Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Butterflies

We had our Religious Studies Program Fall roundtable today, a great showcase of the kinds of work being done in and around our community. Our theme was "Science & Religion," an old chestnut, but I think we succeeded in surprising people with interestingly new approaches.
First, two colleagues (one a biochemist) shared the work they've been doing over the past several year to put together teaching modules on debates about stem cell research. They focused on the very particular case of a Catholic family whose son had a genetic disease which would have ended his life had they not had a second child whose bone marrow stem cells allowed gene therapy. The Catholic Church disapproves of this, but these were Catholics, too, acting on their consciences - a more nuanced way into religious questions about the ethics of stem cell research than you usually hear, and a reminder that science-religion questions are being worked through on the ground all the time.

Next, a Buddhologist took us through - and beneath the surface of - the Dalai Lama's well-known statements about the primacy of science. Yes, he has said that any Buddhist tenet disproved by science should be abandoned, but he also thinks basic Buddhist things like the law of karma are "hidden," beyond empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. This is what scholars of religion call a "protective strategy," but our discussion went a more interesting direction. Apparently the Dalai Lama's true concern is to get allegedly empathy-expanding meditation practices into schools, and if calling them "science" or "secular ethics" is what is needed to achieve this end, so be it.

Finally, one of our seniors - yes, a student! - presented her ongoing research on the Big History project. As she explained it, this movement seeks to place human experience in the 13.82 billion year history of the universe, offering a unifying and grounding "origin story" like those which religions have traditionally offered. Students first lose themselves in the vastness of time and then find a new purpose in appreciating the precious contingencies which have made human life and reflection possible. Big History doesn't do much with religion, but in presenting itself as a successor to religious traditions it raises all sorts of questions - not least whether it has parted ways also with science, which abjures big stories in favor of an open-ended experimental method.

We had some unfortunately all-too-common technical difficulties with set-up, so I didn't get a chance to offer my introductory remarks, but in retrospect I'm not sure they were needed. I was going to suggest three phases of discussion about science and religion:

(1) science vs. religion, the Enlightenment view of zero-sum competition which is still alive in New Atheism, and in the equal and opposite reaction of a certain evangelical suspicion of science;

(2) science and/or/as religion, more subtle views which appreciate that many early "natural philosophers" (as well as some contemporary scientists) understood themselves to be doing both science and religion, and imagine various ways in which science and religion are friends, allies or even (as in Bruno Latour) doing many of the same things;

(3) ... and science and religion, the postsecular moment in which larger questions about the nature of secular institutions, values and categories make the science/religion question seem just an aspect of broader debates, large or small

Not needed! The presentations themselves made this amply clear.

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