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

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.


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.logical_systemsScience and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe

OlsonRichardOlson is a historian of science at the highly-regarded Harvey-Mudd College in southern California. Other books he has written include Technology and Science in Ancient Civilizations, Science and Religion in the West, The Emergence of the Social Sciences, 1642-1792, and Science Deified and Science Defied, Vol 1 and Vol. 2). In Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe he paints the following of picture of scientistic developments in 19th century Europe:

  1. A comprehensive reshaping of European politics through the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars,
  2. a radical restructuring of educational systems in France, Germany, and later in England that made science the leading intellectual force throughout Europe (and then throughout the world),
  3. a consequent “transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context of the study of the natural world (which was assumed to be independent of human needs and expectations) into the study of humans and their social institutions,” which is what he defines – very neutrally – as scientism, and
  4. the failure, either through complacency or for other reasons, of religious institutions to address and resolve the radically altered social conditions brought about by industrialization and other change in organized European life.

The consequence of these developments, and accompanying them, science came to be seen as having considerable authority:

… first in France, then in Germany, and finally in Britain, the natural sciences were invested with substantial authority by ruling elites and those exercising economic power. Social theorists and those literary and artistic figures who molded the larger public culture continued through the nineteenth century to borrow heavily from developments in the natural sciences in formulating their understandings of humans and their societies.

640px-Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres,_Portrait_de_Napoléon_Bonaparte_en_premier_consulFor different countries, the specific details are different, but by the 1890s, ideas from France, Germany and England had spread widely, including to the United States, to Brazil, and to India. This spreading cemented in place concepts and views that underlie the widespread modern perspective on religion so forcibly expressed by Steven Pinker.

Summarizing Olson’s findings, underlying many of the changes is that the French Revolution and the accompanying reign of terror was widely condemned and frequently seen as consequence of the static clockwork universe picture of pre-revolutionary enlightenment science. After the revolution, this led to strong interest in organic and dynamical pictures of reality such as provided by evolutionary, positivist, and social science perspectives and these led to views that, in many cases, still persist..

We start by looking at the influence of the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic wars, and then summarize influential developments of scientism in France.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars – starting in 1789 and culminating in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon and the military forces of France at Waterloo – transformed and reshaped Europe and the world order of the day. Wikipedia summarized the effects of the wars as follows:

In most European countries, subjugation in the French Empire brought with it many liberal methods of the French Revolution including democracy, due process in courts, abolition of serfdom, reduction of the power of the Catholic Church, and a demand for constitutional limits on monarchs. The increasing voice of the middle classes with rising commerce and industry meant that restored European monarchs found it difficult to restore pre-revolutionary absolutism, and had to retain many of the reforms enacted during Napoleon’s rule. …

map1815The wars resulted in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and sowed the seeds of nascent nationalism in Germany and Italy …. Meanwhile, the global Spanish Empire began to unravel as French occupation of Spain weakened Spain’s hold over its colonies … As a direct result of the Napoleonic wars, the British Empire became the foremost world power for the next century …

One of the consequence of this transformation of Europe was a radical reshaping of the organization of science and its relationship to religion. It restructured the educational systems in France, Germany, and later England, giving increased precedence and prestige to science at the expense of religion. In France, for example, “basic training in science and engineering had become the gateway to higher careers in the military, in education, in medicine, and in public life” and the Ecole Polytechnique, with its emphasis on science and engineering, came to dominate French education.

In Germany, the changes in the educational system were even greater, leading to the establishment of an educational system – including the modern research university – that has been copied all over the world. Here is how the changes taking place are summarized in Germany: A Country Study (Eric Solsten, editor. p. 225)

The defeat of Prussia by France led to a reform of education by the Berlin scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). His reforms in secondary schools have shaped the German education system to the present day. He required university-level training for high school teachers … In 1810 Humboldt founded the university in Berlin that now bears his name. Humboldt also introduced the three principles that guided German universities until the 1960s: academic freedom, the unity of teaching and research, and self-government by the professors.

220px-Claude_Henri_de_Saint-SimonReform in the British educational system eventually was eventually to take place, but not until later in the century.

Scientism in France

France, then the leading scientific power, saw the emergence of two influential “scientifically based socio-religious cults that have played important long term roles in European and American social and intellectual life” – the socialism of Saint-Simon and the positivism of Auguste Comte. Central features of both were evolutionary theories of social development that held science to be the highest form of organization and understanding. Comte formalized this view in his famous positivist law of three stages, which Olson describes as based on the view that

… the understanding of every class of phenomena goes through a progression that begins with religions perspectives, moves on to philosophical analyses that are inevitably shaped by metaphysical assumptions, and ends in a “positive” or, scientific, stage in which metaphysics as well as religion are abandoned and what we now call “objective” knowledge an be attained.

220px-Auguste_ComteSocial science, socialism, and philosophy of science were born of these two powerful movements in France, as were many of our modern ideas about social and economic development. Marxist dialectical materialism owes them a considerable debt. Influential British intellectuals – John Stuart Mills, George Elliot, and Herbert Spencer – “selectively appropriated” Comte ideas, and the rest Europe responded, objected to, or copied Comtean principles. 

It is a central contribution to European scientism. Steven Pinker – along with most secular humanists and new Atheists – is a “true blue” Comtean,

Next Blog

Next week, we review scientistic developments in 19th century Germany – including the rise of naturphilosophie and Hegelian dialectics, Feuerbach’s materialistic interpretation of religion, “the growth of a massively appealing and aggressively secular scientific materialism linked with liberal politics”, the rise of scientific Marxism, the rise of Social Darwinism, theories of degeneracy, and “scientific” racism.


This is the 10th 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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