Re: Religion and science

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 13:24:00 +0900

At 8:24 PM 96.8.15 -0700, Ed Farrell wrote:
>I would like to add some thoughts to this ongoing
discussion [of the separation of the supernatural
and the natural, and the difference between science
and religion].

>If I understand Clyde Davenport correctly, he
suggests that the religious may to varying degrees
regard the natural and supernatural as unseperate,
because they see into, or act, in both arenas. He
sees this propensity in religions such as Christianity
(at least in its medieval varieties) as well as
shamanistic religions. He further suggests that
the very idea of the separation of natural and
supernatural is under the influence the scientific
world view, and that this separation is possibly

>I partly agree with this. I am a little uncertain of
what is meant by separation. I would agree that for
the religious the natural and supernatural may be
apparent in daily life and thus unseparated in
experience. However, the natural and supernatural
are indeed separate in the manner in which a person
is informed of them. The individual is informed of
the natural world primarily through the senses and
our interpretation of them, but is informed of the
supernatural world through faith and the direct
intervention of supernatural agency(ies).

I comment:
Your point is well taken, but I think your perspective
has its origin in the common-sense understanding of
the natural and the supernatural which I believe is a
product of our modern culture. To me, a key point is
that we are informed of the natural world through
not merely the data of our senses, but rather our
interpretation of this "data." And this interpretation
is culturally based. Cultures, I believe, can define
themselves as entities in two ways. One is in
reference to other cultures (often this is a negative
process of stereotyping). The other is in reference
to nature. Cultures need to create a world of nature
from which they can gain a sense of their own identity
in being at the same time one with this nature and yet
differentiated from it. In other words, cultures create
nature (we may term this nature, culturized nature).

Concerning your view that the supernatural is based
on faith, my impression is that the concept of "faith"
has only a limited application in religions. The idea is
naturally important in Christianity (although a careful
study might reveal it to be more important in some sects
than others, and that the idea developed in the evolution
of Christian thought), and in some aspects of Buddhist
thought (as evidenced in the sutra _The Awakening of
Faith_, which may though be a text created in Central
Asia or China in order to justify a new type of Buddhist
thinking). But I think we will not be able to find this
notion of faith in many religions (including shamanistic

Concerning the idea of the direct intervention of
supernatural entities, how can this intervention be
"direct" unless it is somehow through our senses that
we are aware of this intervention? And what does
it mean for the supernatural to "intervene" in the
natural or the cultural?

Ed Farrell continues:
>In this respect, I think the natural/supernatural
separation is an absolute one, even though the religious
may act in both realms in daily life. The supernatural, as
understood by most religions, is by definition ALWAYS
apart from sense and science; where science uncovers
hidden things and obscure relations they are always of
the natural realm.

I comment:
While one can make the argument perhaps that the
religious is separate from the sensual given the
ascetic dimension in many religions (although even in
the case of ascetic practices the body is the scene
upon which the rejection of the sensual is played out)
and the idea that shamanistic religion is a journeying
to other worlds (ignoring here, though, the mediating
role of shamanism, as well as the possession type
of shamanism where spirits are called down into own's
own body), I do not think it is possible to make the
point that the religious is by definition separate from
science. Science as we understand it is in its origins
a historical entity which appeared in 16th or 17th
century Europe. Religion on the other hand is something
which has been around in one form or another for eons.
If there is some definitional relation between them
it is that although science grows out of the kind of
thought and philosophy which occurs in a religious
world-view (Greek and Roman thought, the Islamic
inheritance of this tradition, and then the European
Christian response to this tradition), it only acquired
an essence of its own (as being something more than
ethnoscience) by gradually severing its links to the
religious background from which it emerged. In
other words, while we can say that science (as a
totalizing system) is separate from religion, to define
religion by opposing it to the recent historical entity
science is a confused way of approaching the actual
circumstances, no better than people like the
Theosophists trying to say that religion in its
essence is scientific.

Ed Farrell continues:
>I think the separation of the natural and supernatural
has been more of a religious distinction than a
scientific one. The mainstream, modern, scientific
world view tends to regard the supernatural as either a
set of diverse but related mental fictions or
manifestations of the natural world that are not
presently understood (or some combination of the two).
This extinguishes rather than distinguishes the
supernatural. It is in religion, on the other hand,
that the distinction is really crucial: without it,
the supernatural might be interpreted as something
other than it really is, with possibly dire

I comment:
While it is true that the scientific world-view
extinguishes the supernatural, what I would like
to point out is that science needs the supernatural
in order to define itself. In other words, it is
only by creating a realm called the supernatural and
then in denying this realm that science can gain
its identity.

This phenomenon of extinguishing the supernatural
was naturally a gradual one. To overgeneralize, we
have two movements in this process. The first is
deism where God is still necessary as the first
cause but where the world once created is seen as
then operating according to its own natural laws.
The second is when God is no longer necessary as a
first cause.

Ed Farrell continues:
>The notion of possible "dire consequences"
associated with neglecting or misinterpreting
the supernatural is universal in religion (so far
as I know), and so I propose that any definition
of religion would be remiss without reference
to the notion of reconciliation. Religious are
always called to do more than incorporate the
supernatural into their world view; they must
also act on the basis of faith. More than this,
the actions they are called to make are for the
purpose of bringing the religious into "right"
relations with the supernatural. This purposive
action in behalf of supernatural agencies is at
the heart of religious experience. However,
religious approaches to reconciliation differ
both in the nature of what must be reconciled
and how reconciliation is accomplished.

I comment:
I am not sure that I corretly understand
your notion of "dire consequences." Perhaps
you refer to the Christian/Islamic/Buddhist
(etc.) notion of heaven and hell. I do not know
the exact history of the development of this
notion, but clearly in shamanisic kinds of
religions although an underworld and an
overworld may exist, there are no ethical
ideas associated with them (like if you
are unethical, when you die you will go to
hell, etc.). Or perhaps are you talking
about people placating the deities which
are thought to cause natural disasters.
Here, though, what I think of is the close
connection between religion and the natural.

Your idea of reconcilliation is interesting.
I wonder, though, if it does not refer more
to the specialized religious traditions which
are sometimes termed the organized religions
than to religion in general which to me is
more about mediation, the mediation between
the cultural and the natural. Reconcilliation
seems to me to be preeminently a moral/
ethical doctrine. It abstracts from the
cosmological and ritual aspects of religion
(i.e. what we may think of as theory and
practice) in order to develop a social ethic.

The process of turning cosmology into
ethics may be seen in the development of
Judaism in which a universalitic sense
of history developed out of what was
originally a purely ethnic conception of the
struggle between various regional gods.
In the case of China, we find the development
of ethics from ritual as can be seen in the
evolution of the term *li* from signifying
a code of rites and ceremonies governing
religious observances to signifying a more
general meaning encompassing social norms,
customs, and mores in the context of
more diversified social roles and more
complex political institutions. As Hall and
Ames say (in their _Thinking Through
Confucius_, SUNY, 1987, p. 86): "The
focus of ritual actions shifted from man's
[people's] relationship with the supernatural to
the relationship obtaining among members of
human society, and their application was extended
from the court to all levels of civilized society."

Naturally, though, I would object to Hall
and Ame's use of the word "supernatural"
here. But I think it is a common misconception
because it is very much a part of our own


In thinking over this whole issue again, we
may be able to grant some status to the
word "supernatural" in religious thought if we
restrict its context to those religions which
see the world as created by an omnipotent
Creator/Deity. Even in this case, though, we
must remember that its original sense was more
that the supernatural was revealed in the
natural in the wonder of creation. While this
sense of wonder at the natural world may
resemble that found in other types of
religions, in these other religions I believe
that what we are dealing with is not a
distinction between the supernatural
and the natural but more the supernormal
and the normal. Science exists in the
context of the distinction between the
supernatural and the natural because it must
posit mathematical laws which in the backgound
work to create what we experience as
sensual nature.

Well, this reply is already getting over long.
So I shall stop here. I must say, though, before I
end that in looking over what I wrote that my
ideas concerning the relationship of nature and
culture need more development, although I think
that it is a useful, indeed, powerful interpretive
tool to see nature as culturally constructed.

My apologies to those of you who have
grown tired of the science/religion thread.
And my thanks to Ed Farrell, for his interesting
thoughts on this topic.

Clyde Davenport