Re: Science and Religion

Matthew S. Tomaso (Tomaso@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Sun, 8 Oct 1995 11:09:51 -0500

At 12:43 AM 10/8/95 PDT, Read, Dwight ANTHRO wrote:

>Tomaso is half right. Most of us accept the laws of thermodynamics on a kind
>of faith--the faith that someone HAS tested it and found it consistent with
>empirical observation. Religion, by its very nature, is based upon faith
>that is NOT subjected to test and accepted only when it is found to be in
>acordance with empirical observation. Christians take it on faith that Jesus
>was the Son of God and was resurrected; they do NOT assume that at some point
>early on in the development of Christianity someone actually tested this
>hypothesis and demonstrated that it is consistent with empirical observation,
>fits in with theories about how the universe is structered via structuring
>properties that are themselves part of the universe and observable, etc.

this is more-or-less exactly what I was saying - quoting myself -

"The rote application of general principles of received knowledge, taken on
faith and used uncritically for interpretive purposes, is bad science. In
other words, application of untested theoretical models or working
hypotheses as assumptions can cripple analysis. The corollary, of course,
that religion has anything in addition to received knowledge, is more
difficult to show, but religions do seem to adapt to their social
environments (just look at the Pope's recent travels) !"

In other words, religion is not good science....
Dwight does point out, however, that there is a difference in what is taken
for granted in religion and science. Well, let's interrogate this idea a
little more closely. Christians, I think, will blame part of their faith on
the witnesses (ie the apostles, etc) who wrote about their messaiah's life
and the fact that they more or less agree about the facts of that life,
right? How far removed is this from ethnography? or experiments that took
place years ago - for that matter? Do we want to proviledge hypothesis
testing over witnessing and life experience?

What I was trying to point out (and I guess I failed miserably) is that
there is a qualitative difference in the way scientific theory and religious
theory is used in present contexts. Religion is used in an exclusively
interpretive mode, the theory directly contextualizing and explaining the
reality. Science uses theory to illuminate reality, with hypotheses and
test implications which are capable of modifying the hypotheses - ergo the
theory. In this way, science has a built in dynamics and adaptive
flexibility (observation and logic), whereas religion does not. To put this
into terms that Read might agree with - science engages reality mediated
through formal, tested theoretical structures, while religion engages
reality through its totalizing theory.

>Trying ot find supeficial similarities between relition and science is, as
>Jay comments, not very insightful (except from the perspetive of how
>conceptual systems are constructed, adhered to, etc.).

I agree 100% with this. I do not agree that the similarity between
scientific and religious faith is, in any way, superficial. I take
structure (in Levi-Strauss/Marshall Sahlins' sense) and evolution as matters
of faith. I believe in geomorphological and pedological models of soil
formation and sedimentation. The fact that I believe in these things akes
the evidence of their reality apparent to me all the time. If you speak to
a religious person, I think you'll find that much the same applies.


Matt Tomaso.
Anthropology. University of Texas at Austin.
Phone/Fax 512-453-6256