Anthropology of the moderns

I’m listening to an excellent interview with Dr. Renny Thomas, an anthropologist in India. In my opinion, Dr. Thomas is at the forefront of studying religion and science in India, and his ethnographic work with scientists deserves international attention.

You can hear Dr. Thomas speaking at the New Books Network and you can read his new book now (alas, it’s quite expensive so it’s one of those ask-your-librarian-to-buy-it kinds of books…the cost, of course, raises the hackles of everyone in academia these days, as we wonder how on earth our ideas are to reach an audience when they’re priced well outside mortal ken).

Dr. Thomas draws on ethnography, autobiographies, and other data sources to destabilize assumptions about science and religion. He shows that many scientists refuse to meaningfully demarcate science and religion, or permit a contrast between the two. But he also shows that ritual practices, caste structures, and other elements of religious life persist in scientific environments. This allows him to show how scientists are themselves engaged in the definition of religion.

This idea that scientists define religion in their own ways is an important one! Scholars of religion argue left and right over that very definition (see my summary of that here), and JZ Smith famously claims that the primary pursuit of such scholars is to define religion and defend it with well-chosen examples. Given the cultural impact of science and scientists, their ways of defining religion are worth noting. How do scientists definite religion globally, both in their words and in their deeds? What is the public impact of such work? Dr. Thomas gets us a start on that conversation.

One final matter from the end of the interview: “religion” in India is too often isomorphic with “Hinduism,” particularly in work about religion and science. My own work in India mostly involves Hinduism, so I’m contributing to the problem. 🙂 But we do need to think about how to get a broader, more inclusive approach to Indian religion, especially given the Hindutva politics currently seeking to homogenize Indian religion and exclude those who don’t ascribe to Brahminical Hinduism. We in religion and science should resist the political pressure.

(careful readers will recognize Dr. Thomas from our collaborative project on the festival Ayudha Puja…we published together on the culturalization of the festival, which I elsewhere discussed as a form of community building among scientists).

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