Author: Jacob Pandian
Religion is a subcategory of supernaturalism that was formulated during the
medieval period with the spurious and dangerous quest to link supernaturalism
with scientific knowledge, and this quest has continued
Recently, misleading articles have appeared in newspapers and news magazines
claiming that religion and science are cooperating to explore the nature of
reality. Gregg Easterbrook (1999) noted that "Signs of renewed interest in
science and religion are numerous. The topic has recently been a top-selling
cover for both Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. Universities such as
Princeton and Cambridge, which in the 1960s didn't even offer courses in the
relationship between science and religion, have established chairs for its
Easterbrook points to the central role of the John Templeton Foundation in
encouraging the cooperation between science and religion. The Foundation
publishes Progress in Theology magazine but more importantly awards millions
of dollars to people who reflect their philosophy of cooperation.
The 2001 Templeton prize, $1 million, was announced March 9. It went to the
Rev. Arthur Peacocke, a British biochemist and Anglican priest who has written
widely about God and science. The Templeton Award recipient for 2000 was
Freeman J. Dyson, an emeritus professor of physics at the Institute of
Advanced Study in Princeton. As reported by Larry Stammer (2000), Dyson was
"baffled" at receiving the award because the Templeton prize is awarded for
"Progress in Religion" and not for progress in science. Dyson claimed that he
was "not a theologian" and "not a saint." In his reflections on science and
religion, Dyson noted that "The universe has a mind of its own. We know mind
plays a big role in our own lives. It's likely, in fact, that mind has a big
role in the way the whole universe functions. If you like, you call it God. It
all makes sense."
Before that, $1.2 million was awarded to Ian G. Barbour, a retired professor
from Carleton College. At Carleton he was professor of physics, professor of
religion, and Bean Professor of Science, Technology and Society. His book
Religion and Science (1997) is described by its publisher (Harper San
Francisco) as "a definitive contemporary discussion of the many issues
surrounding our understanding of God and religious truth and experience in our
scientific age." Earlier recipients of the Templeton Award include the
Protestant Christian evangelist Billy Graham, the Catholic Christian nun
Mother Teresa, the campus crusader William Bright, and the Russian novelist
Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Ian Barbour, according to Gregg Easterbrook, "promptly
announced he would give $1 million of his award to the Berkeley, California,
Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, an affiliate of Berkeley's
Graduate Theological Union, and an organization whose own 1981 founding and
rising importance are indicators of the science-an d-religion trend."
Ralph Estling, in an essay called "Templeton and AAAS" in the SKEPTICAL
INQUIRER (2000), pointed out that the American Association for the Advancement
of Science has "a problem": This association, which "has been promoting a
study known as the 'Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion,"'
received for four years cash contributions of over one million dollars from
the Templeton Foundation. As many board members of AAAS are also associated
with the Templeton Foundation, Estling is right in raising questions about
"conflict of interest," and he advises the AAAS "to get the hell out from
under the John Templeton Foundation."
I suggest that the problem is a much larger one than the Templeton
Foundation's attempt to influence the scope of science through monetary awards
to scientific organizations and scientists. The more serious problem stems
from our profound misunderstanding of why and how the concept of religion was
developed by the church fathers of the early medieval period our of the
Roman/Latin concept of religio. It is this misunderstanding that opens the
door to organizations such as the Templeton Foundation, and to arguments that
science and religion should cooperate in understanding the nature of the
Religio, Religion, and Supernaturalism
Supernaturalism (i.e., beliefs and practices associated with supernatural
beings and supernatural power) is a cultural universal. Religion, however, is
not a cultural universal; it is a subset of supernaturalism that developed
during the medieval period of the Christian tradition to represent Christian
supernaturalism as scientific truth. During this period, the Roman/Latin
concept of religio changed its meaning and significance from ritual activities
to doctrinal statements about the nature of the world and humankind.
An excellent discussion of why and how the Roman/Latin concept of religio was
transformed by the church fathers into religion (attributing different
characteristics to religio) is offered in William Canrwell Smith's very
important book on the subject of religion, The Meaning and End of Religion
(1991). The concept of religion was developed in the Christian tradition to
represent Christian truths as opposed to the untruths of "pagan" traditions of
the Greeks and Romans and the satanic or demonic distortions that, from the
Christian theory of religion, prevailed in non-Christian traditions.
The concept of religion that had become the theoretical framework for
explaining Greco-Roman and non-Western traditions as false was also opposed to
and contrasted with the supernaturalism of the non-Christians in general.
Christian supernaturalism was conceptualized within the framework of religion
as the scientific truth about the world and humankind. Christianity
established an epistemological link between science and supernaturalism by
conceptualizing religion as the framework to explain natural phenomena and to
explain the nature of the relationship between God and humankind. In such a
view, the religious framework of Christianity was aligned with scientific
naturalism, and non -Christian supernaturalism was aligned with supersition.
For over fifteen hundred years we have been using the term religion without
fully realizing its origin and development. Scholars have used the term to
identify and discuss the supernaturalism of both non-Christian and Christian
traditions. But while ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans,
Chinese, and Hindus had elaborate beliefs and activities that we associate
with supernaturalism, they did not have "religion," i.e., a formulation that
combines scientific knowledge and supernaturalism. Thus labels such as Greek
religion, Roman religion, Chinese religion, Hindu religion, and so on are
erroneous. It would be more appropriate to discard the use of the term
religion and instead attempt to define and discuss Christian supernaturalism,
just as we describe and discuss other supernaturalisms.
Is there conflict or cooperation between supernaturalism and science? No.
Supernaturalism belongs to the pan-human myth-making activity that generates
models of personal/cultural coherence and integration through the formulations
of supernatural beings and supernatural power. Science belongs to the
pan-human analytic activity that generates accurate models to approximate,
explain, and use nature.
Is there conflict or cooperation between Christian religion an science? Yes.
Some cultural traditions, including the Christian tradition, have attempted to
merge supernaturalism and science. Religion is the product of such an attempt,
and the debate on cooperation between religion and science is a renewed
attempt to subordinate science to supernaturalism. The first special issue of
the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER devoted to science and religion (Frazier 1999) failed
to note the fact that religion was a conceptual frame-work, a cultural
category, which the church fathers of the medieval period developed to link
science and supernaturalism epistemologically in order to proclaim
Christianity as the true explanation of the world and humankind.
Many respected scientists appear to be unaware of this epistemological link.
Stephen Jay Gould (1999a) notes that "Science and religion should be equal,
mutually respecting partners, each the master of its own domain and with each
domain vital to human life in a different way." In his book Rocks of Ages:
Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999b), Gould writes: "I do not
see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any
common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do nor understand why the
two enterprises should experience conflict. Science tries to document the
factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that
coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in
the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes,
meanings and values--subjects that the factual domain of science might
illuminate, but never resolve."
We can agree with Gould's assessment of the relationship (or the lack of
relationship) between science and religion only if the term supernaturalism is
substituted for the term religion. I am surprised and puzzled that Gould, who
has delved into historical issues in many of his essays, failed to make note
of the reasons why and how the framework of religion developed.
Arising in the Roman cultural tradition, the Latin term religio had multiple
meanings such as "the acquisition and possession of supernatural power" and
"the performance of rituals for supernatural beings." Religio referred to
activities that dealt with supernatural powers and beings, and not with a
conceptual model of the world. Religio was nor linked or contrasted with
science in the pre-Chrisrian traditions of the West, but the medieval
Christian church fathers such as Saint Augustine used religio to signifv the
true knowledge about the nature of the world and humankind. The church, with
its hierarchical priesthood, became the custodian of this true knowledge
embodied in religion, combining supernaturalism and science.
Attempts to Integrate Religion Into Science
Contemporary efforts to represent science and religion as two ways of
searching for true knowledge are essentially a continuation and revitalization
of the medieval notion of religion. We are inundated with statements such as
"evolution is God's way of organizing the natural world," "evolution is God's
way of creating human self-awareness," "scientific discoveries reveal God's
design," and "science is God's gift to humankind." There are scientists who
intentionally or unintentionally confuse the separation of supernaturalism and
science by confusing their personal supernaturalism and their objects of
inquiry and, in turn, lend scientific legitimacy to religion.
The American scientist Dr. Richard Sneed, in an interview on CNN (1999),
advocated human cloning with comments such as the following: God created
humans in God's image; God would not have given the intelligence to clone
unless God wanted cloning; and cloning was a way of getting close to God.
Peter Gosselin (2000) reported that Francis Collins, who runs the Human Genome
Research Institute, is a "rare combination of premier scientist and devout
Christian. [Collins] professes belief in a God that is beyond the reach of
science. He says the pursuit of the genetic code is not, as some worry, an
attempt by humans to play God, but only humans' way of admiring God's
handiwork. 'God is not threatened by all this' he said in a television
interview. 'I think God thinks it's wonderful that we puny creatures are going
about the business of trying to understand how our instruction book works,
because it's a very elegant instruction book indeed.'"
God can be and is used to justify and legitimize any custom or activity,
including science. God can also serve as a vehicle to prevent free inquiry and
critical thinking in areas that are prohibited in the name of God, whose
prohibition is verified only by the custodians of God and those who accept the
custodial claims made in the name of God. Over a hundred years ago, the
theologian/biblical scholar/anthropologist William Robertson Smith
unsuccessfully defended himself as a scientist who had the moral duty to
explore the cultural foundations of Christianity. He was tried for heresy by
the Free Church of Scotland and defrocked. His defense was that if God did not
want scientific research on discovering the origins of customs, God would not
have endowed humans with rationality; he argued that thc non-use of
rationality in the furtherance of science was fundamentally a non-Christian
attitude. Smith's inquisitors did not accept his defense because in their view
the Bible was the revealed truth about the nature of the world and humans, and
humans could not fathom the mind of God.
The intellectual history of the past five hundred years has been one of
religion attempting to preempt and/or incorporate scientific discoveries as
religious truths. Church-affiliated or sectarian universities were built to
produce and disseminate religious truths as they were supported by science. If
and when scientific discoveries could not be formulated and presented as
religious truths, there were inquisitorial persecutions of scientists who were
identified as heretics or as atheists. The teaching of "natural theology" and
its opposition to the Darwinian model of life forms prevailed for a long time
in academia. We now have departments of religion or religious studies in
academia that continue the same intellectual tradition. What occurs today is a
much more sophisticated and nuanced attempt to discredit the foundations of
science through spurious platitudes such as "religion and science must respect
each other," "religion and science must cooperate to seek the basis of
reality," "religion and science ha ve a common ground," and "religion and
science must seek together to better the conditions of human life." These
statements contain expressions that have universal appeal: "respect for each
other," "cooperation," and "looking for a common ground for discourse and the
search for the betterment of human conditions" are laudable goals of all human
beings. But by linking supernaturalism and science epistemologically, a
distorted view of science is created, which could lead to the rejection of the
scientific method because it discredits God's design or plan.
The scholars of the Enlightenment who did so much to affirm the scientific
method and liberate scientific research from supernaturalism failed to
recognize that religion was a medieval Christian invention that was developed
to oppose what the Church claimed to be pagan, magical, and demonic
supernaturalism. Many scholastic treatises on God and the world were viewed by
Enlightenment thinkers as facilitating the scientific understanding of the
world--for example, formulations concerning a rational God and the rationality
of the world, with humans endowed with reason to discover the rationality of
the world. Enlightenment thinkers for the most part supported the ethnocentric
assumption that religion was superior and more advanced than primitive
supernaturalism and that the West had progressed and advanced along the
evolutionary ladder because of the applications of rationality to discover the
laws of nature and create rational institutions. The Enlightenment, which did
so much to revive the Greek ideals of scie nce, was caught in the Christian
theological assertions about the nature of religion and supernaturalism. When
the exponents of the Enlightenment attacked primitive irrationality as
standing in the way of progress, the focus was on non-Western peoples and
cultures who, in the view of these scholars, embodied supernaturalism.
The anthropological discourse on humankind was (and is) equally caught in the
Christian theological assertions about the nature of religion and
supernaturalism. Nineteenth-century sociologists and anthropologists
postulated that magic, witchcraft, and divination constituted beliefs and
practices that preceded religion and monotheism, and that monotheism and
religion manifested themselves only in the higher stages of human mental
development. There was also hope that religion would be replaced by science as
(and when) the human mind progressed to attain positivistic understanding of
natural phenomena. Twentieth-century anthropologists and sociologists devoted
considerable rime to defining religion, with definitions ranging from religion
as supernaturalism to religion as sacred or sanctified values of society, and
as the quest for ultimate meaning and reality. Postmodernists have reflected
upon whether the definition of religion as supernaturalism is an ethnocentric
Western assumption, suggesting that religion should be understood as a system
of ordering the world and human life.
Defining Terms and Clarifying Arguments
Perhaps it would clarify discussion if we discarded the use of the term
religion and substituted the term supernaturalism. As I noted earlier,
supernaturalism is a cultural universal. Historically humans have created
beliefs and practices associated with supernatural beings and supernatural
powers, and these beliefs and practices have been used to construct sacred
self and group identities and to formulate models or narratives of coherence
and meaning to cope with feelings of helplessness, encounters with suffering
and injustice, realities of uncertainty, and fear and anxiety associated with
sickness and death. Humans have created innumerable forms of the supernatural
world with an infinite range of attributes, and this process of creating and
maintaining the supernatural world will continue. Science does not attempt to
replace or duplicate this creative process, but it attempts to study the
relevance and significance of this process in human life.
It is necessary to understand that the concept of religion that developed in
the medieval period combines supernaturalism and science to formulate
statements about the world and humankind. In this sense, religion does nor
complement science but pre-empts and co-opts scientific discourse in support
of supernaturalism. The most overt expression of how religion uses science in
affirming supernaturalism is found in the evangelical or fundamental Christian
perspective known as scientific creationism" or "creationist science."
"Creation scientists" do not see the combination of creation myths and science
as an oxymoron but as a way of using the vocabulary of science to foster
biblical discourse as scientific.
A recent example of how supernaturalism and science are combined is found in a
lawsuit filed in the Minnesota Court of Appeals by a fundamentalist Christian
teacher, Lod LaVake. As reported by Joseph Tyrangiel (2000), LaVake's attorney
has claimed that "For the first time, we have a teacher who is nor asking to
teach creationism. He simply wants to reach science the way he thinks--and the
way a lot of people think--it should be taught, in a more balanced way." The
implication is that Mr. LaVake should be permitted to reach science the way it
supports his belief and the belief of many other fundamentalist Christians.
Tyrangiel correctly notes, "Indeed, creationists have become a lot more
shrewd. For years they'd propose antievolution laws and lesson plans brimming
with religious language, and for years their cases were struck down on
constitutional grounds. Like LaVake, they began co-opting the logic of
Darwinists and speaking in a softer voice."
Religion does not complement science but pre-empts and co-opts scientific
discourse in support of supernaturalism. We must recognize the importance of
supernaturalism in human life and foster its study in terms of why and how
humans create and maintain it. The use of the term religion to discuss the
role of supernaturalism confuses and distorts our understanding of the latter.
To the public, the use of religion would be more palatable and respectable
than the use of the term supernaturalism because supernaturalism conjures up
images of irrational practices such as witchcraft and magic as opposed to
religion, which is viewed as a rational, scientific understanding of the
world. When scientific research discredits the assumptions of religion, there
is conflict between science and religion unless the scientific discoveries are
incorporated into the religious framework.
As a first step toward resolving the "science and religion" controversy, and
focusing on the real issues that reveal the nature of science and
supernaturalism, I suggest that we rename the "departments of religion" in
academia and call them "departments of supernaturalism." It is more
appropriate to have a discourse on "comparative supernaturalism" than on
"comparative religion" because religion, as I noted earlier, is an emic,
indigenous category that acquired significance in the medieval period of the
Western tradition in an attempt to combine supernaturalism and science within
the framework of religion.
Jacob Pandian is professor of anthropology at California State University,
Fullerton. He can be reached at the Department of Anthropology, Califronia
State University, Fullerton, California 92834-6846; telephone number
714-278-3294; or e-mail at email@example.com.
Barbour, I.G. 1997. Religion and Science. New York: Harper Collins.
Easterbrook G. 1999. Grappling with science and religion. Los Angeles Times,
Estling, R. 2000. Templeton and the AAAS. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 4(24),
Frazier, K. 1999. A special issue on science and religion. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER
Gould, S.J. 199a. Dorothy, it's really Oz. Time, August 23.
----- 1999b. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullnes of Life. New
York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Gosselin, P.G. 2000. Public project's chief Quiet but no pushover. Los Angeles
Times, June 27.
Smith, W.C.  1991. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis:
Sneed, R. 1999. Interview. Cable News Network, July 11.
Stammer. L.B. 2000. Physicist awarded $948,000 Templeton Prize. Los Angeles
Times, March 23.
Tyrangiel, J. 2000. The science of dissent. Time, July 10.
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