A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Scientific Study of Religious Phenomena

In the recent podcast  interview, Dr Dorothea Ortmann discusses the theories behind her 2002 book Science of Religion in Peru. Ortmann speaks about using social sciences (such as anthropology and history) to investigate religious phenomena. Distancing herself from theological beliefs, Ortmann speaks about the importance of investigators in this field acknowledging their own religious affiliation (or lack thereof) as an integral component of the scientific study of religious phenomenon, and I couldn’t agree more. Theological research is often replete with the inherent religious bias of the investigator, and readers deserve to know which bias is being included to filter out much of the theological assumptions.

Ortmann goes on to discuss how investigators are using religious phenomena scientifically, citing religion as an object of investigation, and observing only the phenomena itself. She asserts that findings from these multidisciplinary investigations must be scientific and not theological.  The main reason being that theology cannot be proved or unproved, but social science investigation can analyse the religious phenomenon unbiasedly, e.g. without the spin of theological beliefs included in the analysis.

As one who has studied contemporary Western religious phenomena from a multidisciplinary approach, I agree wholeheartedly with Ortmann’s assertion that ‘studying religion means studying it across a culture’. She speaks about studying the function of religion and its impact on society, community, and traditions within a culture. This multidisciplinary data can then be observed and proved scientifically which is something that theology cannot do.  Theology is based on faith; science is based on observable (and thus predicable) facts. And while the relationship between science and theology has been tenuous at best, the time is long overdue for theology and religious studies scholars to accept that scientific study of religious phenomena and religious beliefs can offer a fruitful and bountiful area for theological discourse and rumination.

Ortmann also discusses how some fields of social science, such as psychology, also play an important role in the assessment of religious phenomena, but not necessarily from an unbiased perspective.  She states that ‘observations can be made through psychology or pastoral behaviours from theology, but this investigation will be difficult to innovate.’ As a post-Jungian Depth Thealogian, I agree with Ortmann.  While my own research was multidisciplinary including literature, thealogy, Jungian and post-Jungian psychology, phenomenology, sociology, archaeology, anthropology, and religious history, introducing many of these academic disciplines into my thealogical study was not a welcome interpretation in a theology and religious studies centre.  I often heard two divergent and contradictory arguments in the department: 1) that I would be better examining religious phenomena and beliefs from an anthropological perspective and 2) that only through theology can one assess religious phenomenon and beliefs. This short-sighted approach by scholars from generations past is stunting rather than encouraging multidisciplinary investigations in theology and religious studies.

Ortmann also applies this scientific approach to study changes in religious affiliation, which in the case of Peru (also observable in the United States), includes the exponential growth of the (Jungian) Pentecostal Church.  Assessing this area of behaviour scientifically rather than theologically or thealogically is crucial. Analysing religious affiliation, phenomenon, and experience from a social science approach can reveal far more than a narrow theological or thealogical analysis. Theologians and thealogians appear uninterested in examining religion as an ‘object of interest’ perhaps believing that this perspective denigrates the underlying theological beliefs of the phenomenon being investigated. When, in truth, social science and theology can offer much more when combined into a multidisciplinary approach. Religious behaviours, actions, beliefs, and their impact on society and culture can all be observed and proven (or disproven) through the social sciences.  These observations can provide contemporary religious scholars with a plethora of viable data to either prove or disprove religious theories or enquiries.

For example, I conducted a recent study on contemporary Pagan religious experience. I could posit all the theories I could imagine, but without sound data from the social sciences, including census data from both the US and the UK on religious affiliation, PEW data on the shifting Christian identity in the US, and social science surveys of contemporary Pagans, I could not prove that religious identity in the US and UK are changing. The addition of social science data into my doctoral dissertation was certainly a contentious point in my theology and religious studies department.  Some colleagues were in favour of my including scientific data to support my theories and claims, while others were quite incensed that I would introduce social science data into a thealogical enquiry.  In the end, I was asked to strike all this data from my dissertation. I could not agree with this short-sighted fear of combining viable social science data with thealogy, and refused to remove the workable data completely (now banishing my data to a footnote instead of a chapter proving my theories). The field of theology and religious studies can no longer exist in a vacuum avoiding every other academic discipline based on ungrounded fears.  I’ve found that social science data and religious enquiry can form a highly beneficial relationship especially when enquiring about religious affiliation, praxis, and phenomena.  The future of theology, thealogy, and religious studies must be multidisciplinary and must include social science data if we are going to move beyond ‘belief’ to real analysis and assessment of contemporary religious phenomenon.

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.

The Contextuality of Naturalness: Science and Religion in Language and Life

Dr. Robert McCauley endeavors to provide at least one answer to the profoundly interesting question, “How do science and religion differ?” He delivers an answer through the lens of cognitive science, offering us an interesting and somewhat intuitive dichotomy. That is, the cognitive processes associated with religious thinking and those associated with scientific thinking are for the most part fundamentally different. McCauley describes religious thinking as being a ‘maturationally natural’ cognitive process whereas scientific thinking is more deliberate and less intuitive. It is this kind of difference that often puts these two ways of thinking at odds, as can be seen in historical texts such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough and in contemporary debates between atheists and theists. Adding the informative perspective of cognitive science to the mix is a great step toward reconciling these seemingly incompatible types of thought. But this begs the question, what is the state of the dialectic between these two perspectives after accepting McCauley’s thesis?

The focus and scope of this paper will be to explore two major areas of importance in considering this question: 1) the logistical problems of such an overarching thesis, and 2) the theoretical inconsistencies of the religion-science dichotomy. First, attention needs to be brought to the precarious logic involved in such a dichotomy. To borrow from Wittgenstein, this thesis is involved in a language game. Many of Dr. McCauley’s most crucial premises and inferences rely on inherently ambiguous language. ‘Science’ and ‘religion’, for example, are entirely debatable concepts in and of themselves. And more importantly, Dr. McCauley’s dichotomy of religion and science hinges of the concept of naturalness, which is similarly ambiguous. Indeed, he qualifies his use of the word and narrows its meaning to refer to maturational processes, which are generally more intuitive to our cognition. Measuring by this qualified definition of “natural,” scientific thinking will not fit in this category, but that does not mean that it is not natural. Rather, it just means that science is not natural in the same sense as religion. Of course, I am not supporting a deconstructionist view where all theses are victims of ambiguous language. I am suggesting, however, that we pay close attention to the manipulation of language at play in this theory, since its most crucial concepts are theoretically loaded and can mean such wildly different things according to the context of its use.

Specifically, I find the manipulation of language at work in McCauley’s thesis to create two problems. First, the way the concepts of ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘naturalness’, and ‘maturationally natural’ are redefined and are constrained by reworked parameters creates a large possibility for misunderstanding on the reader’s end. That is, the thesis is hyperbolic in that these concepts are used in a very specific way, and the broader conclusions that readers are likely to pursue, and the polarized conclusion of the thesis expressed in the title are not deducible from the constrained terms of McCauley’s argument.

Second, the hyperbolic nature of McCauley’s argument is fundamentally problematic for his thesis, since it is an all-encompassing proposition. Beyond discussions of whether his argument is valid or not, we run into the typical problems associated with inductive logic, where, even if the premises are true and the inferences are valid, the conclusion may still be false. In this case, we can accept the validity of McCauley’s argument, but then still wonder if religion is natural and science isn’t. Because if the language of the premises is hyperbolic, and the conclusion is an all-encompassing proposition, then we must wonder if we have arrived at the right conclusion, and more to the point, if that conclusion is the logical destination of the constrained and redefined terminology of the argument.

Evidencing the precariousness of the language game, Dr. McCauley gives up an alarming amount of ground by conceding that some science is, in fact, natural, and some religion is unnatural. This concession is a sign of a highly thought-out and nuanced argument, and it makes his position highly defensible by its specified parameters, but it is also an indication of a hyper-rational logic that often misses the human component of things. And, it requires that we invoke a fundamental principle of science by asking if the specified definitions and conclusions of McCauley’s theory might be applied to the broader context of human cognition more generally?

To put that question in a form more directly aimed at the thesis: do we have sufficient evidence to say with conviction that religion is natural and science is not? I think not. I think we can say that religion is more maturationally natural than science, but to go beyond that is a bolder claim than the research can fully support. But that shouldn’t be a shock; to say religion is natural and science is not is to take on a monumental burden of proof. Logically speaking, the statement Religion is more natural than science and the statement Religion is natural and science is not are as dissimilar as night and day. While the language and mood of the book and McCauley’s arguments in his podcast are much more subtle than the title suggests, acknowledging a misuse of language in the thesis might be beneficial in understanding the state of this issue and furthering the research on this topic.

For example, Dr. McCauley in his podcast cites the Copernican Revolution as an example scientific knowledge becoming functional in maturationally natural cognitive pathways. With such a formidable counterexample to his thesis, which can’t be written off as categorically different from other “science,” we must wonder how many other counter examples we can come up with. As a thought experiment, consider philosophy as a science. Philosophy especially represents the careful, deliberate, and systematic thinking that Dr. McCauley associates with scientific thinking. And yet we talk about people adopting and living philosophies. I know that my changing philosophies in life have mirrored my evolving perceptions, understandings, and feelings. But living out philosophy does not involve the careful systematic analysis of how to act out your personal philosophy in each moment; surely it is more natural and automatic than that, aside from thoughtful judgment and decision making. Obviously there is a distinction between lived philosophy and analytical and continental philosophy. My point is that a proponent of a certain analytical philosophy lives out this philosophy in much the same way a scientist lives out science. Not ‘science’ as the category of scientific thinking as Dr. McCauley uses it, but science as bits of fact, varying in their characteristics and the roles they play in the experiences and thought of individuals. That science is more maturationally natural to some people than others, depends on the prominence of science in his or her culture. It makes perfect sense that a scientist will incorporate scientific knowledge into his way of life more so than an unscientific person, because he has more scientific knowledge available to him to effect the way he lives. And, as in the thought experiment, surely the scientific man who lives by scientific knowledge and scientific principles will do so, at least at times, tacitly or automatically, which Dr. McCauley associates with maturational processes.

McCauley does make a distinction between practiced naturalness and maturationally natural cognition. His focus on the uniqueness of maturationally natural cognition is that what is maturationally natural is natural independent of cultural context. But we do not have sufficient reason to rule out that the process of inducting scientific knowledge into maturationally natural cognitive pathways is not only a function of practice but also the cultural availability of scientific bits of fact and principles. The role an individual plays in his or her society will greatly affect what knowledge will play a role in his or her life. This could explain why McCauley has found that religious thinking is maturationally natural in children and science is not. It seems to me that children are consistently exposed to religious thinking, while scientific thinking is slowly acquired and often less appealing as it mostly enforced by school, while religion is seemingly much more available to children through movies, parents, churches, friends, ads, magazines, bibles, etc. These thought experiments urge us to at least wonder if what makes religious thinking more maturationally natural than scientific thinking is the cultural context in which such thinking is framed. Perhaps it is not religious thinking that is natural, but the deeply rooted religious trends in our society and cultures that shape our thinking from our birth to death. In order to rule this out, research needs to be done on whether characteristically non-religious societies demonstrate maturationally natural religiosity in the same capacity as the current research demonstrates in our society.

Another form of counter argument we should consider is this: even if we accept that children evidence the maturational naturalness of religion, can we not argue, as Frazer does in the Golden Bough, that religious thinking is a lesser or faulty form of scientific thinking? For Frazer, religious thinking is a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world. Especially when McCauley uses the term ‘religion’ in the very specific way of referring to the highly instinctual and sub-analytical thinking tied to mechanisms of agency detection, we must ask, is maturationally natural religious thinking just faulty scientific thinking waiting to be remedied by our developing scientific cultures? There are emerging narratives of children who immediately reject notions of supernatural agents and embrace scientific thinking. McCauley rejects such narratives as an example of a deficit in what is normatively natural. But before making such arguments, we must first prove that what he is calling maturationally natural cognition is truly independent of cultural influence, and what’s more, that such cognition is not just a less developed form of scientific thinking, much as a child’s first words are an ill-formed version of language. We do not consider childish babbling the natural state of language. We should not consider a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world as our natural state of thinking. Until these questions are further analysed and such counterexamples are considered, whether Dr. McCauley has drawn a false, or at least overly bipolar, dichotomy between religion and science is up for grabs. Even if all of my criticisms and counterexamples are refuted, I hope that they are at least constructive, as I have great respect for McCauley’s work and only wish to promote a reflective dialectic between science and religion, and between emerging perspectives on the state of this relationship.