Bellah on Science and Religion

* I continue in today’s post a sharing of some insights from Robert Bellah’s fantastic book, Religion in Human Evolution.


An important part of the backdrop towards understanding the aim of this book is to grasp that for Bellah, a thorough understanding of history is a key to overcoming the challenges we’ve faced in the modern era.  Although Bellah draws on the work of historians on occasion, the insights he shares from disciplines like psychology and cognitive science act as a foundational source of knowledge unto which he wishes us to understand the events of the past, as well as the human condition in general.

Bellah sets the stage in chapter one by acknowledging that life is tough.  Indeed, “survival of the fittest” can tell us something about what it is to be human, but those who draw primarily on Darwinian theory to explain our lives are sorely lacking a big part of the picture.  If life has always been primarily about survival, then how on earth have humans had time to make art like they always have, or engage in the countless other activities that could be classified as leisurely?  Yes, there is a place in life for that hard-nosed pragmatist in us, but the description of what Bellah calls (borrowing from Alfred Schutz) the “paramount reality of life” calls to attention how dreadful and exhausting that reality can be:        

“The everyday world of objects and practical acts is the reality of life that we are rooted in and whose pressures and requirements we can’t escape….we have a pragmatic motive, a wish to act upon the world to bend it to our practical purposes and master it…this is characterized by striving, working, anxiety….it is a world of function, adaptation, survival”

Life would clearly be sucked of it’s joy and meaning if we lived by the pragmatic motive all the time.  Bellah cites the work of the acclaimed psychologist Abraham Maslow to show how we all make room for air to breathe in our lives.  Maslow calls this breathing space B cognition, and Bellah explains: “when we are propelled by B-motives, we relate to the world by participation, not manipulation; we experience a union of subject and object, a wholeness that overcomes all partiality.  The B cognition is an end in itself, and it tends to transcend our ordinary experience of time and space”.

Ah, life sounds a lot better now doesn’t it?  And yet, even the very things that are supposed to make life easier and better contain enormously consequential drawbacks.  Technological advancements are often looked at as godsends, but in certain fields like the military, can be pushed in their know-how toward the brink of total annihilation.  Bellah points out that our enormous need for energy “has driven us to tap the finite and nonrenewable resources of the sun stored in fossil fuels, all to maintain our ever increasing complexity”.  

In a world in which so much our pragmatic motives strive to make up for what we lack, it is technology that also races with overcoming what we lack in fields such as the economy and military.  Bellah states that technology can become “the victim of hubris and megalomania”.  Technology is obviously the fruit emanating out of scientific knowledge, but Bellah emphasizes that scientific understanding must be integrated within other fields of knowledge, such as the humanities.

In several passages worth quoting from, Bellah articulates why science shouldn’t be seen as the only way to truth, and validates other approaches to knowledge:

“Thus scientific truth, about which I have no doubt, is an expression of scientific practice and has no metaphysical priority over other kinds of truth. When we find [Martin] Buber speaking of an eternal You, who shines through the faces of other humans, sometimes the faces of animals, even at moments through trees, rocks, and stars, it would be easy to try to find a scientific explanation of why he would say that. But such an explanation, which might be true, would in no way refute the truth of which Buber speaks. Science is an extremely valuable avenue to truth. It is not the only one. To claim it is the only one is what is legitimately called scientism and takes its place among the many fundamentalisms of this world”

“The Wikipedia article on Verstehen [a word used by Max Weber] describes it as ‘nonempirical, emphatic, or participatory examination of social phenomena’, but there is nothing nonempirical about emphatic examination of social phenomena. Such inquiry involves the effort to put oneself in the place of the person under scrutiny and try to see the world as they do….it is a valid effort to get at one rather central aspect of what is really going on among the people under study. One way of making the distinction between scientific and humanistic methodologies is to say that scientific explanations are concerned with the causes and functions of the activities under study; humanistic understanding is concerned with their meaning….both kinds of methodologies are required in both science and the humanities”  

These points are important for Bellah to make because we clearly live in a time when many people live as though it is the age of scientific triumphalism.  Attacks against religion are made within a narrow purview of scientific critique.  According to Bellah, religion is a way of making sense of the world, of forming an identity in relation to it.  This is why a purely causal or functional analysis of religion leaves out important aspects in studying it.

Since part of the secular worldview stresses that we have outgrown our antiquated need for religion, which then sets up tensions, and even violent conflict, with the religiously pious, it is essential that Bellah’s level headed and widely encompassing book be read by all.  

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