Where the social studies of science and religion meets STS

Joseph Satish Vedanayagam
05/29/2023 | Reflections

At the Annual Meeting of 4S in 2018 at Sydney, Australia, I was fortunate to organize a panel titled “Being religious, being scientific: the dynamics of science and religion in the laboratory”. Apart from being my first experience at a 4S meeting, I was also thrilled to put together a transdisciplinary/ transnational panel with a cultural anthropologist from Taiwan, a historian of science from Singapore, an STS scholar from Finland while I was then an STS student from India. Further, the papers discussed diverse STS approaches to exploring the relation between science and religion by examining specific cases relevant to our research sites. The panel was well attended and the questions posed to the panelists seemed to suggest that there was genuine interest in examining themes around science and religion within STS.
Panelists and participants at 4S 2018
Panelists and participants at the "Being religious, being scientific" panel at 4S 2018 [Image credit: Author]

Since then, I have looked for other opportunities to present ideas on social studies of science and religion at STS-ish events with mixed success. Specifically, I have tried to look for panels that explore similar questions at 4S meetings. A preliminary search for the keyword “religion” within the proposed open panels at 4S 2023 returned zero results (though the keyword “religious” returned one result). Despite the towering contributions of several scholars to the field of STS, the absence of STS approaches to understanding the relationship between science and (non)religion in society is curious.

Acknowledging the complex relations between religion and science could help in considering the role of religiously inspired motivations in scientific practices, while guarding against attributing undue agency to religious commitments. The intellectual historian Sarah Shortall (2016) suggests that attending to the claims of religious actors need not imply a direct endorsement of their claims. Rather, scholars should illuminate how these claims function by translating them to the language of social and political processes. This has led scholars of various disciplines to “bring back” religion into the scholarly discourse. For example, development studies scholars urge that if religion is “brought back" in to policy research, it could improve “our understanding of challenging development issues” (Deneulin & Rakodi, 2011). Sociologists of religion have shown how public (mis)understandings of science can prejudice the idea that some religious communities “pose a threat to the West” (Jones et al., 2019). Science educators even suggest that teaching about the relation between science and religion could help students to learn science better (Reiss, 2010).

Exploring the role of religious actors in science provides space for incorporating social constructivist approaches in considering alternative representations of social actors who otherwise remain silent in STS literature (e.g., Lestar & Böhm, 2020). For sure, this is not to idealize the role of spirituality and religion within science studies. Rather, it is to encourage attempts to understand human behaviour and explore how individuals and communities bring about change - for better or for worse. For instance, Bruno Latour (2005, p. 235) feels that it is pertinent to ask why religious people do what they do, and Wenell (2016) asks why religious adherents might sometimes have more stimuli to act more ethically than others. Considering the interaction between science and religion in the social studies of science could potentially help in examining the institutions of science in a new light and to re-position narratives of scientific progress. Again, this requires guarding against the simplistic suggestion that religion contributes to science. Rather the question that needs to be posed is: what did the pursuit of science and technology mean to people (religiously minded or otherwise) and what were the historical conditions of time and place that facilitated that pursuit?

In recent times, the field of STS is witnessing a surge of scholars trying to reflect upon and bring the conversation between science and religion to the forefront. Emerging networks such as the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society (INSBS) have facilitated scholars to explore social studies of science and religion in their nuanced contexts. Some members of this network, with a stated research interest in STS, have provided a starting point for STS scholars to engage in questions related to science and belief in society.

For instance, Silke Gulker has tried to investigate the role of religion in knowledge production by analyzing transcendence constructions in the field of stem cell research. Renny Thomas has discussed how scientists at a leading Indian research institute demonstrated a coexistence of religion and atheism(s) in their daily lives and practices. And more recently, Thoko Kamwendo is leading an exciting effort by a number of scholars “to consolidate existing relevant and useful approaches to the topic of science and religion grounded in STS”.

In my own work funded by INSBS, I study the socio-historical evolution of ‘Jesuit science’ (scientific activity of Catholic missionaries belonging to the Jesuit Order) in India, after India gained freedom from British rule in 1947. Specifically, my project examines the nexus between scientific research and the social justice mandate of the Jesuits in south India. One of the key themes of exploration in my research is the Jesuit engagement with environmental in/justice in south India. In this context, I draw upon the work of scholars of religious studies who have described boundary work between religion and ecology in environmental policy and research (e.g. Deane-Drummond, 2006). I have also learned from theologians and religious studies scholars’ attempts to understand how religious communities and organizations engage in environmental action – a phenomenon that is now called "religious environmentalism" (Tomalin, 2016). Despite its critiques, the “religious environmentalist” discourse has helped to create a renewed role for religion in the public sphere and has shifted the focus of religious movements from “a doctrinal-centred approach to a problem-centred approach”.

The underlying motivation for me to pursue the work of Jesuit priest-scientists in south India is to understand their orientation and contributions (significant or otherwise) so as to situate their scientific activity in a meaningful context. I do hope that my research can add to the rising interest in problematizing the relationship between science and religion while using theories and methods grounded in STS.
Joseph Satish Vedanayagam holds a PhD in Science, Technology and Society Studies from the University of Hyderabad, India. He currently leads a research project on “Missionary science and social justice in postcolonial India: The evolution of Jesuit science in the Madurai Province, 1952-2019” supported by a grant awarded via INSBS. Joseph is also the Coordinator of Backchannels, the blog of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).

Published: 05/29/2023