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Economy and social affairs

Everything is possible

The utopia of the omnipotence of science

(Published in GralsWelt Special Issue 3/1999)

The belief in the limitless possibilities of science and technology is perhaps the most important utopia that has shaped the 20th century. It has led to unexpected developments that hardly any people on earth could ignore, it has led to a triumph of Western Christian culture - but it has also paved the way for materialism.

The 19th century was the century of applied science, technology that changed the world like never before.

When mankind entered that century there were only small beginnings in mechanized industry. Agriculture and commerce relied on muscle power, supported by water wheels and windmills. Only in England were a few steam engines running. In shipping, the sailing ship was nearing the height of its development, and tentative attempts to propel ships with steam seemed futile.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the steam engine had prevailed. In Europe and North America, the pre-industrial society, based on agriculture and trade, was transformed into an industrial society. Progress came unstoppable, and mankind's dream of the "iron angels", who relieve the water carriers and slaves of the grueling backbreaking work, seemed to be fulfilled.

Around 1800 agriculture was almost entirely dependent on muscle work. In Germany around 1850, for example, grain harvesting on one hectare of land still took around 300 hours of work. By 1900 the use of harvesting machines had reduced the workload for the same task to 100 hours, and further simplifications were foreseeable.

Even more impressive on January 1, 1900, was a look back at the development of transport. In 1860 there were 11,000 km of railways and 3,000 locomotives in the German Empire; In 1900 almost all of today's routes were built (approx. 52,000 km), on which 11,000 locomotives and a corresponding number of wagons rolled.

The end of sailing was in sight, the seas belonged to the steamships. And development continued: internal combustion engines and even the automobile were invented and overcame their teething troubles. Electricity, first and foremost electric light, began its triumphal march. Who could doubt that technical progress would go on and on and create “golden times”?

The general mood at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was shaped by optimistic-utopian expectations, such as those of the British social reformer Arnold Toynbee (1889-1983) expressed:

“An English citizen born in 1889 believed - from the day he became aware of his surroundings until August 1914 - that earthly paradise was just around the corner. The industrial workers would receive their fair share of the gross national product of mankind, a government responsible to parliament would be perfected in Germany and brought into being in Russia; the Christians under the Ottoman Turks would achieve their political liberation. In this golden age, the non-Christian subjects of Christian countries would remain under their rule, but that seemed to be better for them than the chaotic conditions in which they had lived before they lost their political independence. "

Europeans and Americans entered the 20th century with this conviction of the unstoppable advance of Western culture, which had proven to be superior to all other cultures. And what was this superiority based on? But obviously on Christianity, science (especially natural science) and technology.

Christianity and Science

Christianity on the one hand, science and technology on the other ... what do they have in common? Wasn't it precisely Christian churches that fought against the natural sciences for centuries? Wasn't the triumph of the natural sciences also a chain of defeats for Christian theologians?

There is also another point of view. Christianity knew early on how to combine spiritual pastoral care with earthly work; just think about it Benedict of Nursia, to which an important order (Benedictine) can be traced back and for which prayer and work were not contradictions.

In the Middle Ages, a sometimes quite subtle scientific theology emerged, which, in addition to the Bible, also accepted philosophers such as Aristotle and laid the foundations on which Renaissance scientists found new ways of thinking. (We associate the “new science” of the Baroque with the astronomical achievements of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, which shook the Christian view of the world. Astronomy, however, remained of no importance for everyday life, apart from navigation at sea .).

Engineering achievements such as the relocation of the Vatican obelisk to the square in front of St. Peter's Church (1586) on behalf of the Pope, and the first static calculation of the dome of St.

The Christian churches were by no means only "hostile to progress"; especially not if the progress served their own interests. This was also evident in the forced Christianization in colonies. The churches did not object to it, any more than the ruthless use of superior European or American weapons against colonial peoples.

So could the psychologist and philosopher Ludwig Klages (1872-1956) in his famous speech on the Hohe Meißner of 1913 suspect a connection between Christianity and materialistic striving for progress:

“If 'progress', 'civilization', 'capitalism' only mean different sides of a single direction of will, we may remember that their bearers are exclusively the peoples of Christianity. Only within it was invention piled upon invention, flourished the 'exact', that is to say numerical science, and ruthlessly stimulated the urge to expand, which wants to subjugate the non-Christian races and cultivate all of nature. The next causes of world-historical 'progress' must therefore lie in Christianity ... "

Is Christianity Materialistic?

Modern natural science arose in the Christian culture, and Christianity is accordingly suspected as a materialistic religion of this world. Is that really she?

Indeed, it is an interesting question why the Christian Occident developed progressively while the Islamic Orient - clearly superior to Christian culture a millennium ago - lost its lead and lagged behind.

Such developments are never the result of momentary decisions made by individuals. Evolutions are complex, unfold slowly, hardly avoid detours and side routes; after centuries, however, a tendency emerges that can often even be associated with the name of personalities whose teachings gave such a development important impetus.

For the development in the Orient can be representative Al 'Ghasali (Algazel) stand for the Occident Benedict of Nursia.

Al 'Ghasali (1059-1111) was perhaps the most important theologian of Islam.

He made a significant contribution to anchoring the doctrine of predestination (predestination, popularly known as "Kismet") in Islam. Finally he came to the realization that preoccupation with earthly things leads away from Allah ...

In the Benedictine order, which goes back to Benedict of Nursia (480-547), culture is cultivated and earthly work and spiritual striving stand side by side. Christian monasteries have been the most important cultural bearers in Europe for centuries; according to the motto "Ora et labora" (pray and work) call them to prayer and for the fulfillment of earthly duty.

The basis for the rise of Europe - the leading continent in the 18th and 19th centuries - was laid by a way of thinking that wanted to combine spiritual striving with earthly action, believed in the ability to make decisions and motivated people and sought to build it up according to the motto: "You make your own luck".

At the beginning of the 20th century science and technology were regarded as carriers of progress, as indispensable guarantors for the further rise of the Western, Christian culture, which seemed called to become world culture.

Christianity still had a significant influence, even if the churches in the 18th and 19th centuries survived much hostility and had to endure harsh criticism.

Although materialism had become a fact, materialistic thinking was not without contradiction. Basic Christian values should form the basis of responsible action and correct excesses of one-sided, purely this-worldly thinking.

It was left to the 20th century to live materialism on all levels in the most varied of variations as "given by nature" and to push Christian values further and further into the background.

So the conviction of the importance and the limitless possibilities of science and technology became perhaps the most important of the utopias that shaped the 20th century. Whether capitalism or socialism, whether democrats or dictators - nobody wanted to do without research and progress.

In the meantime, however, we suspect what Al'Ghasali had correctly recognized:

"That the predominant or exclusive preoccupation with matter leads away from God",

because it leads to identification with matter. The healthy middle ground - in the sense of pray and work, work and pray - we are still looking to this day: looking up to meet the demands of the world without sinking into the matter or lapsing into resignation in the belief in the "kismet" that determines everything.

It will prove to be

In the 20th century, what had been achieved in science and technology actually exceeded the boldest future dreams of the 19th century: from submarines to moon flights, from telecommunications to automatic factories, from synthetic materials to calculators. No author, no futurologist would have allowed himself to be fooled into the fiction that the first landing on the moon would be broadcast live on television worldwide ...

However, there is also no lack of problems that can be blamed on applied science of the 20th century: Conscious (e.g. in weapons technology) and reckless (by ignoring undesirable consequences of technology) are ecological, economic, political, military, population-dynamic problems emerged, which around 1900 would have been considered just as improbable as the flight to Mars.

Did the future expectations of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries turn out to be hollow, and did the utopia of the beneficial work of applied sciences fail?

If we try to look back at the end of the 20th century, there is no doubt that the belief in science and technology (which has actually already become questionable due to facts), i.e. in the efficiency of the human brain, has embraced all of humanity. It has long since ceased to be possible to say that "Christian peoples bearers of scientific progress " be. People of all peoples, nations, countries, religions, cultures learn and master the modern technology, which in the course of globalization is supposed to create a uniform "world culture".

Scientists on five continents are expected to find a solution to all problems: Whether it is to help the suffering nature, to feed an overflowing population, to fight diseases or to achieve a peaceful coexistence of peoples: science, research, progress should show the way.

Nobody asks priests - who were once wise at the same time - because the basic ethical values anchored in all religions are considered outdated, questionable, no longer practicable ...

So we have to come to terms with the fact that the utopia of the omnipotence of science, with which we entered the 20th century, is not "dead" at the beginning of the 21st century either. However, it will face the most difficult challenges humanity has ever faced. And soon it has to be shown whether this utopia contains valuable beginnings or whether it was just a great illusion.