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

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.


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.

This is all by way of introduction to next week’s blog on the 19th century origins of modern scientism and materialism.

One Common Faith

Universal House of Justice CroppedAccording to One Common Faith, materialism is a central component of the crises of the modern world. (A few of the crises that come quickly to mind are those of endemic poverty, of sectarian violence, of widespread warfare, of dysfunctional government, of growing economic inequality, of global warming, and of the accelerating destruction of our environment.)

One Common Faith is a commentary prepared in 2005 for the use of Baha’is (and other like-minded people) under the supervision of the Universal House of Justice. It reviews “relevant passages from both the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the scriptures of other faiths against the background of the contemporary crisis.”

One Common Faith closely associates the rise of materialism with the collapse of the positive influence of religion, a process that accelerated when the influence of materialistic interpretations of reality became a entrenched feature of the modern view of the world a century ago:

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. In the process, the civilizing of human nature had been violently wrenched out of the orbit it had followed for millennia. For many in the West, the Divine authority that had functioned as the focal centre of guidance—however diverse the interpretations of its nature—seemed simply to have dissolved and vanished.

Materialism – and lets be careful, the meaning here is dogmatic materialism, not the improvements in life that all of us want and the Baha’i Faith says is essential – not only holds religion to be immaterial to the direction of society, but is a means of economic exploitation:

Having penetrated and captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, dogmatic materialism ensured that no competing voices would retain the ability to challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation.

Dogmatic materialism was – and still often is – viewed as the only means to better health, better food, better education, better living conditions and human happiness. But the narrowness of this vision has consequences, one them being the horrific totalitarian control of societies across the globe in the 20th century:

For well over a hundred years, the idea of progress was identified with economic development and with its capacity to motivate and shape social improvement. Those differences of opinion that existed did not challenge this world view, but only conceptions as to how its goals might best be attained.

Its most extreme form, the iron dogma of “scientific materialism”, sought to reinterpret every aspect of history and human behaviour in its own narrow terms. Whatever humanitarian ideals may have inspired some of its early proponents, the universal consequence was to produce regimes of totalitarian control prepared to use any means of coercion in regulating the lives of hapless populations subjected to them.

OCFBut even in more moderate countries, “The view took root that, since people were essentially self-interested actors in matters pertaining to their economic well-being, the building of just and prosperous societies could be ensured by … modernization.” The consequence is “the breakdown of family life, soaring crime, dysfunctional educational systems, and a catalogue of other social pathologies.” As Thomas Piketty‘s widely influential Capital in the Twenty First Century illustrates “not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism’s fundamental flaws.”

The consequences with regards to religion have been multi-fold. One was the loss of spiritual identity:

The experience of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific had long confirmed them in the view not only that human nature is deeply influenced by spiritual forces, but that its very identity is spiritual. Consequently, religion continued, as had always been the case, to function as the ultimate authority in life. These convictions, while not directly confronted by the ideological revolution taking place in the West, were effectively marginalized by it, insofar as interaction among peoples and nations was concerned.  

Another of the consequences – a delayed consequence at the end of the 20th century – is the recent and almost sudden resurgence of interest in religion and a corresponding increase in sectarian violence:

20071103issuecovUS400As the twentieth century approached its close, therefore, nothing seemed less likely than a sudden resurgence of religion as a subject of consuming global importance. Yet that is precisely what has now occurred in the form of a groundswell of anxiety and discontent, much of it still only dimly conscious of the sense of spiritual emptiness that is producing it.

Ancient sectarian conflicts, apparently unresponsive to the patient arts of diplomacy, have re-emerged with a virulence as great as anything known before.

A further consequence has been an increasing recognition of the bankruptcy of dogmatic materialism:

The reawakened interest in religion is clearly far from having reached its peak … [Its] effect is to erode the certainty, bequeathed to the world by the twentieth century, that material existence represents ultimate reality. The most obvious cause of these re-evaluations has been the bankruptcy of the materialist enterprise itself. For well over a hundred years, the idea of progress was identified with economic development and with its capacity to motivate and shape social improvement.

 If unbalanced materialism is a major part of the problem of our age – and evidence ranging from the ongoing destruction of the world’s ocean to the precarious and impoverished existence of an astronomically large number of people everywhere in world suggests that it is – where did this materialism come from?  Why is it so hard to shake it off? And why does the “iron dogma of ‘scientific materialism'” seek “to reinterpret every aspect of history and human behavior in its own narrow terms?

This is what we will explore next week.

But, now lets look at modern scientism and a scientist/writer whose doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo with respect to materialism’s corrosive effects.

Steven_Pinker_Göttingen_10102010aSteven Pinker and Scientism

Steven Pinker, a Canadian-born experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science writer, is a professor at Harvard. In a recent (August 6, 2013) article in the New Republic that urges humanists to welcome scientific modes of doing things, he gives a classic exposition of scientism:

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. To begin with, 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.

According to Pinker, we must turn to science for moral and spiritual values:

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. … The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. ….

The result, according to Pinker, is that scientific humanism is the de facto source of modern morality. Even more scientific humanism is the answer to crises of the day:

[H]umanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

To modern ears, this can sound terribly old-fashioned, not to mention profoundly at odds with the methods and practices of science. So it is not surprising that counter-arguments were soon in the coming. Leon Wieseltier – the literary editor of the New Republic – and Ross Douthat – a columnist at the New York Times – were among the many to reply.

Wieseltier writing within weeks in Crimes Against Humanities, argues that

… the question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. … Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate.

Pinker he concludes is:

… just another enthusiast, just another cutting-edge man, waxing on like everybody else about how “this is an extraordinary time” because “powerful tools have been developed” and so on. … We get it, we get it.

Ross Douthat – writing in The Scientism of Steven Pinker – agrees. Pinker offers, he confides, an

… account of how the progress of science has undercut the world-pictures bequeathed to us by tradition, intuition and religion. … [using the] invocation of “the scientific facts” to justify what is, at bottom … pretty much the essence of what critics mean by scientism: Empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree.

Again, we need to ask where Pinker’s scientistic stance comes from. Why does Pinker endorse such an old-fashioned, scientifically-shaky point of view? This is what we will be asking of Richard Olson and his description of science and scientism in the 19th century in our next blog.

Next Blog

Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism – given in Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe – is next.


This is the 9th 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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