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About usFaculty of Theology and Religious StudiesOrganizationAcademic staffPhD ResearchComparative Study of Religion

Laura Vollmer

The Relationality of Religion and Science

The religion-science relationship has captured the attention of experts and laity alike, resulting in a plethora of theories and typologies of the relationship, mostly based on or in reaction to the widely believed notion that religion and science are conflictual in nature. Today, from Dharamsala to Vatican City, religion-science pairings are increasingly and enthusiastically embraced, empirically crushing the conflict thesis. Theoretically, this thesis has been challenged by an intellectual-historical perspective that demonstrates the dynamism of ‘religion’ and that religion and science have not always been ontologically distinct. Discourse analysis also theoretically challenges the conflict thesis, as it indicates the fluidity of concepts, the porous boundaries between systems of knowledge, and the social construction of knowledge. Thus relating religion and science according to a typology of relationships is doomed to fail, since it theoretically rests on the fact that religion and science are two distinct, static phenomena. Where does this leave us in method and theory in the study of religion and science? How can the religion-science relationship be defined? And, more broadly, how can fluid concepts and changing discourses be defined without violating their dynamism and dependence on related ideas?

I argue to understand an idea its relationality must be examined. ‘Relationality,’ contrary to the problematic binary indicated by ‘relationship,’ is a state of unitary being. I define ‘relationality’ as relationship at an ontological level: the manner in which a thing or idea exists relative to another or others. Like the Buddhist parabolic three sticks standing upright and leaning against each other, if one is taken away, the whole construct falls. From the perspective of relationality analysis ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are co-producers of particular meaning structures. The object of analysis is the particular ontological structure that the given relationship relies on. By defining ‘religion’ and ‘science’ in terms of one another, a typology of relational structures can emerge from the data, accounting for all constructs of meaning and putting them in perspective, capturing the range and complexity of relative concepts in a dynamic model.

Within a theoretical framework of discourse analysis, this research project will analyze the entanglements of ontological discourses to demonstrate religion-science relational constructs, focusing on how relationship is itself discussed and organized. The data set consists of academic and popular, scientific and religious publications that address religion in the natural sciences and vice versa, in which a clear entanglement between scientific and religious ontological discourses is visible. The relational constructs involved can heuristically be understood to be one of identity, representation, or causality. The ‘identity’ construct constricts the meaning of one concept in relation to another through reductive explanation, demonstrated through two case studies that differ in regard to perspective. The case of ‘God on the brain,’ or the reductive localization of religious experience in neurophysiological processes, is used to exemplify the scientification of religion. The religionation of science is demonstrated through the case study of ‘scientism,’ a reductive explanation of scientific ideology as religious. ‘Representation’ describes an expansive process in the attribution of meanings, also consisting of two perspectives. ‘Holy physics,’ or the case of scientific discoveries interpreted not only as religiously significant, but moreover as religious itself, indicates a religiosity of science. Buddhist meditation in the context of neuroscience makes up the case study of ‘contemplative science,’ which exemplifies the scientificity of religion. Finally, the relational construct of ‘causality’ gives added meaning to two concepts not in direct relation to each other, but rather from a broader perspective encompassing both. This religionā€science familiality is captured by the example of ‘shared foundations’ of religion and science, in terms of cognitive and bio-evolutionary bases, intellectual, historical underpinning, and ethical premises.

Exploring how these constructs frame the meaning of relationship demonstrates complex entanglements that confound notions of fundamental separation, a theoretical problem in other areas as well, like religion and secularism. Relationality analysis has the potential to provide deeper nuance into the manner of which discourse entanglements manifest and to produce a meta-model of concepts to replace analytically problematic, rigid categories. It is the aim of the research project to test this hypothesis and to demonstrate its usability for discourse theory generally and for the study of religion and science specifically.

Last modified:14 July 2017 3.43 p.m.