Religion and Science As Forms of Life

Anthropological Insights into Reason and Unreason

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Carles Salazar, Joan Bestard
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , January
     238 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When the builder says, “slab” to the assistant, how does the assistant know to hand a slab to the builder? The action is underdetermined by the utterance, except that the builder and the assistant are playing the same language game, a game made possible by a form of life. Ludwig Wittgenstein writes that use of a language requires agreement “not in opinions but rather in form of life” (Philosophical Investigations, Pearson, 1973, 241). He uses the phrase “form of life” sparingly. Sometimes form of life seems to depend on culture (if you are not from the builder culture you will not immediately be able to play the game), sometimes to refer to shared human behavior (which makes translation possible, PI, Pearson, 1973, 206). Daniel Boyarin deploys the phrase in his recent book Judaism  to signal and also to avoid the problems of translating words like “religion” or “Judaism” in pre-19th-century texts, where they simply cannot denote the same thing that they do for western scholars of religion (Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, Rutgers University Press, 2019).

So the title of this book—Religion and Science As Forms of Life—is promising. What if we looked at science and religion as forms of life rather than as sets of different beliefs or concepts? As Catherine Bell notes, theorizing is also an activity, and so comparable to the religious practices about which theorists theorize. But the pull of the Enlightenment conflation of a comparative theoretical activity (J. Z. Smith’s “nothing human is foreign alien to me” (University of Chicago, 1985, 104)) that underpins good scholarship with the secularist activity of showing that religion is irrational (at least from within the anthropologist’s form of life—but that is so unsurprising as to be uninteresting) that underpins bad scholarship is strong—sometimes irresistible. Salazar’s introduction moves back and forth from the good to the bad. “Our purpose is to consider science and religion from a different viewpoint [i.e., not as theories], as fully fledged socio-cultural systems likely to colonize ordinary people’s minds and impinge upon their lives in various ways” (11). Great! That is a collection of papers I would love to read. But: “religious beliefs are different from ordinary beliefs.  . . . Whatever else the concept of religion is supposed to include, religion is certainly not a way of discovering some form of ‘truth’ about reality” (8). Uh oh. There is a nod towards the idea that religion is not a universal category (Talal Asad is cited); Salazar and most of the contributors quickly fall back into assuming a definition of religion as supernatural beliefs. Have we advanced past David Hume’s Natural History of Religion (A. and H. Bradlaugh Bonner, 1889)?

There are eleven contributions in this volume. Four don’t really take up the theme of “forms of life,” as far as I can see: Robert McCauley gives a clear summary of arguments he has made elsewhere about the naturalness of religious beliefs and the unnaturalness of science. Maria Coma shows that charismatic Catholics make use both of medical science and charismatic practices—they do not see them as being in conflict. Marit Melhous summarizes debates about reproductive techniques and stem cell research using embryos in Norway and the UK. Heonik Kwon discusses Vietnamese beliefs and practices related to the idea that the dead can suffer pain. Interestingly, this belief is applied to the Vietnamese and American dead of the Viet Nam War, whereas American beliefs about PTSD, while couched in the language of science, is not seen as universal but parochial.

The remaining seven take the stated goal of the volume (to compare religion and science as human activities) more or less seriously. I’ll discuss them from more to less:

Jesper Sørensen asks why magic, which he defines as “ritual efficacy pertaining to concrete pragmatic aspects of the world” (79), has not disappeared in modernity, where technology seems to offer more reliable pragmatic options. Humans evolved with certain “motivational structures” related to risk. Modernity and its technology have not led to decreased representations of risk and uncertainty (78). If gene-modified food is represented as a pollution, a ritual response may be the “cognitive[ly] optimal response” (78).

Roger Sansi gives a fascinating history of Brazilian “religions of science” (Freemasonry, the Positivist Church, and spiritualism) and the “science of religion” (social scientific investigations of Afro-Brazilian religions, shamanism, and popular Catholicism). The former were elite practices; the science of religion focused on subaltern practices. Thus, science and religion were mutually constitutive. Ironically the anthropological study of religions in Brazil has constituted them as authentically Brazilian, whereas religions of science have come to be seen as charlatanry.

Timothy Jenkins looks at the work scientific discoveries do when they are taken up by the wider population. “[P]opular thinking does not oppose science and religion, but employs various hybrid forms to try and make sense of the world” (94). Nineteenth-century Spiritualism and Theosophy can be seen as “playing around with” the ideas associated with Isaac Newton’s principle of the conservation of energy (96). Jenkins compares popular books such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003)—with its depiction of scientific discoveries, its didacticism, its distrust of institutions—with books such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006). Popular “new atheists” succeed commercially, as did the mesmerists, spiritualists, and phrenologists they would despise, because they address science popularly while also offering an account of “good and evil, of wisdom and folly, and of humanity’s consequent well-being and woe” (99).

Simon Coleman, in fieldwork among British creationists, shows how creationism functions less as a system of knowledge (as it does in the US), and more as a “technology of the self, part of a wider set of ideological resources through which to constitute the self as believer” (112).

Michael Bloom argues against “epistemological monism.” Religion is not bad science. His account of religion is unsophisticated. But his return to Darwin on religion is interesting: “[N]on-religious evolutionists tend to bring up far more scientific arguments, religious creationists tend to bring up far more children” (54).

The contributions of Tom Inglis and Joao de Pina-Cabral, using different data, make the fairly obvious but somehow still surprising point that, “when it comes to human beings trying to explain the misfortunes, tragedies, coincidences and vagaries of life, they do not confine themselves to any one form of cultural knowledge. They use whatever is useful . . .” (193).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Theodore Vial teaches modern western religious thought and theories of religions at the Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carles Salazar is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Lleida. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge and has carried out ethnographic fieldwork on cooperation, religion and kinship. His publications include Anthropology and Sexual Morality. A Theoretical Investigation (Berghahn, 2006) and European Kinship in the Age of Biotechnology, co-edited with Jeanette Edwards (Berghahn, 2009).

Joan Bestard is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Barcelona, where he is also director of the research center on Kinship and Family. He has done research on kinship and religion and is currently conducting research on religion in Southeast Poland. His recent publication is Familias (Madrid, 2012).



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