Science, Religion and the Curriculum of the West

The Alchemist

Human reason so delights in constructions, that it has several times built up a tower, and then razed it to examine the nature of the foundation. It is never too late to become wise; but if the change comes too late, there is always more difficulty in starting a reform. The question whether a science be possible, presupposes a doubt as to its actuality. But such a doubt offends the men whose whole possessions consist of this supposed jewel; hence he who raises the doubt must expect opposition from all sides. [Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Intro: 256]

We are told that history begins in Sumer, near the Persian Gulf, where the first civil laws were instituted roughly fifty-five hundred years ago.  Coincident with this founding, there emerged entirely new ways of thinking, acting, and interacting with other people.  With those first social laws, citizenship was born.  The overwhelming evidence from anthropology, archeology, paleontology, ethnography and the history of religions strongly reinforces the view that a new set of problematics arose with the transition from an egalitarian kinship-based, predominantly nomadic hunting/gathering lifestyle characterizing the Paleolithic, and autonomous villages representative of the Neolithic, to more sedentary, hierarchically structured lifeways, based primarily on intensive plant and animal domestication economies, that erupted onto the scene at the close of the Neolithic period.

This transformation had an incalculable impact upon human consciousness over the ensuing centuries, producing entirely novel categories for understanding and manipulating the world.  Reality was constituted differently after the birth of civilization than it had been previously.  This would have resounding reverberations for all generations to follow, entrenched as they were in new hierarchies and institutions that would appear, including formal institutions of education.  Borrowing terminology, I will call this new model according to which reality was thereafter constituted, the curriculum of the West.  The burgeoning temperament for this new way of seeing the world affected every dimension of life as civilization spread, and cities continued to populate the globe over subsequent millennia.

Along with the shift from communal sharing of essential resources, to privatization of access to those resources, a cardinal issue to surface from this change of perspective was the need for control: control of the natural world to ensure food supplies, and control of the citizenry to ensure the protection and safety of those supplies.

With respect to control of nature, scientific inquiry eventually found its voice, leading to the articulation of laws by means of which nature could be manipulated.  The first formal laws, following an explicitly scientific logistic, appeared in Greece only about twenty-five hundred years ago; but their foundations were laid much earlier – their necessity issuing from the demands of a sedentary lifestyle and early proto-scientific pursuits to gain control over the agricultural cycle.

Second, with the fracturing of kinship in the newly established social settings of cities, kingdoms, and satellite villages, the need for control over persons also became paramount.  This was particularly true in larger urban centers, whose populations were comprised mainly of displaced villagers and other relocated strangers.  In this context, revealed religion often aligned with already entrenched political hierarchies – temple and palace together – served to provide sacred law for the conduct of individual behavior and control of social relations.

Other emerging disciplines soon set about constructing alternative ways to dissect or cut up the world, identifying effects and linking them to causes on a newly established unidirectional temporal axis – an historical timeline.  Through the proper application of the new logistic – linking universals to particulars in the form of laws – prediction and control were achieved.  Scientific laws of course would give predictive control over nature; religious laws, control over human affairs. And history would become a story of the adventures of these diverse but interlaced controlling hierarchies – religious, political, and scientific.

Seemingly locked in eternal strife, science (with its “discovered” laws) and religion (with its “revealed” laws) would be enemies in posture only – mutually dependent sibling rivals, established at the dawn of civilization, providing guidance and control in hierarchical institutions now dominating modern life.  The conceptual foci of these two siblings – the empirical and the transcendental – were simply two sides of the same advancing historical consciousness, reflected as well in the pre-Socratic philosophical struggles over “being” and “becoming.”  Quite simply, science and religion staked out two complementary positions on one and the same “objective” reality appearing in the breach from prehistory to history.

In addition to the problem of control, however, there also arose the question of meaning, of history’s purpose.  If we citizens were now locked in a unidirectional historical trajectory, with a present moment that was simply waiting between an historical past bearing down on us and an anticipated future pulling us forward, then what was the purpose, the goal, the endpoint of this forward movement?

Scientific rationality certainly provided the scaffolding upon which to build civilization’s “tower” but could give no clear guidance about the ultimate purpose of historical life, or insight into the meaningful “end” of history.  Religion, on the other hand, offered a vision of the ultimate goal, the telos of history, but needed science to supply it with a fallen world of mere objects, along with the unfolding historical drama against which the transcendental vision could play itself out.  Together they succeeded in focusing human intuition and praxis on what appeared to be the appropriate direction of historical consciousness – the future, progress, and achieving the proper “ends” of life.

It seems almost axiomatic today that progress has become a good in itself – some might even argue the only legitimate means of achieving “the good life.”  Indeed, scientific rationality and engineering prowess now appear to constitute the new faith of a new era.  The foundation stones of a nascent techno-theocracy, they may be marching us, hyper-rationally, to a fabricated and perhaps apocalyptic Eschaton.  Their dominion is so totalizing they have undermined the simple enjoyment of a more spontaneous life, lived more simply on mother earth.

In addition to a foundation razing critique of the curriculum, we are in desperate need today of a vocabulary and a path that allows for a more circumspect view of the trajectory of historical consciousness, and assists us in understanding how science and religion have been interlaced from their very beginnings in creating and driving civilization’s agenda.  By so doing, we may yet “recover the memory of another, perhaps more compelling way to live,” informing a new mode of praxis.  But, to Kant’s earlier point, is it perhaps too late for such reform, and is the opposition simply too great?

12 Responses to Science, Religion and the Curriculum of the West

  1. Pingback: Science, Religion and the Curriculum of the West | kulturcritic

  2. troutsky says:

    Kill instrumental rationality. Re-articulate fun as the highest good.

  3. Disaffected says:

    But, to Kant’s earlier point, is it perhaps too late for such reform, and is the opposition simply too great?

    Yes, I believe it is. Indeed, the question itself is only beginning to be articulated on decidedly fringe blog sites like this. We’re simply out of time at this point. Too much inertia propelling us forward on our current trajectory.

  4. capt rick says:

    good article . No discussion would be complete on this topic without citing Howard Zinns Peoples History.
    It shows what really went on organically over the past 200 is less institution and more human in content.Interrelationships of ordinary people and disfranchisement of populations on the sidelines of history surviving under the thumb of the predominant cultures of white religion an mercantilism. The peoples Resistance to the plundering of the earth by a dominant class of oppressors down from the first landings of Columbus on America told in such p historical detail, by Zinn that is so compelling and refreshing to experience..There in lies the vocabulary that you suggest that we need to restructure our curreent world views

    • kulturcritic says:

      Rick – Absolutely, Zinn is a perfect voice for the type of assessment that is needed. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to take us beyond reflections on the American empire to more primal voices. Although he did speak quite eloquently for the indigenous populations of this continent.

  5. StrayCat says:

    Thanks. Yes, it’s come to people building more airplanes so that they can fly to far places for the sole purpose of building more airplanes. The idea of progress has sucked dry the purpose of progress. Our Chambers of Commerce cry progress (meaning profit) as an unexamined means of enhancing the aristocracy and their power, and further shackling the producers. As the head of Goldman, Sachs claims to be doing God’s work in creating an economic disaster for the rest of us, and the right wing religions become accolites of Ba’al and greed, your insight into the actual unification of the scientism and religious revealed and discovered laws is presently occurring, and with little examination in public media.
    Of interest also, is the war on tribal societies in the Asian countries. While I have no respect or patience for the treatment of women and children in the tribal area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as examples, the assault seems more vigorous and brutal than mere human rights or even resource based wars would call for. Does the hierarchy see the remains of a non sedentary society as a greater challenge to their dominance than is discussed? Pease, love and joy, Straycat

    • kulturcritic says:

      SC – yes, I think the hegemons are scared shitless of those who are not playing by our rules; it cracks open an ancient door which some others may choose to walk through. It also can expose some of the really unsatisfactory conditions of life in modern society/ See Freud on this , Civilization and Its Discontents.

  6. derekthered says:

    very good, yes, the “fallen” world of the abrahamic faiths coupled with the supposed sin nature, a powerful of alienation; mixed ell with the objectification of science, a potent cocktail indeed.

    my only dissent would be that we must be careful that the reforms we conclude are needed do not spring from this same kind of reasoning.

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