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How do relations make ‘religion’ and ‘science’?

Laura Vollmer defends PhD thesis
02 June 2017
Laura J. Vollmer

Laura Vollmer conducted research on how the interaction and relations between religion and science actually make the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘science’. On Thursday the 8th of June she will defend her thesis in order to receive the PhD degree in the Comparative Study of Religion.


Laura Vollmer’s thesis is titled: “The relationality of religion and science: Toward a new discourse-analytical framework”, but rather than asking what the religion-science relationship is, this work explores how relations make ‘religion’ and ‘science’. In her dissertation Laura argues that method and theory in the study of religion, and academia at large, could benefit from ‘relationality analysis’: making relations the primary object of analysis. This approach could help overcome the lack of clarification regarding key terms (‘religion’, ‘science’) by shifting our focus from the question of what the meaning of a term is to ‘how’ a term means in a discourse-analytical framework.

Presumptions about relations are built into our definitions

A bit more concretely: Laura’s examination of the historical discourse of the English language term ‘religion’ relative to the term ‘science’ shows that relational demarcation led to the attribution of definitions that were not pre-existing. Laura comments: 'For instance, the first arguments for ‘religion’ and ‘science’ as oppositional concepts appear in the discourse alongside of the first instances of defining ‘religion’ in terms of ‘supernaturalism’ to the specific exclusion of ‘naturalism’, the latter of which was associated with ‘science’ to the specific exclusion of ‘supernaturalism’. Presumptions about relations are built into our definitions of the terms that are then used to argue for a relationship, creating a circular argument. The argument that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are oppositional based on the supernaturalism-naturalism dichotomy is circular because the supernaturalism/naturalism definitions are a product of framing ‘religion’ and ‘science’ as in opposition. The religion-science conflict is a construct, though very real, affecting real people. And yet, there are many possibilities for religion-science relations, and as such, there is nothing stopping us from constructing the relation in a beneficial way.'

Terms remain fluid

'My interest for this subject primarily arose in response to the repeated question of ‘What do you mean by this or that term?’, as asked in feedback from my professors on my work throughout my academic career. I do not think it is necessary or even effective for us to define every term, because terms are very fluid. This then led me to the question: ‘How can we analyze terms if we cannot pin down their meaning?’ I started to think about what this fluidity meant, how terms change meaning. I suggested that we make this ‘how’ our question to direct how we analyze and understand our terms. I have argued that we should think of our use of terms as an action or process that contributes to their meaning, rather than attempting (and I think failing) to contextualize them so as to create a static meaning. No matter how context specific we get, terms remain fluid.'

Collaboration has been an utter delight

Laura completed a Master’s in East Asian Studies at Washington University, St. Louis, and a Research Master’s in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. For her second Master’s she chose Groningen primarily to work with Kocku von Stuckrad, as she was fascinated by his work on discourse analysis in the study of religion. She enthusiastically adds: 'After working with him in various capacities, including his supervision of my MA thesis, as well as Christoph Jedan, I found that they both greatly contributed to my growth as a scholar. Our collaboration has been an utter delight. They are exceedingly knowledgeable, endlessly helpful, and absolutely brilliant.'

Thesis defense

On the 8th of June Laura Vollmer will defend her dissertation in order to receive the doctoral degree in the presence of her supervisors prof. dr. Kocku von Stuckrad, Professor of Religious Studies and prof. dr. Christoph Jedan, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen.

  • When:           Thursday 8 June 2017
  • Start:             14:30
  • Where:           Academy Building
Last modified:12 June 2023 8.19 p.m.
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