I recently attended a conference in Edinburgh entitled “Religion meets Science“. It promised much: sessions would explore “key issues in the interaction between science and religion for those engaged in secondary religious education” and the event itself was specifically aimed at “people who engage these questions in secondary schools and at those who study to become RE/RME professionals… anyone interested in emerging areas of debate between religion and science will also benefit from this conference.” A broad intended audience then, but a clear prioritisation towards teachers (the audience did appear to consist mostly of teachers, though not as many as might be expected; there were probably about 15 participants in total). Having recently qualified as a Scottish RME teacher, this seemed like an interesting event to go to, and here I wanted to offer some thoughts on the event overall.
The conference started well, with Mark Harris (Edinburgh University) offering an overview of the wider questions involved in the topic, and highlighting some of the problems that scholars are trying to deal with. This was followed by a fascinating exploration by Kevin Corcoran (Calvin College) of ways in which elements of Christian belief might be reasonably explained in terms of natural science, with a particular focus on the belief in ‘bodily resurrection’. I found this to be a very thought-provoking way of engaging with the topic – it felt like a kind of case study, an attempt to apply widely understood norms of scientific engagement to theological beliefs. Whether one agreed with his conclusions or not, it felt like a courageous intellectual attempt to address an interesting problem.
On the Saturday, the day began with Sarah Lane Ritchie (Edinburgh University) on neuroscience, religion and the soul. This was followed by Finley Lawson (Canterbury Christ Church University). Lawson was the first and only speaker to attempt to engage with teaching in schools, as he sought to outline possible approaches that could be used in lessons and curriculum formation; although the centre he represents is, of course, primarily interested in the English curriculum, this was a useful and stimulating session.
In the afternoon, Joanna Leidenhag (St Andrews University) discussed the role of the imagination (using popular culture examples) in thinking about the post-human and the ethics of control of such trends. Ethics also played a key role in Michael Fuller’s (Edinburgh University) closing paper on ‘big data’ and possible Christian theological responses to the questions that arise; he asked, for example, whether there should be a kind of Hippocratic Oath for big data operators, given their immense influence on individuals and societies.
In general terms, this was a stimulating and thought-provoking event, and it was good to meet and engage with people working in different areas. Having been to (and organised!) countless conferences over the years, it was very good that the key practical details were well-catered for: plenty of coffee breaks, an appropriate level of informality that allowed space for engaging with speakers and other participants (and details such as how to claim expenses for bursary recipients were clarified at the very start – so often, this kind of thing is left as an afterthought [but see postscript below]).
However, it did not really live up to what was billed in the description: apart from Lawson’s paper there was very little direct connection to the kinds of work that secondary teachers do, and this no doubt came from a general ignorance on the part of most of the speakers about what kind of teaching presently actually happened in schools by teachers of RE (at one point, members of the audience even had to explain to one of the Scottish speakers the distinction between Religious and Moral Education, and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies – a vital and pretty basic point, but one that indicated how little interest in the actual work of the intended audience there was on the part of the speaker). Of course, the skill of a teacher at any level is to take their understanding and knowledge and teach it in the most appropriate way for their students or pupils, so apart from the way in which the conference was advertised, this was not in and of itself an issue.
More problematically than the lack of interest in secondary education by most of the speakers was, however, the very common confusion in western contexts around the terms being used. Harris set out some broad definitions of the key terms religion and science early on in his overview paper – a relatively easy task in part, as he was describing different responses to the questions that inevitably centre on differentiated definitions – but most speakers did not do so.
For some, this was fine: Corcoran clearly identified his approach as that of an American Protestant Christian, but for others this was more problematic: for example, Lane Ritchie kept speaking about ‘religion’ but as I commented to her in the questions afterwards, I think she actually meant ‘European or North American white liberal Protestantism’. Even then, this was not really acknowledged by her – a common problem with Western theology and religion scholars. Leidenhag and Fuller did much the same, the latter saying towards the end of his paper that he could only really offer insights as a theologian from a Protestant background, rather than offer wider understandings from ‘a religious perspective’.
Even if one doesn’t go along with the widely discredited ‘world religions’ model (yes, I’m looking at you, Scottish Qualifications Agency, at every single level!), then we should still be aware of what Guy Axtell has called ‘religious luck’ and how that plays out in different contexts. More broadly, this conference highlighted the absolute urgency for decolonising theology, religion, and the study of religions – for a great short summary of this, see, for example, Malory Nye’s stimulating new article in which he discussed the confusion around some of the terms: “‘religion’ is not only a particular English language term, it is one with a specific history, having emerged within colonial histories of white European Protestant Christian traditions”. He goes on to say that “to study ‘religion’ is not to study a ‘thing’ in itself, which exists across humanity as a universal. It is instead a study of how particular ideas (and discourses) of ‘religion’ are practiced and operationalized in various contexts.” Decolonising, Nye says, is a process “that works in many different ways — not only addressing and changing the ‘colonization of knowledge’ and ideology (and curriculum), but also the more obviously tangible and political forms of colonialism (particularly contemporary settler colonialism)”. This “process of attempting to decolonize the study of religion should require a methodological awareness of the historical and academic legacies of colonialism within the discipline, in terms of the ways in which it is taught and researched, along with key assumptions about the subject matter (such as the concepts of religion and world religions).”
For the most part, the conference singularly failed to engage with anything like this: not only was the colonial nature of ‘theology’ not commented upon, it was often regarded as being the same as ‘religion’ and an entity that itself appeared to contain subsets of ‘religions’. On the most simplistic level, at no point was there even a discussion of how someone identifying as Buddhist or Muslim, for example, might relate to these questions, and apart from Harris offering a comment that this was often a topic that exercised English-language scholars more than others because of linguistic peculiarities (after a German-speaker in the audience highlighted the similarity between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, for example), no substantial reference to any cultural context beyond that of white Euro-American Protestants was really apparent (and even in the German context, of course, such thinking is pretty nuanced, as my friend Guy Marcel Clicqué’s work has shown over many years; see here, for a shorter article of his (in English) on the challenges of postmodernism and theology and science). For example, might a Muslim in Scotland view this topic differently to a Muslim in Saudi Arabia or India? What about someone from a Christian background growing up in a country where the schools and education system are majority-Muslim?
These are illustrative and therefore simplistic scenarios, but even in these there is, of course, no universality possible given the diversity of positions that might be taken – but that does not mean nothing can be said, as Nye argued. It is a shame that this challenge did not even appear to be one that most speakers were aware of.
Postscript, 9.7.19: having been positive about the alertness of the organisers to the expenses question, I note that although my claim was submitted immediately after the conference, it was only yesterday – a month later – that the expenses were actually received, and only after repeated emails to the university. This really is not good enough – if a bursary system has been created, universities have to be prompt at paying expenses and not cause unnecessary delay, thereby deterring people from participating.