Science and Religion

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Humans do not engage the world in a neutral way. Instead, we see world through the reality that our culture creates. Without culture, humanity would have to continuously reinvent the wheel, perhaps even literally. It casts a web of reality over us that is inescapable. We are constantly in the grip of our culture. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to find societies with cultures which differ greatly from ours who come to very different conclusions about what reality is. When we are confronted with these differences in world views, we are often quick and confident to assert that our way of life is superior to others.

This is behavior isn’t unique to tribes indigenous to foreign lands who believe in so-called “primitive” religions. It is even true of the Western world’s modern science. Science is another example of the cultural frameworks we use to understand the world around us. If this is the case, then science too must be part of a web of reality created by our culture, and is therefore not superior (nor inferior) to religion, but rather runs parallel to it. However, the Western mind generally recoils from the idea that science does anything but describe reality in hard, empirical detail. As mentioned, since these cultural frameworks envelope us, we often to not regard them as socially negotiated ways of engaging the world, but rather as absolute and unquestioned reality. The same is true of both religion and science.

The unquestioned nature of this cultural framework was described by anthropologist Evans-Pritchard in his seminal work, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. In this ethnography, Evans-Pritchard examines how completely encompassing the Azande tradition of magic and witchcraft is to the people....

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...thin the same process. In this way, science seems superior to other methods of engaging the world. However, as we have seen, science has its limitations in describing certain categories of knowledge. It cannot be used to make ethical judgements or learn an ultimate truth. Such areas are outside its scope. In this way, magic and religion provide answers which science cannot.

So science is not necessarily superior to religion and magic, neither is it inferior to it. It is another way of engaging the world, one which answers a different set of questions and solves a different set of problems from magic and religion. So long as a cultural framework benefits the society which implements it, it is useful. Furthermore, when these cultural frameworks are as deeply intertwined with everyday reality as is the case with the Azande’s witchcraft, they become necessary.

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