Religion, Science, and the Humanities: an Interview with Barbara Herrnstein Smith

SmithBH1Over at The Immanent Frame:

NS [Nathan Schneider]: Natural Reflections has been the subject of a lively debate (here and here) on Stanley Fish’s blog at The New York Times. Have you found the exchange productive?

BHS: One-shot retorts, or seesaw exchanges on blogs, are rarely models of intellectually productive discussion, but Stanley Fish’s columns attract thoughtful readers, and I found the responses to his column on Natural Reflections instructive. Two related anxieties were repeatedly voiced on the basis of Fish’s description of my evenhanded—or, in fact, determinedly symmetrical—treatment of religious beliefs and what we take as scientific knowledge. One is that I am flattening out important differences between them. The other is that I’m refusing to take a stand on a major issue of our time, and thus—wittingly or unwittingly—giving aid and comfort to the wrong side.

The first of these worries is unwarranted. While I locate the differences between “science” and “religion” on multiple levels, I don’t diminish either the significance of such differences or the stakes that may be involved in identifying them accurately.

The second worry is, I think, misplaced in principle, and reflects increasingly oversimplified public views of science, religion, and the relations between them. Most of the commentators anxious about what side the book comes out on are concerned, I think, about such issues as the promotion of creationist ideas in science classes, or the clerical condemnation of contraceptive devices or homosexuality—that is, public issues in which noisy literalist convictions clash with established scientific accounts, or where informed secular attitudes are confronted by uncompromising ecclesiastic doctrine. Such concerns are understandable and I share them. But taking a clear stand on such issues does not require choosing sides between Science and Religion, conceived as monolithic adversaries in an epic battle.