Progressive Puritans

If You Really Want Social Justice, Lose the Scientism

Over a century ago, British writer and apologist G.K. Chesterton wrote a pithy remark in his book Orthodoxy which still rings true today. He describes a typical scientist who spends a day arguing that human beings are little more than apes, and then later the same day visits a humanist organization and rails against people for treating humans as little more than apes. The sad part is that apparently the scientist doesn't see his own hypocrisy and continues to extol evolution while simultaneously demanding "humanitarian" justice for his own species.

Today we find our own country in a similar tension as Chesterton's scientist. Looking at a typical, secular university, you'll find all in one package an orthodoxy of scientism and materialism reigning in the classroom alongside a passionate hunger for social justice and political activism in the student body. Scientism, the idea that science should be king of the academic disciplines and by itself is the way to objective knowledge, has made an odd bedfellow with social justice, a movement that requires a robust vision of human worth and dignity to even function at all.

I recently attended a conference in Boston where Ross Douthat, New York Times opinion columnist and a Catholic, diagnosed a portion of the population as operating in this weird paradigm. Social justice proponents are at once calling for a respect for human rights but leave out a religious and moral framework to buttress their claims (which may explain why many of them do not recognize the human rights of unborn children). This is a strange development of a social agenda with little reason to justify it, and although its proponents may regard religion as the shackles of society, it too is a burden too great to bear.

Chesterton also wrote about disliking religious Puritanism but admitted he would prefer the Christian Puritans with their rules and codes to the "new Puritanism" of this progressive, Darwin-ized Left. He writes in his essay "On the New Prudery," "The pure Puritan is not so grim and negative and repressive as the pure Progressive."1 These "progressives" were consistently in line with the naturalistic teachings of Darwin and so they therefore saw material and political progress—"evolution"—as the basic goal of human civilization. This world is all that matters. Much of this progressive thinking was reactionary against religious repression (as shown in Aldous Huxley's famous claim that he preferred atheism because it gave him sexual license) but in time created its own version of repression, Chesterton claimed. In doing away with God, they failed to secure freedom and meaning through materialistic resources. Their scientism seemed to offer liberation from moral constraint, but in fact only changed the source of those constraints from religion to the state. When justice, rights, and morality are detached from God and religious structures, it may for a time be possible to escape the moral restrictions it sought to break, but only ends up reinforcing a different and even more sinister kind of slavery. Consider all the purity codes we're expected to abide by today, the warnings against "microaggressions" and the call for "safe spaces" on university campuses. These codes are politically constructed and not religiously based; they arise from vague and ever-changing human "values." Perhaps the intention behind them is noble. But more and more they've become a secular Puritanism, with new speech codes, growing lists of offensive words you can no longer use and newly-invented pronouns that you must use.

This progressive demand for justice can't be sustained by the worldview of naturalism it's trying to live on. Trying to do so is creating a new religion of secular demands and power dynamics that is blind to its own corruption. The social justice warrior and the evolutionary biologist both need to pause and reconsider the basis for their indignations and convictions. Perhaps they will find that it's silly to advocate for the rights of something that evolved from primordial ooze and return to a conception of people being made in the image of God. Acknowledging God puts the created order in its proper place and may translate our demand for our rights into thanksgiving for our lives, which can nourish a sense of obligation and responsibility to others, and justice for all.


Chesterton, G.K. "The New Prudery." In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 2011. p. 232.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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