The Impact of Scientism on Competing Faiths


How Can You Believe that Stuff?

(Version 1.4)

Copyright © 1990, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

When examining polytheistic ideas about divinity and the nature of worship (and vice versa), we must first take down some barriers to clear thinking of which many people are unaware. Discussing spiritual matters with modern Westerners, even the religiously inclined, is often like discussing rainbows or sunsets with someone who has worn dark sunglasses for his or her entire life. First you must persuade them to remove the sunglasses, at least temporarily, in order to show them what you are talking about. This is especially difficult if the person is unaware that the sunglasses exist, or that they can be removed. Unless you have carefully prepared them for the experience, the odds are high that their reaction to an unfiltered rainbow or sunset will be to scream in horror, replace their sunglasses as quickly as possible, and attack you violently.

Christian fundamentalists confronting the evidence for evolution, Roman Catholic leaders refusing to ordain peni-less priests, or Islamic fundamentalists burning the works of Salman Rushdie, all demonstrate this common Western reaction to ideas coming from outside of their established worldviews. What may not be so obvious is that third-rate stage magicians and mediocre scientists “debunking” evidence for psychic phenomena, intellectual members of liberal religions ignoring the magical aspects of liturgy, or ordinary people rejecting ideas about multiple deities and other spirits, are behaving in exactly the same fashion — prisoners of the conceptual sunglasses they don’t even realize they are wearing.

A couple of centuries of modern science have devastated so many old interpretations of the monotheistic traditions that many intelligent, educated Westerners have, consciously or not, decided that all monotheistic beliefs are equally “unscientific.” Yet a person who has rejected every other monotheistic dogma will often continue to accept the one that says Judaism/Christianity/Islam (choose one, and then a denomination within it) is the only “real” religion, and all others are foolish, weak, or demonic. This, of course, is based on the conservative monotheistic belief that there’s only One God, only One Reality, and therefore only One True Religion.

Once you have decided that the only “real” religion (usually your childhood one) is “unscientific,” and therefore “unworthy of belief” by a modern intellectual (who has been taught that science is the only way to judge proposed reality constructs), it’s a short step to declaring all those other “inferior” religions, magical systems, and psychic technologies to be even more unscientific and absurd. The philosophical term for this type of logic is “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” The usual result is a conversion to atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, or some other non-theistic (but still dualistic) faith.

One of the most popular choices is Scientism (also known as “Scientolatry” and “Secular Humanism”), which is the worship of the previous generation’s scientific worldview, and the acceptance of any statement made by an elderly man wearing a white labcoat. People who are devout followers of Scientism share a number of quaint dogmas, the most important of which is the one that they don’t have any. These people will always declare themselves to be open-minded and willing to be convinced of the error of their ways — and then set up the logical rules of their game to exclude all non-Scientistic reasoning or evidence as fallacious. That’s because there’s only one reality, and only one way to understand it — does this sound familiar?

Scientism is dualistic, just like the conservative monotheistic philosophies from which it is descended (see my Evolution of Dualism Chart for a graphic explanation). All statements are Absolutely True or Absolutely False (except in the area of subatomic physics, where Scientistic types will usually (if reluctantly) admit the necessity of the “Uncertainty Principle”). Because of their basic fear of ambiguity (which many feminist philosophers believe is rooted in fear of the feminine) and their frustration with a universe that does not actually fit into nice neat little pigeonholes, Scientistic people are terrified of parapsychology and the occult. They react to claims of paranormal activity, not with the lofty intellectual neutrality they brag about, but with the same anger, hatred, and fear that fundamentalists of other religions express when confronted with “counterfeit miracles” (those done by members of competing faiths), and for the same psychological and theological reasons. To the followers of Scientism, all miracles are counterfeit, and always will be, world without end, amen.

Scientism should not be confused with genuine science. Science is a collection of intellectual tools, organized into various systems known as “scientific methods” (there are many), each of which is designed to discover and organize certain types of knowledge (physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, anthropology, and so on). The methods of the so-called “hard” or “physical” sciences are not very useful for understanding music, poetry, love, religion, ecstacy, or other important aspects of human experience (that’s what the “soft” or “social” sciences are supposedly for). Of course, superior scientists seldom claim that the methods of any one system of science are universally applicable. It’s primarily the mediocre scientists, who are more frightened than inspired by the unknown, who try to insist that (their particular) “Science is the Answer” to every single question that a human can ask.

Unfortunately, most people in our dualistic culture are unable to tell the difference between science and Scientism, or between healthy skepticism and unhealthy cynicism for that matter, and this includes many with strong interests in spiritual matters both inside and outside of the Neopagan community.

The irony is that, although it’s true that the hard sciences don’t really support conservative monotheistic doctrines anymore, ever since Einstein all the sciences have tended more and more towards multi-model, pluralistic theories that fit very well indeed with polytheism and traditional concepts of non-monotheistic occultism. This makes it sad that even people who have consciously rejected conservative monotheism are reluctant to let go of certain Scientistic prejudices, especially those concerning materialism and the nature of reality.

I’ve often thought that the overwhelming reason why most modern magic(k) falls so short of its potential is that most modern magicians, whether monotheists or Neopagans, really don’t believe in magic. So they have to keep inventing new definitions for it. After all, magic as psychotherapy can be made to sound scientific, magic as art or poetry is immune from scientific criticism, and magic as a method of spiritual growth is “above” science. But magic as magic, as a way of causing measurable and observable changes in the physical universe, collides head-on with Scientistic dogmas about the nature of reality. Most people simply don’t have the intellectual courage to deal with multiple levels of reality, with nested paradox, or with complex ambiguity. They like things kept as simple as possible, so they wind up closing their eyes to the complex, yet potentially liberating, aspects of their environment. This may be the single most important reason why successful magicians are rare in any culture, and almost unheard of in the West.

Copyright © 1990, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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