Types of scientism, types of religious doubt?

I am preparing a set of upcoming guest lectures for a course on Contemporary Western Religiosity / New Religious Movements at NTNU, Trondheim. The last two of these concern, once again, science and esotericism. Briefly reading up on the literature for the course, however, gave me occasion to revisit the concept(s) of  “scientism”, which have also been discussed earlier on this blog.

As mentioned in that previous post, the term scientism has been used with reference to a variety of positions – often derogatorily to dismiss a particular use of science which one doesn’t like. One would usually distinguish scientism from the actual activity of science, and often put the former in the category of ideology. In the field of religious studies (my perspective at the present time), things get even worse, since the word has been operationalized in yet other ways: in the context  of discursive analyses of religious rhetoric, particularly, scientism has come to mean the adoption of “sciency”  terminology and technological devices as part of a strategy to win authority and legitimacy.

In other words, much like what this lady is demonstrating:

Scientology "E-Meter" demonstration

Reading up on all this, I came across an article which I hadn’t seen before, which takes a different approach. In “What is scientism?” Mikael Stenmark, in fact, is closer to the philosophical project when he suggests a division of two types of scientism, with further sub-divisions. Since he is also concerned with religion, I think his classification gives a good starting point for mapping out the relation between science and various forms of irreligion.

Stenmark starts by distinguishing between what he calls “academic-internal scientism”, and an “academic-external” type. These are divided over the scope of their claims about science’s reach. Academic–internal scientism is first and foremost

“the attempt to reduce (or translate) an academic discipline into natural science which has not previously been understood as a natural science, or, if that is not attainable, to deny its scientific status or significance (in some way).” (p. 16).

There is also a somewhat stronger, second form, which deals with the reduction of one scientific discipline to another (e.g. biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics), as well as a subgroup of “methodological scientism”:

“Methodological scientism is the attempt to extend the use of the methods of natural science to other academic disciplines in such a way that they exclude (or marginalize) previously used methods considered central to these disciplines.” (18).

Again, those familiar with the field of religious studies will easily recognize the cognitive theorists of religion as scientistic in this sense, at least to the extent that more radical proponents would attack various hermeneutic approaches and ask for their replacement by a scientifically robust (cognitive) explanatory framework.

This should all be rather straight forward. The other type is perhaps more interesting. The academic-external scientism, which Stenmark defines as “The view that all or, at least, some of the essential non-academic areas of human life can be reduced to (or translated into) science” (p. 18), is divided into six autonomous, but compatible types:

1. Epistemic scientism

About what we can know. “The view that the only reality that we can know anything about is the one science has access to.”

2. Rationalistic scientism

About what is rational. To have opinions about something which science does not have access to is irrational.

3. Ontological scientism

About what exists. “… the only reality that exists is the one science has access to.”

4. Axiological scientism

About value. Science is better than other cultural systems or activities / science is capable of explaining and replacing classical ethics.

5. Redemptive scientism

About how to live our lives.  “Science alone is sufficient for dealing with our existential questions or for creating a world view by which we could live.”

6. Comprehensive scientism

All of the above in combination.

Now, this lends itself quite neatly to a classification of the classic irreligious positions on belief. A particularly nice feature is that it gives opportunity to distinguish between a weaker and a stronger form of agnosticism. Thus, I get:

1. Epistemic scientism –> weak agnosticism. Whatever is beyond the empirical we simply cannot know. However, fideism is still a legitimate option, as may pure deism be, and the weak agnostic is just as susceptible to attack the outspoken disbeliever as the outspoken believer.

2. Rationalistic scientism –> strong agnosticism. The strong agnostic, however, goes on to claim that it is irrational to postulate and believe in anything which is beyond the realms of what science can know. This tips the scales somewhat in the direction of disbelief. It has more in common with a weighted skepticism, and insists that those who claims things about other worlds are always left with an impossible burden of proof.

3. Ontological scientism –> atheism. The ontological thesis that all that can possibly exist is what science can have access to moves in the direction of atheism. Well. At least in the sense of going against classical theism and deism. One could possibly fit various types of religious naturalism here, particularly pantheism.

4. Axiological scientism –> secular humanism, antitheism? The last ones are a bit more sketchy, but it seems to me that moving into the domain of value, one comes closer to the positive project of secular-humanists (i.e. establishing ethics without religion, and with a scientific worldview), and antitheism (fighting the perceived moral dangers of religions’ power over ethical thinking). This aspect has been quite strong with some of the so-called New Atheists, particularly Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

5. Redemptive scientism — same as above, and even more so. Science can dethrone religion completely, provide a better ethic, more value to life, and above all a more consistent and robust worldview. Science “redeems” us from the existential tragedy of the human condition, and does it better than any available religion.

I’m not sure yet how helpful all this is, but at least it does suggest some of the fluidity between views on religion and associated philosophical views on science. Comments are welcome. (If it wasn’t clear: the connections are not Stenmark’s, but mine. I take the blame.)


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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The classificatory scheme may seem to harbor some kind of apologetic bias, or am I missing something here?

    I note that Olav Hammer’s use of scientism as a language of faith – “religion and the authoity of science” – is completely absent from his scheme, leaving important dimensions behind. (Dimensions central to the curriculum in the course you mentioned.)

    • Very possible. I read Stenmark’s discussion as coming out of the “religion and science”-“field”, which I must say I generally have my doubts about. (Among other things for taking demarcation issues too seriously, and too philosophically – perhaps that’s where the sense of an apologetic bias sneaks in, too?).

      As for the absence: In this post I mostly meant to bring it in as a complimentary discussion to my earlier post on scientism, which dealt with Hammer’s perspective on extra-scientific spokespersons’ trading on the cultural authority of science. (Also, I came to the article from somewhere else expecting it to say something about non-scientific appropriations, since I saw it used as a reference for precisely that kind of idea – in fact doesn’t mention it at all…).

  2. […] Egil Asprem at Heterodoxology gives a nice taxonomy of several different forms of scientism […]

  3. […] and construct modern religio-scientific mythologies (cf. the discussions on scientism here and here). In studying these trends, having a basic understanding of the history of science is an obvious […]

  4. My name is Joshua Scott Hotchkin and I maintain a blog about Scientism.


    I have linked to your website because you have been a resource for articles pertaining directly or peripherally to the problem of scientism. If for any reason you would like to be removed from my link listing please reply to me at this email and I will do so immediately. Thank you for your contributions through wonderful links and/or original content. If you wish to add us in your own links I would appreciate it greatly. Or if you ever wish to suggest an article or submit original work, we would love to hear from you. Stay strange!

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