Religion vs. Science vs. … Anthropology?: On the Way to a Third Way

It’s a commonplace of modern thought that religion may be opposed to science and vice versa. That old story about a stand-off between Galileo and the Catholic Church,  high profile debates about evolutionism vs. creationism, and, more esoterically and academically, conversations about secularism and the recent “return” of religion — these instances and many others bear witness to this sense of tension.

One of the most striking images of the conflict comes in the form of those pop-up bumper decals: the fish that reads “Jesus,” and the fish with legs that reads “Darwin.”

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For my part, I prefer a third and very different fish: the fish presented in René Magritte’s painting “The Search for Truth” (1963). Magritte’s painting present only four recognizable objects in a canvas boasting such a noble and venerable name: an open window, a wall, an abstract circular object, and a giant fish.

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René Magritte – “The Search for Truth” (1963)

Considered on its own, the fish is an ambiguous figure: something we eat, that nourishes us; yet, at the same time, like us a living animal, and thus capable of reminding us of the living nature we share, just so far, with other animals. In Magritte’s rendition, the fish’s ambiguity is exploited through its connection with the usually serious topic of “truth.” Is Magritte suggesting that the truth is somehow especially close to the mundane facts and interests of our digestion? Or perhaps that it is somehow connected to our aqueous animal origins? Or — by virtue of the fish’s eerily floating and more-than-average-size appearance —  that the truth goes far beyond the expectations and requirements of our natural understanding?

I’d like to read the Magritte fish as suggesting all of these things at once. If I was in the market for bumper decals, I’ll order a special “Magritte fish” to answer the Jesuses and the Darwins. And what, more prosaically, would that answer consist in?

The very fact that religion and science seem to be able to “stand off” suggests that they are entities of a common type. From this perspective, we might try to understand what religion and science are competing about, and what they are competing for, by asking the question: What do religion and science have in common? Among other things, they are both historical institutions that make use of ecological resources, financial assets and economic systems, as well as the practices and commitments of individual human beings, to realize their ends. Their ends may appear to differ more radically than their means, but some of those ends are shared as well: for instance, the fixation of individual agents’ beliefs and commitments, and propagation of the institutional framework and practices that sustain each as an institution.

To see religion and science as institutions is to see them as a part of human life and human history, without denying either that (a) human life and human history are a part of natural history, or that (b) natural history may be only one kind of history or reality among others. In other words: the institutional framework is agnostic about which of the two, religion or science, is “right” when they conflict; nonetheless, the framework allows for cases of competition to be identified, analyzed, and explained. Might the framework not also suggests ways in which they could be solved?

As Bruno Latour notes in his We Have Never Been Modern (1993), cultural anthropologists have long conducted studies of foreign peoples without denying either (a) the materiality of their artifacts and practices, nor (b) the reality of the putative objects of their languages and conceptual schemes. The anthropologists are characteristically ontologically agnostic, both on practices and on deities. They are fully symmetrical in their treatment of the “scientific” and the “mythic,” the “material” and the “spiritual.” As a result, they’re able to see human beings as animals with access to the divine (without settling, or even attempting to settle, issues about the ontological status of “animality” and “divinity”). They adopt the same self-distancing from “truth” that Magritte’s fish symbolizes. They recognize the human, and seek an explanation for both the sciences and religion  on that basis.

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2 thoughts on “Religion vs. Science vs. … Anthropology?: On the Way to a Third Way

  1. Very interesting article. I’d just like to add that cultural anthropology (social anthropology in Europe) is a social science that uses theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of people in their cultural settings. Religion and science aren’t really in a stand off, religion is a topic of scientific (anthropological) inquiry since it’s a part of culture.


    • Hi Matt. Thanks for reading and for your comment — helpful to have a footnote about what cultural/social anthropology is. My main point in the post was that the apparent incompatibility between religious and scientific viewpoints can be overcome by interpreting both from an anthropological standpoint. I’m also interested in how a type of approach developed by Bruno Latour (sometimes called “actor-network theory”) could help us to understand the connections and competitions between religion and science as institutions. Lots of interesting questions here. Thanks again for reading.


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