In the Name of Science


A while back a science professor in Minnesota desecrated what he claimed to be a consecrated host—a gruesome business. This avowed atheist stuck a nail through the host, threw it in a wastepaper basket, then dumped a banana peel and coffee grounds on it.

He posted a picture on his blog, then proceeded to lecture the world—in particular benighted Catholics—that the Eucharist is a "horrible little cracker" and that we should only believe that which is scientifically verifiable.

As an excuse for his behavior, he launched into a Catholic urban-legend canard about the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. His understanding of the council was as historically abysmal as his sense of decency. He added as further proof of Catholic viciousness a short list of anti-Jewish pogroms that took place in the Middle Ages because of accusations of eucharistic desecration.

The e-mails that subsequently poured into his mailbox revealed an ongoing, pathological hatred of Catholics and the Catholic Church by contemporary pseudo-intellectuals. Page after page of anti-Catholic venom by allegedly scientific minds referred to Catholics as "vile barbarians, damn cannibals, and absurd clowns." Consecration of the Eucharist was called "gibberish and hand-waving spell-casting by some man in robes" and "a crock of hooey invented by humans to control other humans."

If you think for a moment that anti-Catholicism is dead, think for another moment.

Theology of the Knowable

I didn’t bring this up to bore you with a detailed history of the Fourth Lateran Council or investigations of medieval anti-Jewish pogroms (local atrocities usually caused by greed and envy rather than eucharistic devotion). Suffice it to say that an awful lot of our common historical assumptions are based on Catholic urban legends that twist or invent history.

The reason for mentioning the professor’s exercise in hubris is for its revealing look at the state of contemporary "scientism." Scientism is a philosophical belief system that grew up in the backwash of the European Renaissance in the 14th century, though it can be argued that its roots are as old as first-century Gnosticism. Scientism taught—and teaches today by way of a rusty nail—that there is no knowledge but scientific knowledge, even when scientific knowledge was defined by using bleeding to cure diseases of the humors. Scientism—which has little to do with actual science—creates a theology of science.

Science, simply put, is the attempt to learn what can be learned of the physical world through observation and experiment. To be clear, scientists are often people of faith. One does not preclude the other.

Scientism, on the other hand, is a pseudo-theological and philosophical invention that attempts to explain all of life based on alleged scientific principles. Scientism proposes to define the meaning of a man’s life through Charles Darwin’s observations of sea tortoises on the Galapagos Islands. It means writing screwball economic theory based on alleged scientific principles of history like Karl Marx or explaining all there is to know about a man’s interior life by applying supposedly scientific principles of psychology like Sigmund Freud.

As pessimistic and deterministic as Calvinism at its worst, scientism is based on the faulty premise that the only truths are scientific and develops its own theology of application to life. Its adherents claim that scientific truths can be applied to virtually any aspect of human life and culture to create a more perfect society. To understand the implications of applied scientism, imagine genetics twisted into a basis for eugenics.

The Secret History

Scientism shares much of its philosophical and theological vision with early Gnosticism, a generic term applied to various pseudo-Christian pagan sects. It shared with scientism the elitism of an alleged superior knowledge and equated humanity with the divine—at least that small number of humanity who possessed the secret knowledge of the sect. Like scientism, Gnosticism was a religion of hubris.

In our own day, The Gospel of Judas—a third-century manuscript much publicized in 2006—provides a picture of early Gnostic beliefs. The author depicts Judas and Jesus laughing at the simplicity of the apostles who do not have the secret knowledge they possess.

Gnostic belief in a secret knowledge and a god-like humanity persisted in one form or another down through the centuries in Western civilization.

Scientism, as we experience it today, came out of the post-Reformation world. Burgeoning scientific knowledge was mixed with nascent Protestant theology in a strange brew, much as early astronomy co-mingled with astrology. In a world where alchemy—turning base metals into gold—was a common medieval fantasy based on obtaining the ultimate secret knowledge of the philosopher’s stone, most early scientists considered their scientific work secondary to their theological musings.

Fathers of Scientism

One of the bedrock Catholic urban legends insists that various inquisitions thwarted scientific development. That was simply not true. Most so-called scientists who suffered under various inquisitions did not do so because of their scientific work. They were prosecuted because they developed and evangelized particularly bizarre religious beliefs that allegedly grew out of their scientific research.

Michael Servetus (1511-1553) offers a good example. He is generally credited with discovering pulmonary circulation. But among other things, Servetus had written extensively against belief in the Trinity and decided that Christ was returning to earth soon to lead a mighty final battle. Servetus believed he would be a general in that battle, serving under Michael the Archangel. One historian noted that "Servetus was a bit more insane than the average of his time." (For more on Servetus, see Truth be Told, March 2007.)

The difficulty was rarely that theology oppressed science. It was that certain scientists—from Servetus to Theodore Kaczynski, the modern-day Unabomber—wanted to be theologians. They wanted to create a theology from their science.

Even Galileo (1554-1642), science’s alleged proto-martyr, done in by an intolerant Catholic Church, couldn’t help lecturing about the true interpretation of Scripture in light of his own scientific wisdom.

Though some consider him more of a philosopher than a scientist, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) could be considered the father of truly modern scientism. A Dominican monk ordained in 1572, Bruno became enamored of everything from the ancient pagan philosophers to the new discoveries in astronomy. He developed a philosophy of astronomy, based on Copernican theories, that imagined an infinity of co-existing worlds, and soon rejected basic Christian teaching for a cornucopia of dogmas and hypotheses presented as fact. God was his creation, Bruno taught. He also believed that diseases were demons that could be ousted by a king’s touch or the spittle of a seventh son.

Bruno donned his Dominican habit when necessary to secure a position, and tossed it aside just as regularly. Enraging Protestant leaders as well as the Church, he was finally tried by the inquisition in Rome. But even here, it was not his science, but his attempt to build a bizarre theology based on his scientific beliefs that placed him in jeopardy. Never mentioned in his condemnation by the inquisition in Rome were his Copernican beliefs, but rather his rejection of the Trinity and the Incarnation, which he refused to recant. He was turned over to the civil authorities and executed. In 1889, a statue of him was erected on the spot of his execution.

That was not surprising considering that scientism reached its zenith in the late 19th century, when it embraced everything from phrenology to communism as rational, scientific solutions to the difficulties that plague humanity.

Only the Strong Survive

In the 19th century, the belief became dogmatic that science was the means toward whatever salvation mankind was capable of achieving. Scientism had divorced itself from any pseudo-Christian base and began to see science itself as the only possible religion of an educated man.

And the greatest enemy of the new scientism was the Catholic Church. The anti-Catholic rhetoric of the Reformation was stripped of its Protestant theology and reinvented as secular attacks on a "medieval" and "superstitious" Church. Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) was demonized as the enemy of the new "liberalism" (that wasn’t very liberal, grounded as it was in nationalism and racism). Science was to replace religious beliefs, and this scientism would liberate humanity from the shackles of faith and history. Human progress was inevitable under the banner of science.

Scientism can seem pretty ludicrous when considering Mr. Professor with a rusty nail. But Charles Darwin’s observations on evolution that became the scientism of a morbid social Darwinism proclaiming the "survival of the fittest" dominated European elite thinking. The scientism of the 19th century engendered not only stuff and nonsense, but also introduced the world to virulent racism, communism, fascism, and genocide. In other words, 19th-century scientism laid the groundwork for the horror of the 20th century.

In his book Endgame (1945), David Stafford describes various encounters between the allies and the defeated Germans. In one chapter, he writes of an evening visit among aid workers, American army officers, and the elderly wife of General Erich Ludendorff. The general had been an early supporter of the Nazis, even receiving a state funeral from Hitler in 1937. Frau Ludendorff was a doctor who had written several books steeped in the popular racist theories of the day, decrying the dangers of Catholicism and Judaism to German racial strength. It was claimed that her "scientific" racism strongly influenced her husband to throw his weight behind Hitler.

As the group listened to the elderly Frau Ludendorff’s sister play the piano, an aid worker noticed that while Hitler’s Mein Kampf had been removed from the library, the writings of Herbert Stewart Chamberlain were prominently displayed. "After settling in Germany," Stafford writes, "[Chamberlain] had joined the Bayreuth circle of nationalist intellectuals influenced by the anti-Semitic ideas of Richard Wagner and married the composer’s daughter. His book, The Foundation of the Nineteenth Century, argued that the ‘white’ or ‘Aryan’ race was superior to all others. Hitler praised him as a prophet of the Third Reich."

The same aid worker then described a visit with a young German scientist who had worked on Hitler’s V2 rocket program that terrorized England. "We scientists," he told the aid worker, "know our limitations now and . . . realize that we are more dangerous than beneficial. Only doctors still retain their 19th-century conceit and even imagine that they will produce life some day. Science," he added, "will never create anything uncreated nor can it explain a single mystery. It lives in a quantity world and ignores quality." A few months later, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb.

Go Home, Pope

Despite its dangers, scientism persists. In January 2008, Pope Benedict was to give a talk at Rome’s Sapienza University, Italy’s largest public university, to kick off the academic year. But 60 professors signed a letter of protest claiming the pope should not be allowed to speak—at a university that had been founded by a pope 700 years ago—because they claimed he was "hostile to science" and was "against Galileo." Science students planned to loudly demonstrate if he appeared. To avoid any ugliness, the Holy See cancelled the talk. Apparently the protestors had read a false attribution to the pope on the Internet that sparked their anger.

As in the case of the college professor desecrating the Eucharist, scientism continues to play out its anti-Catholic venom. It is a religion of hubris that confuses true science with 19th-century prejudice, and will not tolerate any belief that does not fit its narrow—and frightening—perspective.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 3.