Life Sciences and Religion: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
The relationship between science and religion has always been an important topic in the history of science. In contrast, debates on this relationship have almost disappeared from the social scientific agenda in the course of the 20th century. In the early days of sociology, scholars argued intensely about how science and religion are related: Comte developed his “law of three stages” and envisioned sociology to be the future “religion of humanity.” Durkheim emphasized that both religion and science have the same origin: society. Weber described science and religion as different spheres of values. At least in Western Europe, the differentiation thesis has become widely accepted, and science and religion are seen as two separate and separable spheres—science is responsible for explaining how the world develops, while religion offers people a reason for such developments.
There are many reasons to challenge this thesis. The history of science has long shown how scientific developments are intertwined with worldviews that are dominant at a certain time and place. In recent decades, the sociology of knowledge and the science and technology studies (STS) have deconstructed the process of scientific knowledge production and emphasized its social embeddedness. At the same time, it is increasingly evident that religion has retained its importance in many contemporary societies, and the secularization thesis has largely proved to be insufficient. Thus, new light also needs to be shed on religion as part of the social environment of scientific work.
In the life sciences, the necessity of revisiting the relationship between science and religion is most obvious. There is the prominent debate between the so-called evolutionists and the so-called creationists, which is a case of an ongoing conflict between scientific and religious actors and the implications of this conflict need to be reflected upon. But there is also a broader range of issues. Work in the life sciences is always connected to complex ethical questions, and religious arguments have always played and still play an important role in dealing with these questions.
Religious worldviews and religious ethical ideas may affect both 1) the production of scientific knowledge and 2) the question of which knowledge is acceptable in a certain society.
1) Religious ethical ideas influence scientific development. In the field of stem cell research, for example, religious organizations participate in the development of regulation policies in many countries. Many ethical issues are based on deeply internalized ideas, which are rooted in religious traditions. Ethics and scientific
development are obviously intertwined: What is allowed affects what will be done. Furthermore, the boundary between knowing and believing in the experimental life sciences has always been hard to identify, and breakthroughs always challenge ideas long assumed to be certainties.
2) Science is not an uncontested knowledge producer: historically, it never has been, and it is not in contemporary societies, as the above-mentioned, ongoing conflict between evolution and creation demonstrates. Furthermore, in fields such as health care, there are many situations when people trust religious knowledge more than scientific knowledge. Global health care organizations often come into conflict with local patients, who trust more in their priests than in medical professionals.
Against this backdrop, the aim of this workshop is to revisit the relationship between the life sciences and religion. The underlying idea is that contemporary work can learn from debates in the history of science, and vice versa. The conference has an empirical focus and we are calling for contributions that illuminate aspects of the following questions from a historical or from a contemporary social scientific perspective:
Regarding the production of scientific knowledge:
• What roles do religious ethical ideas play in the production of knowledge in life sciences—on an institutional or on an individual level?
• (How) do religious worldviews influence the process and the results of knowledge production in the life sciences?
Regarding the acceptance of scientific knowledge:
• When and under what conditions do people in a certain time and place refer to religious and when do they refer to scientific truth claims to explain developments in life?
The aim is to reflect on these topics based on a wide range of empirical insights. We therefore invite early modern and modern historians and social scientists from all disciplines to participate in the call. Furthermore, we aim to include contributions from various regions of the world.
Please submit your abstract (500 words, including first and last name, current institutional affiliation, email address) by March 31, 2016 via email to
Research Group Science Policy Studies
silke.guelker [at] wzb.eu
The workshop is organized as part of the project “Science and Religio-Culture. Investigating Identity Constructions in Stem Cell Research in Germany and the United States” and is funded by the German Research Council. If you need a reimbursement of your travel expenses, please note in your application.