The chosen systematization ? ( was Science & Religion)

Tibor Benke (benke@SFU.CA)
Sat, 14 Oct 1995 09:36:16 -0700

Hello all,

I am still a week behind, and maybe by now the science versus religion
thread is over. Nevertheless, what I have read so far, makes me doubt
that I learned the same anthropology and logic that the certified smart
people did. Somebody should smarten me up, or somethin'.

First of all, it seems to me that "science" and "religion" name categories
specific to our way of dividing up the world. We see a difference between
the activities, traditions and results of each, because they are different
by definition. The sentence: "science deals with what is verifiable, and
religion deals with what is not verifiable (with scientific methods)" is
an *analytic* truth!

For some long period, perhaps starting with the Rennaisance, but maybe way
back when different cosmologies crashed into each other with the clash of
ancient old world civilizations, we have been making a distinction between
knowledge and belief, dividing the latter into true belief and false
belief. And having discovered early the epystemological paradox that
illusion is distinguishable from reality only when the illusion has lost
its effect, in retrospect (another *analytic* truth), we have been on a
quest for truth, or at least, a foolproof method of finding it.

Meanwhile the ignorant savages went on using their traditional methods of
thinking and discovered how to domesticate plants, how to navigate in
catamarans, how to detoxify plants that are naturally poisionous but are
rich sources of starch and/or protein, how to build cisterns in arid
regions, how to use herbs to cure illness, and how to use disease to
maintain social order. Of course, this was not scientific - it certainly
was not!

So arguing about science versus religion seems rather silly to me. Any
conflict is obviously caused by our monotheism - the notion that there is
one true God: ours, and anything else is a fraud or an illusion , - and
by the neccesarily anticlerical stance of early scientists who had to fight
the intellectual hegemony of actually existing Christianity, which had as
much to do with the legendary Yeshua ben Yoseph as the Scientific Socialism
of the Soviet Union had to do with Marx. But our modern science and
actually existing Christianity had this in common: that they serve(d)
equally well as an excuse for forcing savages to do what they are told,
steal their their land or property or cheat them of it, and kill them if
they dare fight back.

All attempts to define what science is are neccessarily doomed to failure,
because any such definition is bound to be either too narrow and - to use a
Popperian term - 'essentialist' or - due to considerations that Kurt Godel
brought to our attention - will result in "formally undecideable

If anthropology is to be scientific at all, it must adopt as a
methodological dogma that it must treat science as just one of the human
systematizations it must elucidate. To do anything else, would be to
introduce an unverifiable assumption. It would be to privilege a chosen
systematization - a religious act if there ever was one.

"If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then every people are chosen; the
only question is, 'for what?'" (Vazul)


This topic seems to come around from time to time. I wrote the following
some while back, it says the same thing another way:

To: Leo Thomas Walsh <ai653@KSU.KSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Experimental Spirituality (Was Science and Religion)

>From first Kings 18:22-25
"...then Elijah said to the people 'I am the only Prophet of the Lord
left, but there are four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Bring two
bulls; let them choose one for themselves, cut it up and lay it on the wood
without setting fire to it. You shall invoke your god by name and I will
invoke the Lord by name; and the god who answers by fire is God'. And all
the people shouted their approval."

To begin with, it seems to me, that 'religion' and 'science' name
categories which might be termed 'emic', that is our interpretation of the
terms is already skewed. In particular, when we speak of 'religion' we are
working with a Western, largely Christian category which already requires
consistency and a certain relationship to other categories of thought, such
as 'ideology', 'philosophy', or 'science'..This becomes obvious when we try
to apply the terms to systems increasingly different from Christianity.
While Judaism, and Islam differ only slightly, Budhism is much different
both in its content and its relationship to what we see as 'the rest of
existence'. Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, Shamanism are progressively more
different. Baha'i, New Age, Rastafarianism, Santaria, ect. are, perhaps,
more different still. Similarly, when we debate 'science' and what the
limits of its reliability are, the methods apropriate to it, and its
limitations, we are dealing with a largely anglo-american category. Even
the German word, 'Wissenchaft', covers a slightly different semantic
territory. Infact, we seem to lack a proper vocabulary to discuss any of
these things, because all our terms are full of built in preconceptions to
begin with. What all of these have in common, is that they are the product
of human cognition, they are socially produced and mediated, and they are
functional (i.e. they are intended to address human problems).
Furthermore all of these cognitive products are subject to selective
processes, both by social and material constraints.

It's a mistake of arrogance to think that science is the only self
correcting system of thought. Repentence, for example, is a self
correcting process, Confession for Catholics, is a self correcting
methodology. If religions were more rigid then other cognitive cultural
systemizations, religious innovation would rarely occur, whereas it is
clear, that they occur frequently in history. The rise of Christianity
itself in the wake of Judaism and Mediterranian paganisms; and within
Christianity schisms such as Arianism, Nestorianism, Coptic Orthodoxy,
Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism in its many forms, all testify that
religious innovation is an ongoing process. Some religious traditions even
have institutions for innovation, such as prophecy in Judaism. In our own
days there is a veritable flood of spiritual innovation: Native
spirituality, feminist spirituality, new age, various South American and
African syncretisms. And all these innovations are undergoing continous
validations as people adhere to them, attempt to apply them to their daily
lives, drop out of them, modify them, etc.

In contrast, it is becoming an ever more difficult task to prevent science
from degenerating into dogma. I have a hunch that this is a consequence of
the struggle scientists waged against the Catholic clergy in the
enlightenment. In order to differentiate science from religion, they had
to either claim exclusive validity for their own methods and demystify the
practices of the church (which, to be sure, were well rigidified and
required demystification), or draw a rigid boundary between religious and
scientific topics. These boundry maintenance activities cause the public
understanding of science to be indistinguishable from any other dogma.
(N.B. I am not saying that actual science is but another dogma, just that
many claims to be scientific are really dogmatic). Furthermore, it seems
to me, that no general rule can be formulated to distinguish, once and for
all, scientific thought from all other systematizations.

As far as I can see, the difference between science and religious
knowledge, is that intuition or revelation has less epidtemological value
assigned to it in science.


Tibor Benke
Graduate Student (MA program)
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University

Heraclitus was right: change is constant!
Heraclitus was wrong: change is variable!