Religion and Science: relating the relationships?

In post-secular thought there is an increasing tendency to reject binary oppositions, such as religion and secularism. Past theories of secularization suggested religion was in decline and yet on the contrary, religion has remained viable although formulated in new frameworks of meaning. Secularism, in fact, is a co-producer of new formulations of religion, as explored by Kocku von Stuckrad in various publications. As religion responds to the ‘scientific imperative’ for example it produces new forms of religion in secular discourse and new forms of secularism in religious discourse. 

One way the scientific imperative can be religiously productive is via a religious response in terms of a struggle for legitimacy. As science was portrayed as the only source for approved and reliable knowledge beginning in the eighteenth century, scientific models and methods became increasingly utilized in the etic and emic framing of religion so the religious might be taken more seriously in a secular world, resulting in, for example, ‘scientific Buddhism’ that is suggested to be ‘empirical’ and ‘non-religious.’ I would call this the ‘scientification of religion,’ to use von Stuckrad’s terminology.

The religious response to the scientific imperative takes other forms as well, which are not conflictual in nature. Reacting to the episteme of science, many choose to accept it, but not in replacement of religious understandings, but rather as a complimentary mode of explanation. A small percentage of temporal lobe epileptics, for example, identify their seizures as religious experiences and yet scientific interpretations are accepted simultaneously, exemplified in patients’ use of medical and pharmacological therapy. This view might be thought of as a ‘non-reductive’ metaphysical stance in which science is regarded as valid and informative, but not ‘the whole story,’ only applicable to the physical/material face of reality. Religious knowledge, too, is real, explicable, and true.

While these non-reductionist tendencies typically make an epistemological and ontological differentiation between religion and science, there are much messier discourse entanglements that do not make such distinctions. Theoretical physicist Amit Goswami and medical doctor and researcher Rick Strassman regard certain scientific pursuits as actually advancing spiritual evolution and thus in some regard to be ‘scientific’ is to be ‘religious’ and ‘scientific knowledge’ constitutes ‘religious knowledge.’ Science is not an ‘extra of religion’; science is essential to religion and religious experience. This non-differentiation of religion and science might be understood as a ‘religiosity of science.’

What is clear is that these discursive entanglements problematize and traverse the religion and science (and thus secular as well) divide. But clarity is lacking in how to proceed in analytically fruitful ways. Neither science nor religion can be conceived in the abstract as single or bounded; instead we must appreciate how historical actors themselves (academics included) use these categories and negotiate the issues involved. Rather than defining ‘religion’ and defining ‘science’ and specifying the relationship between the two, I propose relating religion and science simply in terms of that relationship, that is in terms of whether religion and science are regarded as distinct domains or not and based on what fundamental philosophical (metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological) (non-)differentiations these lines are drawn. I am suggesting a systematic outline of ways of relating the relationships between religion and science and thus capturing the range of possibilities for constructing frameworks of meaning.

Laura Jean Vollmer holds a Master of East Asian Studies from Washington University in St. Louis and is currently a Research Master’s student in Religion and Culture at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, specializing in the field of religion, science, and philosophy.

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