Are religion and science both narratives?

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The author of the blog Pluralist Speaks critiques a comment by Rowan Williams, who compares science and religion by saying that both are just different narratives. According to Williams,

The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality. But the paradox is that one of these stories knows what it's doing and confesses it is working in the categories of drama and agency and personality and the other apparently doesn't.
Pluralist points out that:
Many a scientist would not like to think that their enterprise is just narrative. Of course it is a series of questions seeking answers generating questions. Of course scientific answers are potentially transient, waiting to be falsified, but the longer they stay as a truth the more robust they become as truth. Paradigms - joining the dots - are always more transient still.
Does it diminish the qualitatively different roles that science and religion play to just describe religion and science as two narratives with different stories to tell? I tend to think of religion as something that informs and deepens the understanding that science provides.

On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that science does provide us with narrative-like features. The origins and history of the universe, from the Big Bang, through the creation of the earth, and the evolution of life here, have a certain narrative quality. Could religion then be described as a meta-narrative that informs the scientific narrative?

8 comments:

ken said...

Each narrative should inform the other. Taking only one and throwing out the other is simply inadequate --- modern man is becoming more and more alienated and lost by clinging to science alone and religious zealots who want to throw out science come across as ludicrous and naive.

I understand the scientist's disdain for calling his work a "narrative" because of the connotation the word as amassed around itself --- something "untrue," a myth, hocus-pocus. But science is, simply, a description of the world, its functions and origins, and how man makes his way through it all. As the Pluralist points out, it is evolving and changing just as the religious narrative evolves and changes. What needs to happen is that the pejorative undertones of the words "narrative" and "myth" need to be removed or, at least, ignored.

Both religion and science are complementary narratives --- they do not overlap much and, therefore, provide distinction and differentiation to what each says on its own. A synthesis of the two, where each informs the other in the areas in which the other is lacking, will bring about a much more complete, satisfying, and ultimately meaningful result.

Frank said...

While "truth" is naturally going to be a blend of both science and religion, I sometimes wonder if they will ever be truly joined.

Religious faith by its very nature does not reduce to an empirical formula. And once something is "known" then faith loses its power and risk.

Its like a good piece of artwork--you can submit it to any and all scientific evaluations, but at some point you either like the painting or you don't, and what draws you to art is the most important feature but the most impossible to analyze scientifically.

ken said...

True, true. And that is exactly where the influence is needed. Faith must be dynamic. The "faith of my fathers," that "old time religion," doesn't work for me so I can choose to throw out faith altogether and go with pure science or I can choose to let science inform, sculpt, and evolve my faith. Static faith --- just like a static scientific view --- is doomed. What if we stopped at the Bohr atomic model or Newtonian mechanics and said that was absolute truth and all this new quantum stuff is crap?

It's extremely difficult, I agree. The best we may be able to do right now is to live with the apparent opposites of science and religion. A true joining of the two seems very far off, indeed. We need to hold both this and its opposite together in our minds. As soon as we make one more important, we loose the balance.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I think your analogy with art is a good one. Science uses the empirical formulas for telling us about the mechanics of the world, but the deeper questions, the "whys and wherefores", the art, the poetry of our existence, are not questions that science can address.

Ken,

The best we may be able to do right now is to live with the apparent opposites of science and religion. A true joining of the two seems very far off, indeed. We need to hold both this and its opposite together in our minds

I believe that's true. I would think that that joining them has not been possible ever since the Enlightenment. I don't see how they can be rejoined. I think that each addresses different goals, so I don't see that as a bad thing.

Although I think that science informs religion, I am curious how religion could be said to inform science. I think of religion as being informed by science because it takes the world as science explains it and adds meaning and depth to it and an interpretive framework for it. On the other hand, religion has a poor track record when it comes to getting involved in scientific questions, so I tend to see science as addressing one layer of human understanding and religion as being superimposed upon that layer by giving us a deeper interpretation.

Quixie said...

Mystical Seeker wrote:
"The origins and history of the universe, from the Big Bang, through the creation of the earth, and the evolution of life here, have a certain narrative quality. Could religion then be described as a meta-narrative that informs the scientific narrative?"

The problem with this post is that it revolves around the repeatedly bad usage of the word "narrative." How exactly is the evolution of the cosmos a narrative? Sure, it's a chronological series of physical events and developments that we are able to discern through obsrevation and experimentation, but to call it a narrative is to relegate anthropomorphic qualities to it—something which we seem to have a natural tendency to do (e.g. "religion") but we must be careful to not mistake the model we use for the territory or phenomenon that we are trying to navigate or explain through scientific enterprise.

Furthermore, while the scriptures of many of the world's religions are in narrative form, that's not quite the same thing as saying that the religions they seek to affirm are "narratives" (at least the "higher religions" anyway).

This reminds me of a conversation I had recently where a friend described the 911 hijackers as "cowards."
I think they were horribly misguided people who were full of malicious intent, but to call them "cowards" is just a shorthand, a meaningless rhetorical device. Again, the problem there (as here) was one of usage—it's not enough to use an all-purpose polemical term in our argumentation. Words usually have very specific definitions.

That said, I think a comparison could be made between religion and art (in fact, I often answer "musician" when asked what "religion" I am :), but a comparison with science is way off mark, in my opinion.

anyway . . .

I enjoy your blog

peace

Ó

ken said...

Mystical Seeker--

Yes, religion does have a poor track record in the realm of scientific questions. But, how religion informs is that it reminds us there is something other than science; that science is not able to answer all our questions; that we have an innate religious function which should not be ignored.

And, I agree with your "superimposed" and "deeper interpretation." Is that not informing science? Science can tell us how we got here but science cannot tell us WHY we are here. We need the answer to both questions to be whole.

The story teller said...

LOVE IT! What a fascinating debate about religion, science, and whether narrative theory helps us understand the relationship between the two. I'm studying a Masters in Communication Theory, and am reading your blog while I should be studying. I might work on a narrative that can combine the two. Have you read any work by David Boje? He's an academic who's trying to challenge narrative as a story with a beginning, middle and end, and instead talk about lived chaos; stories that are lived, constant and flowing. I'll be back.
www.narrative-power.blogspot.com

Jaume said...

Science is a narrative, but not only a narrative. It is in permanent and creative interchange with experimentation, with testing and retesting the narrative in reality.

Religion, on the contrary, is a narrative that wants to define reality. It does not need to check how reality is: it pretends to know beforehand how it is. And that is why it is so important that religion is in touch with science: it is a humbling process for religion to be able to redefine itself by redefining its view on reality.