Science and religion conference

Drawing boundaries: Reflections on the Science and Belief in Society conference, Birmingham 4th – 6th July, 2019

By James Riley

A version of this article initially appeared on the International Society for Science & Religion website. Featured image credit: @CarolaLeicht

From the 4th to 6th of July, 2019, the University of Birmingham, UK, hosted the inaugural conference of the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society (INSBS). It was a multidisciplinary event, with scholars from the history of science, the sociology of religion, anthropology, science and technology studies, religious studies, philosophy, psychology, science communication, education and more. All, however, were drawn together to present their research on the topic of science and belief in society (note ‘belief’ rather than ‘religion’, a point I will return to). There was a diverse programme of talks, as a cursory look down the list of abstracts will show, with topics ranging from encounters between missionary’s astronomy and traditional astrology in Qing Dynasty China, to contemporary interactions between science and religion in US public health services. To read in more detail about the conference papers, check out the Twitter feed #SciBelSoc19.

As an attendee, I have been invited to offer my reflections on the conference, its significance, and INSBS’s relation to other networks in the area of science and religion. In this blog post I also draw on comments and reflections made by others during the conference, synthesising common themes. Given that this is a fast developing and growing field of study, the majority of these reflections relate to the notion of boundaries—of the network itself, our disciplines, and the topics we study.

Science and ‘belief’…

During the conference there were repeated interrogations and problematisations of the inclusion of the word ‘belief’ in the title, to the omission of ‘religion’. Some contributors observed ‘religion’ often has less to do with beliefs than with practices, and therefore ‘belief’ presupposes a particular type of religion, thus a particular relation to science. Having had no say in the inclusion of ‘belief’, I’ll offer my outsider reflections on it here.

Firstly, if nothing else, the inclusion of ‘belief’ inspired many conversations and stimulated articulations of how people within this field view what they do. Therefore, it was useful as a conversational catalyst. However, I think the inclusion of ‘belief’ goes somewhat deeper. While ‘science and religion’ can seem to omit the relations between science and non-religious individuals, some conference participants thought ‘belief’ similarly excluded the investigation of individuals who lacked theistic beliefs. I would argue, however, that the inclusion of belief was very much made to widen out our conception of this emerging field, and a recognition that non-religious individuals also have beliefs—about metaphysics, ontology, ethics, and, indeed, science. Therefore ‘science and belief’, as opposed to ‘science and religion’, can be seen as a broadening of the field of study, and the explicit recognition that no matter our religious or non-religious affiliation, we all have beliefs which may structure our orientations towards science. Although, I also do not mind referring to the field as ‘science and religion’, so long as it is recognised that we study spiritual or non-religious individuals as well.

… in society?

            What does it mean to study science and belief ‘in society’? Perhaps this is the biggest boundary drawn by this new research network. The majority of scholars at this conference were not from the perhaps more traditional disciplinary homes of the study of science and religion—philosophy and theology—but rather from the social sciences in the broadest sense. Therefore, these scholars are less concerned with epistemic claims about the ‘true’ relationship between science and religion (or belief), than with how science and belief interact in the social worlds of past and present. As noted by one attendee, however, the theological or philosophical study of science and religion explicitly feeds back into how we understand the human condition, so what are the impacts of a seemingly more detached, non-normative study of these domains? This is a question which is still very much being negotiated, but at conference I detected some of the first moves to answer it. In essence, this is really about moving from a descriptive investigation about how religion and science relate in societies, to how we can use this to make the world a better place. A very fruitful avenue of social science and belief research is in the evidencing, therefore combatting, inequities and prejudices in society relating to intersectional issues of gender, race, poverty, health, and their relation to science and belief. I sense that future work, and future conferences, will consciously and increasingly begin to feedback into social issues of the day. 

Two ‘schools’?

            Another interesting observation was the identification of two orientations of researchers towards the topic. The first being researchers who are worried about the uptake of science, and how religious identification may be affecting this. The second being researchers critical about the ever-encroaching cultural authority of science. I call these here the ‘two schools’ of research into science and religion in society. Being from a science studies background myself, this is not a new tension for me to feel. Science studies related networks, such as Science in Public sometimes also have similar tensions, notably between practitioners from science communication backgrounds and scholars from science and technology studies. However, when the categories of ‘religion’ or ‘belief’ enter these discussions, we introduce new dimensions and considerations. What the acknowledgement of these ‘two schools’ demonstrates is a diversity of perspectives within the field, and offers the opportunity for us to reflexively consider our positions towards our own and others’ work. 

Topics

            The conference boasted the broadest range of topics I have ever encountered at a conference on science and religion in society. Aside from the usually well represented topic of evolution, there were talks on as diverse topics as anti-vaccination, the apocalypse, Ebola, globalisation, personality cults, radicalisation, and Star Trek. The fact that scholars with such diverse interests can all come together under a conference on science and belief is surely to the benefit of the field. It also evidences field growth, development, and expansion from mainstay topics of the past.

Multidisciplinary

The conference was aimed to be a multidisciplinary space for scholars to explore the many ways sciences and beliefs may relate in various societies. An aim I’m sure it achieved, as when we look down the abstract list we see speakers from a range of social scientific and humanities disciplines. One problem with multidisciplinary conferences is the tendency for disciplines to silo, with historians only attending historical talks, and sociologists only attending the sociological panels. The conference dealt with this well, with some panels not being organised down these disciplinary lines, plenty of plenary sessions, and spaces for fruitful discussion. This will be a good practice in the future, where I hope more panels will coalesce around substantive topics, rather than disciplinary or methodological boundaries. This makes a truly multidisciplinary experience, allowing us to hear historical, sociological, and psychological research on common themes, such as religious social movements or non-religious scientific identities, broadening insight and perspective.

Internationality

            The majority of social scientific and historical research into science and religion has been conducted in the US and Europe. This presents an issue, however, when we attempt to understand how the broad categories of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ (or ‘belief’) may relate in other countries. There is the danger of ethnocentrism—viewing one’s own culture as the centre of the world and viewing other cultures using categories and standards of one’s own. Perhaps this is most notable in the deployment of survey measures of public attitudes towards evolution, developed in a US-Christian context, to other countries and cultures of the world with disparate discourses around science and religion. Indeed, this also represents another issue with the world ‘religion’ itself, in that our Western conception of ‘religion’ is not shared by all cultures around the world, thus perhaps ‘belief’ makes more sense as a category. However, the conference moved in the right direction for understanding how science and belief relate globally, not through UK and US scholars investigating other cultural contexts, but through the inclusion of scholars from India, South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, Greece, among others. This international boundary breaking is perhaps the most successful achievement of the conference, and one I look forward seeing more of in the future.

Future directions

            Historians of science and religion have spent the last few decades debunking the ‘conflict thesis’—the notion that science and religion have been locked in perennial conflict since their distinct formations. The more recent historiographic method has been to demonstrate the complexity of the historical relations between sciences and religions, focussing on fine context of events, and resisting the urge to project our contemporary categories backwards through time. Just as we must resist presentism in historical work, we must resist ethnocentrism in contemporary sociological work. This means not projecting US or European categories, judgements, or understandings of science and religion’s relationship onto the rest of the world. However, when investigating contemporary social relations between science and religion, we must also follow the historians in their calls for context and the demonstration of the complexities of science and religion’s many interactions in contemporary societies. Given the range of talks and topics, of cultures and contexts, this conference and this network represents a fruitful step in this direction. 

James Riley is a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, researching public attitudes towards evolution. His doctoral research focussed on the relationship between Catholicism and evolutionary science in England. Follow him on Twitter @JamesIRiley