Sep 14

Books on Science and Religion #15: Great Britain, The Industrial Revolution and Capitalism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Sept 14, 2014

Our last several blogs looked at 19th century developments in the relationship between science, scientism, materialism and religion in France and Germany as outlined in Richard Olson’s historical overview of the 19th century origins of modern scientism, Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe.

France and Germany were transformed by the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, radically changing to focus on education, science and technology. Accompanying these changes in focus were the emergence of social and cultural movements that exalted science and claimed it to be a replacement for religion as the guiding light Polytechnique_seal.svgfor society. The influential French intellectual Auguste Comte, for example, argued that societies go through three stages of development with religion as the most primitive (the three stages are the religious or theological stages, the intermediary philosophical or metaphysical stage, and finally the advanced and mature scientific stage). Germany – or more specifically, Prussia – invented the modern research university and the compulsory modern education system. And then several of its philosophers and radical thinkers invented two of the most influential forms materialism – the “scientific” materialism of Büchner and Vogt, and the “historical” materialism of Marx and Engels.

England was spared direct attack during the Napoleonic wars where it emerged as the victor. As a consequence, it became the predominant world military power. A contributor to its victory and increasing influence was the British industrial revolution and the emergence of modern capitalism, which we review next. But before doing so, we review the Baha’i approach to material progress and capitalism.

Capitalism, Material Development, and the Baha’i Faith

Steam Engine and HorseThe Baha’i teachings emphasize the need for material progress, but condemn materialism. Material progress, Baha’is believe, does not bear fruit unless it is accompanied by spiritual progress.  In a tablet to a peace conference in the Hague in 1919, `Abdu’l-Baha spelled out this view in dramatic terms:

And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained.

Consider! These battleships that reduce a city to ruins within the space of an hour are the result of material civilization; likewise the Krup guns, the Mauser rifles, dynamite, submarines, torpedo boats, armed aircraft and bombing areoplanes — all these weapons of war are malignant fruits of material civilization. Had material civilization been combined with Divine civilization, these fiery weapons would never have been invented …

Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. … Without the spirit the world of mankind is lifeless, and without this light the world of mankind is in utter darkness. For the world of nature is an animal world. Until man is born again from the world of nature, that is to say, becomes detached from the world of nature, he is essentially an animal, and it is the teachings of God which convert this animal into a human soul.  (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to the Hague, p. 7)

With respect to capitalism, the Baha’i teachings are nuanced. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, wrote “There is nothing in the teachings against some kind of capitalism; its present form, though, would require adjustments to be made.”  At the same time, he warns against the “evil forces” that “unbridled capitalism” unleash.

united kingdom

Early 19th Century Developments in Science and Religion in Great Britain

As pointed out, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not substantially transformed by the Napoleonic Wars, in a large part because it was protected both by the ocean from invasion and by the Royal Navy, then the best in the world. Accordingly, it didn’t experience the radical reorganization of educational and scientific affairs that took place in France and Germany. However, it experienced a radical reorganization of its own in the industrial revolution and the subsequent rapid rate of social change. At the same time the industrial revolution was brewing in the midlands and north of England, Scottish universities were at the leading edge of enlightenment thought. British science, although about to be eclipsed by state-supported French and German science, was nonetheless strong.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution was initially a British affair, made possible by the invention of the steam engine, abundant coal and iron ore, and a transportation network of canals, shipping, and eventually railroads that reached around the world. And it soon spread out from Great Britain to change – and it continue to change – the world. The Wiki / Princeton website describes it as follows:

The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport, and technology had a profound effect on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions starting in the United Kingdom, then subsequently spreading throughout Europe, North America, and eventually the world.

industryfactoryThe Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in human history; almost every aspect of daily life was eventually influenced in some way. Most notably, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. In the two centuries following 1800, the world’s average per capita income increased over 10-fold, while the world’s population increased over 6-fold

[T]here began a transition in parts of Great Britain’s previously manual labour and draft-animal–based economy towards machine-based manufacturing. It started with the mechanisation of the textile industries, the development of iron-making techniques and the increased use of refined coal. Trade expansion was enabled by the introduction of canals, improved roads and railways.

Before the industrial revolution, discussions about science, materialism, scientism and religion tended towards the theological or the political. They really didn’t have much impact on the way that the majority of people lived. When marauding revolutionaries killed thousands of Catholic priests and nuns in the dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution, it was a political act similar in spirit to hundreds of occurrences of similar nature before.

However, with industrialization and the rapid transformation of every aspects of the world that it promised, the impact of decisions based on scientific or religious grounds became much greater. It also meant that traditional religion, with its great store of ideas from the past about agrarian or mercantile societies, no longer had the relevance it once did. Religion showed itself clearly – in Great Britain and elsewhere – to lack the answers that society needed to address the impact of industrialization.

Capitalism and the Birth of Modern Economics

AdamSmithOne of the replacements for religion was economic theory. One of the consequences of the industrial revolution was the birth of modern capitalism. Its theoretical development was aided by the strong late 18th century university system in Scotland and what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment. The work of Adam Smith (1723-1790) and subsequent thinkers like David Ricardo (1772-1823), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832), Thomas Malthus (1767–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) challenged and helped overturn the then dominant mercantile theory of economics with its emphasis on trade for profit as the source of wealth and societal advancement. Capitalism became the preferred replacement. Wikipedia, in its article on capitalism, summarizes:

The classical school of economic thought emerged in Britain in the late 18th century. The classical political economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jean-Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill published analyses of the production, distribution and exchange of goods in a market that have since formed the basis of study for most contemporary economists.

Smith’s attack on mercantilism and his reasoning for “the system of natural liberty” in The Wealth of Nations (1776) are usually taken as the beginning of classical political economy.

Smith devised a set of concepts that remain strongly associated with capitalism today. His theories regarding the “invisible hand” are commonly interpreted to mean individual pursuit of self-interest unintentionally producing collective good for society.

He criticized monopolies, tariffs, duties, and other state enforced restrictions of his time and believed that the market is the most fair and efficient arbitrator of resources. 

The values of classical political economy are strongly associated with the classical liberal doctrine of minimal government intervention in the economy, though it does not necessarily oppose the state’s provision of a few basic public goods. Classical liberal thought has generally assumed a clear division between the economy and other realms of social activity, such as the state.

The changes wrought by the industrial revolution, capitalism, modern science, technical development, and world empire were unprecedented and challenging, but also transformative and revolutionary.  Theories based on how change takes place based in organic systems – theories of growth and development – theories of what we know call evolution – were becoming more and more influential long before they became scientific.  We will discuss these next.

Next Blog

Next week, we discuss the emergence of organic theories of development – evolution – as an powerful and emerging source of scientism and materialism in 19th century England.

…………………………

This is the 15th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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Sep 01

Books on Science and Religion #14: Marxism and Dielectical Materialism

john_kenneth_galbraithUnder capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.

John Kenneth Galbraith

August 31, 2014

Materialism in the 19th century materialism came in many forms and guises. Already, we’ve reviewed several of them already in our series of blogs on Richard Olson’s book Science and Scientism in Nineteenth Century.

Perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most notorious – of those 19th century materialisms is what later came to be called dialectical materialism. Developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it became the basis for communism and systems of government around the globe. Like the scientific materialism of Vogt, Moleschott, and Buchner that we reviewed last week, dialectical materialism portrayed itself as based on a true scientific understanding of reality. In actuality, like scientific materialism, it was based on French ideas about socialism and on positivist thinking, on 19th century German philosophical arguments of Hegel and Feuerbach, and on various other social and intellectual developments of the time.

Hammer_and_sickle_red_on_transparent.svgBefore looking in more detail at the mid-nineteenth century origins of Marxist materialism, let’s first look at the death toll inflected by 20th communist governments on their own populations – a rough indicator of the social impact of this so-called “scientific” materialism. We also review the Baha’i perspective on communism.

The Black Book of Communism

Wikipedia has two sites that look at mass killings exacted by communist regimes on their populations in the name of dialectical materialism – Mass Killings Under Communist Regimes and The Black Book of Communism. The estimate typically given as to the numbers of people killed by such regimes is between 85 to 100 million. The usual reference is the 1997 book on the topic called The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression written on the basis of studies by a number of European academics.

Here are the estimates in the Black Book by country:

  • The_Black_Book_of_Communism_(front_cover)65 million in the People’s Republic of China
  • 20 million in the Soviet Union
  • 2 million in Cambodia
  • 2 million in North Korea
  • 1.7 million in Africa
  • 1.5 million in Afghanistan
  • 1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe
  • 1 million in Vietnam
  • 150,000 in Latin America (mainly Cuba)
  • 10,000 deaths “resulting from actions of the international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power.”

Notice that these numbers are very large, dwarfing the numbers of those killed by religious wars (reference: List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll.) For example, the Catholic Crusades led to 2 to 4 million deaths, the 30 Years War between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century led to 3 to 12 million deaths, the French wars of religion in the 16th century led to 2 to 4 million deaths, and the notorious Catholic Inquisition led to 2,000 deaths. Also notice that in contrast to 20th century mass killings, the wars of religion were as much political as they were ideological.

The political scientist R.J. Rummel wrote extensively and widely about the topic. In The Killing Machine that is Marxism he summarizes his conclusions:

Marxism has meant bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal prison camps and murderous forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and fraudulent show trials, outright mass murder and genocide. [Construction of a Marxist utopia was] a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism and inequality – and, as in a real war, noncombatants would unfortunately get caught in the battle. There would be necessary enemy casualties: the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, ‘wreckers’, intellectuals, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, the rich and landlords. As in a war, millions might die, but these deaths would be justified by the end, as in the defeat of Hitler in World War II. To the ruling Marxists, the goal of a communist utopia was enough to justify all the deaths.

lenin_marx_engelsBut note that capitalism has had its share of mass killings – one need only think of the horrific European and North and South American institutions of slavery or the corporate over-lordships of the the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and other colonial exploitations (for example, the brutal exploitation and 2 to 15 million deaths in the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium.)

Some Baha’i Views on Communism

The Baha’i Faith condemns all forms of materialism, including communism, and calls on them to give an accounting of their successes and failures. The Universal House of Justice in The Promise of World Peace writes:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise. Where is the “new world” promised by these ideologies? Where is the international peace to whose ideals they proclaim their devotion? …

Most particularly, it is in the glorification of material pursuits, at once the progenitor and common feature of all such ideologies, that we find the roots which nourish the falsehood that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive. It is here that the ground must be cleared for the building of a new world fit for our descendants.

Only communism is singled-out for direct mention.The Century of Light, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, says the following:

Alone among these would-be agents of violent change one broadly based movement was proceeding systematically and with ruthless clarity of purpose towards the goal of world revolution. The Communist Party, deriving both its intellectual thrust and an unshakeable confidence in its ultimate triumph from the writings of the nineteenth century ideologue Karl Marx, had succeeded in establishing groups of committed supporters throughout Europe and various other countries.

Struggle_session_against_class_enemyCommunism, tragically, singled out religion and class as its enemy:

Convinced that the genius of its master had demonstrated beyond question the essentially material nature of the forces that had given rise to both human consciousness and social organization, the Communist movement dismissed the validity of both religion and “bourgeois” moral standards. In its view, faith in God was a neurotic weakness indulged in by the human race, a weakness that had merely permitted successive ruling classes to manipulate superstition as an instrument for enslaving the masses.

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, describes communism as one of mankind’s three false Gods:

God Himself has indeed been dethroned from the hearts of men, and an idolatrous world passionately and clamorously hails and worships the false gods which its own idle fancies have fatuously created, and its misguided hands so impiously exalted. The chief idols in the desecrated temple of mankind are none other than the triple gods of Nationalism, Racialism and Communism, at whose altars governments and peoples, whether democratic or totalitarian, at peace or at war, of the East or of the West, Christian or Islamic, are, in various forms and in different degrees, now worshiping. (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 112)

marx340aMarx, Engels, Historical Materialism, and It’s Goals

Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) were both from wealthy middle-class German families. Marx was schooled at the University of Bonn and then the University of Berlin. There, he joined a group of radical thinkers known as the Young Hegelians that included David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, two of the main thinkers responsible for laying the groundwork for German materialism. Engels initially avoided school but ended up in Berlin as an artillery officer – and also a member of the Young Hegelians. Both were active writing newspaper articles exposing social injustice. They met and became close friends in Paris 1844, both having become materialists and socialists.

In 1848 – the same year that the Revolution of 1848 swept Europe, Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, the best known of revolutionary pamphlets. It ended famously:

… the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing Engels_1856social and political order of things.  …  The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Over the next 35 year, Marx and Engels worked together in England to buttress, augment, expand on and explain their reasonings (and to maneuver their theory into the leading radical analysis of 19th century European society).

At its core, their approach relies on a Feuerbachian materialistic analysis of religion and society augmented by Hegelian add-ons. Feuerbach argued that human beings created God in their own image and therefore awareness of God is a false consciousness. Marx agrees, but argues further that human ideas about all aspects of reality – all of our forms of consciousness – are in similar way created by our “materialistic modes of production.” (If is sound a bit convoluted, it’s because it is.)

Here is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Marx approach to religion – and then to materialism in general:

With regard to religion, Marx fully accepted Feuerbach’s claim in opposition to traditional theology that human beings had created God in their own image [but] criticizes Feuerbach on the grounds that he has failed to understand why people fall into religious alienation and so is unable to explain how it can be transcended. Marx’s explanation is that religion is a response to alienation in material life, and therefore cannot be removed until human material life is emancipated, at which point religion will wither away.

marxist theory of alienation(Alienation, in Marxist theory, means “estrangement of people from aspects of their human nature” and is derived from Feuerbach’s theory of religion.}

The Encyclopedia continues. Marx and Engel’s “premises of the materialist method” are that

… human beings are essentially productive, in that they must produce their means of subsistence in order to satisfy their material needs. The satisfaction of needs engenders new needs of both a material and social kind, and forms of society arise corresponding to the state of development of human productive forces. Material life determines, or at least ‘conditions’ social life, and so the primary direction of social explanation is from material production to social forms, and thence to forms of consciousness.

As the material means of production develop, ‘modes of co-operation’ or economic structures rise and fall, and eventually communism will become a real possibility once the plight of the workers and their awareness of an alternative motivates them sufficiently to become revolutionaries.

When the false consciousness produced by alienation falls away – when the workers are no longer exploited by class enemies – then a communist society will emerge, according to the Marxist vision of the future.  Such a society is one that is “classless and stateless, based upon common ownership of the means of production with free access to articles of consumption, and therefore the end of economic exploitation. … economic relations no longer would determine the society. Scarcity would be eliminated in all possible aspects. Alienated labor would cease, as people would be free to pursue their individual goals.”

But is this scientific?

But how much of this is scientific? Given that it’s a highly theoretical construct mainly unsupported by empirical arguments, probably its better to say it is “scientistic”. Olson summarizes how he sees it as follows:

There is no doubt that Marxism was a scientistic movement. That is, it openly sought to extend methods derived from mathematics and the natural sciences to deal with social phenomena. 

But suppose we were to conclude it was scientific? Then

… even if we were to agree that Marxism was and is indeed scientific, that would not justify the most important inference that Marx, Engels, and subsequent Marxists have wished to draw: That it was therefore also correct in all of its claims.

Next Blog

Next week, we move to England, Victorian culture, and its changes of attitude towards science.

…………………………

This is the 14th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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Aug 24

Books on Science and Religion #13: Scientific Materialism in 19th Century Germany

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

August 24, 2014

What is scientific materialism?

Is it more than just materialism? Is it proof from science that – despite our stubborn belief that we have minds and our fullest reality is our thought – everything is just matter?

The Baha’i point of view is that we fall into “the despairing slough” of materialism when we try to make progress on the basis of science alone.  This is one of the meanings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s analogy in Paris Talks (p. 143):

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!

wm-blake-out-of-slough-of-despondShould a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

I see this, among other things, as saying that a preoccupation with matter – an unbalanced focus that ignores crucial spiritual, ethical, and moral aspects of reality – is like driving your car and only taking left turns. Soon you are off the road.

Materialism surrounds us, according to the Century of Light (commissioned by the Baha’i Universal House of Justice). Baha’is and others daily are

… struggling against … the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness. (p.135).

In the following, we look at the rise of scientific materialism in mid-19th century Germany. We are following Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism called Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Writers like Steven Pinker, Victor Stenger, A.C. Grayling, or Richard Dawkins claiming that science shows religion to be false are parroting the views we discuss in the following. Read the rest of this entry »


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Aug 19

Increase in arrests highlights continuing persecution of Baha’is in Iran

From the Bahá’í World News Service:

 — The arrest last week of five Baha’is in Tehran signals a rising tide of detainments and imprisonments of Baha’is in Iran in recent months.

Since June, at least 14 Baha’is have been arrested, a trend that exemplifies a pattern of systematic persecution of Iranian Baha’is by the government, this despite its claims to uphold international standards of human rights. In Yazd, 20 Baha’is who had originally been acquitted of charges leveled against them in 2012 learned in August 2013 that their cases had been re-opened and all 20 sentenced to prison, notwithstanding the judge’s admission that they were being treated unjustly. The Baha’is appealed the case and, in a flagrant miscarriage of justice, the sentences against all 20 were upheld. The deputy head of the Justice Administration told the lawyers of the Baha’is that: “The accused are members of a hostile sect who have no citizenship rights.”

More than 100 Baha’is are currently in prison on false charges related entirely to their religious beliefs, while thousands more are subjected to various forms of discrimination and harassment, including denial of access to university and increasingly severe economic repression.

Bahá'í arrestsThe latest arrests in Tehran, for example, appear to be related to ongoing efforts to prevent Baha’is from earning an adequate living. The five were arrested after agents from the Ministry of Intelligence raided the optical shop where they work on 11 August 2014. In February 2014, an optical shop owned by a Baha’i in Tabriz was closed down by the authorities on the grounds of “market saturation”, but Muslim owners of optical shops in the same location experienced no such difficulties. It is understood that “market saturation” has only been used in the cases of Baha’is. Clearly the government is disallowing Baha’is in some cities to own certain types of business on the grounds that too many Baha’is are engaged in it. Read the rest of this entry »


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Aug 17

Books on Science and Religion #12: The Foundations of German Materialism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

August 18, 2014

Materialism – the word – means several things.

It can mean, for example, the pursuit of material wealth – fancy cars, expensive clothes, a beautiful house, a big TV, those kinds of things. People get caught up in it, pursuing wealth to the disadvantage of everything else. It is a hugely disturbing world trend today, growing in the United States, China, and throughout the third world. It is highly disruptive – and is probably one the greatest contributors to the impoverishment of a large cross-section of the world’s peoples.

2010-10-12 016Materialism can also mean the doctrine that material things are all that there is. There is – this kind of materialism holds – no God. Thought, perception, consciousness, and our minds are simply the consequences of material configurations of atoms, molecules, biological entities, fields, forces, those kinds of things. It is sometimes called physicalism, metaphysical naturalism, or scientific materialism. Closely related, but different, are the Marxist versions of materialism – historical materialism and dialectical materialism.

Materialism of all kinds are related. If you believe that material things are all there is, then it is easy to consider satisfaction of material desires and/or an exclusionary focus on material progress as all there is.

German science and scientism – along with social movements like Marxism that owe it substantial debts – are discussed in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Richard Olson’s excellent Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Before diving into those chapters, we briefly review the Baha’i teachings on the topic. Read the rest of this entry »


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Aug 11

Books on Science and Religion #11: The Beginnings of German Materialism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

August 10, 2014

Why are so many scientists and intellectuals so critical of religion?

The Baha’i Faith tells us that religion – or more precisely – true religion, is essential to humankind’s progress:

[The Baha'i Faith] … enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all manner of prejudice and superstition, declares the purpose of religion to be the promotion of amity and concord, proclaims its essential harmony with science, and recognizes it as the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society.

If religion is “the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society”, then bypassing it or undermining it would have disastrous consequences as it loses strength, vitality, and relevance. And it is hard to not see those disastrous consequences.

This doesn’t weigh into the criticisms of Steven Pinker – the Harvard experimental psychologist. He completely rejects religion, saying that science shows “that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures – their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies – are factually mistaken.”

free-vector-mathematician-scientist-clip-art_108774_Mathematician_Scientist_clip_art_hightMy guess is that this is not the real reason for his critique. For one thing, it is mainly untrue.

Simply put, religion is not about theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies – and its description of those things are mainly metaphorical in nature. Rather, it focuses on the spiritual, moral, and ethical dimensions of life. It may be that Pinker is thinking of theories opposed to Darwinian evolution. But those are invariably ad hoc and taken seriously only as a polemic. It is Newton’s laws of motions, of course, that are the religious theories of the universe par excellence, given Newton’s strongly religious character and their central place in English religious life in the 18th century. But I doubt that they are recognized by Pinker as such. Read the rest of this entry »


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Aug 03

Books on Science and Religion Books on Science and Religion #10: Richard Olsen’s Science and Scientism in 19th Century Europe

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

August 3, 2014

Steven Pinker – the highly capable experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, popular science writer, and Harvard professor – tells us that

… the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken.

The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value. … the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.  (Pinker, Steven. “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).

ArtificialFictionBrainThis, of course, is pure belief – the findings of science tell us no such thing. That doesn’t prevent this belief from being widely shared or being seen by the masses as true. Materialism and scientism are ideologies – and they are not just believed by this or that college professor. In one form or another, they are the accepted views of the age. One Common Faith, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, puts it this way:

Early in the twentieth century, a materialistic interpretation of reality had consolidated itself so completely as to become the dominant world faith insofar as the direction of society was concerned. … For many in the West, the Divine authority that had functioned as the focal centre of guidance … seemed simply to have dissolved and vanished. … The experience of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific … [were] effectively marginalized …

Where do these scientistic beliefs – these remarkably narrow, constricted, and corrosive materialistic interpretations of reality – come from? Clearly, the aging of the world’s religious traditions and their loss of vitality explains much. But, also a goodly part of the answer lies in the various forms of scientism and scientific materialism that developed in 19th century Europe and spread across the world through conquest, colonialism, and trade. Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism – Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe – gives us a readable and compelling picture of how modern scientism originated, bringing into play often ignored developments of science and religion in France and Germany, and describing some of the surprising ways they still affect us today. Read the rest of this entry »


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Jul 27

Books on Science and Religion #9: Materialism, Scientism, and Steven Pinker

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

July 27, 2014

Is materialism the “dominant faith” of the modern world?

This of course is not a question about numbers of people enrolled in a given religion, but a question about dominant ethical and moral values and their influence.

womanmoneyWe start by looking at One Common Faith, a document that explores the crises affecting the modern world written for the Baha’i Universal House of Justice. Its perspective holds that materialism – a set of values that owes much to scientism – has had an extraordinarily corrosive effect on the world over the last century.

We then look at some recent examples of scientistic views as expressed publicly by Steven Pinker, the prominent Harvard scientist and writer. He insists that “the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person … requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value,” illustrating the continuing influence of scientism.

Read the rest of this entry »


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Jul 20

Books on Science and Religion #8: John Polkinghorne and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

July 20, 2014

In our last six posts (Books #2, Books #3, Books #4, Books #5, Books #6, and Books #7), we have looked at books by Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling, two writers closely associated with the new Atheist movement.

Stenger and Grayling and the ‘four horsemen of new Atheism‘, swimming against the consensus of modern historians of science, hold science and religion to be in irreconcilably in conflict. Thirty years ago, this would have been met with little or no dissent – and little interest – in the modern academic and intellectual community. That it creates such a stir now is due in large part to the efforts of John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican cleric whose indefatigable efforts over the last 25 years have made discussions of science and religion a central topic in the modern world.

Science and Religion Quest for TruthFrom a Baha’i perspective, i.e., one that endorses the view that science and religion are both essential elements of any practical and long-term solution of the problems of the world, Polkinghorne’s perspective is both closely in harmony and persuasive in detail. Where it differs, however, is with respect to religions that Baha’is view as equal in authority to Christianity – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. With respect to these, Polkinghorne is admirably open and ecumenical, but holds to the uniqueness of Christ.

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Jul 13

Books on Science and Religion #7: A. C. Grayling and The God Argument

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Bahá’u’lláh

July 13, 2014

A. C. Grayling, author of The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, has a very impressive resume. He is not only a well-known British philosopher, but also a widely-read columnist, a public intellectual, a prominent educator, and a prolific writer.

He comes recommended to us by Massimo Pigliucci, the scientist, philosopher, and atheist referenced in Books on Science and Religion #6: More on Victor Stenger’s The God Hypothesis. Pigliucci criticizes prominent new Atheist writers – Dawkins, Stenger, and Harris - for scientism, holding them to be philosophically naive as well as anti-intellectual. Atheism needs philosophers, Pigliucci concludes:

What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world. … this is precisely the direction toward which some post–New Atheism writers, such as De Botton and Grayling (not at all coincidentally, both philosophers) have been pushing most recently. (Pugliucci, New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, p.152.)

256px-AC_Grayling

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