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

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.


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.

Criticism and Belief

If the facts of religious theories are not the issue – and it is very hard to argue that they are more than incidental to religion’s main purposes – what leads to these criticisms?

Yes, you can say that some religious people do bad things. But, those influenced by scientific materialism – say, eugenicists, Marxists, nationalists, scientific racists, war leaders who bomb civilian populations, etc. – do things that are much, much worse and scientists have no trouble in finding reasons other than science for their escapades. How then can a scientist who thinks about these things place the sole blame on religion?

I suspect that the real explanation is one close in spirit to modern critiques of religion – it is belief. Many scientists believe that religion at its heart can’t be compatible with science. And, because scientists are so dedicated to their belief in science, many are intrinsically inclined to believe that meaning and moral values are best and most true when extrapolated from science. This, rather than scientific validity, probably explains the critical views expressed by many scientists.

Pinker, in “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” The New Republic, August 6, 2013, illustrates this clearly when he ringingly declares that “a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value” is required to be scientifically literate. He is making a statement of belief.

06_french_revolution.cover_The belief that science offers the best guide to meaning and moral values – often called scientism – has a well-documented history. Its 19th century origins are summarized in Richard Olson’s historical overview Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Below, we start looking at the emergence of German scientism. It may be that such beliefs – including scientific materialism and Marxism – underlie Pinker’s criticism of religion.

Background to German Scientism

Last week’s blog (Books on Science and Religion Books on Science and Religion #10: Richard Olsen’s Science and Scientism in 19th Century Europe) introduced Olson’s overview of the sources of 19th century scientism. Continental Europe, transformed and overwhelmed by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, saw radical revisions in its attitudes to princely rule, to democracy, to education, to engineering, to religion, and to science.

On one hand, survival in the modern world increasingly was seen as dependent on a nation’s industrial – and therefore scientific – strength. This in turn depended on having a strong educational system.  On the other hand, the excesses of the French Revolution – the Terror, the mass murder of priests – came to be associated with the classical “clock-work” physics of Newton and the European enlightenment and its static world view, leading to the emergence of dynamic and organic systems theories.

In France, an early intellectual response to the French Revolution was the emergence of the Ideologues, a group of thinkers who rejected the simplicities of enlightenment thought in favor of a more organic and systems approach. Ideologie helped prepare the way for the social sciences and for socialism – systems of thought and politics that looked to the whole, rather than the part. For consideration of social phenomena, the whole included government, the economic system, education, people’s customs, the distribution of income, etc. One of the consequence of the ideologue approach was the turn to evolutionary models of the world, models that predicted change in response to change in the environment.

The Emergence of the Modern University in Germany

Berlin UniversityIn Germany, the response was equally dramatic. Before the Napoleonic Wars, German princes and leaders of thought often spoke French and employed French tutors for their children. After the war, attitudes changed and leading intellectuals focused more and more on German identity and uniqueness. This focus was buttressed by the outstanding intellectual productivity of major intellectual figures like Kant and Goethe.

In 1810, one of those great German intellectual figures, the Prussian educator, diplomat, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, founded the University of Berlin (now the Humboldt University of Berlin) and the Prussian system of mandatory education (the model for the modern American system). The University of Berlin was very influential. Wikipedia, in its entry, briefly provides a glimpse of its impact:

The university has been home to many of Germany’s greatest thinkers of the past two centuries, among them the subjective idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the absolute idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, the Romantic legal theorist Friedrich Carl von Savigny, the pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the objective idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling, cultural critic Walter Benjamin, and famous physicists Albert Einstein and Max Planck. Founders of Marxist theory Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels attended the university, as did poet Heinrich Heine, novelist Alfred Döblin, founder of structuralism Ferdinand de Saussure, [and] German unifier Otto von Bismarck, …

Its this influence that we start to explore next week.

Next Blog

Next week, we will start with the ideas of Hegel and explore the emergence of influential materialistic theories of religion which either make religion a stepchild of material deprovation or a projection of wishful thinking onto human-made gods.


This is the 11th 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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2 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #11: The Beginnings of German Materialism

  1. Loved reading this. I believe Science-Religion conflict will be eventually resolved, when science becomes mature enough to accept Mind into its fold. Consciousness is the essence of our being, yet our science of life has very little to say about consciousness,

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