VISIONS FOR IRAS
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
It is good for institutions, as for individuals, to periodically take a look at themselves: to see what they have achieved; and more importantly, to reflect on how far they still are from their goals, and what they need to do. Such introspection becomes all the more necessary for an organization like IRAS which has come a long way from its formative years. It has been enriched in many ways during the more than five decades of its life. However, the thrust of the Institute: the interface between science and religion, has changed considerably during this time.
The original intention of the founders was to seek and build healthy relationships between meaningful and spiritually uplifting religious life on the one hand and mind-expanding, knowledge-generating realm of science on the other. Most people of goodwill and enlightened intelligence would subscribe to such an effort.
However, in the more recent past, stirred by anachronistic, not to say narrow interpretations of religious texts, subtle intrusions on religion into politics, and sporadic eruptions of fanaticism, bigotry, and violence in the name of religion in many regions of the world, respect for religion has been diminishing among many thoughtful people. On the other hand, provoked largely by the negative expressions of some religionists, quite a few otherwise intelligent devotees of scientific worldview have been engaging in virulent anti-religion proclamations, betraying utter disregard for, not to say ignorance of, the positive dimensions of religious life. This has had the effect of pushing many moderates into more defensive postures vis-à-vis religions.
Under these circumstances religion and science have become antagonistic once again. They are now contestants for public allegiance rather than sublime dimensions of being fully human. In this predicament the human family is facing, IRAS does have an important role to play. Beyond our highly successful annual summer conferences on a variety of currently relevant themes, and regular internet exchanges in which so many of us participate and from which so many more benefit, what else can and should be done in the years to come?
What, in other words, are some of our visions for the coming decade? This was the question I posed to all our past presidents and to a few active IRASians. You can read their responses in the following. Once again, I wish to thank those who took the time to send in their views for publication here.
The future of IRAS
IRAS has a fascinating and distinguished history of more than fifty years—focusing on issues entailed in its name: religion in an age of science. I was actively engaged with IRAS for thirty years—1975-2005—and I have kept in touch from a distance since then. My reflections on the future of IRAS grow out of this history and out of my sense of what the future of our age of science will bring.
I take my start with the name: religion in an age of science. IRAS has attracted gifted scientists from its beginning—indeed that has been its contribution and its distinctiveness. A strong scientific presence is essential for IRAS—that’s what makes us interesting...
The struggle for IRAS has been and continues to be with religion. Our striving has been a distinguished one, but we continue to be dissatisfied with the outcome. In this we are a microcosm of the macrocosm—our culture as a whole has been unable to figure out how religion fits in an age of science. By persisting in the effort, we make a contribution to our society as a whole.
I look at religion under two aspects: traditional religion (TR) and religion re-conceived (RRC). RRC refers to the widespread sense that TR is obsolete, rendered irreparably out of touch by the developments of science--thus calling for a religious alternative. IRAS has gone farther than most others in this direction in its proposals for Religious Naturalism. These proposals have achieved widespread recognition. They are part of our contribution to the larger cultural discussion. Our Mission Statement ( http://www.iras.org/mission.html ) masks this effort, in my opinion, because it roots our efforts in an ambiguous desire “take the natural world seriously as a primary source of meaning” rather than a straightforward recognition that we are proposing an alternative to TR.
IRAS has been less successful, however, in integrating TR with scientific knowledge. In this, we have failed to deal with the really difficult issue facing our world culture. It is the TRs that have for millennia been interwoven with the foundations of the cultures of the world. Furthermore, several billion people adhere to TR today. Taking the measure of TR is surely the central “religion and science” issue of our time. We in IRAS have hardly made our contribution to the cultural discussion or discharged the mandate of our own 50-year history if we are not grappling in deep and meaningful ways with TR. The engagement with TR is certainly more demanding than any other we face—intellectually and spiritually.
IRAS’s founders made notable efforts on both of these fronts—re-conceiving religion while at the same time seeking to integrate traditional religious beliefs and practices into those re-conceptions. I believe that this two-pronged challenge — RRC and TR -- should be more prominent in our minds as we move forward.
It may be that IRAS faces a challenge in shaping its business plan. Our annual conferences have more recently followed a pattern of dealing with critical current practical issues (water, energy, food—as well as others) from both scientific and religious perspectives. Generally, this results in a fragmented view of religion which delivers insights that are more scientifically astute than they are religiously profound or helpful. Rather than showing religion to be a source of profound wisdom for the human experiment, they tend to cast religion in the instrumental role of supporting scientifically informed social movements.
The issues I have focused on may attract an audience different from our present constituency which in turn would greatly impact the annual conferences and perhaps also the membership profile. Further, the Mission Statement may well need re-casting. I propose this agenda out of my desire to see IRAS fulfill the important vision upon which it was founded—to make a genuinely profound contribution to world culture at this critical moment in history.
What I'd Like to See IRAS Look Like Ten Years From Now
In my fantasies I’d like to see IRAS be recognized as the awesome Think Tank I think it is, where mainstream religious people and mainstream non-religious people come together to investigate issues at the confluence of science and religion and make recommendations that receive serious consideration and influence individual philosophies, national and international policy, and especially church doctrine.
But I don’t think that is likely to happen, for the ironic reason that IRAS has in the past been so successful. Because of our almost 60 year history of presenting cutting edge conferences and publishing an outstanding journal at the intersection of science and religion, we have created so much interest in the field that there are dozens of spinoffs and lookalikes that water down our power and ability to accomplish our mission, especially financially. At one time we were the only game in town (actually in the world), and thus we could be sure to fill our conferences and manage the financial and logistical challenges of putting on a conference. We are still able to do that with our journal, thanks to awesome editors who have learned to use the internet and cooperate with publishers and libraries who also depend on that internet. But in the all-important arena of conferences, it gets harder and harder for us to do the awesome things we have done in the past.
Harder and harder, but not impossible. I think we’ll have to adapt, in a couple of particular ways. We may need to see ourselves as a remnant for a few years, running shoestring conferences with fewer – but still world class – speakers. Heck, we may even have to call on some of our own world-class speakers to carry more of the load. Eventually, and I’d prophesy it will be somewhere along the time-frame of 10 years from now, the stars will realign and we’ll again come into our own, in the normal ebb and flow of any organization. When we are 70 years old, the very fact of a long existence of “doing things right” along with the fact of learning to adapt, will serve us in good stead. We’ll be able to mine the veins we laid down in earlier years, to reconsider ways to extend our own value for people. For people as individuals, for people in churches debating the changes that will HAVE to come in doctrine, and even for people in policy positions.
That is my vision of our future and my vision of our path to that future. We know how to do conferences and do them well, and if we keep building them the people will keep coming, and in larger numbers than they have these last few years. Maybe they’ll come virtually, which will be amazing if we can handle the technology, but I hope they will also come actually, to see and smell and talk with each other on the porches and at the dining tables of our future.
The Future of IRAS
I understand the dialogue between religion and science as a kind of meta-disciplinary conversation, rather than either a genuine public realm or an emerging discipline. We take our science quite seriously, thank you, and indeed, find the natural world to be central to our world views. We’re not all religious naturalists, and some of are even theists, or genuine practitioners rather than just commentators upon religion. We do live in an age of science, but I think we violate the basic raison d’etre of our organization when we claim that science can provide the only arbitration of truth or, more importantly, of meaning. I sometimes get frustrated when I think that IRAS is too often mainly a group of grumpy old scientists who, however well meaning, can oftentimes become quite arrogant in their ignorance both of the limits of science and of the value of world views that sometimes seem incommensurate with science. I sometimes think that there is a bit too much metaphysical agnosia (an agnosia is a kind of neuropsychological disorder which renders one incapable of recognizing or responding to a particular kind of objects or events), and can frequently act like the positivist who would claim that if it isn’t empirically testable, it is meaningless. Au contraire.
In its nomological-deductive form, science is largely concerned with repeatable events (which is why thinkers like MacIntyre assert that it is really only about the past, and its repetition), which can be accounted for or explained entirely in efficient causal terms, using publicly available empirical evidence. If religion were constituted merely by sets of propositional beliefs about the world, it might well simply be considered paradigmatically defective. But I think such a claim is a canard. That religion is not centrally about paradigmatic, propositional claims is an idea that has been supported by theologians and religious scholars for at least my lifetime. Religion is not an alternate explanatory account of the natural phenomena with which science concerns itself. I do not think that the efficient causal explanatory accounts provided by science are even themselves comprehensible without understanding them within larger narrative and mythological systems. I think there are worldview differences that are incommensurable but must nevertheless share the planet. I think there are ontological questions which are unanswerable, but I think there are existential commonalities which we all share and about which the dialogue of which IRAS is a part should be centrally concerned. Indeed, I think this is crucial to its very coherence, and central to its purposes. I happily and regularly pirate an insight of my friend and colleague Ted Laurenson that it is the religious and mythological systems of the world which make it possible to address our “perceptions of separateness,” and “the brute facts of individual desire, suffering and death,” for which the factual truths of science may be necessary, but are insufficient. We cannot learn what ends to project from science. Yes, our projections of possibilities are far more realistic the more they are constrained by the facts, but it takes imagination, not science, to project those possibilities. Thank the gods we have hope and faith as antidotes to the despair of recognizing not only what must be done, but of our failings in doing so. We need to know our limitations because people suffer and we seem to be helpless to do much about it, because we are mortal, because we love. These may not be truths from elsewhere, but neither are they scientific truths. Science is just not the symbolic form in which these questions are asked or in which imaginative answers are proposed, which give us the hope that we need, individually and corporately, to go on without surrendering to despair.
IRAS has been, and its future will be, not just an institute dedicated to such discussions, but an embodiment of community, of people who can be free to disagree with each other knowing that their disagreements, however harsh, will always be tempered by what we share, which is not only a commitment to keeping the discussion going, but a celebration in talking, in ritual, in art, in music and dancing, and in sheer bodily presence, of the joys of human communion, and our awe in nature.
The Future of IRAS
Christopher Corbally, S.J.
IRAS started as a reaction of scientists and religionists to the horror of WWII. Could yet another repeat of such carnage in human lives and Earth’s resources be prevented by the scientific underpinning of values embodied in religion?
So IRAS didn’t start in order to harmonize the historical conflict between science and religion, but to invoke science’s aid in bolstering human values. Today that “conflict” is even more passé, despite pockets of resistance in the Creationism camp and in the strategy of New Atheists to promote their books. Even truer, then, is that harmonizing such conflict is not the future of IRAS.
What characterizes people today is a yearning for spirituality. This is usually defined in terms of relation to a deity, but it is also very applicable to naturalism in both religious and non-religious forms. This spirituality is broad reaching, not at all confined to churches and temples. It affects our approach to all aspects of human living because it affects our relationship to fellow humans, to all other life forms, and to the material world in which we find ourselves.
Bringing these relationships into the proper order, discovering what that order really is, depends on a spirituality that is anchored in the truth about us and our world. Religion and its theology are sources of traditional wisdom regarding that truth. That wisdom, however, needs to develop by interaction with other disciplines such as the physical sciences, including biology. That was the insight of the founders of IRAS.
Even more clear now is the role of other “filters”, as I like to think of them, from both our expertise and practice which bring complementary knowledge to us. These filters are certainly the social and the human sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology, demography, etc. They also include literature and the many forms of art which express and enlarge the human spirit.
We are much more than just physical matter. So multi-cultural – and ecumenical and inter-religious – concerns and perspectives are essential to consider. All the filters of our knowledge, which enhance like a colored filter rather than separate like a chemical filter, are needed to build up and complete the total “picture” of our properly ordered relationships. IRAS’s future, as has been its past, is in helping to paint, with all the colors of human knowledge, that picture of a true ecology as well as to implement what we shall see in it.
A vision for IRAS for the next decade
The IRAS mission was established in 1954 by scientists and theologians. The goal was to reduce conflicts between the domains of science and religions (S&R). Doctrines and practices germane to S&R would be formulated for human wellbeing and expressed in understandable ways. Scholars began annual meetings to research the fundamental issues. Those were noble efforts and goals. They still are as they continue working on them today. The need for them has actually escalated.
Current trends make this mission urgently important now. It is not a rash speculation to say the future wellbeing of humanity may depend on realizing those original IRAS goals. A consilience of all human knowledge, capabilities and philosophical perspectives is needed. Science, cultures, innate artistic abilities and religious traditions should be amalgamated to focus on a shared understanding of a shared world. S&R have the common purpose of obtaining wisdom to do this. Thus, a primary focus of IRAS has been and will continue to be, gaining wisdom and applying it to S&R compatibility as it related to the wellbeing of humankind. The impetus for forming IRAS was visionary as it illuminated the possibilities for harmony in diverse perspectives. That must continue.
IRAS has nurtured the rebirth of Religious Naturalism, a paradigm that combines science and spirituality. IRAS should aggressively continue to develop it along with others. Many college students are looking for a replacement for the outdated beliefs they grew up with. These are being falsified by escalating knowledge causing incompatibility between what is known now and what was believed in the past. Many are walking away from religion. They should be introduced to the IRAS mission and its modern thinking. They deserve an opportunity to help forge a worldview that is in tune with the current facts and world conditions of their time. This should be a major effort.
Science addresses the objective domain of reality; religion a mental, subjective realm. Though they have separate areas of understanding, they have similar intentions. It is spiritual warmth that differentiates religion from the cold objectivity of science. Religion offers laws for social living and science the laws for life in a natural world. Both are needed to elevate human wellbeing by enhancing physical comfort or mitigate mental anxieties. S&R both answer deep meaningful questions. Both have value in filling human needs. Reducing S&R estrangement will augment intellectual and social tranquility. They need not walk the same path nor address the same issues,. But when they do, they need to do so with mutual respect, focusing together on a shared goal. Wisdom for human wellbeing is the common goal of both S&R. Obtaining and applying it should thus remain the principle goal of IRAS. So IRAS should:
A Vision for IRAS Over the Next Decade
I confess that both ‘vision’ and its cognate ‘mission statement’ are notions which make my heart sink! Experience suggests that their construction involves infinite hair-splitting and their institution endless headaches! Moreover they are never simply about the future but are always inextricably entwined with both past and present. Any proposed vision for IRAS must therefore acknowledge its history and also take account of the current state of the S/R field where, according to a recent analysis:
Consensus…seems far away, the impact…is limited and the academic credibility…remains marginal.
With this in mind, the vision outlined here is not primarily concerned with what IRAS ought to be doing over the next decade but with how it ought to go about its task. It is set out under the twofold metric of engaging creatively and exploiting community - attitudes which I believe are also hallmarks of the original vision for IRAS.
In the early IRAS conference reports, various things stand out about its pioneers: Firstly their willingness to leave well-marked pathways and enter uncharted territory, despite the attendant personal and professional risks. Secondly the richness and breadth of their perception of what religion had to contribute to this venture – a stark contrast to the negative views and etiolated understandings which currently predominate; and finally their sense of the importance of the communal locus. I believe the revitalisation of these attitudes would help us address the identified stagnation – which is also well illustrated in some of our own recent debates with their reflex assumption of default and often defensive postures.
Firstly then I would like to see the attitude and execution we bring to our various projects marked by an expansive creativity: I believe the S/R field will increasingly require a willingness to leave the protection of our assorted personal and disciplinary redoubts – be those religious, philosophical or scientific – and to grapple with the issues in very different ways. Adopting such an attitude will also facilitate a move beyond sterile debates shaped primarily by issues of disciplinary demarcation and their associated metaphysical preferences, and allow a re-imagining of possible models for engagement.
Whilst the mechanics of how this might be achieved are beyond my remit here, I want to suggest that alongside these we also need to recover that richer view of religion as a valuable and valid crucible for forging insights into the human condition (as distinct from pronouncements on the ‘supernatural’). I see this as part of a larger project with which we also need to engage creatively viz the development of completely new epistemological strategies for drawing together insights from different disciplines in order to build the type of knowledge needed for an increasingly complex world. And in the IRAS community, we have the perfect vehicle for such things.
IRAS may now be only one amongst many S/R societies, but in the eclecticism of its membership and the strength of its community identity, it still remains something of the ‘unique concurrence’ described by Burhoe, though arguably the full potential of this is as yet unrealised. Hence the second element of my vision is to see us fully exploit (in its best sense) our community in the service of the proposed intellectual venturing.
This depends in no small degree on a willingness to creatively address the epistemological and dialogical tensions indicated – the vision’s elements are not so easily separated as its heuristic implies! And whilst ‘comfort zone’ has become something of a cliché, the outlined engagements do involve both the likelihood of cognitive dissonance and the possibility of failure. However I believe their cultivation could open up possibilities for drawing together the wide range of experience and expertise of our community in completely different ways, and of thus significantly expanding and deepening our understanding of humanity, something which can then form a solid basis for considering effective praxis in the face of the pressing global issues we face.
Entering new territory is risky stuff, but we too would be making these essays within a strong and supportive community...and where safer to take such risks?
The Future of IRAS
I really am not one to write about the future of IRAS. I have only been able to attend two conferences. (I have been a regular reader of Zygon since 2000 and have been attending science and religion programs at the American Academy of Religion and in Chicago.)
However, I do have two comments.
1) Some members of IRAS have been dissatisfied with what they perceive as a drift away from the stated purpose of IRAS as yoking both science and religion. I have heard remarks to the effect that the “R” has been dropped out of IRAS.
I do not perceive this myself. (My experience is very limited.) However, it is an issue that should be addressed.
2) More effort should be made to bring persons and perspectives from other than Judaism, Christianity, and the UU’s into IRAS. This may take much thought and intentionality.
My Vision for IRAS
Marjorie Hall Davis
My vision for IRAS is that it will survive and thrive among the many other religion/science organizations that have arisen since IRAS was formed in 1954.
The goals of IRAS as affirmed in its Constitution are still relevant today:
(1) to promote creative efforts leading to the formation, in the light of contemporary knowledge, of effective doctrines and practices for human welfare.
If "doctrines" are interpreted as principles or positions of beliefs, as held by religious systems, cultural systems and individuals, they are continually challenged by new scientific findings. It is important to take such new information into account in updating long-held assumptions about beliefs and consequent practices relevant to relationships between humans and the relationships of humans with the natural environment.
(2) to formulate dynamic and positive relationships between the concepts developed by science and the goal and hopes of humanity expressed by religion.
In our country and the world, religions continue to be embraced by many. Outdated beliefs and assumptions of both religion and science stand in the way of their contemporary relevance in expressing the goals and hopes of humanity. I would like to see IRAS take seriously the task of forging new dynamic and positive relationships between religions and the sciences that are based on contemporary scientific understandings.
(3) to state human values in such universal and valid terms, in such a way as to provide a basis for world-wide cooperation.
I would like to see IRAS focus attention on stating such human values and aspirations in terms that do not denigrate or attempt to exclude any religious traditions, but unite all in a deeper commitment to practices of cooperation in the treatment of all humans and the natural world.
From a more practical perspective, I would like to see IRAs continue as a voluntary organization with no paid staff. Our brief experiment in hiring an Executive Officer who was paid resulted in a decrease in voluntary commitment. In order to have the kind of commitment to an organization that is needed, it is necessary for the members to have face-to-face contact at conferences and meetings, as well as an interest in supporting the stated goals of the organization. In my experience, many IRAS members have formed bonds of friendship which have grown deeper through the years.
In order to organize and conduct conferences, an enormous amount of work is required. When this can be shared among many, it lightens the load of the organizers, and increases the commitment of those who become involved.
I believe that adequately addressing the themes chosen for our conferences requires the input of those from different perspectives - from scientists, theologians, academics and practitioners, from both men and women, and from a variety of scientific disciplines and a variety of religious perspectives and traditions.
One of my hopes for the future of IRAS is that it will welcome all those from various ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, and various religious traditions and philosophical perspectives, and that its members and conferees with interact with others with attitudes of respect and curiosity about their ideas and perspectives. Such an approach promotes hospitality and attraction to new members, and a more comprehensive approach to any topic.
I would like to see the program for children and teens at IRAS continue to thrive. Such a program allows younger families to attend our annual summer conferences. Our younger members will provide the future for IRAS! In my own family, one of my sons and five of my grandchildren have had their lives impacted by their experiences at IRAS conferences. Some have gone on to focus on philosophy, anthropology, and earth science.
The themes of IRAS conferences have been timely, and on the "cutting edge" of scientific discoveries and relevant responses by humans. I would also like to see a focus on scientifically relevant "cutting edge" changes in interpreting the "sacred texts," beliefs, and practices of various religious perspectives.
My Experience of and Vision for IRAS
For forty years I have been a member of IRAS. IRAS and conferees have been my most significant source of ideas for constructively engaging the sciences in order to better understand and practice religion.
My experience fits with my understanding of the meaning “Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.” Religion is the focus; science provides the context. At the heart of this context is science’s understanding of cosmic, biological, and socio-cultural evolution.
Science has provided the context for my religious reflecting in two ways. First, the biological and social sciences have help me understand the functions of religion in human evolution. As one influenced by the thinking of Ralph Wendel Burhoe, founder of IRAS, I believe that an important task of religion is to facilitate the development in humans of four “M”s: meaning of our place in the scheme of things, moral guidance for how we should live, motivation to do good and not harm, and morale (hope) in times of adversity. In line with the thinking of anthropologist Ward Goodenough, the four M’s help humans “maintain” themselves in states of well-being. From Goodenough I’ve also learned that a function of religion is the “transformation” of humans from harmful ways of living to ways that are wholesome for ourselves and all on our planet. I understand this transformative function to be what some religions have expressed as “salvation.” These maintaining and transforming functions of religion for human beings are “things that matter” (from Loyal Rue) for the continuing survival and flourishing of ourselves and life on earth.
The second way science provides the context for my religious reflection is to give me the most up-to-date, well-tested knowledge about “how things happen” (Rue) in the cosmos, life on our planet, and the development of human beings in society. In the past, religions have usually sought to fulfill their tasks in light of the best knowledge of the time. As we gain more knowledge through the sciences, I find myself engaging in constructively reshaping how I think and act religiously. I explore how to reform religious ideas and practices that, while helpful in the past, are no longer consistent with current knowledge about ourselves and our world. My experience is that the members of IRAS have helped me very much to engage in this reforming enterprise.
In light of my experience in IRAS, my vision--my hope--for IRAS in the future is that its members help one another use scientific knowledge combined with personal experience to continue to better understand the significance of what religion does in human life (how it functions) and to reshape religious ideas and reform religious practices regarding what is most important, most valuable for human welfare and the welfare of our earthly home.
Reflections on the Future of IRAS
First I would like to thank V.V. for asking for our reflections on this important question. I am confident that IRAS can continue being a world-class organization simply by continuing to hold excellent conferences, with great speakers and topics and intelligent open-minded members. The main point of my present reflection is that I think IRAS can add significantly to its mission. My case for an additional role has four parts: What problems need to be solved? Why IRAS? What can IRAS do? How to get started.
A) What problems can IRAS contribute to solving? The answer is easy to state: problems that can be solved by building sturdier bridges between science and religion. Einstein said it well: "Religion without science is blind, Science without religion is lame". The topics of our next two conferences, "Saving the Future" and "Food", offer opportunities for considering how science can identify future problems and suggest solutions. We can then urge leaders of various world religions to motivate people to take actions based on the best available wisdom. This is precisely Einstein's point.
B) Why IRAS? There are lots of reasons why IRAS can help: we have a history of organizing successful conferences on science/religion bridge building; our members come from a wide variety of religious beliefs and religious commitments; and our connection with Zygon, the premier science/religion journal. Our grass roots nature may be unique as a science/religion organization.
C) What can IRAS do? IRAS could become a science think tank for religions. Some possibilities are:
D) Beginning steps. Now for the hardest part: what can we actually accomplish in the next 18 months? I say 18 months because internet discussions can start right now, and we can continue discussing these issues at out through our 2012 and 2013 meetings. The 2012 "Saving the Future" and 2013 "Food" conferences are on action topics that could motivate IRAS members to themselves engage in the process. In addition to discussing the items mentioned in Part C, it is likely that V V's call for "Reflection on the Future of IRAS" will have many wonderful suggestions for IRAS' future. We can begin by focusing some of our IRASnet discussions on the practicalities of how to actualize the various responses to these "Reflections". Our discussions on IRASnet and at our annual conferences provide unique opportunities for exploring the potentials of our institute on religion in an age of science.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science