Science & Religion: A Global Perspective

This week’s readings took on a more global perspective, offering an increasingly holistic picture of what the relationship between science and religion — and the academic analysis of it — looks like. As was expressed in class, religions other than Christianity and locales outside the West have received scant attention from historians of science, and the extant scholarship reflects this in its lack of depth and consideration of actors outside the European infrastructures that colonialism imposed upon its subjects. That being said, scholarship must start somewhere, and the work that has been done contains merit, particularly as a model for further research in the area.

Sivasandaram’s piece in Science and Religion, while commendable in its treatment of commonly neglected areas of study in the field, does not provide such an example. While his conception of global history, defined as “a label of historical methodology indicating analysis of broad patterns and connections across space,” offers a good starting point for non-Western histories, he fails to successfully write a non-Western history. Most of the actors in his narrative are Western, giving the impression that those receiving “science” from their colonizers were a relatively passive audience, ready to reformulate their religious convictions in light of the knowledge bestowed up on them. He does leave room for diversity of opinion and belief among the native population, acknowledging that the response to European science was varied, but even as he expresses this, most of the voices in his story are Western ones. He does not provide much cultural, political, or historical context in which to situate the native narrative. He does, however, suggest that in cultures that do not have native educational institutions, different methods than the one he employs will be required. In the end, what Sivasandaram has to offer is a Western-centric view of the relationship between Western science and native religions.

In contrast, Weldon and Yoshida’s discussion of science in the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and India provides a better model for extending the study of science and religion out of the Western context. They provide ample background — historical, cultural, and political — that bring vitality to the population whose interactions with science they are attempting to understand. They spend more time discussing the philosophies of the religions they cover, and the voices are almost entirely Asian ones. The reader can see how cultural and religious authorities were integrating or rejecting the science their Western contemporaries were exposing them to, and equally importantly, can understand the unique, local reasons, in addition to the intellectual ones, why they were or were not doing so. That being said, the lack of lay voices — a demographic that can be accessed, in one way, through their integration or rejection of Western medicine — is noticeable.

I am, however, again left asking the question, why the focus on Western science? Was there not some form of “science” in place before the West made it over to Asia? What was the relationship between Asian science and Asian religion? And, if an author is going to be discussing the relationship between only Western science and Asian religion, should this distinction not be made at some point during the discussion of methodology? Science can take many forms and, as we have discussed in class, can look very different depending on cultural and temporal context. The term should not imply Western.

The last reading for the week that I found particularly thought-provoking was Efron’s piece, “Science and Religions: what it means to take historical perspectives seriously.” In it, Efron confronts the complexity thesis and offers some interesting insight. While many historians have assumed that the complexity thesis implies what Efron terms “narrative complexity,” in which the relationship between science and religion has been historically complicated by the changing definitions of both terms in different contexts (temporal and cultural), he offers complexity of a different kind. “Moral complexity,” Efron argues, has more explanatory power. He states that, instead of looking at broad, historically contingent trends in the dynamics of science and religion, the historian should instead approach the issue from the perspective of individual actors and delve into how they, in their own understandings, hold the two sets of beliefs. I think that Stanley’s approach when he was trying to understand Huxley and Maxwell’s conceptions of scientific and religious beliefs is an example of such a method in action; Stanley reads their philosophies and teases out how each drew boundaries between the two ways of knowing, and particularly in Maxwell’s case, found them compatible.

I think that this would be a great way for historians of science and religion to move beyond the conflict thesis, and I would be very interested to read works that employ similar methods. The individual human mind, after all, is the fountainhead from which the understood relationship between these two entities flows.

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