The complex relations between religion(s) and science(s) may be conveniently divided into three categories of contemporary interest, especially in the so-called West.

1. Contemporary religious perspectives on the sciences.

Religious beliefs sometimes conflict with scientific theories: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish “creationists,” for example, question Darwinian evolution. As counterpart to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, “fundamentalists” of this sort may be said to propose an often (if not always) unconvincing kind of epistemological tu quoque: “The Fundamentalist Science Delusion” (or science as a false idol).

On the other side of the contemporary epistemological fence are what Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls “a set of efforts, primarily by scientifically knowledgeable theologians but also by some theologically inclined scientists to reveal a cognitively satisfying consonance between the accounts of nature given in the natural sciences and traditional Christian belief” (Natural Reflections).

Such an attempted reconciliation between science and religion comes perhaps even more naturally to religions that are not theistic. Though the current Dalai Lama, for example, still defends Buddhist ideas of reincarnation on what he calls logical grounds, he also writes: “the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether” (Internet, Sept. 2012).  

This attitude may be compared and contrasted to that of Hindu claims, associated politically with the resurgence of Indian nationalism in the early twentieth century, as to the scientific or rational character of certain foundational Hindu texts. Instead of the tu quoque defense (you also are a fundamentalist believer) this might be called the ego quoque one (I am as scientific as you).

In addition to the mainly English-speaking “new natural theologians” treated in Smith’s Natural Reflections, we may cite a number of European thinkers—in philosophy, the social sciences, and the relatively new field of “science studies”—who also see no necessary contradiction between science and religion. Some of these are atheists or agnostics, but others are more or less overtly religious, such as the French Catholics—diverse both in theoretical method and religious orientation—Bruno Latour and Rene Girard. When philosopher Michel Serres calls Girard “the Darwin of the social sciences,” for instance, he means that Girard’s sacrificial (and indeed in principle evolutionary) theory of religion is no less scientific in aim than Darwin, and by no means claims to be “Deeper than Darwin” (to cite the title of one of Smith’s Anglican “new natural theologians”).

Latour, very different from Serres or Girard, inventor of Actor Network Theory and one of the pioneers of “science studies,” is also worth mentioning as a church-going Catholic—seemingly a rather eccentric one--whose studies in the history, sociology, and epistemology of science might seem radically secular were it not for his disarmingly confessional religiosity. He is the sort of Christian who does not insist on using the term “god” (if the word is deemed no longer useful), and the sort of well informed student of science who proposes a complex kind of epistemological symmetry between scientific “facts” and religious “fetishes.” This is not to say that Western science is a mere fetish (a rationalist/colonialist myth), but rather to insist on the epistemic dignity of so-called fetishes (related etymologically to (arti)facts, or faits) themselves. The realm of science, in these cases, is expanded rather than limited to “make room” for religion.

2.  The supposed incompatibility between scientific reason and religious faith.

We have cited Dawkins as a conspicuous proponent of what anthropologist Tambiah calls “the alleged incompatibility between science and religion in the West” (Tambiah, 152). Along similar evolutionary and purportedly iconoclastic lines, as their titles suggest, are Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. Yet if religious belief and ritual are thoroughly “natural” because grounded in once useful cognitive and adaptive mechanisms, as such authors plausibly argue, this of course does not decide the question of whether religious belief and/or activity is now generally pernicious (as Dawkins and Dennett assert) or still perhaps evolutionarily useful (as argued, for example, by Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion). Dawkins asserts that feeling pity for someone who can’t reciprocate and isn’t part of the group, or sexual desire for someone who can’t reproduce, are both “[evolutionary] misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes” (326, emphasis added). The fact that “God” is condemned, by contrast, as a generally accursed delusion depends in part on the extent to which feeling pity and desire can be regarded as hygienically detached from (or alternatively reconciled with) epistemology, since Dawkins presumably means that these “mistakes” are not merely delusions, however deluded their conscious justification (religious or not), but “blessed” feelings ultimately compatible with justifiable (scientific) beliefs.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith sensibly sums up the contemporary Anglo-American (or, as Tambiah generalizes it, “Western”) impasse between science and religious belief as follows: “precisely to the extent that scholars studying religion reject the absolutist, exclusivist, self-privileging conceptions of truth shared by theologians like Haught [who argues incorrectly that evolutionary accounts of religion are necessarily self-refuting because scientific beliefs must, on this account, also be a “mere” product of evolution] and scientists like Dawkins [who dubiously seems to deny “gods” any epistemic value other than falsity, delusion], the more likely they are to register both the pragmatic, aesthetic, and/or epistemic value of various religious ideas and practices and also the forms of human ingenuity, artistry, and imagination involved in their past and ongoing elaboration.”

3. The Scientific Study of Religions (and of Sciences)    

The weakness of many evolutionary accounts of religion lies not in being logically self-refuting, but in sometimes conspicuous lack of self-reflexivity—which indeed “makes them vulnerable to the theologian’s taunt of ‘tu quoque,’” and sometimes also results, ironically enough (given the traditional opposition between natural science and supernatural religion), in claims that “given our evolved cognitive dispositions, religious beliefs are ‘natural’ for humans while scientific ideas are ‘unnatural’” (Smith, xxx). There is also a tendency in the “new naturalism” (a phrase originally coined by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson) to discount the claims to scientificity or rationality found in accounts of religion in the social sciences and humanities in favor of a theory of science in general modeled rather narrowly on contemporary evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience. The contemporary science-religion debate thus often provides a particular instance of the so-called “two cultures” divide (which has little necessarily to do with religion), so that Dawkins finds time in The God Delusion to attack the French sociologist/philosopher Michel Foucault, for example--not (of course) for being a defender of God (indeed none of Foucault’s highly critical views of religion or anything else are cited), but for being an “icon of haute francophonyism” (Dawkins, 514)—valuing widely respected (if perhaps incorrect) French philosophers being for Dawkins presumably a bit like believing in gods. The debate also reflects, more generally, the thorny “fact/value” distinction that gained prominence in the twentieth century as a way of distinguishing science from (mere) philosophy.    

However, at least since Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a foundational or at least important text in the sociology and anthropology of religion, it has been commonplace to point out that the study of “religion” is much larger than the study of belief in gods (which comprise a later historical phase), but rather entails “the sacred” more generally, especially sacrificial ritual and other forms of more or less world-wide practice (whatever the specific beliefs attached to them). Tambiah, for example, argues that “from a general anthropological standpoint the distinctive feature of religion as a generic concept lies not in the domain of belief and its ‘rational accounting’ of the workings of the universe, but in a special awareness of the transcendent, and the acts of symbolic communication that attempt to realize that awareness and live by its promptings” (6).    

There is no space here to survey the vast field of supposedly scientific studies of the sacred. We may conclude, however, by emphasizing that some of the most interesting contemporary perspectives—both theist and atheist—are concerned to demystify the notion that modern co-called secular behavior and theory has somehow hygienically transcended what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls “the mark of the sacred.” (Dupuy includes in his The Mark of the Sacred , for example, the forms of pseudo-transcendence—conveniently imaged by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”-- characteristic of economics, not to mention sexuality). Others, such as the anthropologist Michael Taussig, following Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, have also argued that the Enlightenment demystification of the sacred, including “magic,” is itself productive of new forms of mystification. Indeed Taussig provocatively claims that “magic and technique, as in scientific technique, flow into one another, magic, we might say, being the highest form of science” (306).

A perhaps less provocative way of putting this would be to say that if the social sciences were scientific in the sense usually ascribed to the natural ones, they would be able to predict (including, of course, influence) human behavior to a significant degree, as both ancient magic and modern hypnotism try more or less successfully to do. One of the key frontiers of modern medicine, for example, lies in its attempt to understand the so-called placebo/nocebo effect—a scientifically quantified phenomenon of enormous importance that evidently depends upon both belief and ritual (including the therapeutic and research techniques and role-playings associated with modern medicine). Thus while some scientists and philosophers have been tempted to dismiss religion as a mere placebo—“the opium of the people”—it may be responded that, even if this were vaguely true (which is of course doubtful), current research has demonstrated beyond any doubt that as long as we fail to take the spectacular efficacies and dizzying complexities of placebo/nocebo effects (often much more powerful than any opiates or even invasive surgeries) in deadly epistemological earnest—much more intelligently and thoroughly than has been done to date--we will fail to have a plausible science, not only of religion, but of science.

Perhaps it is in this general spirit that the decidedly atheist Chinese government has recently remarkably funded no less than eighteen centers for the study of the theist, or at least deist, logician Alfred North Whitehead, author of Process and Reality.

RelSec is comprised of five partner sites situated in universities around the world. The participating centers conduct parallel research projects whose exact shape reflects the distinct missions of the centers and research profiles of the teams. All will include some combination of public presentations and events, faculty workshops, and/or curricular initiatives, such as the development of team-taught courses on secularism, religion, and political belonging.
Click on the icons below to link to each partner’s individual websites.