Academics often have deep reasons behind what they study. For scholars interested in the intersection of science and religion, these views sometimes weave in and out of their personal beliefs, their academic training, and their professional vocation. But these are the things that are rarely discussed in professional journals. Why does it matter why academics study what they do, or what backgrounds they bring to their studies?
One answer to this can be found in a recently released volume, Science and Religion: Five Questions edited by philosopher Gregg D. Caruso. The work is an addition to the “Five Questions” series, which shares the answers of the world’s top scholars to five questions within their field of study. This title in particular included thirty-three interviews with individuals and scholars from an assortment of religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Atheism.
I was fascinated by how the responses were shaped both academically and personally. Every author had a unique educational and personal background and I believe that had much to do with how they responded to each question. We see this in all disciplines of study—yes, even science. The way we choose to investigate a certain field of study in science is certainly fueled by our expertise and our past. For example, if I found an interesting genetic mutation in human DNA, I may seek a bioinformatics approach over a wet-lab approach since I have training in bioinformatics. These different approaches may yield different pieces of information. Using the same example, if I was asked a question regarding this mutation, I may choose to answer using my knowledge of bioinformatics techniques rather than with wet-lab techniques because that is my field of expertise.
One can notice this scientific negativity in Krauss’ responses—they are one-sided and fail to take theological inquiry seriously.
If we translate this notion over to the field of science and religion, we see the same retrieval of academic knowledge and personal experience. For example, the famed atheist Lawrence Krauss uses his training in physics and cosmology, as well as his negative experience of a creationism course taught in Ohio, as a drive for his interest in the study of science and religion. One can notice this scientific negativity in his responses—they are one-sided and fail to take theological inquiry seriously. His treatment of the science and religion discussion is rather uninformed and perpetuates the false notion that religion is merely an attack on science. I often see such poor debates led by fellow scientists who have no training in theology or religious studies. Are any of these thinkers really qualified to have such discussions at the academic level? Clearly, they wouldn’t take seriously a researcher in their observatory with no training in cosmology or astrophysics. Yet concerning “religion,” it’s free reign for anyone.
I have a degree in Biology and Religious Studies and am currently pursuing the study of science and religion at Harvard Divinity School. I have analyzed all aspects of the debate and have taken these questions seriously from both “sides.” But I am not interested in the answers to the questions. I am interested in how the contributors answer the questions and how culture defines those answers. Our reality is socially constructed; certainly religion is a part of that. Science, however, is also a part of the construction. We cannot take the lens of modern science and analyze the world two thousand years ago the same way we do today—that is one of the main points in the study of the history of science. The world of antiquity and the world of today are not the same world. When science classes laugh at the geocentric model, they forget that geocentricity was the only world those in past times were able to know. Do we really “know” more today than our ancestors, or do we just “know” differently? I believe it is these types of questions—of “how” and “why” we choose to respond the way we do—that make the field of science and religion interesting. It teaches us about ourselves. That said, I’ve probably come to this interest due to my training in the history of science, religious studies, and biology. Those academic disciplines, as well as my innate curiosity regarding the unknown, have shaped the way I study and answer these types of questions. We are all bound by personal bias.
Science and religion discussion has been used as a political agenda rather than as a scholarly discourse.
In my opinion, those trained in both the sciences and in theology give better responses than Krauss does. The opinions of Alister McGrath resonated with me. While McGrath has taught theology, he also has a background in molecular biophysics. When asked about his personal draws to the subject, he tells the story of his time as an atheist during his scientific training. His readings in philosophy of science, however, “eroded the crude scientific positivism that [he] had absorbed from atheist writers, such as Bertrand Russell” (129). It was McGrath’s willingness to accept the views of others which led him to his current opinion. McGrath also points to the fact that the science and religion discussion has been used as a political agenda (i.e. Lawrence Krauss’ attack on the creationism course debate in Ohio) rather than as a scholarly discourse. Furthermore, he maintains that the idea that science and religion do not overlap is a “neat little device” used by American scholars who wish to keep the two separate. This device was Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) thesis, which posited that science and religion occupied two separate magisteria that did not overlap. Certainly, McGrath and most of the other interviewees show that the NOMA thesis is deeply contested and the answer (if there is any) is no where close to being found.
This work certainly demonstrates the many approaches to the study of science and religion, leaving room for appreciation by a diverse set of readers. Biologists will appreciate the rich discussion of evolution; religious studies scholars will enjoy and/or cringe at the critiques of religion; philosophers will chuckle over arguments that have been taking place for hundreds of years; the general reader will learn the basic arguments of the ongoing debate. For those already in the field of science and religion…well, you will find a quick reference to your colleagues’ opinions.
The interviewees come from a rich academic and personal background, which is evident in their thought-provoking responses. I felt as if I could find something to identify with from every respondent, even if I did not agree with their overall thesis. This volume will be the source for many great discussions inside and outside the classroom. It is a great introduction to the study of science and religion, as told by the pioneers themselves. One may be surprised that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens failed to make an appearance in the volume, especially since their work was often cited. Nonetheless, I applaud Gregg D. Caruso for compiling a thought-provoking introduction from such a wide variety of thinkers. The questions offer an intriguing glimpse into the minds of numerous scholars, but more importantly, force us to think critically about personal bias and the culture in which we respond to these questions.
Ben Danner is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School studying the intersections of science, religion, and medicine. He is also a photographer, musician, and DJ.
Image from Flickr via Howard Ignatius