The new sciences of religion: Review by Clay Naff


For millennia the study of religion was conducted from the inside. Clerics, monks, imams, and other devout and scholarly believers pored over the sacred texts of their religion to know the will of God. If they devoted any time to alternative religions, it was to learn where the others had gone wrong

Over the last couple of centuries, however, that has begun to change. Departments of comparative religion have sprung up. The sociology of religion has emerged as a field.

The book I'd like to tell you about represents a major new step in our understanding of religion as a worldwide transcultural phenomenon. It's called The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and the Bottom Up. The author, William Grassie, is uniquely qualified for the monumental task impled by that title. Grassie, who holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University, is the founder of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science. That institute has brought together many of the world's leading theologians and scientists for "constructive engagement " over some of the deepest questions humanity has ever faced. Full disclosure: the Metanexus institute funded me in the early 2000s.

Grassie's book comes in two distinct but interlocking parts. The first is concerned with how science has been employed to try to explain religion. Grassie deftly sums up the early approaches of Auguste Compte, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim and others. What they had in common, he says, was a belief that religion was on its way out, soon to be replaced by science. History has proven otherwise. Religion remains a powerful a force in world affairs and in the daily lives of most people. It is therefore surely ripe for further investigation.

One of the many attractions of this book is that rigorous though the scholarship undoubtedly is, the language of the book is unpretentious, largely free of jargon, and frequently witty. Here's Grassie framing a commandment to represent science's worship of the pursuit of truth:
"Thou Shalt Not Cook the Data." His touch is light, but his scholarship runs deep. You know you're in the presence of a scholar when his analysis includes a paragraph that begins, "The ninth innovation..."

Grassie regards religions as cultural systems analogous in some ways to languages. Each one is hlghly particular, but it remains possible to study their deep, common structure, which he calls the universal grammar of religions.

To carry out that study, Grassie brings to bear a variety of modern sciences. They range from economics to neurology, complete with MRI scans of the brain at prayer. The most interesting, perhaps, is the application of biological evolution to religion. In this section, Grassie sums up three evolutionary theories of religion. They run the gamut, from Richard Dawkins' "virus of the mind" explanation for religion" to David Sloan Wilson's theory of religion as a group adaptation. Grassie adds his own synthetic spin to all this with a LaMarckian theory of cultural evolution.

His tour of scientific attempts to explain the persistence and ubiquity of religion is a tour de force, but Grassie's not done yet. In the second part of his book, he attempts a personal reconstruction of religion from the bottom up. His task, he says, is "to see how far we can climb from science to the sacred without invoking special revelation."

It is fascinating to see just how far that is.

Of course, this section of The New Sciences of Religion has its debatable, even dubious, claims. Skeptics will choke on Grassie's assertion that, quote, "the very possibility of science qua science becomes evidence for some notion of God-by-whatever-name." Possibly, Grassie had in mind Einstein's abstract, mathematical God, but to call our ability to DO science evidence for God is for anyone trained in science a stretch.

By the same token, traditional religionists will find it hard to swallow Grassie's ideas about life after death. He writes, "Let's imagine God-by-whatever-name ... as the `Mother-of-All-Databases,' able to record and remember every actual state of matter-energy-information in the universe. With this information in hand, resurrecting or reincarnating a dead human is hardly a problem."

Such approaches to religion's big claims may be unfamiliar, even ungainly, but they are a worthy pursuit. As things stand, our traditional descriptions of God, the Universe, and Everything are wildly at odds with the findings of science. Five-hundred years after Galileo battled the Church over heliocentricity, efforts to force the square peg of theology into the round hole of science continue. These have resulted in painful, pointless fights in the courts. In the end, Creationism, Intelligent Design and other such God-Propping movements only cheapen theology and make it look as foolish as William Jennings Bryan in the climactic scenes of "Inherit the Wind," when he admits that the Bible's six days of creation may not have been six literal days after all.

What William Grassie attempts in this book s a long-overdue remaking of religion via science. While this attempt won't satisfy everyone, it may spur them on to much needed reforms.

The book is The New Sciences of Religion, by William Grassie. It's published by Palgrave Macmillan, and has just hit the bookshelves