Thursday, July 23, 2015

Notes on How Pluralism Challenges the Integration of Religion and Science with Emerging Adults

Here's a current excerpt from an academic article I'm writing on the problems facing the integration of science and religion, especially in light of the attitudes of 18-30 year olds. 

In discussing the relation between religion and science, it sounds like a conversation about two things (and may imply, to many) a conversation between Christian faith and science). And that fact may deceive us in understanding the attitudes of 18-30 year olds on the topic. Emerging adults have grown up in an environment saturated with options and possibilities. This experience has become increased through the explosion of knowledge on the Internet, with the number of websites fast approaching one trillion (a number that can be monitored here). 

In some ways, this is essentially the reality of pluralism, and we could argue that this not really a new problem. But that notion strikes me as a bit naïve. Pluralism is not entirely novel, to be sure, but it will certainly continue to increase. And for the focus of this article—namely, emerging adults—the panoply of options available makes it difficult to decide about science and religion. In a recent article (behind paywall), “The ‘Relation’ between Science and Religion in the Pluralistic Landscape of Today’s World,” Zainal Abidin Bagir rightly notes that this simple “and” between “science and religion” obscures a mass of complications, for one thing, that both are primarily about ideas. And there are other concerns: Emerging adults are not only facing the situation of religion (in the singular) and the way it interacts with science, they are coming to grips with the variety of religions that can be brought to bear on scientific insights, and not only the five classic world religions of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, which leaves out religious traditions with rather large numbers of adherents such as Sikhism, but also indigenous traditions as well. Bagir rightly highlights these concerns and concludes that
The intention to expand the discourse by taking into account the pluralistic landscape that we know and experience today requires not simply inviting more participants from different religious traditions but also demands the expansion of the conceptions of “science” and “religion.” (p. 406)
But I think we need to go further.
Emerging adults are experimenting with various religious inputs and therefore not subscribing to one single religious tradition. Put a slightly different way, emerging adults I have interviewed find it hard to decide on one religion in light of all the possibilities for spirituality, which makes it difficult to know which religion to bring to science. “I can’t commit to any religion until I know more” was a common refrain, which may reflect “choice phobia,” but may also be a statement of supreme humility. And this pluralism is not simply moving beyond religion and Christianity to any number of other religions, whether “world religions” or indigenous ones. It is about dividing religious practice in various slices. Analogically, this is an iPod playlist approach to religion instead of an LP one in which the listener makes the choices from a variety of artists, and is not bound by the sequence that the artists themselves assemble. If it sounds like we have arrived back at Wuthnow’s theme of emerging adults as bricoleurs (or "those who tinker"), then I have made my point. Thus many voices exist, and many students blend a variety of spiritual insights, certainly not simply Christian, but other religious traditions, such as Buddhism and Wiccan practices, as well. In addition, there are those who synthesize belief with materialism, such as the hard-core biochemistry student who could not deny that he prayed and the request seem to be granted. He remains unsure that this is not simply coincidence, and yet, continues to pray. The blend of various beliefs—and even unbelief—confuses the theoretician who seeks pure types, but that is the reality of emerging adult culture. Ultimately, the choice may be based on an inherent pragmatism, and not on what is theoretically true. All this makes twenty-first century pluralism, as practiced by 18-30 year olds, complicated and dizzying to grasp. We have left the world of two-dimensional “science and religion” to something much more multi-dimensional for which I frankly have no substitute term.
Finally, in this search for religious answers, one result is that many emerging adults would rather Google than go to a congregation in pursuing answers about science and religion. One of the questions I posed in the interviews was this: “Where would you go to look for answers about science and religion?” A large majority responded: “the Internet.” As I mentioned above, the conflict model seems to predominate on the Internet in its craving to provide “click bait” for its users, provocative snippets of articles that demand our attention by their outrageous or adversarial claims. (We are naturally, neurologically stimulated by threat, novelty, and conflict.) These emerging adults find faith in the Internet (as it were) because of its putative neutrality, openness, and objectivity. Here I have to offer a further differentiation for who curates this conversation. My research suggests that, in addition to the Internet, academic voices have some air of neutrality for those outside faith communities. In contrast, for the 18-30 year olds who approach this question as Christians, for example, Jonathan Hill’s research indicates that a pastor’s voice, because it defines a social world, of what can be thought or not, is probably more important than the Internet or the college classroom. Hill writes, “For most students, then, it matters little what their professor teaches… What their friends, parents, and pastor thinks is going to be far more important, because their social world is inextricably tied up with these significant others" (Emerging Adulthood and Faith56). In contrast, for religious seekers (in all varieties) outside of religious communities, they are often distrustful of the church, synagogue, or mosque as a place to seek out answers about science and religion. Partly, this reflects distrust in institutional religious traditions as repositories for truth seeking. Partly, whether this is accurate or not, imams, pastors, and rabbis are seen as “hired guns,” who give answers that always reinforce their respective traditions because they are hired to do so. 

The net result is this: in order to make sense of diversity of options, emerging adults increasingly look to the Internet, which means the locus of their pluralistic search for relating—and perhaps integrating—science and religion will continue to migrate to a diversity of locations, but especially virtual ones.

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