|This post excerpted from my book|
To define is to separate and, one hopes, to clarify. Sometimes, however, definitions also create problems. Do religion and science represent two clearly definable two things? Lurking in this blog may lie a desire to reify science and religion as one thing each because then we would have a singular relationship between them. And who wouldn't want that? If we simply could help these two dance in a beautifully orchestrated duet, life might be beautiful. But that convenient pairing was a convenient fiction, a useful heuristic device.
Not until 1833 did the Cambridge University historian and philosopher of science William Whewell coin the term "scientist" to replace such terms as "cultivators of science." Indeed, even today there is no one Science with a capital S. In fact—as is the case in French and other languages, but not in English—we would do better to refer to “the sciences” (or less sciences) or the “science of x,” such as physics, biology, or—to follow Thomas Torrance— even the “science of theology.” A.D. Ritchie offers this in his Studies in the History and Methods of Sciences,
“There is no Science in the singular, for there are only sciences.”
And “There is no one scientific method that is universally applicable.” A.D. Ritchie
The failure of the Logical Positivists in the 1920s to sustain their assertion of verification and then Karl Popper’s later revision, also a failure, to promote falsification demonstrate that the “scientific method” of fourth grade science fairs provides no real aid in comprehending what scientists actually do. By the middle of the twentieth century Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts” and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (a book title that apply describes its ethos and tone) further solidify the chaos. For my part, I’m most convinced by Imre Lakatos’s “research programme” as well as Peter Lipton’s Inference to the Best Explanation as meditating theories between the putative Scientific Method and scientific anarchy, which I’ll simply note for now.
Despite these challenges, defining science represents the less complicated side of the ledger. The term religion also has no single consensual definition in the academic guild, nor among its practitioners. The classic five “world religions” of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all tolerate at best an uneasy relationship with the moniker religion. For example, Stephen Prothero has written, “One of the most common claims among Hindus in the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion … Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Law),” and many Christians will say that their faith is “a relationship, not a religion.” And when one includes Native American cultures, the discussion becomes particularly intriguing. Severin M. Fowles has noted that there is no good word for “religion” among the Southeast Pueblo peoples, but instead the best rendering is “doing,” and so he titles his study of their practices and beliefs, An Archaeology of Doings.
I’ll stop there, but the citations could certainly be multiplied. It is no less difficult to find an accepted definition among scholars such as Alister McGrath who, in his introduction to religion and science, was provoked to concede, “there is no generally accepted definition of religion.”
While I appreciate McGrath’s intellectual humility, I cannot take recourse to this approach in this blog. My thoughts will await another post, but for now I leave with this question, "What do you think is the meaning of science and of religion?"