Wanting a global approach to religion, science, and technology

By global, I don’t mean just geographically, though I definitely mean that. I also mean with an expansive vision of intersections among religion, science, and technology.

Those of us who’ve been in the “religion and science” field for a while recognize that we need a more geographically diverse approach and to move beyond the Christocentric approach that was the launching point for the field. I don’t mean to denigrate the pioneers who–largely in response to the disparate conflict theses espoused by John Draper and Andrew White–sought to reconcile Christianity and science. Their work, while somewhat myopic, was suited to their times. Such approaches dominated longer than they should have, but they have given way to more interest in non-Christian traditions and to parts of the world beyond the Euro-American nexus.

But for some strange reason, research around the world still generally ignores (1) other local traditions and (2) anything other than the conflict-harmony axis of mid-20th century scholarship. That axis suggests that either religion and science are in conflict or they can be reconciled in a harmonious worldview. Sometimes, folks like Stephen Jay Gould do somersaults trying to show that religion and science aren’t “really” related after all and can be separated. It may be true that religion and science can be demarcated, but not in the way that Gould means. Of course it matters (for research and politics, loosely defiined) to understand how various religious groups can pursue a harmonious modern worldview. It’s just that I want to see much more than that. So certainly the conflict-harmony type research should continue; but it shouldn’t run the show anymore.

Back to (1) and (2): consider scholarship in Latin America. There is a growing body of work that considers science and religion there, but rather than drawing upon the growing diversity of methods and data in the field, such scholarship tends toward engaging whether the Catholic Church can accommodate a variety of technologies, such as birth control and whether Catholicism and science can be reconciled. Of course, in people’s everyday lives, Catholicism and science (and technologies like birth control) have been pretty much reconciled forever. I bet there are lots of other fascinating things to learn from thinking about religion and science in a variety of cultural spaces, which could be sliced into indigenous, postcolonial, urban, rural, mountainous, rain forest, capitalist, communist, postcapitalist … whatever you think is interesting!

Let’s not just play the religious blame game, however. It’s not just Christian cultures that struggle with this question. I have read a bit of work on Islam and “reconciling” modern science with it, but I’m no expert in that area. I do know well that the reconciliation question thrives in India. There’s an entire colonial history that I describe in Futures of Artificial Intelligence that explains why the alleged compatibility (and sometimes even the epistemological identity) of Hinduism and science arose. But even so, there’s plenty happening in India that’s off the conflict-harmony axis. Scholars need to find those moments also.

I’m not overly interested in whether Christians will use birth control or get abortions (they will). I’m more interested in how people in Latin America use religious pages on Facebook, or what they think about prayer apps on their phones, or whether they’d bring an intelligent robot to church, or whether they think genetic engineering is a good idea (for therapy or augmentation or both), or whether space travel is part of the divine plan for humanity, or what–if any–mixture of religion, science, and technology can deliver social justice, income equality, environmental sustainability, or some desired aspect of life in the 21st century. I’m interested in a more open set of questions.

For example, why did Dall-E2 create this when I typed “religion and technology in Latin America”? How does Dall-E2 work with terms like the ones I’ve used and combined?

So in expanding our field to include voices from all across the world we also need to expand the possibilities of conversation for those voices. How dull it will be if the study of religion, science, and technology in South America or sub-Saharan Africa, or rural China (or wherever you might choose) is forced to go through the same 100 year process of learning to talk about something other than the conflict-harmony axis! Developing nations often leapfrog technologies, such as the use of mobile phones when the vast majority of the population never had access to landline telephones. Just so, there should be opportunities for scholars all around the world to skim rapidly past the old, worn out arguments and move on to a more expansive view of what studying religion and science can mean.

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