Dealing with Uncertainty: A Social Theoretical Idea Beyond the Religion Versus Secular Dichotomy

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 11:15
Location: Hörsaal 42 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Silke GUELKER, WZB Social Science Research Center Berlin, Germany
The paper has two aims: Firstly, it will demonstrate that the categories “religious” and “secular” are inadequate to investigate peoples’ worldviews empirically. Secondly, it will propose a social theoretical idea of how to overcome this dichotomy.

Empirically, the paper is based on a project that addresses the relationship between science and religion. Two ethnographic case studies were conducted in international stem cell research laboratories, one located in the Unites States and one in Germany. The starting question was in how far the religious backgrounds of the researchers matter for their scientific work. The analysis shows that there are indeed researchers who explicitly identify themselves as religious and who also legitimize their ethical standards and their data interpretations explicitly referring to a God or to rules of their denominations. However, there are many researchers who would identify themselves as secular but who also refer to transcendent concepts when legitimizing their ethical standards and data interpretations. Thus, the dichotomy of religious and secular is not instructive for examining underlying worldviews—this is even true when taking into account the various different definitions of “religious” by asking people for their religious self-descriptions.

The theoretical idea deriving from these studies is to overcome the religion vs. secular dichotomy by focusing on how individuals and societies deal with uncertainties. While the post-secular discourse still follows the idea of religion and science as separated spheres, the paper emphasizes the functional closeness of both, thereby following concepts of classical sociology and sciences studies: From these perspectives, science and religion are two ways of dealing with uncertainty. By investigating openly what people refer to in cases of uncertainty instead of classifying societies as religious or secular, it will be possible to identify underlying transcendent concepts in post-modern societies.