Science and Religion

East and West

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Yiftach Fehige
Science and Technology Studies
  • Oxon, UK: 
    Routledge India
    , February
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This is one of the most important recent historical studies of science and religion because it looks at the issues in a global context. Yitfach Fehige argues that the growing field of science and religion has a “predominant narrow focus on Western Christendom” (2). Fehige therefore collected eleven chapters to provide a comprehensive study of non-Western science and religion issues, spanning Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity in various regions and across the sciences of psychology, biology, botany, and physics.

In “Science International (Beyond the West)” Varadaraja Raman argues that we can talk about “science” and “religion” as abstract categories, as opposed to examining the specific use of terms by individual scholars. I still do not see what lessons are obtainable from an approach that does not engage specific scientific and religious views since these endeavors are themselves rooted in specificities. Raman also wishes to argue that science is not exclusively a Western product, but a human product that transcends geographical and religious boundaries. Yet in both cases one wishes to see how those theories—the abstract nature of science and religion, and the cultural-transcendence of science—are rooted in history.

Anne Harrington’s “Zen, Suzuki and the Art of Psychotherapy” demonstrates the manner in which a non-Western religion—Japanese Zen Buddhism—was redeveloped during the 1950s in conversation with Western sciences, and how it in turn came to have an influence on Western psychology, especially through Carl Jung. Harrington argues that this therapeutic understanding of Zen was self-consciously developed by Japanese teacher D.T. Suzuki. Did Suzuki sully Zen by translating it into Western psychological terms and did Western psychology sully itself by appropriating Japanese Buddhism? Harrington says we find a “strangely sincere and idealistic East-West encounter—one involving people who were motivated by different goals and who probably never fully understood one another,” and that both groups were “mutually impure” (64). One wonders, however, what “pure” Zen is, given that it is a reconstruction of Indian Buddhism, which is a reconstruction of Hinduism, but we do not get a sense from Harrington which is the “pure” form.

A. Raghuramaraju provides an excellent overview of the political, social, and religious contexts into which the Western natural sciences were received in India during the British colonial period. He argues that Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo sought to bring science and religion together, whereas Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya saw them as incompatible. Although providing a general scheme to think about these Indian authors and their contexts, Raghuramaraju’s analysis is also particular, focused, and nuanced.

“Jagadish Chandra Bose and Vedantic Science,” by C. Mackenzie Brown, is a detailed study of this important early 20th century Indian thinker, demonstrating Bose’s “concern to negotiate the meaning and relevance of the ancient Indian spiritual tradition vis-à-vis modern science” (105), and showing how Bose’s work was received by peers like Rabindranath Tagore, Radhakrishnan, and Vivekananda. Brown sees Bose’s theology and science as a form of “metaphysical bias” (107), as if interpreting science with a metaphysics is an aberration, but we do not receive from Brown a larger understanding of how religious preconceptions often shape scientific content, something argued in John Brooke’s 1991 Science and Religion (Cambridge University Press). Brown concludes with a curious section called “ideologically driven science,” in which he states that “attempts to spiritualize science undermine scientific integrity, as they subvert critical approaches both to one’s underlying philosophical assumptions and to one’s scientific conclusions.” Bose falls victim to this, says Brown, for failing “to question both his Vedantic assumptions and his scientific conclusions” (119). Brown would have us believe that it was Bose’s metaphysics that is to be blamed for the checkered reception of his scientific theory. Brown quotes Bose as himself saying one must, “maintain a spirit of absolute detachment and perfect freedom of mind from all preconceived bias,” something I have argued is a fundamental part of reasoning in the Hindu yoga traditions in my 2012 Hindu Theology and Biology (Oxford University Press). Hindu traditions have offered their own rationales for objectivity, and it is still not clearly argued that it was a failure of Bose to thwart confirmation bias and self-deception that led to his scientific projects dying out rather than some other cause.

Nalini Bhushan provides an outstanding analysis of two important philosophers—Suryanarayana Sastri (1893-1942) and A. C. Mukherji (1888-1968)—both of whom offered responses to Western issues from Indian philosophy. It is a common view that Indian philosophers in the colonial period uncritically appropriated Western thought and unknowingly reshaped traditional discourses, and that Indian philosophy was too “other-worldly” to concern itself with “this-worldly” science. Bhushan shows that both these views should be regarded with skepticism. Sastri and Mukherji attempted to break down sharp divisions between science and religion by drawing upon notions of causality, realism, idealism, and consciousness in Śaṅkara’s theology of nondualism (advaita), and they opened conversation with scholars like Max Planck, Arthur Eddington, William James, and James Ward. Bhushan’s historical analysis is subtle and she provides a rich set of concepts with which to build further dialogue.

One often wonders how working scientists in India think about their religion. Renny Thomas provides some helpful answers. From Indian scientists we hear tropes like “separation thesis” and “holistic overlap thesis.” The limitations of Thomas’s sociological approach are, however, immediately apparent, since we do not hear much justification or examination of theses that engages philosophy and theology. Yet we do hear some unique features of science-religion relations in India: the existence of “ayudha puja,” the ritual worship of machines and other technology used by scientists, something in which even non-religious or non-theistic scientists engage, considering it to be part of “culture,” but “not religion.” Again, there is little critical reflection on what “religion” and “culture” might mean. But it is from these discussions that an important observation emerges: self-proclaimed atheistic scientists in India have no compunction about visiting Hindu temples, engaging in religious rituals, observing special diets like vegetarianism, and other practices associated with “religion.” There are questions, however, as to whether this is regional. Given the strength of communism in Bengal, might communist scientists feel less inclined to participate in religion?

Chapters 8 and 11 both examine Christian response to sciences, but in areas of the world not often discussed: Jesuits in South India and Greek Orthodox education in the 17th century. Chapters 9 and 10 look at many Islamic schools of thought and their responses to a variety of Western sciences. What is brought out in these interesting chapters is that religious thinkers who are in traditions typically considered to be “Western” appear differently when they arise in Eastern contexts.

In summary, this book is an excellent source for a course on science and religion, providing new histories beyond the more familiar, but equally important, Western histories. The editor and chapter authors also provide substantial material for scholars and scientists interested in the science-religion dialogue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Edelmann is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Florida.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yiftach Fehige is Professor of Philosophy for Christianity and Science, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), University of Toronto, Canada. He is widely published in the field of science and religion.


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