Sep 21

Books on Science and Religion #16: The Evolution of English Evolution

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.


Sept 21, 2014

The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century is one of those wide-ranging and fascinating books of history that British writers do particularly well. Its author – Peter Watson – tells us that The modern mindevolution is not only one of the dominant topics of modern thought, but that it gives us the needed framework for understanding that thought:

Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science … various fields of inquiry [physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biology, paleontology, archaeology, psychology, mathematics, anthropology, history, genetics, and linguistics] are now coming together powerfully, convincingly, to tell one story about the natural world.This story, as we shall see, includes the evolution of the universe, of the earth itself, its continents and oceans, the origins of life, the peopling of the globe, and the development of different races, with their different civilisations.

Underlying this story, and giving it a framework, is the process of evolution. As late as 1996 Daniel Dennett, the American philosopher, was still describing Darwin’s notion of evolution as “the best idea, ever.”

It shouldn’t surprise Baha’is to note that evolution – cultural evolution, material evolution, and spiritual evolution – also provides a framework for understanding the Baha’i Faith’s fundamental aims and goals. Consider, for example, the principle of the oneness of humanity. At its core is a vision of the evolution of humanity:

The lotus templeThe principle of the Oneness of Mankind – the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve – is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. … It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world – a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.

It represents the consummation of human evolution – an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.

The last stage of the process of human evolution are those we must address now:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 43)

vestigesBut how did this view of evolution, now dominant in all departments of modern life, come about? In France, Germany, England, and through the world, a static, non-evolutionary view of the world reigned with little or no challenge before the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. But afterward, that static view gave way to a much more dynamic and powerful view of change and growth. That view – known now as evolution – is the subject of this blog.

The Evolution of English Evolution

In the following, we look at the early evolution of evolutionary thinking in 19th century France, Germany, and England. We are following Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism called Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Long before Darwin published his speculations, evolutionary theory had become very influential, not only because of the of Jean-Baptise Lamarck, but also because of the widely-read 1844 book anonymously published as the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and because of the evolutionary emphasis in the works of Herbert Spencer.

Here is how Olson summarizes the views he presents:

[The chapter] begins by arguing that by mid century, increasing numbers of British liberal and conservative intellectuals alike had become dissatisfied with the guidance that classical and neoclassical political economy, utilitarian political theory, or the Anglican Church offered for humane public policies. It suggests that many influential thinkers turned to the historically oriented elements of both Comte’s Positivism and German thought and began to view the patterns of progressive change seen in theories of Earth history and biological evolution as models for thinking about society.

buffonAfter reviewing developments in French evolutionary biology from George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88) Georges Cuvier (1769–1832)) and J. B. Lamarck (1744-1’829), Olson considers the Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation and concludes by reviewing “Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) widely admired scientistic attempt to fashion a compelling and comprehensive social theory out of elements of Positivism, Lamarckian evolutionary doctrines, and the newly emerging science of Energetics.”

Leclerc, Cuvier, and Lamarck

During the European Enlightenment and before the French revolution,  scientific perspectives tended towards the static. Newton law’s, it seemed, illustrated a universe that was eternal, unchanging, and ever obedient to nature’s supreme law. The Linnaean taxonomy described a biological hierarchy that also seemed unchanging – species were created once and changed little or not at all. However, the genius of George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, started to change that point of view. The UC Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website puts it this way:

Jean-Baptiste_de_LamarckBuffon realized that to interpret the world, he had to understand its history. …  He proposed that a comet striking the sun had broken off debris that became the planets of the solar system [and that] initially, the Earth was scorching, but gradually it cooled until molten rock turned to dry land and clouds rained down to form oceans. Buffon estimated the entire process took over 70,000 years.

Buffon argued that life, just like Earth, had a history. Like many other Enlightenment thinkers, he thought that it could be generated spontaneously under the right conditions.

Leclerc’s protege – Jean Baptiste Lamarck - took this approach much further and proposed a full theory of evolution in the first decade of the 19th century. Like Leclerc, he held that life could arise spontaneously. But he further argued, in Olson’s words, that

…new and completely unanticipated properties emerge in connection with highly organized material entities.  For Lamarck, the property of progressive self-organization emerged with life. That is, from the beginning, living beings had achieved a level of complexity sufficient that they contained within themselves a capacity not only to reproduce themselves, but also to generate increasingly complex life-forms with ever more specialized organs.

488px-Georges_Cuvier_3But Lamarck used non-standard ideas of chemistry to animate his theory and it, and his famous view that an organism could pass on acquired traits directly to its offspring delayed acceptance of his point of view.

Georges Cuvier, although opposed to the evolutionary theories of Leclerc and Lamarck, contributed an essential piece of the puzzle – the destruction of entire population of species as illustrated in the fossil record.  Taken together, and exported to Britain along with the historicism of Comte (and of Hegel), specifically British forms of evolutionary thinking started to develop.

Chambers, Mills, and Spencer

It is true that Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, anticipated some of the ideas of Lamarck, helping setting the stage for an eventually positive reception for evolution in England. But it was a work of grand philosophical and metaphysical speculation – the Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation published in 1844 by the Scottish geologist and publisher Robert Chambers (1802-1871) – that brought evolution into focus for the British public. Here is how the UC Berkeley Evolution Website describes the event:

Robert_Chambers,_publisher,_ca1863In October of 1844, a small bomb went off in the world of British science. The bomb took the form of a 400-page book with the grand title Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, presenting a comprehensive account of the history of the Earth, from the formation of the Solar System through the development of plant and animal life, up to the origins of humankind. Strangely, there was no author’s name on the cover.

The book sold remarkably well — over 20,000 copies in a decade, making it one of the best-sellers of its time. Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria read it; so did poets like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, statesmen like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, scientists like Thomas Henry Huxley and Adam Sedgwick, and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill.

Critical responses ran the gamut from enthusiasm to damnation. “Like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory,” said the politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet. Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.”

What this meant is both that thinkers were well aware of ideas about evolution, but also were very wary about both religious and scientific opposition to its themes in the middle of the 19th century in Britain.

Philosophers were becoming aware of its charms as well.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), according to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, was “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”, and is influential still. He is known for his defense of liberal political views of society and his support for utilitarianism, the view that society must aim to maximize happiness for the individual and for the many.

589px-Herbert_Spencer_5Close to Auguste Comte and friendly to Comte’s positivism, Mill came to the view that we need to uncover the laws by which society changes and improves, and this necessarily involves the study of historical processes. We need to understand, using modern terminology, the evolution of societies. This is one way that the evolution entered British thinking.

But it was the most celebrated thinker of the day – Herbert Spencer – who made evolution the centerpiece of British intellectual thought. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Spencer thus:

British philosopher and sociologist, Herbert Spencer was a major figure in the intellectual life of the Victorian era. He was one of the principal proponents of evolutionary theory in the mid nineteenth century, and his reputation at the time rivaled that of Charles Darwin. Spencer was initially best known for developing and applying evolutionary theory to philosophy, psychology and the study of society — what he called his “synthetic philosophy”

 And he beat Darwin to publication, putting most of his ideas about evolution into his first book in 1851 (Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness) and fully articulating his evolutionary perspectives in “Progress: Its Law and Cause” published in 1857. He published a full exposition of his views in First Principles of a New System of Philosophy in (1862).

What this meant is that by the time that Charles Darwin published his thoughts on evolution in 1859, the topic was already a central and ongoing part of British intellectual and popular discussion quite apart from the scientific creditability that Darwin would give it.  The idea – regardless of what Daniel Dennett might believe – wasn’t Darwin’s.

Next Blog

Next week, we discuss Darwin and Darwinism..

What Darwin accomplished was to make evolution respectable from a scientific and biological point of view in a society that already accepted many, if not all, of its implication. But, it also open the floodgates to a wide range of systems of thought that used Darwinism – sometimes even Darwin – to claim scientific validation for what were basically ideologies. And those ideologies could be progressive, liberal, speculative, materialistic, political, racist, oppressive, quasi-religious, and sometimes downright bad.

For example, when intense concerns about de-evolution and regression – i.e., the processes of evolution running backwards – started affecting thinkers weaned on the positive glories of evolution, it led to the fearful, retrograde, and highly unjust systems of quasi-scientific ideology known as social Darwinism. Those came to play a dominate role in late 19th and early 20th century European thought and are the root causes of creationism and the modern fight against evolution.


This is the 16th 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 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.


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.
Read the rest of this entry »


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.


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 »


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 »


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.


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 »


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.


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 »


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.


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 »


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.


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 »


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.


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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