In considering the general topic of “Religion and science” the first question that occurs to me is “What religion? What science?”
Both “religion” and “science” are cultural constructs based on Western modernity. By “modernity” I mean the Western worldview (or “paradigm”) shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Concerning religion, Peter Harrison says in his book “Religion” and the religions in the English enlightenment:
One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been “no salvation outside the Church”, now it had become “No salvation without profession of the ‘true religion'” – but
which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for ‘fundamentals’, which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the ‘fundamentals’ were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather
than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of “the religions” is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims (Harrison 1990:63-64).
The very term “interfaith” is thus a product of this conception, which is in turn a product of Western history — the idea of religions as “faiths”, that is sets of beliefs.
Harrison (1990:5-6) also points out that, in the West, there were three different understandings of ‘nature’, which led to three different understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’.
- The natural order is opposed to the supernatural. ‘Natural’ religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to ‘revealed’ religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers.
- An instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant’s ‘practical reason’). This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy. In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it.
- The light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called ‘pure reason’. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to ‘religion’ being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe.
There were such radical changes in religious orientation in post-Reformation England that there was in effect a diachronic religious pluralism, which led to secularization, and “the comparison of the various forms of Christianity with one another, and shaped to a significant extent the way in which the English were to see other ‘religions’. The whole comparative approach to religion was directly related to confessional disputes within Christianity”(Harrison 1990:3).
In other words, the frame of reference for the understanding of “religion” has been shaped by the history of Christianity in Western Europe since 1500. To this extent “religion” is a modern Western social and cultural construct.
For more on the differences between premodern and modern Western Christianity, see my post on The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism.
Like religion, “science” is also a social construct.
In English, more than in other languages, “science” has come to refer primarily to the “hard sciences”:, those that use empirical methods of verification, though even in English there is a wider meaning. In premodern times, for example, theology was called “the queen of the sciences”. In that sense, “sciences” meant “branches of knowledge”. And even today non-English speakers sometimes refer to people writing “scientific articles” and reading “scientific papers” on theology, whereas native English speakers would probably say the articles and papers were “academic” or “scholarly”, and reserve “scientific” for the “hard” sciences, like physics, chemistry, botany and zoology. Even social scientists would be thought of as reading academic papers rather than scientific ones.
I am particularly conscious of the language difficulty from the time that I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, which was bilingual in Afrikaans and English. It was a distance-education university, and all study material was prepared in both languages. Some subjects, however, were uniquely bound up with Afrikaans culture, and with white Afrikaner nationalism. One such was Fundamental Pedagogics, which claimed to be the science of education. It was not, its proponents claimed, a philosophy of education, because there can be many different philosophies. It was scientific, and there can only be one science, and so from its lofty scientific pedestal it could sit in judgement on all mere philosophies of education.
In the original Afrikaans the word was “wetenskap” and “wetenskaplike”, which are usually translated as “science” and “scientific” respectively. It is the equivalent of the German Wissenschaft or the Russian nauka. Though “wetenskap” can also mean knowledge, Afrikaans also has another word, “kennis”, which corresponds more closely to the English term “knowledge”. To English-speaking people, however, or at least to English editors, Fundamental Pedagogics did not seems so much like a science as an ideology, and the fundamental pedagogicians, in their claims for their discipline, seemed to be including it among the natural sciences. One could never be sure whether this was a linguistic or cultural misunderstanding, or whether the fundamental pedagogicians were simply snake oil salesmen.
In English, more than in many other languages, “science” has come to be used primarily of the natural sciences. This in itself shows that the term “science” has a meaning that varies from culture to culture. Thomas Kuhn, with his concept of paradigm shifts, emphasised this even more.
Both “religion” and “science”, therefore, are cultural constructs, and need to be seen in the context of the culture in which they originated.
Can one say more?
Can one bring religion and science together, and see how religion sees science or how science sees religion?
Harrison (1990:2) says of this
It is evident from the philosophy of science that objects of study are shaped to a large degree by the techniques which are used to investigate them. If we apply this principle to the history of ‘religion’, it can be said that the very methods of the embryonic science of religion determined to a large extent what ‘religion’ was to be. It would be expected that ‘religion’ and the strategies for its elucidation would
develop in tandem. For this reason ‘religion’ was constructed essentially along rationalist lines, for it was created in the image of the prevailing rationalist methods of investigation: ‘religion’ was cut to fit the new and much-vaunted scientific method. In this manner, ‘religion’ entered the realm of the intelligible.
That brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning. Which religion? Which science?
One way in which I saw them brought together was a science fiction story. It introduced me to the concept of scientific paradigm shifts some years before Thomas Kuhn’s book on the subject was published. I’ve sometimes wondered if Kuhn read the story, and whether it perhaps gave him the germ of an idea. Or perhaps both his thesis and the story grew out of the same Zeitgeist.
The story was The new reality by Charles L. Harness, first published in 1950 (ie 12 years before Kuhn’s The structure of scientific revolutions).
The story concerns a group of scientist who are investigating a theory that paradigm shifts were not just changes in human consciousness, but that the world itself actually changed each time there was a paradigm shift. When the paradigm was that the sun revolved around the earth, the sun really had revolved around the earth, and when the paradigm changed, the earth began to orbit the sun.
To test this thesis, they want to break down the current paradigm, the Einsteinian one, which is based on the speed of light. They construct an apparatus (remember the Large Hadron Collider?) that will let through exactly one photon of light and direct it at a prism set at exactly 45 degrees. When a rat in a laboratory maze is faced with a fork in the path, so that it doesn’t know whether to go left or right, it hesitates. So the photon, on encountering the prism, would hesitate for a split second before deciding whether to reflect or refract. That would slow down the speed of light on which the Einsteinian paradigm is based.
The apparatus was constructed, and the machine was switched on. One of the male laboratory staff suddenly found himself naked in a garden. The laboratory and everything in it had vanished. A female colleague, likewise naked, approached him through the trees, offering him an apple.
Anderson, Walter Truett. 1990. Reality isn’t what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper.
Harness, Charles L. 1998. An ornament to his profession. NESFA Press.
Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions.
This post is part of an interfaith synchroblog on “Religion and science”.
Here are links to other synchronised blog posts on this general topic: