Science, Religion, and the Tyranny of Authenticity

There has been a general paucity of quality scholarship on “Islam and science/evolution,” making Hameed’s work a welcome addition. That said, his work suffers from some of same problems as other work in the study of “science and religion.” To explain what I mean, some background on the field is in order.

It’s been a quarter of a century since the label “complexity thesis” was first given life by Ronald Numbers in a review of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective (1991), yet the rush to go “prospecting” for complexity, to use Numbers’ turn of phrase, continues full steam ahead.   Put briefly, the complexity thesis suggests that multiple relationships exist between science and religion. Instead of asking “What is the relationship between science and religion?” a complexity theorist asks “What are the relationships between sciences and religions?” The underlying desire to make such differentiations and the practical implications of such work are, however, much older than that.

Discourses surrounding “science and religion” first became popular in the late nineteenth century, primarily through the work of the so-called conflict theorists. The two men claimed by history as the exemplars of this group are John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with some historians referring to the notion of conflict as the Draper-White thesis. Draper and White, however, never suggested that science and religion were entirely irreconcilable. Instead, they argued that science was incompatible with something more specific: dogma, theology, or Catholicism. For both of them, “true religion” was constructed as perfectly benign, which usually meant it was nothing more than a vague sense of ethics. Even so, many, if not most, current complexity theorists are eager to redeem one or both of these figures as being misunderstood advocates of complexity. This is part of the larger project of nullifying or moderating discourses of conflict that exists as a central aspect of the field as currently conceived.

Given this tendency, it might be said that it is common for those working on “science and religion” to regularly cross the boundary that Russell McCutcheon has outlined between critic and caretaker, or to be caught up in what Aaron Hughes has called the tyranny of authenticity. Even if it is not the primary or secondary goal of scholarship to produce a discourse that legitimates and delegitimates certain beliefs, institutions, etc., when this happens, and insofar as it happens, scholarship is not being done. It is worth noting that this is not always, and perhaps not even often, in defence of religion, as Draper and White both make professions their claims about a legitimate religious domain for the sake of particular scientific agendas, not for the benefit of religion. White, for example, as the first president of Cornell University, considered perceived religious interference into the work of his faculty as a frustrating roadblock to overcome. For him, the legitimizing of one space for religion was first and foremost about the delegitimizing of another space. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be geared towards supporting a sort of status quo intended to preserve the hegemonic status of secularism within scientific research without fully delegitimizing religion.

Hameed professes to be “less interested” in establishing a normative relationship between Islam and evolution, which needless to say is not the same thing as being uninterested and is not the same thing not making normative claims. Now, I appreciate that Hameed wears different hats, one of which openly and explicitly promotes a normative ideological vision based on Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His work demonstrates no neat division between critic and caretaker, however, which is perhaps unsurprising, if other scholars of religion who attempt the same are any indication. Despite his claims to its practical efficacy, NOMA is more aspirational than descriptive, as the neat separation of an apolitical religious space distinct from a scientific space breaks down in practice, not just in theory as he suggests. The same “messiness” he speaks of to explain the varied reactions/responses to evolution within Islamic communities is also part of the reason why neat separation is not possible here: people do not compartmentalize so neatly. As Craig Martin has pointed out in Masking Hegemony, “there could never be a ‘separation of church and state’ in a liberal democracy unless the state forbade churches to produce and distribute ideology, to produce conditions of persuasion, to socialize subjects into regimes of normalization and privilege, and so on. As long as there is ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ churches will be legally permitted to do these things” (2010: 164).

This does not mean that all religious scientists will behave like the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, who gained notoriety for his work on “irreducible complexity.” Matthew Stanley’s recent work, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, offers a compelling account of work being done in science prior to the rise of scientific naturalism, where he suggests that the work of theistic scientists and early scientific naturalists was often indistinguishable. They amicably coexisted in many ways, giving positive reviews of one another’s work and building on one another’s research. Further, all scientists throughout history have carried some sort of baggage, religious or otherwise.

Fitting neatly within a complexity thesis tradition, Hameed employs what might be called normativizing nuance. By this I mean that by demonstrating the complexity/messiness of things “on the ground,” one version of a tradition can be delegitimized and/or another version of the tradition can be legitimized. In this sense, “Islam and science/evolution” has a great deal of resemblance to work on “Islam and violence.” That said, one does not need to even go as far as suggesting that ISIS or evolution deniers are bad or false Muslims and that peaceful, science-affirming Muslims are the legitimate ones, because the very act of prospecting for this complexity already functions to place “true Islam” at arms length from these concerns, making it entirely rise above what now becomes a non-Islamic issue. True religion, or I n this case true Islam, becomes something far vaguer, more personal, and less political. It may even be reasonable to call this a sort of secular apologetics, in that it produces a vision of an Islamic core that is completely amenable to a specific set of “secular” political interests.

Part of this can also be seen in the way Hameed points out that Islam has, “no Pope-like authority.” This strikes me as a sort of misleading Islamic exceptionalism. This is not only because it might be argued that many/most traditions that have been identified as “religion” have no Pope-like authority, or that certain “Islamic” traditions do have authorities that bear some similarities, if not exact correspondence, to the Catholic Pope. Instead, it seems that all traditions claiming large swaths of humanity within their membership will have considerable diversity of opinion among those members, regardless of whether or not there are institutional authorities seeking to enforce uniformity.

Further suggestive of this is Hameed’s apparent disinclination to extend this type of “messiness” to science. In discussing a science textbook, he claims that after providing a Qur’anic quote, the book could simply offer “science as is.” I am not certain what it would mean for someone to declare themselves to be teaching “religion as is,” yet the label makes little more sense when applied to science. Science is not the sort of thing one might find in a second-hand shop where “as is” labels might abound. Instead, it is a human activity with politically motivated boundaries that speak more to the interests of those who do, fund, and control science than it does about the inherent uniqueness of scientific endeavour. Whether or not he intended to do this or not, I cannot be fully certain, but the way that Hameed establishes a contrast between the messiness of religion/identity on the one hand and the matter of fact nature of science on the other is certainly troubling.

Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”


Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.