What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?

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by Matt Sheedy

This semester I’m taking my first stab at teaching a class dealing with issues in science and religion. Although this is familiar terrain, I’m yet to go through the process of trial and error that teaching any course entails, and I’m hopeful that my first blush attempt will hit the mark that I’m aiming for. Here is the course description:

This course begins with a look at Thomas Dixon’s Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008) and ends with Denis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (2009). The first book presents us with a standard introduction to the topic, touching on common themes such as religion and reason, creationism and evolution, and questions of morality and the human mind from a largely Christian and Euro-American point of view. The second book provides a first person narrative account of Christian snake handling practices in the Southern United States, and shifts our attention away from standard science and religion questions that prioritize doctrines and beliefs toward what religious or ritual practices do to human bodies interacting in relation to a particular community. In between we will be looking at essays that historicize religion and science within particular contexts, with examples from Buddhist, feminist, queer, and Indigenous perspectives, and close things off with essays dealing with popular atheism and theories of ritual and embodiment.

In designing the course I was well aware that this sub-field leans toward a binary view of “science” and “religion,” focusing primarily on contests that have played out since the 16th and 17th centuries between Christian authorities and a variety of philosophers over things like the correct interpretation of doctrine, naturalism vs. biblical revelation, etc., where figures like Galileo, Newton, and Darwin are typically positioned as heroes helping to drag medieval worldviews into the age of reason. Occasionally, more detailed analysis will go back to the ancient Greeks in order to show how the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and others were central for Christian heavyweights like Augustine through to Aquinas. Likewise, these histories occasionally provide a nod to the role of “Muslim Spain” in preserving and advancing scientific reason, as seen in David C. Lindberg’s book The Beginnings of Western Science (2007), where he has a chapter entitled “Islamic Science.” Dixon’s book does a nice job of summarizing this history and giving students a feel for the terrain (it’s also super cheap, which helps!).

My next move is to open students to how we might historicize these debates, with a chapter from Peter Harrison’s fantastic book The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), which locates the concepts “science” and “religion” as modern developments over the last 300 years. Among other essays and book chapters that we’ll be using in the course, I came across two useful chapters in Bellamy et al. Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism From Antiquity to the Present (2008), where they shift the standard frame to focus on materialist philosophers—Epicurus, Marx, Darwin, and Freud—who have been key targets for various advocates of intelligent design in the contemporary U.S., as seen most notably with the Discovery Institute’s 1999 Wedge Strategy document. While Bellamy et al. are clearly opponents of intelligent design, their sociological and Marxian approach offers an alternative perspective to the more analytic philosophical positions of many thinkers in the sub-field of science and religion.

A few other essays of note:

  • Pairing Donald Lopez’s essay “Buddhism” in Science and Religion Around the World (2011), with the Dalai Lama’s “The Buddhist Concept of Mind” (2012). Here the aim is to get students thinking about how essentialist claims about religion, however appealing to liberal ears (as in the case of the Dalai Lama), are influenced by things like, to quote Lopez, “efforts to counter the colonialist claim that the Asian was prone to fanciful flights of the mind and meaningless rituals of the body,” (225) which he argues spurred figures like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts to claim that Buddhism was in fact a forerunner of modern science (e.g., by linking the concept of emptiness with quantum physics, and meditation with cognitive science).

Before turning to Salvation on Sand Mountain, which will serve as the final essay project, I have students’ read Constance Furey’s “Body, Society, and Subjectivity in Religious Studies,” and Susan Friend Harding’s chapter “Speaking is Believing,” in The Book of Jerry Falwell, where she details her ethnographic research as a participant-observer in Falwell’s former church in Lynchburg, Virginia. The idea here is to get them thinking about theories of embodiment, language, ritual, and affect and how social scientific analysis of what language and rituals do to minds and bodies within particular communities can help problematize those commonplace science and religion questions beyond the familiar battle between faith and reason.

It is at this point, I hope, they’ll be ready for the snakes!

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