Thinking about Science, Religion, and Secularism


April 27, 2018 / 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
3335 Dwinelle, UC Berkeley, CA

All-Day Workshop

This workshop gathers scholars whose work engages both the study of religion and secularism, and the study of modern science. These two fields of inquiry have contributed significantly to current academic understandings of modernity, yet are rarely put into explicit conversation. At the same time, questions of science and religion are regularly taken up by theologians and scientists who aim either to bring the subjects closer, or move them further apart. The workshop’s goal is to move beyond the usual framework of the “science and religion” debate, by facilitating a conversation that explores how concepts operate within, and travel between, these fields of inquiry –– such as evidence, experience, agency, nature, supernatural, the human, certainty, doubt, and disenchantment.

View the workshop poster here.

Workshop Schedule

9:00 – 9:30 AM: Introductory Remarks

Yunus Doğan Telliel (UC Berkeley)

9:30 – 11:30 AM: Session I

Scientific and Non-Secular Universal Histories: Narratological Reflections | Nasser Zakariya (UC Berkeley)

The Myth of Modern Science: Problems of Demarcation and Disenchantment | Jason Josephson Storm (Williams College)

12:30 – 2:30 PM: Session II

SuperNatureCulture: Human/Nonhuman Entanglements Beyond the Secular | Mayanthi Fernando (UC Santa Cruz)

Redescribing Science and Secularism with Asad and Strathern (and not forgetting Malinowski) | Ashley Lebner (Laurier University)

2:45 – 4:45 PM: Session III

Science and Secularity at the Secret “Fringe”: A Report on Research | Hussein Ali Agrama (University of Chicago)

Freeze, Die, Come to Life: The Many Paths to Immortality in Contemporary Russia | Anya Bernstein (Harvard University)

4:50 – 5:15 PM: Final reflections

Workshop Participants

  • Yunus Doğan Telliel, Berkeley Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Theology
  • Nasser Zakariya, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, UC Berkeley
  • Jason Josephson Storm, Associate Professor of Religion, Williams College
  • Mayanthi Fernando, Associate Professor of Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz
  • Ashley Lebner, Assistant Professor of Religion and Culture, Wilfrid Laurier University
  • Hussein Ali Agrama, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago
  • Anya Bernstein, Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University

Abstracts

Scientific and Non-Secular Universal Histories: Narratological Reflections

Nasser Zakariya (UC Berkeley)

This paper revisits prominent theorizations of narrative, and debate over them, and considers implications for contemporary distinctions between universal histories, scientifically or religiously construed. These reflections look to characterizations of “popular” or “generalist” representations of science and religion, keeping in mind however the conceptual and practical difficulties of such exercises. A hope nevertheless is to inquire into the reasons for the apparent, recurrent judgments of the substitutability of narratives for one another and into how an idea of partly shared narrative templates might be regarded as couching new or even revolutionary truths in older forms. Reapproaching universal history through narrative suggests ways in which scientific and religious totalizing accounts simultaneously appear to be at variance, convergent and co-constitutive.

The Myth of Modern Science: Problems of Demarcation and Disenchantment

Jason Josephson Storm (Williams College)

Science is often equated with the progressive “disenchantment of the world.” It is widely asserted that a central, if not defining, feature of modern science is that it dispels magic and animism, and, as such, science is often thought to be the central engine of secularization. This paper problematizes the contrast between scientific naturalism and religious or magical supernaturalism by providing a genealogy of “science” and showing how various attempts to demarcate “science” as an autonomous domain were haunted by entanglements with superstition and magic. It addresses the construction of a notion of the “supernatural” in Medieval Christian theology and shows how that contributed to both naturalized magic and enchanted sciences. Finally, Josephson Storm will show how the demarcation project fell apart in philosophy of science after Karl Popper and why that matters.

SuperNatureCulture: Human/Nonhuman Entanglements Beyond the Secular

Mayanthi Fernando (UC Santa Cruz)

This exploratory paper examines how and why, even as work on multispecies worlds and indigenous ontologies re-sutures the conventional separation of nature and humanity, this work also reproduces the separation between natural and supernatural by delimiting other-than-humans to phenomena previously understood as natural. Why, Fernando asks, are scholars more open to accepting mosquitos and mountains as historical agents with whom humans are in relation than they are angels, jinn, and other spirits? What secular epistemologies of evidence and attachments to the material and visible as the site of the real underpin this difficulty of re-suturing the supernatural to nature-culture? How might those attachments draw on, even as they reconfigure, the division between religion and its others (shamanism, animism, fetishism, etc.) that were as much a part of the secular as the division between religion and science? And how might we re-entangle the supernatural with the human and the natural? Read against its grain and alongside traditions like Islamic sciences of the unseen, Fernando argues, recent trends in post-humanist scholarship can offer onto-epistemic horizons beyond the materialism of secularity.

Redescribing Science and Secularism with Asad and Strathern (and not forgetting Malinowski)

Ashley Lebner (Laurier University)

With a view to describing the connection between science and secularism, two radicalizations of the British anthropological tradition are a good place to start: the work of Talal Asad and Marilyn Strathern. These are arguably the most widely read (and also the most regularly misunderstood) anthropologists, respectively, of secularism, viewed as the transcendence of politics vis a vis religion, and science, conventionally understood as a site of sanctioned knowledge. Asad and Strathern are rarely engaged together because the anthropologies that their work has inspired operate quite separately, their mutual implications left unexplored. And yet, tracing the development of Asad’s and Strathern’s work reveals a deep resonance, beginning with their training in the concern with translation, which owes more to Malinowski than anthropologists today are often aware. This paper argues that reading Asad and Strathern together can multiply insights into the constitutive relations between science and secularism, while refining perspectives on the legacy of British anthropology, as well as anthropology’s future ‘politics.’

Science and Secularity at the Secret “Fringe”: A Report on Research

Hussein Ali Agrama (University of Chicago)

To be added soon.

Freeze, Die, Come to Life: The Many Paths to Immortality in Contemporary Russia

Anya Bernstein (Harvard University)

Through practices such as cryonics and plans to build robotic bodies for future “mind uploading,” the Russian transhumanist movement has engendered competing practices of immortality as well as ontological debates over the immortal body and person. Drawing on an ethnography of these practices and plans, Bernstein explores controversies around religion and secularism within the movement as well as the disagreements between transhumanists and the Russian Orthodox Church. She argues that the core issues in debates over the role of religion vis-à-vis immortality derive from diverse assumptions being made about “the human,” which—from prerevolutionary esoteric futurist movements through the Soviet secularist project and into the present day—has been and remains a profoundly plastic project.

Co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities.