Adam Frank’s fire is actually smoke
This is a post I have been meaning to write for a while now. I am sorry if my critique will sound excessively ad personam but I really think this case represents once again what I consider the broader problem in ‘science and religion’, i.e. lack of sophistication when dealing with these terms.
An interesting example of an attempt to revitalize this field is Adam Frank’s recent The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate (Jan 2009), which is accompanied by an omonymous blog, and was some months ago advertised elsewhere on the blogosphere (here and here, for example), a Bloggingheads Diavlog followed as well, raising Frank’s fame. As the title suggests, Frank—an astrophysicist—sets out to go ‘beyond’ the ‘science and religion’ debate. My interest in the book however, quickly faded when I realized what the assumptions and strategy employed by Frank in order to ‘go beyond’ were: his book, he claims
is about science and the human spiritual endeavor. It is about the human aspiration to find what is true, what is real, and to then build lives in accord with that understanding. This aspiration, this ‘constant fire’, as I call it, is as old as humanity itself.
(Frank 2009: 5)
Suspending judgement on the perennialist tone of this claim, and having read Frank’s own statement, that ‘in writing my book, I spent more time in religious studies rather than theology departments’ in order to look for ‘[a] broader view’, one might expect that his conception of religion, however, would be informed by recent and non-theologically oriented scholarship. Surprisingly (or maybe not) Frank, after acknowledging the unsuitability of the use of the term ‘God’ in ‘science and religion’ debates, presents, as a solution, his sources for theories on religion:
What matters to those thinkers are not academic ideas about God but something more primal and original: religious experience. For the past two centuries there has been a bright line of scholars, William James, Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, and others, who have seen religion and the activity of spiritual life through the focal point of experience.
(Frank 2009: 61)
Moreover, probably on the basis of these influences, he explains that
I have deliberately relied on the term sacred. It is rich with resonance without being connected to any particular religion. It has a meaning that is intuitively apprehended without specific definitions and is relatively free of the connotations and baggage of terms such as God and divinity.
(Frank 2009: 78)
Should it be not clear by now, my point of critique here is that the ‘bright line of scholars’ that Frank discovered is actually a school of interpretation of ‘religious experience’, known as phenomenology of religion, which is hardly the bleeding edge of scholarship in study of religions! As a matter of fact is a way of approaching ‘religion’ that has been harshly criticised in the last 30 years by the actual recent and philosophically informed ‘reductionist’ school of study of religions, precisely for its crypto-theological underpinnings.
Frank, after quoting from Otto’s The Idea of Holy comments that ‘This slim volume is part of the cannon [sic] of academic religious studies programs across the world’. In his time in religious departments, I suspect that no one warned Frank of the (historical) reasons why this book indeed features as a required reading. In humanities, often we read outdated things, not to take the theories therein as revealed truth, but to have an understanding of the historical evolution of a certain field and of the ideological elements present in different texts. It is not surprising that, coming from an academic environment (astronomy) where historical training, even in one’s own discipline, is completely ignored in programs and syllabi, the difference between historical value and theoretical innovation is somewhat nebulous to Frank.
This might appear a single example of a scholar from the natural sciences moving into a new disciplinary field, unaccustomed to its most recent internal evolutions–incapable of discerning between those authors read for a historical understanding of the evolution of a certain field, and authors read because they are at the frontline of the discussions around methods and theories within the same field–hence hardly significant. However, I think that, in its ingenuity, it is actually rather representative. It brings to our attention a pervasive understanding of what ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ ought to be; of the still powerful influence of a phenomenological approach to religion, focused on ‘experience’; of a culturally induced blindness to the western ideological baggage of terms employed, even when it is the explicit desire of the author to make a ‘religiously neutral’ choice (it is not enough to exclude ‘God’ from the discussion to make a religious discourse ‘neutral’); and finally of the pervasive assumption that to be ‘human’ is to seek what is ‘true’ and ‘real’. This is a recent volume, published by a university press (University of California), meant to go ‘beyond the science and religion debate’, and which was heavily publicized on the wider, public internet arena via a dedicated blog written by the author and by a series of guest posts on the Discover Magazine blog, and the author is not directly involved in the ‘science and religion’ field (this is his first publication on the topic and he is a non-theologically committed scientist). Nonetheless, it simply attempts another ‘neutral’ approach to the same problem, failing to recognize the socio-political implications of it, not to mention to be fully aware of its very own contextual influences.
In other words, The Constant Fire does not go anywhere ‘beyond’ the ‘science and religion’ debate. If possible, it takes it back some 50 years.