Review: Mystical Science and Practical Religion

Notice: The final version of this review is published in American Journal of Sociology 121(2):658-660, 2015, doi:10.1086 / 682165. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

Affinity is a tricky business. Humans are efficient at recognizing patterns, and the temptation to see coinciding patterns in society as somehow related or even causal is one of the strongest temptations in the social sciences. Pointing out similarity in ideas, behaviors, and values can be a useful starting point for explaining processes and outcomes. But as Max Weber’s work has shown, successful application of affinity as an analytical concept requires careful attention to details and exceptions, particularly in comparison across domains of social life.

Affinity is especially tricky business in the case of religion and science, two powerful social institutions that provide cultural resources such as metaphors, reasons, stories, and explanations that people use to organize and make meaning from experience. From Max Weber to Robert K. Merton and beyond, sociologists have attempted to identify and justify affinities between versions of science and versions of religion as they are practiced in society, particularly in the domains of work and economic life. Did Protestant understandings of work contribute to the growth of capitalism? Did pietistic Christianity foster the rise of experimental science? Are fundamentalist and conservative religious believers more attracted to applied, practical forms of science?

In this slim volume Richard Cimino contributes to the ongoing sociological discussion about affinities between religion and science by reporting how 45 Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh respondents, all of whom work in applied science fields, all of whom live and work in the greater New York City area, and most of whom are men, talk about the intersection of their work and their faith. The introduction places this study squarely within the tradition of treating science and religion as providers of durable resources for culture and cognition rather than overarching and static systems of ideas. Respondents were asked about their personal perspectives on conflicts between faith and science, understandings of faith and science, and sources of authority for resolving dilemmas. Cimino’s analysis explicitly focuses on “crossover between their scientific language and concepts and their religious discourse” (xix). So this is admittedly a book about how members of a small, understudied population talk about themselves.

What they say is interesting. In the next three chapters, Cimino spends one chapter each reporting conversations with engineers and information technology professionals from Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh faiths. To summarize these responses is to do an injustice to their detail. But it is clear that respondents of similar faiths and social situation varied considerably in their understanding of what their faiths entailed, whether of science, work, or personal commitment. And it is clear that science and religion are but two sources of meaning making among many other discourses such as nationalism, personal development, and social justice. For example, in one memorable interview, Muslim respondent “Tariq” described how he uses lessons from motivational speaker Tony Robbins when he speaks at his local mosque. These sorts of stories add vibrant personal detail, which is both enjoyable in its own right and an important alternative contribution to a literature dominated by statistical analysis of large-scale surveys.

The fourth chapter draws out two key insights from similarities across the interviews. First, Cimino rejects the notion that any affinity between applied science and fundamentalism reflects a necessary or even common connection. Respondents demonstrate that not all engineers are fundamentalists, and in fact vary so widely in their religious positions and commitments that Cimino finds it “difficult to predict the ways in which applied science professionals make the connection between their faith and their work” (59). Second, Cimino suggests that the shared liminality of these respondents uniquely positions them to offer a “pan-religious-scientific discourse,” which is a scientific version of “civil religion” that links “specific beliefs” with “larger meanings and morals in a technological age” (75). Given that there are no comparison data from other sorts of respondents, this is an obviously speculative but potentially generative proposition that could do with further investigation.

The conclusion summarizes the intended contribution of the book to broader arguments about affinity, science and religion, and indeed a great many other things. For such a short book, this volume is unusually ambitious in its efforts to synthesize many different and sometimes conflicting theoretical frameworks, whether of rationalization, secularization, cultural capital, global citizenship, knowledge classes, or assimilation, to take a few examples. But given the constraints of the sample and methods, the book struggles to enter into broader theoretical debates. The value here is in the detail, not in the summary.

So, while it may not be intended, probably the biggest contribution of this book is to undermine the notion that there is some abstract science and religion relationship at all. Cimino frames the findings as a surprise: science is less rational, and religion is less mystical, than scholars have claimed. But the variety even among similarly situated respondents makes it clear that overarching abstract views of a relationship between science and religion have little value in explaining how specific people actually live their lives. The case for affinity between science and religion depends on extracting science and religion from an inextricable weave of various threads in any given human experience. This book demonstrates that such clean separation may not be possible, posing a subversive challenge to broader “science and religion” projects.

Given its high cost, narrow focus, and relatively small amount of content, this book is not appropriate for required purchase by undergraduates in most university courses. Even most scholars should probably save the money and purchase two or three other books instead. But as an illuminating account of the lived experience of religion and science among an understudied population, this book would be a useful and even necessary addition to a university library. When it is purchased by your library, you should check it out.

Michael S. Evans
Dartmouth College

Mystical Science and Practical Religion: Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh Discourse on Science and Technology, by Richard Cimino. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2014. Pp. xxii+89. $70.00.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019