The Crossroad of Science and the Study of Religion

Natalie Barsalona
9 min readDec 5, 2020

Can these two disciples conflict while remaining in harmony with each other?

Defining Science

So you’re at the intersection of science and religion and you are not sure where to turn. Which road leads to “truth”? Which truth is accurate?

The role of science in the study of religion serves as a method in which an entity that is exterior and simultaneously a part of our lives, interacts with the structure of society. It is often used as a tool of domination in society which creates structures of power and authority. However, science is also embodied by humans which allows for its role in biology and advanced health studies. The conflicting ideologies and rationalities when it comes to science in the study of religion, creates boundaries and differing theories with regards to its use in the study.

When it comes to the role that science plays in the study of religion, there are many ways in which science is intertwined with other terms used in this study…

Science in Relation to Belief

The role of science in the study of religion can be seen as a battle of differing ideologies. Some individuals may consider scientific beliefs to be superior to “unscientific” beliefs. This ideology however, leads to the dismissal of individual viewpoints (Bilgrami 2019). However, science and personal beliefs should not see seen as opposing viewpoints and instead be used in tandem in the study of religion by connecting the mind and the body. There is no advantage in comparing the accuracy of human beliefs to nature. This is because they are not the same reality (Bilgrami 2019). Instead of viewing science as a tool to “correct” differing beliefs, science should be used to enhance the understanding of different elements that are incorporated into belief systems; such as the mind and body. This can be the fuel that leads to innovation and deeper appreciation for existing belief systems (Sideris 2019). Beliefs are internalizations of the way we see the world, which are then externalized into the way we act in the world. The complexity and diversity of belief systems can not be dismissed as “unscientific” because outsiders can not experience the internalized intimacies that insiders do. Therefore, science can serve as a tool to enhance the understandings of belief systems as an outsider, rather than invalidate the beliefs of others.

An image of the world seen through a particular lens
Photo by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash

“Moving beyond static notions of belief we can develop dynamic and fluid understandings of the routes of understanding, imagination, memory, desire, fear, conscious and unconscious, that circulate among people and between humans and their special beings…an understanding of the inevitably relational nature of these operations of mind and body in religious contexts” (Orsi 15).

This image reflects the notion of viewing the world through a unique lens, which reflects the impact that positionality has on an individuals belief system.

The Role of Authority, Power and Rationality in Relation to Science in the Study of Religion

The Western world places scientific evidence on a pedestal. Although science can be used to enhance our understanding of differing beliefs, it is often used as a superior rational to validate claims and opinions. Large philosophical claims often rely on the authority of science and dismiss any views that are “unscientific” (Bilgrami 2019). However, this notion comes down to the idea of rationality vs rationality. Which rationality is correct? Which belief system has authority? Unfortunately, these questions are evident in Western society which deems certain beliefs as inferior. Individuals in society tend to avoid criticizing components of nature since they are “scientific” however heavily criticize and categorize human beliefs (Bilgrami 2019). This is because scientific beliefs of the world have authority in society and are taken as true which leads to the dismissal of other equally valid human beliefs.

This image reflects the common occurrence of conflicting rationalities in society. As one forms their own beliefs, they often do so without having access into the mind of others. This leads to feelings of superiority due to the inability to experience the internalized intimacies of others.

These notion relates to Bilgrami’s notion of the tragedy of the secular age (Bilgrami 2019). The role that science plays in the power structures of our society shapes the authority and superiority of certain humans. The biology of the human is given authority as men are often seen in charge. This structures the political and religious patriarchy in society. The privilege of the male sex and the difference that this biology makes is what creates women’s inequality and sexual violence in society (Modern 2019). The colonial history of our society is self-authorized by science which ultimately led to the prejudices experienced by individuals of a certain gender and race. Science has become a method that is equal to structures of power. Science ultimately operates as excessively authoritative in society, leading to infrastructures of power and superiority.

Although science can be used as a tool to enhance the understandings of certain belief systems, there is a boundary that science has when it comes to its role in religion. Science has become an identity for individuals deemed “scientists” which places them at a greater position of authority because they are perceived to have superior knowledge. Although they may be extremely educated and equipped for many positive roles in society, the rationalities and religious beliefs of other individuals can not be viewed as less desirable. Scientists are often viewed as people who are contrasted to anything that is not-as-good-as science (Sideris 2019). Individuals labelled as “scientific” posses prestige and authority in society and the media who posses the “stamp of truth” (Sideris 2019). This creates issues around religious freedoms and rationalities that do not support scientific suggestions. Scientific organizations often tend to strive to converts religious individuals to the “way of science” (Sideris 2019). This is because science is perceived as the ultimate truth that possesses authority over religion by diminishing the sacred power that religion possesses. This ultimately comes down to one rationality vs another rationality since both systems ask “big questions” (Sideris 2019). However, by creating cohesion between religion and science, creativity and innovation can prosper together and push entrepreneurial ambitions in society.

Science and the Body in Society

The Covid-19 pandemic has shed light on the moral implications of science and its role in religion and society. With the increasing drive for scientists to produce a vaccine and treatment options for this virus, the implications of differing beliefs are not considered by these authoritative figures in society. Both religion and science are embodied by humans, where this conflict arises.

This clip explains why anti-vaxxers are against accepting the developing coronavirus vaccine. This reflects the conflicting rationalities of science and anti-vaccination beliefs.

The discussion regarding an emerging vaccine for Covid-19 is a recent topic that reflects existing power structures of science in society. Vaccines and treatments created by doctors are given authority and trusted by many due to the value we place on scientific evidence. Since the perceived idea for a solution for this global pandemic may include a vaccine, the status that scientists are given allow many people to have trust in a vaccine. This is because their beliefs may align with the scientists, or they trust the authoritative rationality of these doctors.

However, it is evident that there are many people who will refuse to take the vaccine. This raises the issue of rationality vs rationality. The anti-vaxxers have a different belief system than the scientists, which involves an opinion that is not “backed-up” by science. This creates two opposing rationalities that are evident and conflicting in society. The authority that scientific evidence holds in society causes anti-vaxxers to fight against taking the vaccine. However, the scientists enforce the idea that herd immunity is necessary for the vaccine to work so all people that are capable of taking it, must do so. This ultimately creates a community of people who share the common belief regarding the Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy. This group of people share the common belief that they have found a secret reality. This shared ideology and skepticism is reinforced through social media platforms and protests. Although science-based evidence suggests a solution for the greater population, people question the credibility behind the qualification of the doctors and the quality of the vaccine. This highlights the infrastructures of power that exist in our society.

This raises the ethical issue of forcing people against their beliefs and free will to take the vaccine due to the scientific evidence of herd immunity. The claims made by the scientists are relying on the authority of science to posses the power of their rationality and dismiss any “unscientific” views (Bilgrami 2019). Science is associated with prestige and authority, making the scientific rationality more powerful (Sideris 2019). This highlights the role that science has as a method that is indistinguishable between other structures of power in society, giving the operation of science authority (Modern 2019).

John Lardas Modern suggests that science is a part of out every day lives (Modern 2019). He suggests that science has escaped the laboratory and is evident in society as the goal seems to be to diminish the difference between humans and machines (Modern 2019). The progression of society involves replacing anything human, with machines. This technological advancement raises these ethical issues of clashing rationalities which is seen through the power that the health care system has over religious rights and beliefs (Modern 2019).

A Contributing Scholar: Lisa H. Sideris

Lisa H. Sideris- A contributing scholar
Lisa H. Sideris is a contributing scholar to the study of religion who has contributed significant insight and ideas regarding important topics of study in relation to science and religion.

Lisa H. Sideris is a key scholar contributing to the study of religion who received her Ph.D at the University of Indiana in 2000. She works to unpack the impact of environmental thought and ethics, in relation to the interaction between science and religion. Her contributions include her work as an author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection (Columbia University Press, 2003). She also contributed as a coeditor of Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge (SUNY, 2008). The publication by the University of California Press in 2017 of her book, Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World further contributes to this field of study. Her future plans include becoming a part of the Environmental Studies Program at University of California-Santa Barbara. She is also currently a professor of religious studies and associate director of the Center for Religion and the Human at Indiana University. Her books and contributions of knowledge serve as useful tools in the study of religion as she unpacks these complicated concepts.

So you want to learn more about the role of science in the study or religion?

The following contributions of scholars provide further analysis into the role that science plays the study of religion.

Echos of Science

This composition of songs reflect the overarching theme of science integrated into the study of religion. It ties together all of the connecting topics including patriarchy in society, differing existing beliefs, the role of the body in society, authority, power structures, rationalities and much more!