The Idler: The Clarifier

The ideology of “scientism” holds that science alone can answer, or should be allowed to answer, life’s significant questions. In its most radical form, it holds that science has answered these questions, and plausibly accounts for the origin, nature, purpose, and destiny of the universe and man. In the scientistic account, anything not physical, measurable, or deducible to matter and energy is unreal; and in particular, religion and metaphysics are codswallop. Scientific experts should therefore be consulted to resolve all controversies and tell us how to live.

My reader may be curious to know what their answers were to life’s significant questions. Fair enough: The universe began in random material processes, which evolved. Everything is evolving, nothing has an ultimate purpose, and eventually everything becomes extinct. As for man, like the universe, he too has evolved. Apparently, Darwin explained the whole thing.

So why should we listen to scientific experts? That is the one question science can’t answer.

Scientism is not an easy ideology to argue with. No ideology is, for each is founded on a circular “given,” which is beyond examination. A Catholic might allow that the proposition, “There is one Christ, and Peter is His prophet,” is a controversial proposition, requiring some defense. But to the ideological worldview of scientism, the proposition, “There is one Evolution, and Darwin is its prophet,” requires no defense. It is a system of pure faith, without room for skepticism of any sort. Any other worldview would be “unscientific.”

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the rather brilliant archbishop of Vienna, has already been marked as a heretic of postmodern scientism. He wrote a piece in the New York Times last year in which he suggested that some clarification was needed between the “theory of evolution” and the ideology based on it, which he called “evolutionism”—and which is the chief current form of the “scientism” above. To show the difference, he gave the example of Marx and Engels, who set their own scientific breakthrough, “scientific communism,” on the supposedly secure foundation of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Now that was scientism. Ditto various eugenicist movements and ragbag economic “theories” that spring from scientistic and evolutionary, as opposed to philosophical, interpretations of ethics.

Speaking recently in Rimini, Cardinal Schönborn spelled out the position more exhaustively. The Church is not opposed to modern biological science or even the evolutionary paradigm on which it is based. It offers no resistance to any scientifically demonstrated fact. It does not entertain an opposing, “creationist,” biological doctrine. Indeed, it has none, for it is a Church, not a lab. What it would like to see is not a new school of science but rather a debate “between a materialist interpretation of the results of science, and a metaphysical philosophical interpretation.”

He pointed to a document published by the International Theological Commission in 2004, with the approval of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, entitled “Communion and Service: The Human Person Created in the Image of God.” This patiently expounded the difference between the science and the ideology of evolution.

It is in the nature of philosophical debates to be heated, for much is at stake. But as Cardinal Schönborn insisted, a scientific debate should be serene, for no more could be at stake than the occasional scientist’s ego.

Darwin himself pointed to missing rings in the geological strata, and the danger to his purely scientific theory that they might present. Why can’t we discuss them coolly? Because Darwinism has evolved into more than science.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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