When one is out to study religion, or to cover the religion beat, it can be awfully tempting to see religion everywhere you look as the all-satisfying explanation for everything. It’s the whole if-you-have-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail effect, right?
Today at Religion Dispatches I’ve got a review of the new book by Steve Fuller, a rather audacious and controversial philosopher of science. Though himself a secular humanist, he’s out to show that science, past and present, owes pretty much everything to the theological imagination—in particular, the Christian one. As much as there is truth to this—truth rarely appreciated as it deserves to be—sometimes even I have to draw the line. Not everything is about religion:
[T]here are proximate causes other than theology on hand for science’s development and sustenance. Europe and North America in the latter half of the second millennium had social arrangements, natural resources, habits of mind, and geopolitical competition that make for satisfying just-so stories too; only the most theologically self-confident would chalk it all up to religion. The globalization of science now underway, particularly as more and more important research takes place in non-Christian countries like China and Japan and by their nationals working in the West, a totally theology-centric narrative seems less and less plausible.
But even an anecdotal survey of what ways of thinking uphold the everyday habits of science today don’t quickly draw one’s mind to religion, nor do they necessarily stand in opposition to it. As in any profession, there are professionals competing for advancement and respect by trying to outdo each other in highly specialized contests, accumulating accomplishments that outsiders can’t begin to comprehend. All this depends on particular personality traits which, combined with lots of discipline and practice, amount to tremendous facility in the intellectual and technological tools of a given field. It’s paid for by private and public agencies which, in turn, steer research priorities. Science has also concocted its own narratives that serve some of the functional roles that religious ones otherwise might; I wonder what would have become of Fuller’s book had it focused not on theology but on science fiction, from Bishop Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone to Star Trek.