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Ways of Using Science

The most promising approach in the study of the relationship between “science and religion” today is not to talk about them at all. Neither the warfare model—where the two domains are utterly at odds—nor harmony one—that they are mutually supportive—quite captures the historical and epistemological evidence. Stephen J. Gould’s vision of “non-overlapping magesteria” is a pipe dream. Sometimes things called religion and science, respectively, agree, and other times they do not. Sometimes their agreement appears so splendid as to be sung in a single voice, but others not. Instead, the best research out there today is that which gives up on declaring once and for all what the real deal is. It dwells in specifics and contexts, historical and present-day. But, with the loss of trans-contextual “science and religion” as a lens for making the world comprehensible, we find ourselves in a poverty of theory. Without something to replace that binary, our thinking will default to it.

At the American Academy of Religion meeting last weekend, I heard what sounded like a start in the right direction.

At a panel about the uses of science among new religious movements, James R. Lewis of the University of Wisconsin gave a paper through a fit of coughs on “how religions appeal to the authority of science.” His intention was to present a preliminary list of different kinds of ways in which movements called religions appropriate different bits of what we call science. He divided the question of “science and religion” into a complex of parts, of options, of possibilities. By looking at specific hows rather than generalized whats, this approach is distinctly agent-oriented. There is not need to appeal to metaphysical, transcendental ideas of “science and religion.” Consequently it resonates with Foucaultian analyses of subjectivity production. But, for a more structuralist approach, it also offers a menu of terms for talking about data other than the overly-inclusive umbrellas of “religion” and “science.” Specificity that is still comprehensible.

Here’s the gist of what Lewis suggests. His list is “a provisional, heuristic scheme,” not meant to be comprehensive (how could it be?). The categories are “not hermetically-sealed.” Each represents a distinct strategy. Here is a summary of his list, which I’ve paraphrased and modified somewhat:

Name Summary E.g.
Rhetorical Borrowing terms and grammars from science “Scientology”; “Quantum” healing; “law” of attraction
Methodological Ritual performance borrowing from scientific practices Scientology e-meters; Raelian genetics; TM meditation research; Mind & Life conferences
Worldview Inhabiting a scientific metaphysics The naturalism of UFO groups; Buddhist neuroscience

Lewis then adds three more after that, which fit within the rubric of “methodological” strategies: social-scientific research on religious practices, alternative/borderline sciences, and para-technology.

Beginning to list out such strategies is a welcome move beyond mere “science and religion,” toward a more sensitive set of interpretive tools. I have been struggling, for instance, to understand why the Turkish creationist Harun Yahya is so willing to line Islam up with a scientific world-picture while so uninterested in taking on the actual habits of thinking that scientists use. “Science and religion” has been too blunt an instrument, since there are moments of both harmony and conflict in a single phenomenon. I can say, therefore, that with him there is harmony in some aspects of worldview but conflict in method.

Of course, listing out strategies is only the beginning. It opens up a whole range of theoretical questions for empirical, comparative research to probe. Why would a community pick one strategy and not another? What are the costs and benefits of each? How consistent are their implications among different contexts?

During Lewis’s talk, for instance, I was reminded of Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley’s efforts to develop a cognitive grammar of ritual forms. They argue that there is a difference between the mental apparatuses used in rituals depending on whether the divine is acting or being acted upon. They explicate a whole series of characteristics associated with each that seem to fit the evidence. I wonder if similar patterns would be noticed among Lewis’s categories. My inclination, following Lawson and McCauley, would be to divide them between passive adoption of science (rhetorical and worldview) and ritual action (methodological).

A Foucaultian approach, which I mentioned earlier, could take Lewis’s list in a different direction entirely. Rather than spelling out cross-cultural grammars, it would focus on the historical-political-linguistic nexus in which specific traditions adopt their strategies of choice. By looking more carefully at what a community perceives to be the means of scientific legitimacy, we gain insight into how they ordered their conceptual worlds.

Similar lists could be drawn up for science’s uses of religion, as well as for the modalities of conflicts that people perceive between parts of each. Whenever there is temptation to speak of “science and religion,” we should take pains to be more specific.

5 comments on “Ways of Using Science

  1. [1.] …There is no need to appeal to metaphysical, transcendental ideas of “science and religion.”…
    [2.] …Whenever there is temptation to speak of “science and religion,” we should take pains to be more specific

    I completely agree about needing to always be specific (#2), yet I think there’s also a bigger problem involved (complicating #1), in that any statement whatsoever (whether from everyday, theoretical, scientific, or religious talk/language) unavoidably invokes metaphysical presuppositions; it’s just a question of how self-reflective one is about the presuppositions, IMO. The task of interpretation is never-ending by definition, but the metaphysical presuppositions don’t simply go away, whatever the angle used or phenomenon addressed (the presuppositions can be ignored, of course, but they’re still there). [To Whitehead’s credit, he at least tried to take the implications of that into account within his own system (cf. chap. 1 of _Process and Reality_).] So when “religious” and “scientific” communities agree on what delimits the scientific method, for example, then many so-called “science and religion” wars *can* be decided (for example: creationism is clearly unscientific, in terms of the sci. method as commonly understood, etc.). To me, it’s clarifying and delimiting the presuppositions, and the concepts they birth, that’s actually most crucial. (And if the parties involved are unwilling to do that in good faith then there truly is no room for honest dialogue between parties anyway.) If the presupposition-analysis is what Lewis is implying, then I agree, but I just don’t think all the micro-analysis stuff can ever fully supersede metaphysics per se. (For example: even Foucault’s type of analysis presumes its own unarticulated metaphysics, which is why both Deleuze and Negri can each claim to be filling-in F.’s ontology, etc.)

  2. Thank you, this is a marvelous comment. The question of metaphysics, and the value-judgments it implies, is something I really should have addressed more. Take, for example, my earlier post about this same panel about the AAR. There I took for granted that, because we were talking about how religionists use science, we were being condescending toward the religionists. The Christian Scientist I mentioned in that post said, in quite different terms, what you’re saying: so what if they do? Who wouldn’t? We live in a science-y world. What matters is whether the substance of our claims is sensible.

    I still know nothing of Deleuze and Nagri, and I should. But as for Foucault, I think his historical analysis is perfectly possible from a “methodological” rather than “metaphysical” point of view. Isn’t “filling in” his ontology kind of like Richard Dawkins saying that, just because evolution is consistent with metaphysical naturalism and in some respects points that way, everybody who believes in evolution must also be a metaphysical naturalist?

    You can talk about the metaphysics of science and religion, but I would insist that you do so within a discourse (subject to Foucaultian analysis), rather than dealing with pre-discursive metaphysical Ideals like “religion” and “science.”

    I think the mistake of that AAR panel (or how I interpreted it) was to think that discursive analysis is tantamount to debunking. Darwin, for instance, used motifs from Malthusian economics to develop his own ideas. That doesn’t mean that they’re illegitimate.

    The interesting question, I mean to say here, is the how and not the what. Understanding the dynamics at work in Darwin’s appropriation of Malthus is separate from (though related to) the question of whether that appropriation was a productive one that we should applaud.

  3. …Isn’t “filling in” his ontology kind of like Richard Dawkins saying that, just because evolution is consistent with metaphysical naturalism and in some respects points that way, everybody who believes in evolution must also be a metaphysical naturalist?…

    Right, that’s actually what I was trying to get at, why it’s important to make one’s metaphysical presuppositions explicit (since they’re always there, acknowledged or not), so as to figure out to what extent data from a scientific methodology could in good faith cohere within different sets of presuppositions (or not). I guess all I’m insisting on is that even meta-level “how”-questions can’t be addressed without the “how” itself already making use of presuppositions about a “what”/”why”/”who.” That is, any discursive analysis is already making use of its own explicit or implicit metaphysical presuppositions — they don’t necessarily have to be full-on Ideals per se, but they’re operational nonetheless…

  4. So, I’m not really sure if I can jump into this conversation since much of what I’m reading is going over my head, but I am reminded of conversations in the Findy kitchen and wanted to throw something out there.

    For me, the problem is that there is always too much emphasis on what science _is_ versus what religion _is_, when my perception of both of these ideas is that they are processes and not entities. We cannot talk about science or religion without talking about how science or religion work. They cannot be separated from their relationships to communities of people, nor can they be frozen for analysis that ignores their inherently fluid nature. The only book I have encountered (in my limited study of science) that talks about how science works – that really focuses of science as a process and not a thing – is Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When I compare that to ruminations about how religion works, like T. Unno’s take on the Tannisho or Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling — that puts me into some exciting and fruitful territory. Coming from a Buddhist perspective, putting down dualistic categories like science/religion and watching them instead as processes is more how I like to think.

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