Seeing Things: Learned Ignorance

A petition in a litany written, I believe, by Cardinal Merry del Val, wisely asks: “From rashly entering the clergy, free us Jesus.” The problem is less common today than in his time. But we have a whole host of people rashly ready to step into pseudoclerical and other highly sensitive roles for which they have neither great aptitude nor special training. These ersatz clerics pronounce on a wide range of matters, usually trading on reputations they have made in other fields. The consequences for our personal and public life are less than edifying.

A case in point: Steven Weinberg, a Nobel prize winner in physics and one of the truly great living theorists of fundamental particles and cosmology. His book, The First Three Minutes, though a little dated in the 20 years since it was published, is still probably the best account of the early phases of the universe. His work in particle physics, many believe, may open the door to the “theory of everything” long sought after by scientists.

But Weinberg recently felt moved to step forward into the field of social criticism where his accomplishments as a physicist do not serve him particularly well. In the January 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly, he opines on “Five and a Half Utopias” that he considers harmful for the human future: religion, economics, elite politics, environmentalism, and technology. Why a physicist should have anything particularly enlightening to say on any but the last two topics is not clear. But that prestigious scientists can now claim a hearing beyond their competence is a sad fact. As the poet W. H. Auden once remarked, “Whenever I am in a room full of scientists I feel like a shabby curate who has stumbled into a gathering of dukes.” Much of the culture seems to feel the same.

Now utopias, we have all been taught to believe, are generally bad things. Plato’s and St. Thomas More’s are ambivalent, containing desirable elements mixed up with undesirables, and it is not always clear what the authors themselves believe about the societies they are describing. But it is one thing to be wary about overly ambitious schemes of various sorts and quite another to label the several basic components of human existence utopian. Weinberg is not very aware of the difference.

Take religion. A religious revival that would shift the ways of thinking dominant in the West since the Enlightenment would instantly reveal itself as a dystopia: “Of all the elites that can oppress us, the most dangerous are those bearing the banner of religion?’ Weinberg writes. For Weinberg though, even religion’s influence over private behavior and family life is oppressive. Most people find that this is precisely where it has greatest value. Religious revival would only lead, it appears, to more Irans, Afghanistans, and Saudi Arabias, never, say, 18th-century America.

Weinberg allows that “people ought to be religious or not according to whether they believe in the teachings of religion, not because of any illusion that religion raises the moral level of society.” What are we then to make of the historic role of religion in the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and a host of other cases?

He does a little better on politics. Weinberg knows that Communism and Nazism were bad because they were ideological. But he chides capitalist democracies for not being utopian enough. Like most scientists, he believes that societies can be engineered without risking socialist horrors. Unequal incomes, for example, puzzle him: “I have never understood why untalented people deserve less of the world’s good things than other people?’ Of course, he admits that the best scientists deserve the best jobs. But he seems never to have heard of the ancient idea that it is only just that greater contributions reap greater rewards.

He is equally confused about civilization. The public never creates it, he believes; government action is needed. But certainly the vast American philanthropic achievement shows otherwise. Perhaps the key to Weinberg’s fears is that government funding of basic science research is necessary. Perhaps so, but should an entire society risk cultural tyranny to make the world safer for scientific research?

Weinberg has intelligent things to say about illusions of a technological or “green” utopia, because they involve scientific issues about which he has some expertise. Salvation shall not come to us from there. But at the end of the day, he recommends “The Civilized Egalitarian Capitalist Utopia.” The title is not likely to become a presidential campaign slogan but might easily take up residence in the Gore platform.

Weinberg reveals his own utopian longings with the hope that an activist judiciary, much like the one we have labored under, will watch over a government that watches over society and the economy. So after all his labors, we wind up with a standard liberal Democratic world offered up under the prestige of modern science.

Why should anyone choose Weinberg’s utopia? It is grounded neither in the religious and social habits of the American people nor the kind of basic natural law teaching the Declaration of Independence thought derived from our Creator. Constitutional principles do not trouble his reflections: His independent judiciary seems nowhere limited from turning into a tyranny of its own, as we have already experienced. This utopia is a comfortable wish list from someone of great intelligence but with little relevant knowledge. Along with many other self-appointed com-social commentators, Weinberg is like a man who thinks he can do physics without knowing basic mathematics.

  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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