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:
|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.