered together distinguished scientists from four continents to discuss “the future of man”. The papers read at this Conference … were alarming in the extreme: Genetics (the study of heredity) and Eugenics (the production of “high-grade” offspring) should be employed, it was said, to raise the general level of genetic intelligence and increase the number of outstandingly intelligent and capable people needed to run our increasingly complex societies – this from Julian Huxley. Another scientist proposed that this could be done by a Government putting a chemical into our food or water which made everybody sterile, and then provide a second chemical capable of reversing the effect of the first for those whom it licensed to bear children.’

One question that all this raised was whether human beings have a right to have children… . ‘This is taken for granted because it is part of Christian ethics, but in terms of humanist ethics, I do not see why people should have the right to have children’ said one scientist. Another agreed, saying ‘in a society in which the community is responsible for people’s welfare – health, hospitals, unemployment, insurance – the answer is No.’

This is the ‘brave new world’ to which the men of science hope, and intend, to bring us. And those who do not care much for the idea will receive short shrift: ‘Unless the average man can understand and appreciate the world that scientists have discovered … playing a constructive part in it, he will fall into the position of an ever less important cog in a vast machine. In this situation his own powers of determining his fate, and his very will to do so, will dwindle, and the minority who rule over him will eventually find ways of doing without him.’

This deadly philosophy is not new: it found expression and was put into practice with fateful consequences for the world in the Third Reich in Germany, when Hitler’s megalomaniac dream of a pure Aryan race led to the appalling genocidal atrocities of the gas chambers and concentration camps, all stemming from the philosophy of the superman dreamt up by the brilliant intellectual madman, Nietzsche. One critic at the Conference said: ‘It is just as well that the first cycle of eugenics did die because we have seen in Nazism where it may lead. I think that it is no accident that the Nazi’s doctrines about sterilisation were closely linked, intellectually and morally, to Nazi doctrines about genocide. That is why I am so alarmed to see what is happening today’.

Alarmed indeed! Well might we all be alarmed as we see the dangerous and fanatical arrogance of men of science and realise that there are those bemused enough by their intellectual brilliance to think that this qualifies them to rule the country. Long ago, King David uttered timeless words when he said: ‘He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God’ (2 Sam. 23:3). This is still the Divine prescription today, and it is neglected at our peril. To put man in place of God as the master of all things is to abolish all absolute standards of morality and to invite disaster in society and in personal life alike.

As we look back over the past two years, it is hard to deny that the universal assumption underlying much of our own and other governments’ response to the pandemic has been that human beings – and scientists in particular – are the masters of all things, including nature, and see themselves increasingly as the arbiters of right and wrong, of truth and lies, and of what may be spoken and what must be censored in the public sphere.

It is this dark shadow of technocratic totalitarianism C.S. Lewis warned of in an essay in the Observer in 1958, where he said: ‘I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in.’

Lewis continued: ‘The new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. …This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend.’

Men like my father and C.S. Lewis lived through the middle decades of the 20th century, witnesses to the rise of the totalitarian regimes of both Nazis and Soviets, in both of which, tellingly, science and medicine were the willing handmaids to horrific and terrifying evil. Unlike many today, softened as we are by decades of decadence and ease, they were alert to these very real dangers which today’s society – and church – in the West seems to have too easily forgotten. We do so at our peril.

Another 20th-century theologian who saw with great clarity was Emil Brunner, who in his post-war Gifford Lectures in 1947, ‘Christianity and Civilisation’, spoke about the sinister combination of the extraordinary developments of modern technology, which tempt modern man with a feeling of God-like power, and the arrogance of the totalitarian ideal in the modern Godless state: ‘It is then that man, identifying himself with that state, can believe himself to be God, the creator of his own existence, having in his hands unlimited powers and illimitable authority over other men. This totalitarian man is, in all probability, the monster of the Apocalypse who tramples down and devours humanity.’

He went on to warn that: ‘the totalitarian state is the most urgent problem of our civilisation at this present hour. For it is precisely in this generation that it should become obvious where the de-Christianisation of culture and civilisation – the main feature of the past few centuries – leads.’

Three-quarters of a century on, in this present hour of our generation, we are now far further down that road of emancipation from Christian truth Brunner warned would inevitably ‘lead to the total effacement of anything truly human’. Amid a culture being submerged in a social epidemic of aggressive transgenderism and a technological quest to embrace transhumanism, it is obvious we are indeed utterly confused about what it means to be human, and accelerating headlong towards the nadir of grim absurdity.

The challenge facing the orthodox Christian church in the West today is to be awake and alert to reality, and determined enough both to defend itself from such ideological onslaughts, and help preserve society from self-inflicted ruin, which is surely what true (not trite) love for our neighbour entails.

Rod Dreher in his recent book Live Not By Lies, articulates clearly how in the West today we are already living under ‘soft totalitarian’ conditions, where ‘liberal’ progressives have gained almost total control, not of the means of economic production like their Bolshevik predecessors, but of the means of cultural production. As a result, increasingly nothing will be permitted which contradicts society’s ruling ideology. And given that the culture shapers are so enmeshed with the world of big tech, the vast data harvesting and manipulation they possess give powerful tools for surveillance and social control to force conformity ‘demonising, excluding, and even persecuting all who resist its harsh dogmas’. ‘This is the brave new world of the twenty-first century’ he says, and a much ‘harder’ totalitarianism ‘is coming, and it is coming fast.’

Back in 1968 my father concluded his letter thus: ‘This is one more reason why Christian people should be actively involved in public affairs, standing for Christian moral values and being prepared to defend them vigorously when they are attacked or subtly undermined. Are we to remain dumb and unprotesting when we see what remains of our Christian heritage contemptuously swept aside by atheistic decadents in favour of this bleak and devilish programme? We must not contract out of this urgent responsibility. In this, as in so much else, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.’

How much more urgent that challenge is today. This is not a time for pietism or quietism: ‘Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus’ (Rev. 14:12) – in the public square, not just in the private sanctuary.

William Philip

William Philip has been minister of the Tron Church, Glasgow, since August 2004. He moved from London, where for five years he was Director of Ministry with The Proclamation Trust, working with ministers, teaching those training for ministry in the Cornhill Training Course, and overseeing a varied programme of conferences. Before that he served in ministry positions in Aberdeen where, prior to ordination, he studied medicine at Aberdeen University, and trained in cardiology at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.