How does the study of science and religion fit with the study of science?

July 9, 2008 at 12:26 pm 4 comments

The way I’m thinking about the relationship of science and religion right now is through the lens of a nesting metaphor. I’m a little wary of this: it could be that nesting is too oblique, and that it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the relationship. Right now, however, I think of the study of science and religion as one that’s half in, and half out of, the study of science nest. It’s not that the religion part hangs over the side, only that the study of science doesn’t fully contain the study of science and religion. I want to talk about the particulars of how science and religion debates fall within the realm of the study of science, and how one can inform the other.

Why not? That question leads back to my previous conception of my summer project on the development of biological thought in Pakistan. When I started it, I was vaguely connecting the idea of science and religion with questions about the process of theory choice in science. I read a lot of Kuhn and Kitcher at the end of my semester in Edinburgh, and so theory choice literature was at the forefront of my mind. Only recently did I realize that thinking about science and religion in terms of theory choice was an impoverished line of thought. Whatever PZ Myers might have to say, the relationship between science and religion doesn’t boil down to theory choice. It boils down to interaction and development.

Looking at the Pakistani educational system, it’s hard not to consider science as a cultural force. The institution of science is a cultural force here in the USA, make no mistake, but it’s easier to see such a force when it is perceived as a foreign one. I have a lot of questions relating to the degree to which science is perceived as a foreign culture in Pakistan, but that strays from the topic. I feel like science is a less recognizable cultural force here than in Pakistan, but that might be due to my involvement in the academic community. There are certainly people in the USA who perceive science as something foreign, as well.

Religion, on the other hand, is an obvious cultural force. Christianity is here, and Islam is in Pakistan. There is ostensible separation of church and state in the USA, but Islam is integrated into seemingly every aspect of governance and education in Pakistan. Science, generally speaking, is not nearly so pervasive. So one reason why it doesn’t make sense to characterize the relationship between science and religion as analogous to theory choice is that the two are very different cultural animals.

There are many other reasons why it doesn’t click to put science and religion on par with one another, but this one seems very important for my work. Since science and religion are so different in cultural force, how can the study of religion inform the study of science? Sure, we’ll find something out about science by looking at how people link it to religion, but isn’t this a diminished, diluted kind of study? Why not just study science as science and leave it at that?

To think that way is to think of science and religion as two fried eggs. It’s to think they only touch along the whites, but what we really should be looking at are the unadulterated yolks. It’s to think that somehow only the religious half of science and religion is hanging out the side of the science studies nest. But the study of science and religion is more accurately described as a batch of scrambled eggs where even the yolks have run together.

To study science and religion is not to study an example of theory choice. It is to study an example of belief interaction. Sometimes a person’s religious beliefs supervene on scientific ones, and sometimes it’s the other way around. For my part, I don’t have much in the way of religious beliefs. It isn’t that I see science as supervening on religion, but that I don’t have any religious eggs to scramble with my scientific ones. Most people do, however, and this has an impact on science. Religion has an impact on how science is taught, how science is learned, how the public perceives science, and how science is practiced. So do politics, economics, and a host of other cultural forces. The difference, I think, is that neither politics nor economics engage questions of biology, physics, and cosmology. My seventh grade earth science course didn’t cover how the mining industry influences the direction of geological research, but there weren’t any parents that demanded such material. There are, however, plenty of parents in the USA that demand the teaching of creationism alongside biology.

Just because I don’t have any religious eggs in my scramble doesn’t mean that there aren’t any in the larger pan. The cultural force of religion affects our understanding science. Because of this, an investigation of science and religion is an investigation of the impact of a significant cultural force on science. The interaction flows in the other direction as well, but the mechanics of that interaction is a question for religious studies.

One more thing: this ramble was concerned with the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, characteristics of the study of science and religion. Included with the many other “topics for another time” are my thoughts on how much, if at all, religion should impact science. I think a good description of the interaction will help me understand how the interaction could be improved.


Entry filed under: Religion, SSK.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jojo  |  July 9, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    The metaphor of scrambled eggs reminds me of Chung Tzu. I believe that you use many religious parameters in framimg your questions. How can you claim objectivity coming from such a strong religious upbringing? You are what you is whether you choose to reject or accept.

  • 2. donescience  |  July 10, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Is it the simplicity of the metaphor, or did I unconsciously make a reference? If the latter, then you have a case for claiming that I’m unconsciously religious as a result of the latter. If the former, well…

    I’m not sure what you mean by claiming objectivity. The amount of church that I went to before, say, high school coupled with your religiously-based values undoubtedly had the sort of cultural impact on me that I discussed in this post. Merely being raised in America would subject the development of my thought to religious influence.

    What I was saying about myself with the idea that I don’t have any religious eggs in my basket had to do with my explicit, conscious beliefs. I really don’t consider that God had anything to do with, well, anything. This is a function of my disbelief in anything supernatural. Most people in the USA and most people in Pakistan have plenty of religious beliefs that they consciously and explicitly consider when thinking about the world. In my case, being an atheist means that I do not.

  • 3. Rumplestiltskin  |  July 11, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    hmmm. In regard to framing and re-framing theories as we discover more tools, etc., well, science may be religion and religion may be science. I guess my thoughts are a little scrambled too, eh?

  • 4. Bruce  |  July 21, 2008 at 12:15 am

    “Science may be religion and religion may be science?” Well, in my simple-minded way, this atheist would agree with that. Or, at least, partly so.

    From a functionalist viewpoint, science in mid-twentieth century America fulfilled the same role as religion in many societies. As we collectively looked for answers to the big questions of life – “Where did we (and the universe) come from? Where do we go when we die? What is the meaning of life? How do we understand the world around us? What is the nature of causality in our world?” – we turned to science for the answers. This reflects the influence of the Enlightenment on the mid-18th century founders of this country. Our country’s history for the next two centuries largely shows an increasing reliance on scientific principles in our collective decision-making, academic accomplishments and popular thought.

    This trend probably culminated in the 1950s as the discovery of the mechanics of genetics proved the validity of our scientific theory and the culmination of the “space race” proved that technological sciences could master the challenges and secrets of the universe. From one perspective, the objectivity of science had overcome the subjectivity of religion and its superstitious beliefs about causality.

    Then came the cultural revolution of the 1980s and the ascendancy of fundamentalists to the throne of power. Along with the embrace of an ancient patriarchal hierarchy came the rejection of “liberal” science and its accomplishments. Today, a majority of Americans disavow a belief in evolution, the bedrock of modern scientific thought. Knowledge of the scientific method is so minimal among Americans that “intelligent design” is regarded by many as a scientific theory.

    While in many ways science and religion bear no similarities, from a cultural perspective they might indeed. And, certainly, our recent experience points out that science, like other cultural creations, holds a position of esteem and value in our society that is due to shared belief – a belief that is rapidly waning.


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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