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.

The People’s Car

The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, Bernhard Rieger

         As someone quite illiterate insofar as the history of technology is concerned, I thought this book did an excellent job of elucidating through example just how ingrained in a society’s beliefs, prejudices, and self-perceptions technologies are, and equally important, how easily the same technologies can adapt to new socio-cultural environments. Technologies can be overtly used — like the VW Beetle was by the Nazi regime — to further political, social, or economic goals or ideologies, but the purposeful instillation of technological ethos is not the only way that a technology can acquire social meaning. The beetle’s adaptation to cultural environments outside of Germany (and even inside of West Germany, a quite different landscape from the one of its conception) proves that technologies can acquire meanings far beyond those instilled in them by their developers. Author Bernhard Rieger cleverly displays the nuances and complicated patterns of societies’ relationships with technologies, demonstrating that neither technological determinism nor the social construction of technology paint a full picture of the way that a technology interacts with a population. Instead, as evidenced by the effects the bug had on society and the way that society in turn shaped the bug, a reciprocal relationship emerges in which society and technology converse and enact changes in one another.

The book showed how technologies can be an avenue through which political entities proliferate (radio) and reinforce their ideologies; the VW Beetle in its promotion by the Nazi party was meant to “demonstrate how the emerging ‘people’s community’ would raise the average German’s living standard.” (58-59) Things can be said, ideas made manifest, through the use of commodities. In Rieger’s words; “Material objects often acquire profound personal and collective significance because they make the ‘abstract… concrete, closer to lived experience.'” (6) Hitler was able to make his ideologies concrete by enacting technological policies that put his beliefs about the ideal society into action. In a way, the technologies spoke back — and said something about the realities of human nature — when his laissez-faire Highway Code backfired. Perhaps, if he had listened when the human-technology conglomerate (men driving cars) spoke, he would have found that is worldview (and what he wanted for Germany) was untenable.

After WWII, the bug was in a precarious situation in occupied West Germany. Rieger’s account of how it bounced back, in no small part due to its revamped and heavily revised cultural aura, offers the first example of how a technology can adapt to different socio-cultural environments. In order to remain culturally attractive, the bug had to shed its Nazi origin story; like the society that surrounded it, it was viewed as a victim of the Third Reich. Its paramount success in the otherwise dire post-war economy served as a beacon of hope for Germans. Where the Nazis had failed, the Federal Republic had finally provided a long forgotten promise of providing the average German a vehicle. This drastic reworking of VW’s actual history goes to show that technologies evolve and adapt with the populations they were created to serve and are not static historical factors. They can also play a role, as they had in the 1930s and 1940s, in establishing and reinforcing cultural identities. Battered Germans looked at the success of the beetle and saw an economically viable, competitive Germany in their future, if they would only work hard like those in Wolfsburg had.

The latter half of the book is what makes Rieger’s history “global”; in it, he outlines the bugs’ donning of a few other cultural robes. The Nazi origins of the car tended to be too much of an obstacle to the British constituency, displaying limits to the beetle’s techno-cultural adaptability. In America, by contrast, after initial hurdles the Volkswagen became very popular. As part of a new society, however, it took on a very different identity. Instead of the hearty “people’s car,” the standard-setter it had been in Germany, the bug adopted a distinctly unorthodox and counter-culture ethos in the American market, which was dominated by much larger, domineering vehicles. In Mexico, the beetle — or vochito — adopted yet another cultural ethos. Again, its simple yet reliable engineering proved advantageous; Mexicans identified the car as “tough” and “thick-skinned,” “capable of handing both actual and metaphorical bumps in the road,” like its hardy clientele. (283)

Rieger employs a somewhat elementary version of gender analysis, commenting occasionally on how the culture surrounding the car differed for men and women. A lot more could have been done here, but at 335 pages, the book was already quite hefty. Another mild complaint I had was that it seems a bit much to call a book that covers Germany, the United Kingdom, America, and Mexico, “global,” but again, including more would have made Rieger’s book a monolithic project and read. This begs the question, however, of what exactly “global” means to historians — because if it means only four countries, three of which are western European, that seems problematic.

I came away from the book with a far deeper understanding of the way that, to borrow from Dr. Heyck, technology and society reinvent one another over and over again. While the appearance of the bug — because it was such a large part of its draw — remained more or less the same, its cultural meaning was constantly being reworked, just as the societies in which it found itself developed unique and varied ideas of what it meant to them. The car’s reentrance into the automobile market in the 1990s speaks to how powerful and long lasting these associations can be. Additionally, Rieger’s explanations of why the VW caught on (or didn’t) displayed just how important international politics and economics are to technological adoption and adaptation. Far from being static entities only reflective of their designers’ technological goals, technologies can tell historians a lot about the worlds they were produced from and used within.