Two different kinds of things

I greatly appreciate Dan Kahan’s willingness to engage my last post on Twitter. I look forward to his upcoming post. Until then, I’ll leave you with an extended quote from (yet again!) Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Natural Reflections. Although Smith writes in the context of science and religion, I think her general thesis applies more generally:

The effort to reconcile science and religion responds to the claim or fear that, under the assumed conception of each, they are in unhappy conflict. It is not obvious, however, that such a conflict exists, at least not in the ongoing lives and experiences of individuals. Difficulties arise when it is assumed that spiritual or mental hygiene requires that all our ideas, impulses, affections, and acts be mutually aligned all the time. For many people, however, accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict that would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practicing law. They are, rather, two different kinds of things that one may do and/or be: activities performed, identities played out, and experiences sustained in different contexts, each involving different cognitive and bodily configurations, corresponding to different capacities and desires, and offering different forms of satisfaction.

So understood, a conjunction of science and religion–engaging in some significant way with scientific knowledge, accepted as such, and also in some significant way “being religious”–need not involve acute epistemological difficulties or cognitive dissonances or, accordingly, require the reconciling of anything with anything else. While all formal reconciliations of “science” and “religion” appear to be conceptually fragile and certainly require heavy rhetorical scaffolding to hold them in place, the ongoing inhabiting of both is, for many evidently well-functioning people–scientists and science teachers, anthropologists and historians, doctors and engineers–a daily fact of life.



  1. That sounds right.

    But if this sort of reconciliation puts someone in position of simultaneously “rejecting” & “accepting” evolution, WIGOINTH? How many “things” are there in his or her mind that answer to label “evolution”? If one, then why isn’t this a problem for the person in question? If more than one (I think that could be), how does that work? I think curiosity is sufficient justification to want to have the answers to these questions. But I suspect answers might also help to promote practices & norms that reduce the experience of conflict over religion & science that we see in our political life.

  2. Hi. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Sorry for the slow reply…I had a very busy work week.

    You ask a good question…how many “things” can be labeled evolution? I’m not sure I have a good answer to this question. Just reading through the excerpts to the paper about the Muslim doctor linked to on Kahan’s blog…it appears that for some people evolution constitutes at least two separate “things”. And they “accept” it at work but “reject” it at home. But I suspect I’ve just used circular logic that has revealed nothing!

    After reading through Kahan’s response to me, I agree with both you and him that there are worthwhile questions here that need answering.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

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