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A Critical Religious Studies Approach to the Science-Religion ‘Debate’?

Over the summer, I was approached by Isaac Alderman of Sinai & Synapses and asked if I would participate in an interview on the interaction between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ from my perspective within critical Religious Studies, as co-founder of the Religious Studies Project, and from a UK perspective. Although I pointed out that this is not my area, I was happy to have the conversation and I am quite pleased with the results. The conversation flows through my impression of the UK context, to what I see as my approach to this ‘debate’, i.e. to view it as a social phenomenon, and to ask critical questions of context, power, definition, ideology, and so on…

You can have a watch of the video below or on the S&S website, where you can also read a full transcription. I hadn’t quite realised that there would be video recording as well as audio, so please excuse my attire, summer beard (blame the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), location, and inattention to the camera. Furthermore, as Yvonne Aburrow pointed out on Twitter, throughout this conversation I have a tendency to lazily conflate ‘religion’ with ‘Christianity’ in the main. This is an important point, as it demonstrates that being consistently ‘critical’ is not easy, and serves as a further example of the points I make in the interview about context. My discourse is often affected by the hegemonic norm of my context, despite best intentions. This is why scholarship is best as a collaborative enterprise. Enjoy!



The Construction of Scientific Facts

“The result of the construction of a fact is that it appears unconstructed by anyone; the result of rhetorical persuasion in the agnostic field is that participants are convinced that they have not been convinced; the result of materialisation is that people can swear that material considerations are only minor components of the “thought process”; the result of the investments of credibility is that participants can claim that economics and beliefs are in no way related to the solidity of science; as to the circumstances, they simply vanish from accounts, being better left to political analysis than to an appreciation of the hard and solid world of facts!”

Latour, Bruno & Steve Woolgar (1986). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 284.

Thomas Kuhn compares scientists to the typical character of Orwell’s 1984

I have recently finished reading Thomas Kuhn’s famous “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. You may wonder what I have been doing reading this, but a glance at this previous post should give you some idea. The following passage came near the end of the book and as I am major fan of 1984, and the boyfriend of a chemist, I couldn’t resist sharing:

“When it repudiates a past paradigm, a scientific community simultaneously renounces, as a fit subject for professional scrutiny, most of the books and articles in which that paradigm had been embodied. Scientific education makes use of no equivalent for the art museum or the library of classics, and the result is a sometimes drastic distortion in the scientist’s perception of his discipline’s past. More than the practitioners of other creative fields, he comes to see it as leading in a straight line to the discipline’s present vantage. In short, he comes to see it as progress. No alternative is available to him while he remains in the field.

Inevitably those remarks will suggest that the member of a mature scientific community is, like the typical character of Orwell’s 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be. Furthermore, that suggestion is not altogether inappropriate. There are losses as well as gains in scientific revolutions, and scientists tend to be peculiarly blind to the former. [… to footnote] Because science students “know the right answers”, it is particularly difficult to make them analyse an older science in its own terms.”

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1969. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Second ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 167.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion



What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing.

Continued reading here.

Interesting Attempt at Explaining Religion

Even though the project ‘Explaining Religion’, discussed in the following article from the Economist, ‘did not actually achieve its rather ambitious eponymous goal’ it has, indeed, ‘found some promising avenues of investigation, and led to that great desideratum of science, more research’. It’s worth a read anyway…

Some of my favourite snippits were:

“Agnostics and atheists think like Buddhists.”

And this…

“In one particularly grisly rite of passage, for example, young men belonging to Australia’s Aranda tribe are first circumcised and then pinned face down as several of their elders bite the initiate’s scalp and chin as hard as they can, before slitting his urethra with a stone blade. That is the sort of thing you are not going to forget in a hurry. You are also going to feel a strong affinity with those others who have gone through it, and perhaps a certain disdain for those who have not—a solidarity-building exercise, then, if ever there was one.”

You can read the full thing here. Enjoy.

Science as a Myth of Our Time

It has been a long time since I posted anything… clearly I have been busy. This is just a flying post, with a long quotation from Michael Shermer, which expresses something quite simple but profound.

“In fact, science is a type of myth if we think of myths as stories about ourselves and our origins (and not in the pejorative sense of myths as things “untrue”). Many gain considerable emotional, even “spiritual,” satisfaction from reading scientific articles and books by geologists about the creation of the Earth, by palaeontologists about the evolution of life, by paleoanthropologists about human origins, by archaeologists about the genesis of civilisation, by historians about the development of culture, and especially by cosmologists about the origins of the universe. Tens of millions of people watch Carl Sagan’s 1980 Cosmos series with rapt attention. In 1997 the PBS series Stephen Hawking’s Universe gripped viewers every Monday night. Books on evolution by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Donald Johanson, and Edward O. Wilson are eagerly sought by readers and often find themselves on bestseller lists. Why? Because at these boundaries of scientific knowledge the lines between science, myth, and religion begin to blur as we ask ultimate questions about ourselves, our origins, and our place in the cosmos.”

Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, p. 29.

I think I have mentioned this before, but the way in which many people gobble up books on evolution, cognitive science, cosmology etc does seem to suggest an overriding underlying human need for narrative.  This narrative might have been provided in the past by religion, but now more and more are turning to other forms of narrative. This is not to say that religion is ‘right’… just that it might fulfill a fundamental human function which can be replaced with other narratives…

Worth a think, eh?


Some Snippits from the Psychological Study of Religion

I am always fascinated by the variety of ways in which people try to scientifically test ‘religion’. Here are a couple of quotations I have come across recently that somewhat whetted my appetite.

“In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach. One solution is to report on a naturally occurring quasi-experiment. In the first celebrated quasi-experiment in the literature, Francis Galton (1883) looked at the effects of prayer on health and longevity. He found that members of royal families, who were regularly wished long lives in their subjects’ prayers, did not live longer than those same subjects. They even died, on average, younger than their subjects! Similarly, relatives of the ‘prayerful’ did not recover any faster from illnesses than other people.”

From Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. 1997. The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience. London: Routledge, p. 47, citing Galton (1883) Inquiries into Human Faculties and Developments

I’m very interested in this sort of research, and intrigued that it was happening as early as 1883. Of course it is always going to be affected by all sorts of subjectivities, and by the ever present charge that any deity could intervene to influence the results of such attempts to scientifically test their influence… but interesting nonetheless.

“Darley and Batson (1973) wanted to test whether the parable of the Good Samaritan, taken from the New Testament and presented as a model of true altruism, would affect helping behaviour. In this story a traveller, robbed and severely beaten, is saved by a kind stranger. Christian seminary students, who had just read the parable, and some who were supposed to give a talk about it, were put in a situation where they could help someone in apparent distress. The experiment was well designed. There were two experimental variables, being exposed to the parable (or not) and being told to hurry, or not to hurry, in going to another office in order to help the experimenter. On their way to the office, after having met the experimenter and being asked to help, the students ran across a man who was clearly incapacitated. The results showed that the parable of the Good Samaritan had no effect on the students’ readiness to help, while the instruction to hurry did.”

From Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. 1997. The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience. London: Routledge, p. 47 citing Darley and Batson (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho…” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

This doesn’t tell us too much about religion… the relevant text could have been anything ‘presented as a model of true altruism’… but I guess it shows that people behave as people in certain situations. It probably suggests something about the kinds of circumstances where people allow their ‘religion’ to influence their actions.

Just a couple of interesting little excerpts that caught my eye :-). If anyone knows of any interesting studies into similar areas, please do let me know.