NSoR 10: Reiterations and Reflections

NSoR 10: Reiterations and Reflections

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An excerpt from Chapter 10 of The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and Bottom Up (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) Pages 216 – 219.

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I have employed the metaphor of outside in to explore what might be entailed in the new sciences of religion. I have similarly employed the metaphor of bottom up to develop a new religious metaphysics of science. In the end, these metaphors can and should be deconstructed. There is no objective outside from which to observe the human drama; there is no bottom from which to build up that does not presuppose finite human perspectives at the top. And yet this hermeneutical move, what Ricoeur called distanciation, is a powerful technique for transforming a solipsistic hermeneutical circle into a spiral of new possibilities and new insights. This book as a whole is an example of such a hermeneutics, a hermeneutic of multiple methodologies and perspectives entered into in a spirit of intellectual nonviolence.

This long argument is inconclusive, perhaps disappointing. The new sciences of religion offer some interesting insights, but over and over again, we see that they are limited and contextually dependent. We are humbled in the face of the complexity of the phenomena we study from the outside. We are all “participant observers” in the sense that we cannot really avoid certain existential, ethical, and metaphysical questions that are traditionally part of the domain of religions. When we study religion from the outside, we typically employ disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and anthropology. I have largely ignored these fields, but this is not meant to be a disparagement. Indeed, I still find archetypal psychoanalytic interpretations of religion in Freudian, Jungian, and other schools to be powerfully illuminating, though I have not discussed these in this book. Instead, I have used disciplines such as evolutionary psychology, economics, game theory, linguistics, and philosophy. Of course, it is not enough to theorize from outside; one also needs to check the validity of the theories with the data from inside.

Many of those who purport to offer us a new science of religion are still encumbered with the old Enlightenment animus toward religion. They seek to explain religion away and enthrone science as sacred. They detest the category that they purport to study scientifically. In the case of some, I am reminded of the proverbial armchair anthropologist who sits in his university study theorizing about some tribe in Borneo or Brazil but who has never done any field work. He is not going to live among the natives, learn their languages, eat their food, play with their children, and talk with their elders. This Victorian-era anthropologist is certainly not going to be a “participant observer.” Furthermore, this contemporary scientist of religion is studying the tribe with the intention of ensuring its extinction because he detests the “ignorant heathens.” So, at least, appear to me some of the New Atheists, who seek to explain religion away, but that, of course, is because they are missionaries promoting what should really be understood as a new religious movement. When understood as such, as one “religion” among many, they are more than welcome at the table of interreligious dialogue.

Others who promote a scientific study of religion do so with apologetic biases, trying to revalorize religion, generally their own tradition, through studies that show the secular utility of religion in promoting human health and well-being. These religiously motivated social scientists at least love what they study, but that love presents a curious dilemma and a potentially problematic distortion. It is not clear to me that scientists can ever legitimately study something — animal, vegetable, or mineral — that they do not on some level believe is intrinsically fascinating and beautiful, worthy of respect, and a great deal of their efforts. Actually, we should all be fascinated with religion for a variety of reasons. It is a powerful and enduring human phenomenon; it is an important part of our common history; it inspires great works of art and literature; it motivates the best and the worst things that humans do in the world; it raises profound questions about meaning and purpose; it proposes answers to those questions.

The normal course of a scientific career begins by falling in love with the phenomena that one then studies in excruciating detail for years, if not decades. How could one devote so much effort to something that one detests? True science is best understood as altruistic fidelity to the phenomena, and it matters not whether the phenomena are particles, proteins, or people. If the phenomena are going to be religion and spirituality, then the science thereof is going to need to begin with deep empathy and engaged fascination. Now comes the rub: in order for it to be a science, this empathy and fascination must also include a certain distance, rigor, and objectivity. At every stage, we must resist the seduction of filtering our sciences of religion through ideological and apologetic filters, which invariably predetermine the results of our studies. Beware of rotten fruit in sheep’s clothing, to mix Jesus’s mixed metaphors, and radical-atheist scientists purporting to study religion. The corollary is to beware of devoted religionists purporting to study religion scientifically. In both cases, we will get different forms of apologetics with predetermined conclusions.

This book is also a kind of apologia, true, but one that seeks to be fair and balanced. E. O. Wilson writes in his book Consilience that “science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility.” This is a sage observation and sound advice for both sides. Wilson continues, “[T]he eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself.” This is a statement of Wilson’s own faith and not a necessary or even obvious conclusion to be drawn from science or history. Indeed, given the resurgence of religion in the world today, Wilson’s hope appears utopic and counterfactual. He concludes, “However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”2 This, of course, I affirm; but the new sciences of religion still have a long way to go in fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect, open discussion, and unwavering intellectual rigor. I hope this book has helped contribute to such a dialogue.

The late Pope John Paul II weighed in on this very subject as well:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.3

I would only add that error, superstition, idolatry, and false absolutes seem to be shared in different measures on both sides of the science and religion ledger. The corrective is certainly to be found in more and better science and in more and better religion, but especially in vigorous, open-ended exploration between both domains.

If I were to reduce the religious impulse to one word, it would be hope. Without some faith in the future, a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends the past and motivates the present, there would be no reason and no need for religion. In the first chapter of Genesis, God declares that life is “good,” indeed “very good” when considered as a whole. That goodness is not a scientific statement, but a statement of faith that sooner or later will be put to the test in a world also filled with trials and tribulations, suffering and death. This transcendent hope gives meaning to the past, value to the present, and purpose to the future. Of course, as a nonreductive functionalist, I am not allowed to reduce religion to any one thing or word, but still I remain hopeful against all evidence to the contrary and see therein something of the magic and reality of the spiritual intuitions handed down to us by religions.

What is thought to be on the inside of religion and what is thought to be outside is something we should continually question. We need to be pushing on these boundaries, testing certain assumptions and prejudices. Religious people should be the first to erase the boundary. There is no reason to fear any of the sciences of religion. These are just an enlargement of the relevant curriculum and can be helpmates in the hermeneutics of authenticity that every religion confronts from the inside.

Nor can the scientifically minded atheist or secular society simply avoid existential, ethical, and metaphysical questions that are normally thought to be in the domain of religions. Indeed, in encountering these questions, scientists should expect to learn much from thousands of years of human experimentation and reflection by religions at different times and in different cultures. To my colleagues in the sciences, please do push the scientific envelope as far as possible but be humble and self-critical, as religious people must also be. And whether we are working from the top down or the bottom up, from the inside out or the outside in, we can hope to meet some day in the middle with many beautiful, good, and true stories to tell each other.

2. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), 265.

3. John Paul II, “Letter to Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J.,” June 1, 1988, http://clavius.as.arizona.edu/vo/R1024/ppt-Message.html.