Compare and Contrast Scientific Rationality and Religious Belief

Like worst enemies and best friends, there are between science and religion as many binds as ruptures/breaks whether approaching or separating them with shared similarities and contrasts. In a general way, science

addresses to the observable and physical world understanding through rational thought, generating hypotheses and testing them by means of experimentation and scientific method. Conversely, religion concerns more with the invisible order that gives meaning to the visible world, demanding the acceptance of truth according only to faith and belief, whether proven or disproved. Although apparently contradictory they both share a similar end, understanding the surrounding world, through different abstract means, rationality or belief. But then to what extent do these means differ from each other? Doesn’t science entails a kind of “religious” belief in rationality and the validity of scientific rules and methods? And isn’t religion just a kind of metaphysical rationality that also systematizes and intellectualizes the world through meaningful “hypothesis”?

The answer to these questions requires as much rationality as belief for each question entails multiple answers and each answer bears a new question, according to the psychological, historical, social and cultural lens through which one looks at the phenomena. Comparisons between science and religion are as divergent and varied as that amount of scholars concerned with it. For this reason, I’ll try to interpret some of these thoughts, drawing the affinities and collisions that link or exclude religion from science and vice-versa, and ideally reach or, at least, search for a personal meaning yet rooted in a kernel of doubt:

Both gods and doubt are widespread, transversal (if not universal) aspects of culture, the result not of inbuilt processes but of the interaction between language-using human beings and their social and natural environment (…) this fact is part of the social universe that humanity creates for itself by the very use of language, a universe which re-presents experience in a totally transforming way and always contains a kernel of doubt. (Goody (1996):679)

Faithfully rational or rationally faithful?

The truth is that science is organized like any other discourse, on the basis of a conventional logic, but it demands for its justification, like any other ideological discourse, a real “objective” reference, in a process of substance. (…) Science accounts for things previously encircled and formalized so as to be sure to obey it. “Objectivity” is nothing else than that, and the ethic which comes to sanction this objective knowledge is nothing less than a system of defence and imposed ignorance, whose goal is to preserve this vicious circle intact.

“Down with all hypotheses that have allowed the belief in a true world”, said Nietzsche. (Baudrillard, 1983: 114-115)

In the beginning of the eighteen century the world assists to turbulent and agitated times where change and progress were the ruling words. A era of great revolutions with the collapse of monarchies and empires; a time of great social experience and intense intellectual curiosity; the sprouting of nation states, democracy and market economy, in short, an unstable and changing century woven by dramatic transformations, which altogether enlightened humankind by showing it paths hitherto obscured and unseen. It was in the Enlightenment that reason and rationality shone upon men and its history, giving birth to a new era of rationalisation, secularisation, mechanisation and market rationality. Several thinkers were debating the definition of this new era, and all of them shared the optimistic vision and utopian hope that things were infinitely progressing towards an ideal of unlimited improvement, driven by science and its rationality.

According to Kant’s metanarrative, men would finally attain freedom through the exercise of scientific reason, which understood the phenomena of the natural world through the categories of understanding (Morris (1987): 56). He believed that in the earlier stage people find it easier to be told what to do instead of reason by themselves, and therefore they were ruled by kings, emperors or church leaders. At some point of the future, people would learn to exercise reason and religion would no longer determine people’s choices, because they would be able to make take responsibility by themselves and finally reach freedom. Later on Hegel envisions the demise of religion considering it as just an absolute idea, our imperfect way of knowing that we can be better, that is to say, a kind of vehicle through which humanity could contemplate the ideal aspired. And finally Nietzsche announces that “God is dead” and the world once enlightened begins to be “disenchanted”, as Webber puts it, by the increasing systematization of religious ideas and concepts, the growth of ethical rationalism, and the progressive decline of ritual and “magical” elements in religion (Morris, B. (1987): 69).

Without defining such a complex phenomena as religion, Webber notes that supernatural belief is primordial and universal since it is present in all early forms of society. He considered rationalisation as typical of western society and the core of modernity, inciting abstracts, calculative, logical and empirical ways of looking at reality. This rationality entails a “legal-rational authority” in industrial society whereby explicit, intellectually calculable rules and procedures are systematized and specified, and increasingly substituted for sentiment and tradition. (ibid: 68).
The protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism of Webber is a wonderful example of how rationality and faith might be more connected and complementary that contrary to each other. Here, he draws the elective affinity between certain forms of religious thought and certain kinds of economics structures and activities, namely the ascetic ethic of Protestantism and the intellectual rationality of capitalism:

One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born (…) from the spirit of Christian asceticism.(…)For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order.(…) Today the spirit of religious asceticism (…) has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. (Lambek (2002): 58-59)

Differently from this individualism incited by a religious ethic, Durkheim emphasizes the social function of religion in binding people together in moral terms. Following the evolutionary assumption that to understand the whole organism you must first study each cell, Durkheim argued that a complex religion such as Christianity should first be studied from its most primitive and simple form – totemism. He found in totemism a notion of an impersonal power or force – the totemic principle – that was represented by a totem and its symbol as a way of categorising how the group fits in the “greater” world of nature. This symbolic object, the totem, recognised by everyone and evoked through ritual, unleashed a strong and powerful religious sentiment that linked people together as a group. Therefore, the totem is the emblem of the group who, through religious ritual, is exhilarated by a collective force giving them a belonging and secure feeling among them.

The strength of this collective solidarity, created by religion, is perceived as an impersonal and external force that leads people to perceive it as God’s creation, when actually God is nothing but the clan/group itself, personified and represented into their imaginations in the visible and tangible form of the Totem: God is only a figurative expression of the society and, therefore, all social phenomena are religious in nature because they unify people around a symbol in moral terms. In this way, Durkheim thought religion was best understood as “metaphorical and symbolic” and that the concrete and living reality that it expressed was the social group. (Morris (1987): 119-120), which in turn leads us to its definition of religion as a unified system of beliefs and pratices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden, – beliefs and practices which unite one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them (…) religion must be an eminently collective thing(Lambek (2002): 46)

Durkeim’s approach to religion, as a social phenomena with countable causes and implications, opposes to the intellectualists’ categorization of knowledge in evolutionary terms, for example, the evolutionary scheme drawn by Frazer that begins in magic, as a primitive science, followed by religion, considered a bad science and finally ending in science. This kind of categorization leads to discrimination of so called “primitive” tribes as irrational and in The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss, following Durkheim’s thought, plainly argues against this ethnocentric view:

Magical thought is not to be regarded as a beginning, a rudiment, a sketch, a part of a whole which was not yet materialised. It forms a well-articulated system, and is in this respect independent of that other system which constitutes science, except for the purely formal analogy which brings them together and makes the former a sort of metaphorical expression of the latter. It is therefore better, instead of contrasting magic and science, to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge. (Levi-Strauss(1972): 13).

Levi-Strauss concerns in demonstrate the systematical observational knowledge of the natural world within preliterate societies, which largely supersedes their organic or economic needs. Thus, religious thought is, like science, preoccupied with an intellectual understanding of the world but through different logics and applied to different types of phenomena: one is supremely abstract and relates to modern science and rationality, the other is analogical and supremely concrete and relates to magico-religious thought:

(…) there are two distinct modes of scientific thought (…): one roughly adapted to that of perception and the imagination: the other at a remove from it. It is as if the necessary connections which are the object of all science, Neolithic or modern, could be arrived at by two different routes, one very close to, and the other more remote from, sensible intuition. (Levi-Strauss (1972): 15)

He defines mythical thought as a kind of bricolage where the savage, in search for a meaning, builds up structures by connecting together the remains of the events which he restlessly orders and re-orders imprisoned in the events and experiences. Differently, science operates by creating means and results in the form of events through hypothesis and theories which are its structures:

(…) the scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the “bricoleur” creating structures by means of events (Levi-Strauss (1972): 22)

Although being imprisoned in the events mythical thought also acts as a liberator that refutes the idea, assumed by science, that anything can be meaningless. Agreeing with Levi-Strauss that symbolic mechanism is the “bricouleur” of the mind, Sperber, in Rethinking symbolism, proposes an alternative to semiological views of symbolism. He assumes that human mind has various forms of thought and distinguishes encyclopaedia knowledge, related to the concrete world, from the symbolical thought. Symbolical though is a universal feature of human mind, that deals with things outside the domain of our knowledge and experience; thus we resort to it when ordinary reasoning is insufficient like, for instance, towards the existence of God: it isn’t verifiable but we build a mental picture and construct hypothesis of what he is like. Thus, symbolical domain is like a reservation where we put things that are not certain for us, until such a time we may be able to decide whether it is true or not:

(…) the symbolic mechanism does not try to decode the information it processes. It is precisely because this information has partly escaped the conceptual code (…)that it is, in the final analysis, submitted to it.(…) A representation is symbolic precisely to the extent that it is not entirely explicable, that is to say, expressible by semantic means. (pg113).

In a way, symbolical thinking, on which all religion is based, is the second representation of a conceptual representation, i.e., the new object created by the symbolic mechanism when the conceptual one fails in integrating information into acquired knowledge.

To this assumed objectiveness of conceptual and scientific knowledge opposed to the subjectiveness of symbolical thought, Bourdieu suggests that science is not as objective as it assumes to be. He legitimely asserts that, within the field of science, there are all kinds of social hierarchies and structures which decide what can be studied, what can be said, who is a legitimate scientist and who isn’t…thus, the objectiveness presumed by science is as conditioned to power relations as religion itself:

Scientific thought has no foundation other than the collective belief in its foundations that the very functioning of the scientific field produces and presupposes. (…) finds its basis in the totality of the institutional mechanism ensuring the social and academic selection of legitimate scholars (…), the training of the agents selected, and control over acess to the instrument of research and publication, etc. (Bourdieu (1991): 8-9)

While Bourdieu talks about the social side of scientific establishment and religion, Gell is more concerned about the human mind and how both magic and technology are rooted in a similar way of thinking. Defining technology as those forms of social relationships which make it socially necessary to produce, distribute and consume goods and services using technical processes (Gell (1988) : 6), Gell distinguishes different types of techonologies – productive, reproductive and of enchantment. This latter is like magic and exploits psychological biases so as to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favourable to the social interests of the enchanter (ibid: 7). Like magic, technology is also enchanted since it derives from the idea of achieving something without any effort or labour, aiming to make everything magically easy; therefore, they are both rooted in the creative and playful side of human mind that imagines something that has never existed before and puts it into practice:

It is technology which sustains magic, even as magic inspires fresh technical efforts. The magical apotheosis of ideal, costless, production is to be attained technically, because magical production is only a very flattering image of the production which is actually achievable by technical means. (Gell (1988): 9)

So it is evident that also in our society, although purged from supernatural forces, new forms of magic exist, for example, advertising that mythologizes commodities with unlimited possibilities and inventions:

And if we no longer recognize magic explicitly, it is because technology and magic, for us, are one and the same (Gell (1988): 9)

Charles Taylor’s Rationality and Relativism also provides a very cultural relativist approach towards the rationality of science. He shows how science is a very peculiar and unique phenomenon rooted in particular traditions of thought and historical conditions. He makes us see how science, rather than religion, constitutes a bizarre outlook of reality, developed from the strange attempt to theorise the world and progressively separating ourselves from it. Thus, he concerns with knowing if there are valid, universal standards of rationality and to what extent can we make transcultural judgments of rationality.
He defines rationality by a logical consistency and articulation of ideas which demand for an activity of theoretical understanding, inherent to Western’s legacy from ancient Greece:

(…) we have a rational grasp of something when we can articulate it, that means, distinguish and lay out the different features of the matter in perspicuous order. (Taylor (1982): 90)

By this preoccupation of describing the world through reasoning and creating a theoretical framework of comprehension we intend to achieve a “disengaged perspective”:

We are not trying to understand things merely as they impinge on us, or are relevant to the purposes we are pursuing, but rather grasp them as they are, outside the immediate perspective of our goals and desires and activities. (…) we come to distinguish this disengaged perspective from our ordinary stances of engagement, and that one values it as offering a higher – or in some sense superior – view of reality. (Taylor (1982): 89)
Therefore, by our own standards of a theoretical culture, we tempt to judge other cultures that show a complete disinterest of a theoretical knowledge from the world. But, as Taylor asks, ‘why must the universe exhibit some meaningful order (…)?”. There are simply different ways of engaging to the world: a theoretical way, through the scientific study of reality, and an atheoretical way, “in which we try to come to terms with the world (Taylor (1982): 97) and assume a meaningful order. The first, at the core of modern science, purges any expressive dimensions or meaningful order by the understanding laws of physical nature and its technological control; the second, underlying primitive magic, links together knowledge and wisdom, that is to say, understanding the world and attuning with it:

Science could only be carried on by a kind of ascesis, where we discipline ourselves to register the way things are without regards to the meanings they might have for us. (Taylor (1982): 97)

Before these differences one can make ethnocentric judgments of superiority arguing that western science and technology are more successful in mastering the world and attaining its aims, but it is also a fact that we have been made progressively more estranged from ourselves and our world in technological civilization (Taylor (1982): 103). Thus, whatever judgments of superiority are made, scientific rationality and magico-religious belief are, not only different standards of reality, but also incommensurable perspectives and activities.

In a similar way, Tambiah questions the notion and limits of rationality itself and criticizes science for being a carrier of Western ideology that serves the interest of elite. In Magic, science, religion and the scope of rationality he concerns with the demarcation, differentiation and overlap of this different ways of understanding the world, offering a brief historical account from early Christianity to the nineteenth century. He starts by asking himself:

How do we understand and represent the modes of thought and action of other societies, other cultures? Since we have to undertake this task from a Western baseline so to say, how are we to achieve “the translation of cultures”, i.e., understand other cultures (Tambiah (1990): 3)

With this in mind, he criticizes the division between religion and magic, made by early anthropologists, arguing that it derived from the Judaeo-Christian and Greek thought biases, inherited by Western thought; so, since other religions lack this distinction, it is not fair to assume that religion and magic are separate. He notes that even the Greeks did not completely separate magic from science and religion because, although science arose from magical practices when people began to perceive nature and natural laws, instead of God, as the ground of all causality, they still believed that the divine principle pervaded all phenomena. Therefore, the evolutionary distinction of “religion” from “magic” is clearly political, for it supports racism and the discrimination of primitive cultures by western colonizers. In this way he notes the “faith” inherent to scientific rationality:

A commitment to the notion of nature as the ground of causality, of nature as a uniform domain subject to regular laws, can function as a belief system without its guaranteeing a verified “objective truth” as modern science may define it. In other words, the appeal to “nature” or “science” can serve as a legitimation of a belief and action system like any other ideological and normative system. (Tambiah (1990): 10)

Similarly to Taylor, Tambiah also regards to magico-religious practices and science as different attempts of people to act upon the world and change it, suggesting that they should be seen as different things with different goals and means to achieve them. Magic hasn’t the purpose to admit hypothesis and verify them, instead, it only makes symbolic statements that express the desired results; besides that, magical ritual cannot be disproved as scientific experiments. Thus, magic and religion rely on symbolic thought and action and have a particular and universal way of thinking – analogical thought. Analogical thought is a kind of wishful thought, because it consists in observing a similarity between two things, make hypothesis according to that similarity and simply assume it instead of, like science, test it to find whether it is valid or not.

Like Bourdieu, Tambiah also argues that magic and religion are not academic subjects but things that people do, therefore, they can only be understood within the context of people’s lives. In academia there are intellectual biases that tempt scholars to subtract things from practice and experience in order to exam them, but magical or religious beliefs are not meant literally, because they are non-literal symbolical and performative actions, related to cosmology and metaphysical concerns:

The distinctive feature of religion as a generic concept lies not in the domain of belief and its “rational accounting” of the workings of the universe, but in a special awareness of the transcendent, and the acts of symbolic communication that attempt to realize that awareness and live by its promptings (Tambiah (1990): 16)

Bourdieu also adverts to the social implications of a scholastic point of view, that determines and subdues our way of looking at a particular phenomenon, and entails a certain theoretical adjustment to the reality itself:

Thus what (…)all those whose professions is to think and/or speak about the world have the most chance of overlooking are the social presuppositions that are inscribed in the scholastic point of view (…)the unconscious dispositions, productive of unconscious theses, which are acquired through an academic or scholastic experience(…) (Bourdieu (1991) : 381)

Finally, he also suggests that science is not as objective as it assumes to be, asserting legitimely that, within the field of science, there are all kinds of social hierarchies and structures which decide what can be studied, what can be said, who is a legitimate scientist and who isn’t…thus, the objectiveness presumed by science is as conditioned to intrinsic power relations as religion itself:

Scientific thought has no foundation other than the collective belief in its foundations that the very functioning of the scientific field produces and presupposes. (…)the totality of the institutional mechanism ensuring the social and academic selection of legitimate scholars (…), the training of the agents selected, and control over acess to the instrument of research and publication, etc. (Bourdieu (1991): 8-9)

Overall, in spite of the lack of agreement between all these different perspectives and ideas, there is one thing that they all account for: how these cultural variations prove that religion still remains an essential facet of the human mind and how, far from being disenchanted, our modern world creates its own enchantments where religion, “re-semantized” in new contexts, remains an integral part of these multiple modernities.


From this evidence, I tend to think that both science and religion are a way of giving sense to the world we perceive, that both result from the human demand for ordering and giving meaning to the apparent chaos of the world and both entail a kind of intellectual exclusion from the world in order to be included in it, through a distance that allows us to analyse and understanding it better, like we distance ourselves from a painting in order to contemplate it better.

Nevertheless, scientific rationality tries to achieve this by changing the world and its surrounding nature, by mastering it according to the insatisfactions, desires and needs that disquiet human beings through a rational and systematical understanding applied in technology. Differently, religious belief achieves this, not by changing the external world, but instead by changing the world within ourselves, changing that same disturbing insatisfactions, needs and desires through a metaphysical and meaningful knowledge applied in a moral discipline.

So, while the former tries to “tidy up” the exterior world by changing its disposition through knowledge of the external and physical order; the latter concerns in tiding up the interior world we perceive with knowledge of the interior and spiritual order. In short, while science and rationality leads us to master the world and modifying it to the shape of our needs, religion and belief teach us how to master ourselves and modify ourselves to the shape of the world we live in; the former revolutionizes, the latter conforms. Also, science tends to be more auto-destructive, in the sense that the emergence of a paradigm entails its surpassing by a new one, whereas religion, although suffering changes from a re-contextualization and “re-semanthization”, tends to an idealistic stabilization and immutability that, because it is disproved, excludes a constant testing and verification.

Nevertheless, for all this reason it seems to me that religion and science are not as contradictory as they are complementary to one another, since a merely inner speculation can leads us to stagnation, while a merely outer one might increase infinitely our insatisfaction. By this I mean that it seems to be a preoccupant unlevelling between our scientific-technological development and our ethical-moral progression, since the former evolves at an incredibly fast pace that the latter not always follows. And I think dramatic events such as the ones assisted recently by terrorism are a clear prove of that. But even most illustrative for me is what happened in Hiroshima sixty years ago, which alarmingly shows how we, as human beings, might not yet be prepared to hold the incommensurable power that science and technology put uncontrollably at our disposal. Thus, I think it is crucial to think as Webber did of “science as a vocation” and questioning it as our rationality once did with religion:

Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so. (pg8)

As Weber observes, science preoccupies itself with the field of techniques and technologies aiming to control life, rather then looking for its meaning. Science explains but lacks of significance, providing only a meaningless and disenchanted interpretation of the world on behalf of its rational understanding. Instead, religion entails the intellectual sacrifice of knowing without explaining, of believing on unconditional devotion on behalf of a meaningful knowledge. To this I add the notion that as religion entails this intellectual sacrifice so science entails a spiritual sacrifice of attuning with the world. Returning to the painting comparison, science can explains us every concrete detail of the painting materials, the exact way in which the painter moved his brush and the perfect examination of the canvas’s state but in this rational, analytical and systematical observation it failed the most important thing – to contemplate and passionately penetrate in its beauty, perfectly understanding it instead of imperfectly explain it.

What then is it more valuable and worthier: to know without believing or to believe with knowing? A meaningless explanation or a unexplained meaning?
I think the answer is in between, where scientific rationality and religious belief blend with each other in a “faithfull” rationality that believes and a “rational” faith that explains – a “love poem” yet to be written in the history of humankind and re-enchant the world…

Christian Blog Site. 2007. Daily Shepherd – Christian Blog Site.

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