Science and Religion Per Se

John L. Schellenberg


The term “religion” as it appears in the phrase “science and religion” is, for those who hear or use the phrase, quite commonly tied to particular examples of human religious life. As is well known, because the various intellectual activities that evolved into our field were carried out against a broad background of Christian influence, it was natural, early on, to think specifically of Christian examples. And inquiry concerning science and religion under these circumstances assumed a corresponding shape, with much discussion of what the best results of science meant for a proper understanding of Christian religious life and for the possibility of rational participation in it. Attention was also given, more abstractly, to what sciences such as physics and biology have to say about the notion of a “Creator” or “Designer” of the natural world. But the application quite commonly was to Christian religious beliefs, which presuppose that God is in some way to be regarded as Creator and Designer.    


Of course the world has known plenty of other religions. And so, not surprisingly, we have recently seen agitation for a wider conception of the field, which would allow fuller attention for them. We hear of how important it is to recognize that we work in an “international” and “multi-faith” context, and indeed of how the ISSR should merit these descriptors. “Religion,” in the term “science and religion,” should bring to mind not just Christian practices but also Indigenous, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, and other (by now) familiar religious beliefs and practices, perhaps including those of the distant past which have something to teach us though we see them no more. 


But notice how still the central, if not exclusive, concern of the field is assumed to be the relations between science and particular examples of human religious life


Let me be very clear: I do not think there is anything wrong with work on this. A better understanding of the relations between science and particular examples of religion in a representative multitude of human contexts is indeed part of what the field is responsible for. But it is only part. Focusing on it alone, even assuming the proper sort of “internationalization” has been achieved, would leave a considerable tract of work proper to our field unattended or – where already cultivated — unacknowledged. This is because the term “religion” in “science and religion” should bring to mind the genus as well as various species of the genus, extinct and extant – what some religion scholars have called religion per se as well as particular instances of religion. The difference between religion per se and the concrete religious traditions and experiences of humans past and present will, I expect, be apparent. A quick way to see it is to consider that were all human religion as we have known it suddenly to disappear or never to have been, we might still have reason to contemplate religion and religiousness in the context of fiction or when thinking about life on other planets. We might even imagine it realized in the near or far future of life on our own planet.  


Perhaps it will seem that the difficulty scholars notoriously have had defining this commodity should cause it to recede in our attention. How can we get to work on something so intellectually slippery? 


But much is overlooked here. For one thing, notice how we speak about science per se all the time, and to good effect, even though similar problems – consider the problem about identifying the difference between science and pseudoscience, called the demarcation problem, in the philosophy of science – will arise when we aim at definition. Moreover, we can divide and conquer: as more than one author has suggested (see, e.g., Schellenberg 2005), it is possible to distinguish between institutional and personal senses of the term “religion” and focus on the latter, which, for many purposes, is going to be the most pertinent anyway. We can think about religiousness alone. But whether we’re interested in this personal notion or in the other sense of the term or in both, it’s also important to notice that even if a clear and convincing necessary and sufficient conditions account of the nature of religion is unavailable, we can still identify conditions that are clearly sufficient for a correct application of the term. Ninian Smart (1999) famously spoke of seven dimensions of religion, and we can be pretty confident that in speaking of anything exhibiting them, we are speaking of something belonging to the right genus. Bron Taylor (2007), in introducing the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, has more dimensions or “characteristics,” sixteen, but is also more modest in what he claims for them: that they are “often, if not usually” found in religion. It’s not important, here, to set out these characteristics or dimensions of religion per se. The point is that we can abstract central features from concrete forms of life that obviously count as religious and imagine innumerable variations on the themes they represent, all likewise amounting to conditions sufficient for religion, even if we should beware of declaring necessity. We are therefore hardly restricted in our discussion of religion to concrete examples of religious life.  


Even those who at some level recognize this, perhaps pursuing some inquiry that could be regarded as focused on religion per se (I think here of ISSR blog postings from the last year on such themes as ritual and social bonding, AI and the ends of humanity, and experiences of transcendence), may still not see all the implications the possibility of their sort of inquiry has for the delineation of a field called “science and religion.” They may, for example, return from their inquiry bearing gifts assumed to matter only to those who seek, again, to understand some instance or instances of religious life as now or once lived. Even if they are focused in their inquiry on religion per se and not on the religions, their work on the former may still be done for the sake of the latter.  


But larger – I do not say more important – questions beckon, whose investigation requires one to sit loose from religion as actually so far realized, questions we will only see when we think in terms of science and religion per se without immediately, reflexively returning in thought to familiar instances of religious life, including those, if any, that are dear to us. Here are a few examples of such questions. (There is more on this topic in Schellenberg 2019.) How, based on the best recent work on the nature of religion, should we say that religious goals are related to those of science? Can religion make progress, and, if so, how is its progress related to science’s? Does a project of religious investigation in some ways modelled on science deserve to become a “human project” in the future much as science has been in the past? In light of deep time, which science has made known unto us, should we say that religion might yet be resurrected in very different forms even if all current religious belief and practice is ill-founded or shortsighted? More broadly, is there any form of religion – whether doxastic, non-doxastic, fictionalist, or something else again – whose embeddedness in human life would from a scientific perspective appear quite unproblematic or even deeply desirable? 


This is just a sample of questions about science and religion per se. But I hope it may serve to whet the appetite for an enlarged discussion of science and religion. We do not need to replace the house in which we have been working or cease the activities that have preoccupied us in it, but perhaps it would be good to add on another story.   



Schellenberg, J. L. 2005. Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 


Schellenberg, J. L. 2019. Religion After Science: The Cultural Consequences of Religious Immaturity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 


Smart, Ninian. 1999. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. Berkeley: University of California Press. 


Taylor, Bron. 2007. “Exploring Religion, Nature and Culture – Introducing the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 15. 


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