The New Atheists complain when theists insist that their naturalism is itself a kind of religion, but the problem with modern scientism is precisely that it is not a religion or rather, since religion isn’t quite the right word, not an aspirational ideology or value system. The scientists and their commercial and military employers have made a concerted effort to demystify science, to assure everybody that the scientists don’t form some sort of priesthood, that their motives aren’t alien but merely commercial (better living through chemistry) or at worst patriotic (better bombs through nuclear physics). The originality and power of science, however, like all the other great human institutions, can not he explained by its utility, though religious fundamentalists and reactionary politicians only tolerate it, to the extent they do tolerate it, because they need the technology it makes possible. I once asked the philosopher Paul Weiss what God was good for in his system of metaphysics. Weiss answered. “Well. Some things are good for something and some are good for nothing. God is good for nothing.” Science is (or was) like that.
It is a commonplace that the various philosophical schools of antiquity were not simply the bearers of differing opinions about the world but were the promoters of alternative forms of life, just as the Indian philosophical systems that were growing up in the same era, the atheistic ones just as much as the theistic or mystical, were all aimed at achieving liberation and transcendence. What is less often understood is that the very project of theoretical knowledge through mathematics and empirical inquiry was also just as much a practice as Pyrrho’s skepticism, Plato’s idealism, or Diogenes’ cynicism. What developed from the speculative activities of the Ionian physicists through the research activities of the peripatetics and the Alexandrian museum was not based on a universal human impulse though Aristotle famously claimed that all men naturally desire to know. The scientific enterprise is an artifact, a cultural creation, something we chose to value or perhaps don’t.