Science and Religion

So, I recently had to do this thing where I had to talk about something that doesn’t really interest me and I don’t really know that much about. This is basically what I came up with.

For me, the question of science and religion is not whether they are in fundamental conflict, or can be reconciled in some way, but rather how we come to define these two terms as distinct from one another. From the standpoint of the study of religion, how “religion” is defined by its proponents and opponents is they key matter of inquiry. The same can be said for how science gets defined. In this way, I’d like to examine the discourse of science and religion. Consider a few familiar examples in our cultural discourse about what science is and what religion is–definitions that are often take for granted by scientists and practitioners of religion: Science is rational and objective, while religion comes to occupy the space of the non-rational, or even irrational. In another version, science is the how, and religion is the why, making science a sort of technical knowledge that is somehow free from ideology or philosophical reflection, while religion is fundamentally about a kind of cognitive, reflective meaning–in this view religion is not something people do, but something people think. In these examples, science is completely ceded the ground to be an objective, rational enterprise, while religion is fundamentally subjective.

Other versions of this discourse about what is science and what is religion depict religion as violent, pointing to the crusades or David Koresh, while science is either value-neutral or even a benevolent force for humanity. Afterall, don’t we all know about the terrible things that religion has done while science is about finding cures to diseases or building machines that better our lives. Nevermind the counter examples to these oft-stated assumptions, like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, whose status as religious humanists is often obscured, nor the vast amount of planetary and human costs to scientific “discovery” in the 20th century that have developed ever-more efficient and terrifying ways of killing or torturing people. Science frequently is defined within a narrative of progression, where mistakes of the past can be dismissed as imperfect versions of the virtuous present, but this is an ideological framing of how science works, not an objective evaluation of its practices. My mention that science too has its skeletons in the closet serves an important point in how the discourse about science and religion is framed. Just as it is unfair to lay at the feet of “science” with the atomic bomb, biological warfare, Nazi genetic ideology, the way that capitalist and even imperialist agendas inform what kinds of science get done and how its costs and benefits are distributed in society, or the countless abuses of power and privilege committed by scientists in the name of science, such as the case of Henrietta Laks, and all of the ways that knowledge is intertwined with power, so too the kinds of generalizations about “religion” as violent, irrational, or as Christopher Hitchens puts it, “poisonous,” are too simplistic. Neither religion nor science is fundamentally anything, good or bad, rational or irrational, objective or subjective, provisional or timelessly true. Since both science and religion are human activities, done by humans, constructs of human imagination, both must be understood to share this basic feature as human practices, with all that entails for the inherent goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness of both.

I think that the point that I would like to raise is that we should be attentive and critical to the ways that arguments about both science and religion are constructed. Which science, which scientists, which religion, which religious practioners? Neither science nor religion has some corresponding Platonic ideal, but both are formed in practice, how they are actually done. In some cases there will be conflicts between them, but these conflicts largely have to do with how science and religion are defined. If you define them as in conflict, you will likely see a conflict. If you define them as reconciled or reconcilable, they will likely be reconciled.

While attention to the ways in which science and religion are distinguished from one another is an important piont of inquiry, we might also look at ways in which they overlap, not in terms of claims about truth, but how these two fields are practiced. Both science and religion have come to be influenced by each other. Creationist accounts are “scientific” in that the adopt the discourse of science by appealing to data, historical artifacts, drawing on scientific models, etc to demonstrate their point. They do not satisfy all of the rules of science, but they do imitate, appropriate, and resignify scientific ways of thinking. Similarly, in science, the quest for ultimate truth, the kinds of bodily and mental training that one must undergo, the evangelistic impulse of some scientists, and even the hermeneutical or interpretive methods for getting at truth in scientific discourse and pratice often derive from religious institutions and pratices like the school and monastary. Indeed, it was not an accident that Gregor Mendel, the so-called father of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar, at a time when the monastery and university were complimentary institutions.

As religion and science are mostly constituted today, they are considered two fields of inquiry with different questions, different sources of authority, different values, and different goals. But the way that this division has come about has been the result of changes in history. Consider the ways that what counts as “science” remains a contested space. For instance, 100 years ago, philology was an important and prestigious science, but you won’t find it in a science department today. Or consider the kind of hierarchical, deeply gendered language about the “hard” and “soft” sciences and the assumptions at work in that division, and the kinds of normative values we might attach to something like the natural sciences relative to somelike like political science. What is at stake in calling something science or excluding something from that field?

The key is to be able to critically evaluate either science or religion through the lens of ethics. Whether we engage in one, the other, or both, we need to cultivate the kinds of critical inquiry that can help us produce that better world that both imagine (the scientific view of progress toward an ultimate ideal is another one of those religious inheritances). Obviously, attempting to add “ethics” into the mix of science and religion, and as the privileged participant that should guide both science and religion is not without its own problems. Ethics too is a historically conditioned field of discourse, not without its own past sins, but the idea that ethics, science, and religion be in conversation is to acknowledge that they always already are in conversation, whether or not one dares to admit it. But we should not simply criticalyl evaluate our own religious and scientific practices, but also cultivate ethical ways of engaging with those whose religious and scientific practices are different from our own. This is something that the study of religion has offered as one of its contributions, the coming to interact with difference, and the transformation of the self that can occur in that encounter as we seek to sympathetically engage with ways of being human that challenge our own ideas.

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  • TYD

    Great post, TT, lot’s to chew on.


    Best wishes,


  • Clark

    I agree that the idea that science and religion are orthogonal pursuits is problematic. Further historically they simply were wrapped up with each other much more than I think most contemporary critics of religion want to admit. Still by the time of a lot of the dividing (say at the end of the 19th century) there were some pretty big divides.

    The appeal to ethics seems a big vague. In one sense I agree since I’m largely a Peircean. (Peirce thinks all scientific, logical and religious endeavors ultimately ground on ethics which in turn is grounded on a kind of objective aesthetics) However I’m not sure if that’s what you mean by ethics in the above.

  • CEF

    I will try and frame this the way I see it, and someone please tell me what and/or where I have it wrong. 🙂

    It seems to me, that the scientist are being allowed to define the debate. To me, that means something along the lines of whoever gets to write the history books, gets to tell the story the way they want. That is okay if you are one of the ones that gets to write about history.

    I believe it is well determined that the intelligent design debate is well over. Meaning, however one frames the discussion about evolution and creationism, those believing in some kind of, “god created things the way they are” has lost the debate from the get go. They are relegated to a category of, superstitious,uneducated/dumb, or delusional.

    So if I am correct, not sure if I am, then how does one talk about god, religion, or just some kind of divine purpose to our being here, without having lost the debate before it is even started?

  • Clark

    I think the problem with intelligent design was that it was making a narrow claim about irreducible complexity and was unable to demonstrate it. There’s no reason one has to accept ID to claim God is involved with life. That’s just a false dichotomy that the ID proponents frequently put out.

  • CEF

    Clark, if you are in a discussion with an atheist, how are you going to frame your belief in God without being seen as, at best, superstitious?

    Sure, one can talk to a christian that believes in evolution about God and not be taken as delusional, but, the best I can tell, even they do not believe that God had a hand in creating anything about our world.

    Steven Peck said something like, “there is no finger print of God in the universe.” I like Steve, so I am not picking on him.

    So how does one refer to God, who I think we can all agree here, is intelligent, as haveing anything to do with creating the universe, without that being seen as some kind of intelligent design/forethought to our being here?

  • Clark

    I’ve never had that problem, to me the issue is primarily about the difference between private and public evidence and then whether one has interpreted properly the evidence one claims to have experienced. I don’t see superstition entering in. (And I talk with atheists about it all the time)