IACR 2015: Some Personal Reflections. Part II: The “New Conversations in Science and Religion” Conference

It occurred to me that Religious Studies is a field within the humanities, so I decided to pay attention to the postconference.  Of course it’s not surprising that the chosen humanities field was Religious Studies, given the (to me, surprising) surge of critical realists revealing the importance of religion in their lives.  I would have preferred something like history, however.

My responses to the postconference were naturally shaped by my own religious background and views.  I am culturally Jewish: I don’t practice, yet it is part of how I identify myself, how I think about the world, and (I would say) my general style of action.  For all intents and purposes I’m an atheist, but as a good fallibilist I officially describe myself as an agnostic.

I have long been struck by the fact that critical realists, as best as I can tell, include very few fellow Jews.  It’s odd.  We’re widespread in scholarship, both historically and in the present.  Now, I don’t go around checking people’s religious affiliations, but it’s not unusual for us to suss each other out.  Of course, maybe my impression is simply wrong.  In any case, we seem rare within critical realism.  I can’t help but wonder why, but I don’t have any answers.

However, a distinctly Christian element within critical realism began to declare itself with Bhaskar’s From East to West.  As almost everyone admits, it’s a highly problematic book, but I found the chapter “To the Promised Land” (in which Bhaskar recounts his soul’s supposed Jewish phase) particularly off-putting.  Who are the “twelve disciples” (p. 74)?  What’s the holy grail doing here, and why is it given him at age 33-4 (p. 75)?  Why is his late teacher resurrected (p. 76)?  What exactly are these dilemmas of Judaism that somehow need to be resolved (pp. 77-78)?  Can the claim that they have been resolved mean anything other than a belief that Judaism has been surmounted by something better, and now can safely be dispensed with?  It seems like the basic function of this chapter is to presage the coming of Christianity, and covers a phase to be passed over as soon as possible (pun intended).

Now that a range of people within CR have declared their religious feelings, the “Science and Religion” postconference (which had very little science) was predictably oriented toward Christianity, and – not quite as predictably – blinkered about it.  Only Kevin Schilbrack, who gave the day’s best paper, made a substantive effort to include other religions in his compass.  (To be completely accurate, I don’t know for certain about one plenary talk because after 10-15 minutes of exasperation I quietly left.)  There are many things you can discuss while considering only one religion.  You can study its sociology in connection to, say, labor history or gender relations.  You can analyze how one religion adjusted its theology in response to scientific discoveries.  You can explore how a religion’s institutions interacted with state institutions.  Etc.  But you can’t analyze religion per se by looking at only one religion.  You can only do that by considering numerous religions.  The situation is the same in my own work: if I were to use predominantly realistic plays like those of Anton Chekhov or Tennessee Williams as my models for conceptualizing theater, my theory would go far astray, not even capturing Shakespeare.  And so it is for religion.

For example, Christianity in all its variants is essentially a religion of beliefs.  But the same cannot be said of Judaism: it’s principally a tradition of practices and orientations.  Although there are differences among the various branches of Judaism regarding the interpretation of the sacred texts and some doctrinal matters, what distinguishes them most are their attitudes about adapting the traditional practices and laws to the times.  Under Orthodox Judaism, one keeps kosher, prays only in groups of at least ten people, and observes a wide number of holidays, including the Sabbath; under Reform Judaism (in the UK, called Liberal Judaism) many such practices go by the wayside.  But respect for the Torah and the highest holidays, and for education generally (whether religious or secular) remain central to both.  Faith isn’t obligatory: one can be both an Orthodox Jew and an atheist.  Conversely, one can follow none of Judaism’s traditional religious practices, yet still share its orientations and relationship with history and knowledge, and thus consider oneself Jewish.  A Christian concept of religion as a faith cannot accommodate these possibilities.  Indeed, the very notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” is objectionable, since it exaggerates the continuity between the two and implies that Christianity has superseded Judaism.  Somewhat in the way Bhaskar does it in From East to West.

In short, important as it is to understand one’s own religion, it’s important to understand others’ as well, and to do so in relation to each other – both Self and Other, or perhaps better, Martin Buber’s I and Thou.  So a critical realist discussion of religious ideas faces two imperatives: one is to pursue truth, e.g., to develop an accurate and comprehensive definition of religion, which requires a comparative and nondenominational approach; the other is to seek what Bhaskar called “eudaimonia,” a society of universal flourishing, which entails equity – a policy which in these times of intense religious conflict is in terribly short supply.

[Next: The Philosophy of metaReality?]


  1. As a Catholic communication scientist (this including both electronics and Shannon’s forms of information, hence languages and their interpretation), I would explain Bhaskar’s “dilemmas” of Judaism in terms of its rulers following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. This is like accepting a photograph but being sceptical – like St Thomas or yourself, Hans – of the negative unexpectedly necessary to reproduce it (i.e. in our actions). The ‘universal’ of Catholicism is about it trying to accept both, though some of us “see it” and others don’t: it is like an argumentative family trying to stick together despite its Protestant members going their own way.

    Your interpretation of Christianity as a religion of beliefs is not that of Christians but of [post-Hume] sceptical observers of what they take to be “religious” behaviour: paying tribute to some “God” other than themselves. The “lig” syllible deriving from a tie as in ligament, religion is actually a Christian code word for commitment to Christ for freeing us from our bonds: paying off our mortgage, re-enacting [this should interest you, Hans] God’s dying for us [in the process of Big Bang Creation?] that we might live. All the tribute that is asked of us is our gratitude, shown by loving others as our Father loved us.

    “Belief” is being prepared to accept something: because teacher said so while one is still a child, but as one matures, increasingly on the basis of what one knows of the origins and consequences of various alternatives. Belief in a person implies having faith in HIM, in the spirit of his Love, not in “beliefs” in the letter of what he has been reported as saying.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for writing. Perhaps your understanding of Bhaskar’s “dilemmas” of Judaism is correct, but Bhaskar himself says nothing of the sort. As far as one can tell from the text, it could well be Judaism per se that is the dilemma. (Which I suppose it often has been, from one perspective or another.) In either case Bhaskar presents it as something to be transcended as quickly as possible, in ways that are distinctly Christian. Your depiction of the concepts of “letter vs spirit” is highly beholden to Christian views so it can scarcely be applied fairly to Judaism, Islam, or any other religion.

      I stand by my description of Christianity as a religion of beliefs. For Protestantism, the watchword is “sola fide” (“by faith alone”): belief is all that’s necessary to receive God’s grace. This was core to its split from Catholicism, which demands both faith and good works (deeds). But Catholicism nevertheless prioritizes orthodoxy (right belief); sinners can always confess, whereas heterodox thinkers face excommunication. These terms were produced by Protestant and Catholic theologians centuries ago, not by modern skeptics (Humean or otherwise). Judaism, in contrast, emphasizes correct action or behavior, and faith as such takes a back seat and in modern times is optional. Nine of the Ten Commandments are instructions about what to do or not do — compare that to the Rosary prayers.

      By the way, I’m Tobin, not Hans. (Hans is better-looking.)

      1. Thanks for the response, Tobin, and apologies for my getting the name-wires crossed!

        Re the faith-works controversy, you might remember Christ’s parable of the son who said “Yes!” but didn’t, and the other who said “No!” but did. I was puzzled for years by G K Chesterton’s highly unorthodox “Orthodoxy”, until I saw the pun in the title: orthogonal rather than correct teaching is about two-dimensional (richly visual, intuitive) rather than linear (verbal, logical) expression or vacuous (merely emotional)
        attachment. In the introduction to “The Spirit of Catholicism” (1934, p.2,3) Karl Adam says :

        “For the religious historian, Catholicism becomes a microcosm of the world of religions. … Catholicism is a union of contraries. But contraries are not contradictories. Wherever there is life, there you must have conflict and contrary”.

        The proportions of Left and Right thinkers is much the same in any population, so one only occasionally gets the likes of Good Pope John amid a series of more or less authoritarian Popes defending the rationality of beliefs against Lutheran fideism. However, the “zero tolerance” of heresy was a policy directed at teachers rather than believers, and as often the overkill was due to over-zealous agents rather than absent authorities. With Luther, Catholicism has had to go through a gestalt. We can now see he is right; but along the lines of your criticism, that doesn’t tell us what to do.

        It doen’t tell us to say the prayers of the rosary, but they are simply a mantra – an aid to reflection on the on-going life of Christ – though available to even the simplest of people as the great prayers of the Christian tradition if they have need of them.

        I’ve appreciated your straight talking. Again, my reflections feel both like too much and totally inadequate. My thanks to, anyway. It takes two to tango.

  2. My concern is with the development of critical realism, not the theology of this or that religion. I recommend you reread this and the following post. I am deeply troubled by the Christian bias (both ideological and in an peculiar way demographic) that has arisen in CR, which (judging by the postconference) has been accompanied by … well, I’ll euphemistically call it “parochialism.” An intensely disturbing contradiction between theory and practice is forming in this sector of CR, compounding the better-recognized problems of gender imbalance and ethnic minority underrepresentation. This new development raises new problems for the expansion of CR within the scholarly community, and its “parochialism” is acutely dangerous for both the quality of critical realist (or metaRealist) theory and especially its practical-world ethics.

  3. Hi Tobin

    I wouldn’t put too much store by ‘the details’ of the novella in From East to West because these were supplied by charlatans posing as New Age who subsequently robbed Roy of his life’s savings. See my forthcoming Intro to FEW on my academia.edu page. Also, your view that ‘a distinctly Christian element’ makes its appearance in CR in FEW overlooks that Roy pulled out of co-authoring Transcendence: CR and God because he thought his colleagues were taking a too Christian a line (see Formation of CR, 150-1).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *