Wednesday, September 24, 2008


When I first started at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1978, I had no categories that were useful in terms of what I was learning, in spite of undergrad religion courses in 1958. In fact, when I decided that what I believed (while acknowledging that the human brain is limited) was pretty much the evidence of my senses -- which I thought was more polite than saying I was one of the “a” words (atheist, agnostic) -- they told me this was phenomenology (NOT phenomenal in the sense of praise) and when I told them I loved stories they said it was “narrative.” But the trendy thing was deconstruction and everything was fabulous, but not in the sense of praise. Fabulized, made up. When I insisted that my method WAS phenomenological, dark clouds gathered around their brows and they frowned. “But where is FAITH?” they demanded. “Where is GOD?” Even at my “home” seminary, Meadville/Lombard which was Unitarian Universalist, they thought I ought to define God.

Then I hit upon the formula: comparative religion. This is a key that many scientists never really find. They’re still back in the 19th century when religion was familiarly true (theist) or untrue (A-theist, which is only another word for pagan). At best they would allow that a “true” religion has a written out book and all the others are “mythic,” fabulized, playing at religion. These are OLD categories. (Has anyone written a pagan religious book? Sure. Lots, because this category is “everythingelse.”)

Many problems disappear when one moves to a different set of categories that are based on analysis rather than in/out:

A. Institutional aspects of religion: organizations with books, priests, buildings, political clout, and hierarchies. Theology matters only to the degree it supports the institution. Buddhists have this stuff as much as Catholics. I’ll say to you that even Native Americans and Rastafarians can have these things and when they do, they try to get and keep both power and property, just the same as white Euros with books and cathedrals. As soon as a religion becomes institutionalized, it sets about trying to build itself into the ruling class, the economy and the national dialogue. Scientists ignore this unless it cuts into their funding. After all, they have their own institutions (turf) to protect.

B. Theological content of religion: When the “experts” get together, they talk over the heads of the believers. Process theologians trying to reconcile particle physics with Christianity are no more arcane than South American Indians explaining the revelations of atahuasca in the contemporary world. The inner task is always to try to convert the emotion (the “felt” content) into reasoned theory, usually involving “Theos,” since the Western world with its roots in the Mediterranean desert religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has always been preoccupied with the powers of the Chief of the tribe. Scientists like this and often want to get to this context. They understand the mode because to them science is a form of theology.

C. Simple confrontation
of the great Whatever. This can be mediated by drugs, nature, love, and brain sets so that it doesn’t seem so simple, but most people will grant that the Sacred is palpable quite aside from the question of whether it’s actually there or not. We feel “something” and it’s stronger in some circumstances than in others. The BEST scientists will acknowledge this, might even be motivated by it.

D. Behavior. Esp. the question of how people ought to behave, how they ought to make moral decisions (by rules, on principle, case-by-case, by following role-models), and all the sub-legal (or maybe they’re supra-legal) issues of fairness, compassion, and protection. Scientists are supposed to have Rules of the Game, though they seem neglected lately.

E. Aesthetics. At what point does art become worship? At what point does beauty become God? Or fusion with the universe? Or is the issue what God makes versus what humans make?

F. Ecological origins.
This is the one that interests me most. Most religions, it seems to me, are an upwelling of the place where they begin: the sensory material, the weather, the economics, sources of food, and social organization that make it possible to survive there. The ones that stay in place have a “rightness” to them, a “fittingness.” On the other hand, some dimensions of religion are pretty universal. The High Theology of the Trinity makes sense in terms of the Father, Mother and Child and can transfer that dynamic anywhere there are humans. In that place we meet the psychologist, who is sometimes considered scientific.

G. Metareligion, which is itself “comparative religion,” not in the way the 19th century anthropologists began to collect strange and wonderful “religions,” but in the later way that we’ve discover each religion really IS systematic, valid and sacred on its own terms, and are now looking for ways that all religions agree enough to be reconciled so that we don’t have to fight bloody wars. But that 19th century anthropology was wonderful fun and some people don’t want to give up the “natural history” aspect of it, the collection of totems, fetishes, icons, which in the past were often made of skulls and skins. Natural history scientists already had collections of skulls and skins.

H. The attempt to control fate. If we are “good” (meaning anything from virtuous to observant to sacrificing), will things turn out better? So far the proposed cause and effect connections haven’t worked out: evil people do well, good people suffer.

If you are looking for a good book for thinking about religion in these ways, I recommend two books by William E. Paden published by Beacon Press. These small, clear books are for his classes and the reason there are two is that one is a later distillation of the first. “Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion,” (1998) is the early one. “Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion” (1992, 2nd edition, 2002) is the later. Beacon Press is a wholly-owned but separate and subsidiary corporation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is not quite a denomination because the congregations are independent entities. It was hoped by some that this idea would keep it from institutionalizing and bureaucratizing. Professor Paden, who is my age, is still actively publishing and teaching at the University of Vermont. Here’s the url for his vita:


Heather said...

Very thoughtful and thought-provoking, Mary. I am still a little perplexed why you lump most scientists into a mind-set of theist versus atheist. I can personally cram myself into the "atheist" category if pressed, but I usually don't do that, nor do most of the scientists I frequent (nor into the "theist" category, except for a couple who stand out in my memory).

You are quite right that scientists have their own institutions to protect, which is why we're generally in favor of explicit separation of (church) and state. In this I think I can speak for the heterogeneous community of scientists.

I better recognize your categories of "science as theology", "confrontation of the Whatever" and certainly "aesthetics" than the other ones, among my rather broad acquaintance-ship. I'm a little surprised to see Behavior among your attributes of religion - do you mean morality? Isn't that more anthropological/"human nature" than religious?

It's good to see you on Nature Network; perhaps you can refine and develop these thoughts.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Alethea, I'm reacting to reading a number of blogs where arguments about religion among scientists are almost always couched in a theist vs. atheist framework. might be an example. Those folks are SO sharp about most things but when they get to religion it's all about whether God exists or not. Sam Harris, who makes a great fuss about Fundamentalism, also goes back again and again to God. I think that the creationism/evolution argument is almost always about the existence of God.

As for institutions, recently the problem sounds as though it is not enough separation between CORPORATIONS and science as well as separation between corporations and the state, which the biggies seem to view as mostly a nuisance trying to regulate them.

I do mean behavior to be morality but I, in turn, am surprised that you would class morality as anthropology/"human nature!" Are the ten commandments anthropology? Isn't abortion a religious issue?

It's great to be in dialogue with intelligent others! Somehow it seems to be easier in an English context, or is Nature Network self-selected to exclude the theist/fundamentalist/creationist folks?

Prairie Mary

Heather said...

Many of these online fora take on a character of their own and NN does seem particularly genteel. Not really because it's British, but probably because it's Nature (the journal, as opposed to Mother Nature).

Religions do like to have the last word on what is or is not considered moral behavior, but I don't think that many of the principles covered in the ten commandments needed to have been ensured by a religion. They are rules to govern a society, and some of them, like the injunction to kill or to covet another (citizen)'s possessions are quite widespread and do not depend on the specific religious background of a society.

Abortion does not have to be a religious issue, either, for the same reasons. Humans might lack the biological capacity of rabbits or cats for reabsorbing conceptuses under adverse situations for the gestating female, but injunctions on whether or not a woman can have an abortion have as much to do with power and population control as true concern over destroying a soul.

mscriver said...

I guess my introduction wasn't clear enough. Or maybe my title is misleading. I don't mean to prescribe which method of investigating religion or taking a religious position would be right for scientists. Rather I simply wanted to point out that there are other ways of thinking about religion than whether or not God exists, which is where a lot of scientists whom I read seem to get stuck. In the US it's a political polarity.

One can use whatever angle of approach seems useful and justified, but one ought to be clear about which one works for them. If the idea of religion as morality doesn't work for you, feel free to abandon that approach!

I kind of like the idea of moral laws being parallel to physical laws, like the law of gravity. Murder has social consequences quite apart from religion.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Interesting and thoughtful discussion. I'm a little tired of the whole debate in the usual places, so it's good to see someone actually thinking. I'm currently stirring my own thoughts on the debate, especially in context of creationism and why the approach taken currently by most scientists is doomed to failure. But I'll not be looking at categorization. You can do that ;)

I don't think that Nature Network self-selects against theists/fundamentalists/creationists per se; rather it self-selects for intelligent people with something to say. You'll notice that we don't have militant atheists either (there should be a word for 'fundamentalist atheist').

There are at least two and a half self-confessed 'theists' on NN, for example.

Heather said...

Much as I am fond of you, Richard, I still want to take exception to your use of the term "most scientists", that is what bothered me in Mary's discourse as well.

Most scientists are lazy humans. I'll go with that. However, I don't think any of us meet most scientists, and there is much more diversity out there than your use of the term "most scientists" allows.

You and Mary are annoyed by the posturing of some vocal, well-written scientists who are practiced in the techniques of debate and brow-beating, to position themselves as representative of the entire scientific community. I can certainly understand that.

However, what my point was is that there is a much larger, silent majority of scientists who perhaps lean more towards a representation of atheists at a population level but among whom can be found all other grades of spirituality that you might like to find. They just can't be bothered to be as vocal about the intermediate positions, that are likely to be misinterpreted anyhow by the two pole extremes and by simple-minded journalist-trained citizens who want to see things in terms of black-and-white debate, as those who represent the extremes.

Je revendique le juste milieu. (Can't find a nuanced definition of "revendiquer" but it goes beyond 'claim' to acquire overtones of 'identify with'.)

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Alethea, First, I often disagree with people of whom I am fond. In fact, one definition of friends is "someone who disagrees with me on all my favorite topics!" I think that might be C.S. Lewis who said it.

But the main thing is that you're arguing with someone else than myself, someone you knew earlier maybe. THIS IS NOT ABOUT WHAT SCIENTISTS BELIEVE, this is a list of possible ways to divide up the territory when thinking about religion. A person can take one approach one time and five minutes later switch to another way of looking at it.

I have newer known exactly what "spirituality" means. But this list is not a continuum from "more spiritual" to "less spiritual." Just a list of suggestions of method.

Prairie Mary

Heather said...

And a welcome one, at that. I think I'll go nominate your post for Open Laboratory 2008 (and not just because I co-opted this comment thread) ;-)

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Alethea, though I have no idea what Open Laboratory 2008 is. As for comments, it's considered a great compliment to make a post that attracts discussion, so thanks again!

Prairie Mary

Dave Lull said...

". . . Open Lab, now in its third year, is an anthology highlighting the best science blog entries of the year. Famously, the entire shebang is assembled and published by hardworking volunteers in only a few weeks over Christmas and New Year, and proceeds go to support the annual Science Blogging Conference that occurs every January. The last two years the book was published print-on-demand via (urbanely edited by Bora along with guest editor Reed Cartwright). You can buy the most recent book over at Lulu, which contains a number of specimens from Nature Network denizens, and which was recently reviewed by that well-known rag, Nature.)"

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