Commentary: Why we don't need 'scientism' and 'religionism'

  • 12 April 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition.
  • Lawrence Krauss


IN ONE of those accidental juxtapositions that make life interesting, in the same week I went from co-moderating a seminar on science and religion with a leader of the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research that aims to connect science and religion, to sharing a platform with Richard Dawkins at the annual conference of the American Atheists organisation.

These events got me thinking about the "culture wars" I had heard much about from my co-moderator. He used a term I have only heard over the past two to three years: "scientism". It is often used pejoratively to describe a philosophical position that extends beyond the simple presumption of science that empirically verifiable physical effects have physical causes, to the more expansive claim that the empirical world reflects all of reality. It includes, by inference, the idea that because there is no evidence for either divine purpose or spiritual direction these do not exist.

These perceptions cause much of the strong reaction against the scientific community by even those who, like my co-moderator, are not religious fundamentalists. Presuming that all scientists advocate scientism also makes it easier for those who fear that science might undermine their faith to attack the basis of the scientific process.

In response, a participant in the seminar used the term "religionism", which describes the philosophical position that God exists and therefore all progress in science, and everything else for that matter, must be interpreted in light of this reality.

Neither position accurately reflects the real relationship between science and religion, which, I believe, is really rather minimal. I once spoke at the Pontifical Academy of Science in the Vatican to a meeting that included theologians, biologists and cosmologists. I was discussing cosmology and I said, partly to be provocative, but also because it was true, that the theologians had to listen to me, but I didn't have to listen to them. Indeed, for modern theology to make any sense, it must take into account what we have found to be true about the physical universe. But as a cosmologist, theological revelations are irrelevant.

The real relationship between science and religion is, I believe, rather minimal

I recall physicist Steven Weinberg saying: "Most scientists don't think enough about god to be called atheists." This is why I am less concerned about so-called scientism than about religionism. I believe that an inclination towards the latter damages the reputation of the Templeton Foundation among scientists. While the organisation may support credible scientists - at least in cosmology, the area I am most familiar with - and does not censor them, its choice of topics explicitly expresses a mission rooted in the premise that these investigations will aid our understanding of the "holy spirit". When scientists take research money from Templeton, they should expect their research will ultimately be publicised as enhancing the foundation's spiritual mission.

As Sidney Coleman, a physicist at Harvard University, commented, the Ford Foundation doesn't only fund projects that might imply Fords are better cars, and one should beware of taking money from organisations that behave otherwise. If Templeton could approach supporting science without the explicit suggestion that it will reveal divine purpose in nature, it could become a far more useful backer of fundamental research.

As for the atheists, I couldn't help wondering why one needs to be so proud of not believing in God. Einstein once argued that this is an overreaction to the oppressive anti-atheism prevalent in society, but nevertheless, from a scientific perspective the presumption of God's non-existence seems to add little or nothing to the issues at hand.

Indeed, throughout the week, in both settings, Wolfgang Pauli's famous sentiment about science came to mind: if an idea does not yet rise to the level of "even being wrong", then it isn't worth going to the blackboard to debate it.

Read all of Lawrence Krauss' articles

From issue 2651 of New Scientist magazine, 12 April 2008, page 48