What is the Field of "Science and Religion"?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyAug 2, 2010 10:49 PM


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I’ve just returned from my second trip to Cambridge, England, as part of the now completed Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. (Evidence at right: Yours truly at Trinity College [photo credit: Julia Vitullo-Martin].) Because this fellowship has been much criticized and also much misunderstood, I think another report on the experience and what it entails will be helpful (for my prior reports, see here and here). Critics depict the fellowship as a kind of Kumbaya love-fest in which journalists are taught that science and religion have always been and always will be best friends. However, I've grown increasingly convinced that this critique really isn't aimed at the target. The problem is that the field of “Science and Religion” is much broader than critics seem to think. It isn’t just about examining, on a philosophical level, whether the two are in some way “compatible.” Neither is it simply about exploring, from a history of science perspective, how they relate. That may be the clichéd understanding of what we’re about when we talk about “science and religion,” but in truth, it barely scratches the surface. On our last official day in Cambridge, program director Fraser Watts made some remarks about what really is covered under the field of “Science and Religion.” Regurgitating my notes on what Watts said (and adding some extensions of my own), one might study:

1. The religious views of scientists—aka, Elaine Ecklund’s work. And conversely, the scientific perspectives of religious believers.

2. The history of the relationship between science and religion.

3. The philosophy of the relationship between science and religion.

4. Particular case studies of conflict or cooperation between science and religion, or of how advances in a particular aspect of science challenge (or have some other implication for) religion.

5. The science of religion—e.g., what is it about the human brain, or the evolved beings that we are, that have made us so inclined towards religiosity? What is the neural or cognitive basis for religious belief or experience?

6. A comparative analysis of scientific and religious perspectives on a particular topic of great import—like, say, suffering. Or altruism. Or free will. Or morality. Or any number of others.

7. I seem to recall that Watts listed several other possibilities that aren’t in my notes. In any case, I think this list still barely scratches the surface.

It is only if you are working on # 3 or # 4 that, it seems to me, you are likely to fall into a spat over the validity of what is called “accommodationism

.” None of the other areas really require strong stance-taking on the compatibility of science and religion, although they might perhaps imply a position (I think # 2 does, for instance). But the point is that much work in this general area is simply not interested in that most hotly debated of questions--if only because the debate has a way of getting old, not everyone is a controversialist, and there are many other things to talk about. Indeed, that came out very clearly last week, when it came time for the ten Templeton-Cambridge fellows to present on the topics of their research. In my assessment--and these are my likely imperfect categorization attempts--nobody really presented on # 3. There was one presentationthat I would classify as being about # 2, and another one that was about # 4. There were two presentations that I have a bit of a hard time categorizing using the groupings above--in some ways, they might fit into # 3. As for everybody else: They weredealing with # 1, # 5, or # 6. In particular, there were at least four presentations that fell into the category of # 6. I have decided not to say explicitly what people were presenting on, because I don’t want to scoop fellow journalists (or myself). But I can say that the experience of our group refutes the idea that the point of the fellowship is to teach journalists to make “accommodationist” arguments. Rather, it is to have journalists do work in the field of “science and religion,” and that’s a very different thing.

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