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SEKHMETThe Fundamentalist Christian right commonly accuses its atheistic opposition (under its various aliases: Rationalism, Secular Humanism, Materialism) of being a religion in its own right, and it is tempting to discount any accusation made by the fundamentalist right (to turn the old joke inside out: with fundamentalists for enemies, Rationalists hardly need friends). Predictably, the accusation is both ridiculed and denied by the targeted Rationalists, Materialists and Secular Humanists. They point to the lack of any official, written dogma and of any central authority vested with the power to enforce dogma; they emphasize the absence of a belief in any sort of transcendent reality (the essence of all other religions), they disavow both faith and personal experience as valid means for accessing truth, and they insist upon empirical proof as the sole criterion for the establishment of truth.

So: Is the Church of Progress really a Church? Even as I ask this rhetorical question, the New York Times serendipitously provides definitive (if decorously covert) proof that it is.


Astronomers now know that not even the constellations represent any meaningful order. But every so often some maverick astronomers come up with tantalizing clues of a hidden universal order... In a report published in the Jan. 9 issue of Nature, an international team of astronomers say they have found reason to believe that superclusters --giant globs of galaxies-- are arranged in a gargantuan ëthree dimensional chessboard expending throughout the heavens...

 If true, this would be stunning news. There is little reason to believe that the big bang, the explosion that began the universe, scattered its debts with more care than any other blast. A universe so fastidiously and geometrically arrayed would require... new laws of physics. Not many astronomers will be easily persuaded that we dwell in the cells of a celestial lattice ...

 Maybe back in the beginning the dice were loaded. As the universe was unfolding, some unknown ordering principle might have been at work.. One of the hard- earned lessons of modern science is how effortlessly structure can bubble up from below, without the need of a great designer. Random genetic mutations, sifted by natural selection, give rise to biological order. And from the unpredictable quantum fluctuations of subatomic particles emerge the crystalline scaffolding of atoms and molecules. Gravity creates its own order .. (George Johnson, New York Times, 19/ 1 /97)

Sounds legit, doesn't it? 'Rational', unemotional, factual, above all scientific. But read carefully. It's simultaneously subterfuge and propaganda. The dogma may be unofficial and unwritten, but it is demonstrably Church of Progress dogma nonetheless. The church Credo goes something like this: the universe is an accident; matter precedes mind; consciousness is a kind of spin-off of matter; human life, indeed, all life, serves no higher purpose. Spiritual and sacred are no more than euphemisms for superstition. There is no consciousness higher than our own (at least not on this planet) and no possible transformation of the material into the spiritual. There is only Progress, hope defrayed into the future. Jacob's ladder no longer bridges the gulf between heaven and earth. It has been laid flat along the ground. Given enough time, science and technology will establish their version of heaven right here on earth. All we have to do is continue implementing those proven rational values that have brought our planet to its present state. At a certain point, Progress will automatically take over and everyone will live happily ever after. The geneticist, J.B.S. Haldane, with characteristic bluntness, set out the premises upon which his materialism was founded: 1) That there was material before there was mind 2) That there were events before there were any minds to perceive those events. These perfectly undemonstrable and metaphysical notions are set out in a book drolly entitled: SCIENCE AND LIFE: Essays of a Rationalist. To this day Haldane enjoys a high reputation among fellow metaphysicians calling themselves Rationalists.

 Haldane and George Johnson decades later in the New York Times seem to be talking science but are actually expressing a system of beliefs, a Credo. Call it the atheology of the Church of Progress. Only it is not acknowledged as a Credo. It is called reason and it is said to follow from the facts of science. But it has little to do with science. Its several chief elements are in no sense necessary corollaries of the actual scientifically validated facts of the physical world --as its faithful pretend.

It is the religious, or quasi-religious nature of these beliefs that provide half the evidence to substantiate the accusation-- that Rationalism/Materialism/ Secular Humanism is a religion in its own right. And this accusation has been leveled by sources far more reputable and better informed than the fundamentalist, creationist right. The Church likes to pretend to the public that all who oppose its dogma are Creationists by definition and therefore unworthy of serious attention. But the philosopher of Science Paul Feyerabend has spelled out the similarities between the acknowledged and the unacknowledged churches in detail (Science in a Free Society, 1978) and much earlier in the century the eminent mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead wrote: The certainties of science are a delusion. They are hedged round with unexplored limitations. Our handling of scientific doctrines is controlled by the diffused metaphysical concepts of our epoch (italics mine) Even so, we are continually led into errors of expectation. Also, whenever some new mode of observational experience is obtained the doctrines crumble into a fog of inaccuracies. (Adventure In Ideas, Cambridge University Press, 1933).

Yet sixty five years after Whitehead wrote those words, George Johnson in The New York Times is still talking hidden metaphysics all the while firmly believing he is talking scientific fact or basing his conclusions upon established fact. He is not. The big bang is hypothesis, currently the most fashionable cosmological hypothesis but hypothesis nonetheless, and sharply opposed by cosmologists and mathematicians no less qualified than those who support it. Random mutation giving rise to biological order is speculation. No scientist has ever witnessed or produced a random mutation that gave rise to biological order. Natural selection isn't even speculation. It is a label applied to a mystery, and by definition devoid of scientific explicative power. It is a tautology -- since what has survived automatically has survival value and thus science is obliged to ascribe alleged mechanisms ensuring survival by hindsight; which often takes deliciously fanciful form -- when, for example, trying to account for the survival value of the peacock's tail, or the bower birds architectural feats, or the entire duck-billed platypus. Natural selection proves nothing and is not itself in any sense proved. (Actually, I would hazard that if a true civilization somehow springs from the ashes of Progress somewhere over the course of the next century, Neo-Darwinism will eventually be regarded as perhaps the most deluded superstition ever to have infected the human mind. It will be seen as a kind of intellectual Cargo Cult of the Western World and currently fashionable proponents such as Richard Dawkins in England and Stephen Jay Gould in America will be remembered -- if, indeed they are remembered at all-- as laughing stocks; figure of fun to set up and knock down in slapstick student skits.)

The assertion that structure bubbles up from below on its own, independent of any guiding principle, design, or intelligence is speculation by definition, since a guiding principle, design (in the sense of plan) or intelligence is by definition invisible, unmeasurable, unreplicable and therefore unscientific. A visitor from outer space confronted by this article and unaware of the necessity of an author, might well conclude that it (and Mr. Johnson's article, too) is also bubbling up from below independent of any guiding principle, design, or intelligence.í How would he/she prove otherwise ... scientifically. The principal if not sole attraction of each of these hypotheses is simply that each is founded upon Coincidence as its causal metaphysical principle.

Mr. Johnson has woven hypothesis, speculation, fantasy and imagination together into a tapestry that he labels science and that is readily printed as science by the staid and respectable New York Times, staunch guardian of the status quo. But it is not science. It is an exercise in what Whitehead rightly terms the diffused metaphysical concepts of our epoch. Any reader of this column has read a thousand versions of that same article: it is the utterly predictable reaction to any new finding that in any way challenges the central doctrine. Johnson's obvious aim is to minimize or slough off the possible revolution in cosmology that might ensue if it were proven that superclusters are arranged in a gigantic three dimensional pattern -- since this would challenge the supremacy of that great Ungod: Coincidence. But because the challenge in this case comes from astronomers working within the Church itself, and that challenge is abstruse and arcane, it poses no immediate threat to the hegemony of the Church and so is handled with some civility. If the challenge comes from outside the establishment, and if it concerns matters either more accessible or more exciting to the lay public (e.g.: UFO'S, astrology, alien abductions, homeopathy, psi phenomena, crop circles, monuments on Mars, Atlantis -- Sekhmet will be reporting on some of these controversies in future issues) the tone changes dramatically. All pretense to civility is dropped, and the offending material is if possible ignored, but if impossible to ignore then attacked, derided or misrepresented.

It is the rightful job of science to determine the facts of the physical world but it is no longer science when unwarranted metaphysical conclusions are drawn upon those facts. Once these metaphysical conclusions are accepted as axiomatic and institutions grow up around them dedicated to proselytizing them and preserving them from attack, the similarities to institutionalized religion (as we know it in the West, especially) become obvious. This makes up the other half of the accusation: the Church of Progress as a repressive, autocratic institution intent upon ferreting out, exposing and persecuting its heretics.

In an upcoming essay Sekhmet will direct her attention to the the guardians of the Unfaith, the Jesuits of the Church of Progress: Science, Education and the Press ...


Sekhmet Speaks 1

Sekhmet Speaks 3

Sekhmet Speaks 4

Sekhmet Speaks 5



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