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Barbara Herrnstein Smith on Science and Religion

January 26, 2010

Alas! I have spent the past hour reading and responding to Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s post on science and religion only to discover that she is not taking comments. (Last week, Stanley Fish blogged about Smith’s recent book, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. Fish then invited Smith to respond to his readers’ comments.)

So here’s the gist. Fish’s remarks about the relationship between science and religion led many readers to conclude that he and Smith were endorsing Stephan Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.” But they weren’t. You see, in the world of literary studies to which Fish and Smith belong, terms like “science” and “religion” could not possibly refer to a “body of authoritative teachings” that exist independently of the specific contexts in which each takes shape.

The observation that cultural forms vary is, of course, not at all unique to postmodernism. Yet, for postmodernists, the variance is all. There can be no universality; no transcendent remainder.

Here’s Smith:

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).

Assuredly, language by its very nature does violence to particularity. As Smith observes, the terms “religion” and “science” assemble together things that are “exceptionally diverse.” The same holds true, however, for each of the particularities Smith says she prefers to the science and religion monoliths. Lumping Rerum novarum and Humanae vitae together as “Vatican encyclicals,” for example, requires that we gloss over the unique features of each. Humanae vitae is itself heterogeneous.

Smith’s analysis points toward an infinite regression in which every “whole” is dissolved into various parts that themselves form new wholes. (Postmodernists typically avoid regress by taking “culture” to be the one indissoluble whole.) Does dividing and atomizing in this way give us a better picture of science or religion than do other modes of analysis? I’m not sure that it does.

From the postmodernist vantage point, we cannot even define “better.”

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