Sunday, February 7, 2010

Barbara Herrnstein Smith: A Thoughtful Voice

Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s recent piece in the New York Times on the interaction between religion and science is worth the time. Smith, literary critic at Duke and English professor at Brown, has several thoughtful observations on this often inflammatory topic. For instance, Smith urges that apparent conflicts between science and religion

need not exist in the ongoing lives and experiences of individuals. For neither logic nor rationality requires that all our ideas, impulses, affections, and acts be mutually aligned all the time.

Yet she rightly suspects problems in approaches that compartmentalize religion versus science, or attempt to make them complementary.

The former, as exemplified in Stephen J. Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria, fails to capture the relation between them and “though seeking to counter views that lead to the dismissal of religion in the name of scientific knowledge, goes some distance to reinforcing them.” Smith continues:

Indeed, I’m inclined to say that Gould’s proposed partition of the territory (that is, facts and accounts of the natural world to science, values and instructions for moral conduct to religion) is, like many political partitions, objectionable in principle and unworkable in practice.

Finally and most seriously, I think that the idea of science and religion as counterpoised monoliths deepens prevailing misunderstandings of both. As I emphasize throughout the book, the kinds of things that can be assembled under the term “religion” are exceptionally diverse. They range from personal experiences and popular beliefs to formal doctrines, priestly institutions, ritual practices and devotional icons — Neanderthal burial rites to Vatican encyclicals. The same can be said of “science,” a term that embraces a wide range of quite different kinds of things — general pursuits and specialized practices, findings and theories, instruments and techniques, ideals and institutions (not to mention a share of devotional icons and ritual practices).

Smith also laments how her thoughtful views (my description, not hers), and the nuanced topic of the interaction between religion and science itself, are so often caricatured. Comments to an earlier column so often missed the point:

A good number consist of off-to-the-races polemics on science and religion having little to do with either the book or column. Others object to my presumed views based on inappropriate surmise.

Welcome to the debate. From newspaper headlines and TV news reports to blog comments, the complexities of both religion and science, not to mention their interaction, are so often lost. But complex they are:

Science and religion, in Gould’s account, are nicely balanced and occupy equally valuable pieces of land, but they remain monoliths — precisely, as one commentator puts it, “rocks of ages.” In “Natural Reflections,” I seek to pulverize both of those rocks, not in order to annihilate them but in order to reveal their complex, copious, varied, and changing composition.

And one of those complexities, so often ignored from the start, is the religion that makes its way into the column labeled as science, and the science that makes its way into the column labeled as religion.

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