PhD Proposal


The Relationality of Religion and Science

Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies
Department of Comparative Study of Religion
University of Groningen

Aim, Motivation, and Research Questions
Identifying the religion-science relationship is still a major point of contention. Taxonomies of the relationship generally formulate the two as fundamentally separate and distinct (e.g., Barbour 1997). Others have pointed out that assumed separation forces alternatives to be artificially framed in opposition to division, obscuring the fact that religion and science have not always been distinct forms of knowledge (e.g., Cantor & Kenny 2001). Moreover, historical evidence and discourse analysis demonstrate that not only does the relationship and the use of concepts vary in different contexts, but also the boundaries between different forms of knowledge can be very fluid (e.g., von Stuckrad 2013c). However the lines are drawn that demarcate religion and science, they are perpetually transgressed and challenged, giving rise to new meanings and new realities (von Stuckrad 2013b). Thus, rigid analytical categories are inherently problematic as they impose artificial limits on dynamic phenomena. It may then seem our analytical categories are bound to fail.

Developing a methodology and accompanying analytical categories that can capture the dynamism of conceptual constructs is thus my motivation of research. I suggest this can be accomplished through ‘relationality analysis’ (see Methodology). It is the aim of the research project to test this hypothesis and to demonstrate its usability for discourse theory generally and for the study of religion and science specifically, with an end goal to formulate a meta-model that puts relational constructs in perspective.

I begin with the question if religion and science are fluid concepts, how can we derive any meaning from them in an analytically valuable way? I hypothesize that meaning is produced in a process of relationalizing concepts. I then ask how religion and science are defined relative to one another in the discourse on the religion-science relationship? Does this account for all possible relational constructs, so that a meta-model can be constructed?


Position of the Project within the Discipline and Innovations
I take my cue from Kocku von Stuckrad’s work in the discursive study of religion that we need to shift our attention away from generic definitions to the way religion is organized, discussed, and otherwise discursively materialized (2013a, 2010, 2003). This also requires a change in our analytical vocabulary, as religion is an empty signifier outside of a given context. However, how to effectively capture this fluidity within an analytical model is still not entirely clear. To address this issue, I take inspiration from Mikael Stenmark (2004) and Thomas A. Tweed (2006) to formulate a dynamic model of religion. However, these approaches still treat relationship as secondary to religion and science and hence are circumstantially derived, rigid, and generic. Thus, while there is some precedent for focusing on the dynamism of religion, new approaches are still needed.

My work will offer innovative analytical tools, including ‘relationality analysis’ and accompanying relational categories. The meta-model of relational constructs I propose can perhaps replace analytically weak, generic definitional categories. This in turn has the potential to add nuance to the manner of which discourse entanglements can manifest. Thus, relationality analysis, although a product of discourse analysis, can also operate as a complement to discourse theory, as it can stop the cycle of self-reflecting on concepts ad infinitum that is initiated by the process (von Stuckrad 2010). Moreover, I will explore relational constructs that are understudied or unexplored, such as the ‘religiosity of science.’ In addition to addressing these lacunas that will deepen our understanding of religion-science relationships, this work also has the added value of problematizing and traversing the religion-science divide—and thus the religious-secular gap as well, another prominent topic in the academic study of religion.


Structure, Methodology, and Relevant Literature
I propose analyzing the religion-science relationship by focusing on how ‘relationship’ is organized and discussed, filling this empty signifier. Thus, relationship itself is the primary object of analysis. Relationality is a matter of entanglement of ontologies: after all, relationship suggests a shared existence. For example, analyzing the statement ‘religion and science are mutually exclusive’ need not apply definitions for the independent concepts, as the construction of meaning is structured around the relationship itself. This relational constructs indicates the two are defined in opposition to one another, so if science is empirical, religion is revelatory (or specifically non-empirical). The meaning of religion necessarily follows from the meaning of science. Whatever attributions applied, we know a priori that they will be oppositional. In fact, our entire conceptual universe consists of relational constructs that put the world in relative perspective. Thus outlining relational constructs reveals the fundamental meaning structures supporting the boundaries of knowledge.

I examine the instances in which ‘religion,’ in its conceptual construction, necessarily indicates ‘science,’ or vice versa. In this way, I am relating the relationships between religion and science, accepting all meaning constructions as valid—a meta-model that puts relational constructions into perspective. Perspectival relational constructions make up what I refer to as ‘relationality’ and determining how the lines are drawn between various constructs makes up ‘relationality analysis.’ In order to determine the relationality of religion and science, I will analyze the discursive entanglements (for definitions see von Stuckrad 2013a) between the ontological structures (e.g., mutual exclusivity) of religion and science—i.e. the attribution of meaning of being religious or of being scientific—, subsequently proposing new analytical categories to account for these complicated relationships. Although relational constructs are formulated through ontology, which construct is given interpretive primacy in any given context is negotiated in discourse. Thus, this is not simply a philosophical investigation of ontology, but also discursive analysis in religious studies.

These entanglements of ontological discourses indicate some patterns of how different modes of relationship manifest. The project will theorize relational constructs of identity, representation, and causality. These subdivisions express the manner in which relationship is understood to exist.

The data set is diverse in order to account for the wide array of relational constructs, but shares in common a clear entanglement between scientific and religious ontological discourses that is visible and open for analysis. Case studies in the sections outlined below reflect how my research will unfold.

1. Identity

The first relational construct of identity is reductive: one concept can explain away the other, so that the secondary concept is nothing more than the primary one. Whether ‘religion’ or ‘science’ acts as the primary signifier results in two very different interpretations of the relationship, thus I propose two subcategories—scientification of religion, borrowed from von Stuckrad (2013b), and religionation of science.

1.1.   Scientification of Religion: The Case of God on the Brain. Research in the cognitive science of religion is largely accompanied by the interpretative framework that the ontological status of religious experience is nothing more than measurable physiological phenomena. For testing and demonstrating, I will focus on discussions surrounding the ‘God’ helmet—a device developed by Michael Persinger said to induce ‘genuine religious experiences’ (Persinger, et al 2010). His theory on the experiments has spawned reactions in the scientific press (Aaen-Stockdale 2012), anecdotal reports by journalists (Hitt 1999), critiques in academia (Khamsi 2004), and documentaries (“God on the Brain” 2003; “The God Experience,” 2010). This research also received wide media coverage and enjoyed high profile visitors to the lab, including Susan Blackmore and Richard Dawkins.

1.2.   Religionation of Science: The Case of Scientism. Science has conversely been reductively identified as religion-like. Often referred to as ‘scientism,’ this view is regarded as a ‘dogma,’ a ‘way of life,’ or a ‘worldview,’ and thus identified with religion by some. Since various studies have differing formulations of scientism (Smith 2000; Sorell 1991; Stenmark 2001; Hutchinson 2011; Rosenberg 2013) and ‘beyond’ (“Science Beyond Scientism”), I focus mainly on the influential debate surrounding Richard Dawkins’ best-selling God Delusion (2006)—with specific regard to the ‘dogma of science’—which has spawned responses in academia, such as the provocative titles The Science Delusion (Sheldrake 2012), The Dawkins’ Delusion (McGrath & McGrath 2007; also see McGrath 2005), with reference to ‘atheist fundamentalism,’ and “The Dawkins’ Confusion” (Plantinga 2007). The topic has also been widely covered by the media, including sold-out public debates in 2007 and 2008 with John Lennox (“God Delusion Debate” 2007; Riley 2009).

2. Representation

In the relational construct of representation both concepts can serve as a sign or symbol of each other, resulting in an expansion of the meaning attributed—in contrast to a primary, reductionist signification process as occurs in identity. However, from which basis the perspective is rooted in results in different interpretations of the religion-science relationship. Thus, I propose the two subcategories religiosity of science—the topic of my present MA thesis—and scientificity of religion—the case study of which I cover extensively in first MA thesis.

2.1. Religiosity of Science: The Case of ‘Holy Physics.’ ‘Spirit molecules’ (Strassman 2001), ‘God particles’ (Chopra 2010; Menzie 2012; Chikermane 2012), and ‘quantum consciousness’ (Goswami 2009) all share in common that they are scientific discoveries that have been interpreted as not simply religiously significant, bur rather as religious themselves. Here scientific investigation becomes not only the means of transmission of religious knowledge, but also the force behind it, being sacralized within the process, much like language functions in prayer. Science is understood not as an ‘extra of religion,’ but essential to spirituality and yet still enjoys some independence from the religion concept.

2.2. Scientificity of Religion: The Case of Contemplative Science. Religion has also been interpreted as having scientific value, particularly in the growing field of contemplative science (e.g., Wallace & Hodel 2009). To demonstrate, this case study will examine Buddhist meditation in the context of neuroscience and medicine, with reference to the Dalai Lama’s work with the Mind & Life Institute (MLI) and related associates (e.g., Center for Mind and Brain; Max Planck Institute for Brain Research; McGovern Institute for Brain Research). The Dalai Lama states, “It is my view that generally Buddhism […] is very close to a scientific approach” and the authority for both can be reduced to “reasoning” and “logic” (Hayward & Varela 2001). Such sentiments of compatibility and even unity are ubiquitous in this field among scientists from prestigious institutions. The impact of these views in Buddhism, science, medicine, academia, and popular culture has been significant (e.g., McMahan 2008; Lopez 2008).

3. Causality: Religion-science Familiality and the Case of Common Foundations

Relationality can also be causal in that either religion or science is the cause of the other, both are effects of the same cause, or both play a causal role in one effect. To test this relational construct, I will explore the topic of common foundations of religion and science in regard to cognitive and bio-evolutionary bases (McCauley 2012; Carruthers, et al, 2002), intellectual, historical underpinning (Merton 1938; Weber 2002 [1904]), and ethical premises (Dalai Lama 2013; MLI; John Templeton Foundation). In this way, religion and science are thought to have a ‘shared ancestry,’ constituting a ‘family.’ Thus I propose the terminology religion-science familiality. From this perspective, the religion-science relationship is not reductive (contrary to identity), keeping the religion religious and the science scientific, so to speak (contrary to representation), but still gives added meaning to each in a religion-science or broader context encompassing both.

Check out my references here.