Exploring science and religion through the sociological lens (Part 2)

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(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on “New Perspectives on Science and Religion in Society,” a conference held in Manchester, UK last summer. Schott aims to focus on a handful of alternative and refreshing perspectives, drawn from sociological studies and observations, as promised in the meeting’s title. An important thread that wove its way through the weekend was an invitation to think ‘beyond the West’ – with its emphasis on science and religion as somehow being in opposition to one another. What follows is a snapshot from lecture notes and discussions along as well as the program abstracts.)

In recent times, a number of metaphors and motifs have been employed by scholars and others to describe the relationship (if any) between science and religion. These include autonomy, co-existence, compatibility, complementarity, complexity, conflict, dialogue and integration harmony, and non-overlapping magisterial, among others.

Such concepts have at times also been grouped into various broader categories. A lot of ink has been spilled on The Conflict Theory, as it has come to be known. Interestingly, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his 1939 essay titled The Mysticism of Science, suggests that “the only too familiar unhappy war between science and religion was born and continued throughout the nineteenth century….Now it will be seen on reflexion [sic] that this state of war required to be resolved in a higher synthesis.”

A conference paper presented by Emma Preece (Newman University), we learned that “conflict narratives may exaggerate the discordance between science, evolutionary science and religion.” The Newman team also found that conflict views can vary across different kinds of issues, and that the same is true also for compatibility views. They suggested that compatibility is sometimes realized when individuals subscribe to both science and religion as systems that explain our place in the universe.

Many people tend to seek fixed truths in the form of unshakeable answers to practical or theoretical questions, according to Bartosz Brozek (Jagellonian University), even if their beliefs in science or theology are just plain irrational. Brozek uses the term Homo Fundamentalis to describe this facet of human nature. Related to this theme, Rachel Pear (Haifa University) reported that anti-evolutionism, which is often perceived as an American Christian phenomenon, has for the past few decades been spreading around the globe among non-Christian populations such as Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Kimberly Rios (Ohio University) addressed the question of whether the perception in Western societies of the incompatibility of science and religion might stand in contrast with non-Western predominantly Muslim societies, where it is common for scientists to be simultaneously religious persons. Renny Thomas (Delhi University) also issued an invitation to think about science and religion beyond the West. His research among a cohort of scientists in India revealed that science and religion, rather than being incompatible, represent two different Modes of Existence. Put another way, the religiosity of professional scientists did not cause them to be opposed to science as a way of knowing, he said.

Epistemology, or the study of knowledge, was front and center in a number of the contributions. Francesca Cho (Georgetown University), for example, offered a Buddhist option, which she calls narrative pluralism, for reconciling religion and science. In this conceptual framework, the tension around which form of knowledge has the greater authority is eliminated. Some areas of knowing, such as cosmology are “the legitimate province of both religious and scientific storytelling,” she said. In a paper on natural science and Christian theology facing the mystery of knowing,

Thierry Magnin (Lyon Catholic University) suggested that the apophatic dimension – which recognizes a fundamental epistemological limit in both science and religion – emerges as a privileged locus of dialogue between the two. When approached with a dose of humility the human “condition of incompleteness,” he said, has the potential to foster fruitful, mutually beneficial understandings.

Participants heard from Paul Merchant of The British Museum that his institution is in the process of recording oral histories of prominent individuals, such as the late John Polkinghorne, who throughout their careers sustained an interest in matters of both science and religion. An aim of the Library’s project is to document, through the spoken word, the perceptions of these individuals with respect to cultural and societal changes over the course of their careers. It will be interesting to learn more about their findings.

Margaret E. Schott, is research assistant in the Stoddart research group at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has a PhD in Chemistry and a MA in Theology. She is the personal assistant to Fraser Stoddart, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. Schott’s background includes biomedical research at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan and the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

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