ASU Team Explores the Intersection of Technology, Science and Spirituality

One of the fundamental commitments of today’s most powerful research institutions is to imagine that scientific knowledge and spiritual belief are meticulously segregated. This segregation drives secularization in academia, and is also seen as a driver of human progress.

Yet today, techno-scientific progress is widely framed in moral and spiritual terms—biotech evangelists promise redemption from mortality, and new spiritualities leverage the authority of neurobiology. Society lacks the capacity, however, to reflect critically on its own visions of progress, and the commitments that they entail.

Currently, a large body of scholarship examines the story of secularization, yet few scholars examine science and technology’s place in this narrative. To fill this void, a team of researchers working with ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict has launched a new project to explore the implications of these narratives for science and society.

Titled “Beyond Secularization: Piloting New Approaches to the Study of Religion, Science, and Technology in Public Life,” the project is supported by a $217,000 grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.

“The project tackles some really big questions,” says Benjamin Hurlbut, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences and principal investigator for the project.

How do ideas about what science can know and what technological innovation can achieve shape how we envision progress? What role do spiritual and religious imaginations play in such visions?

“The idea that science and technology belong in the public sphere and religion and spirituality to the private—and that social progress depends on this separation—obscures what is a much more complex relationship in actual social practice,” says Hurlbut.

“At the same time, that idea functions as a kind of regulative ideal in public life. It shapes who gets to speak to which questions and on the basis of what authority—with significant consequences for how societies imagine progress,” says Hurlbut.

The project explores those consequences, with a focus on how the idea that science is a driver of secularization and progress has implications for which ideas of human purpose and progress get taken seriously in public life.

To answer these questions, the project team will undertake a series of field studies to explore the interplay of spiritual ideas and imaginations with scientific and technological projects in the biosciences, environmentalism, and global health. In turn, they will also investigate the ways in which these sciences are simultaneously transforming notions of spiritual meaning and religious practice.

The transdisciplinary project team includes ASU faculty members Gaymon Bennett, assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, who is co-leading the project with Hurlbut, along with co-investigators Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of Jewish Studies, and Gregg Zachary, from the School of the Future of Innovation in Society.

In addition to the series of wide-ranging field studies, the team will also pilot a podcast series, convene an international workshop, and develop and teach new undergraduate classes.

“This is a really innovative project that is exploring the increasing hybridization of technoscience, religion and spirituality,” says Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

“Our conceptual maps push us to imagine we are dealing with separate domains, and so we don’t have the vocabulary to really see or make sense of their deep entanglement, hence we don’t see the implications for science policy and the research priorities such policies establish,” says Cady.

The grant grows out of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict’s longstanding work on issues of religion, science and secularization. This work began with an initial seed grant from the center in 2004 to start a faculty seminar on “Being Human: Religion, Science, Technology and Law.” This seminar has met monthly during the academic year on an almost continuous basis since then.

Under the leadership of Tirosh-Samuelson, the seminar spawned a series of high profile projects, including the Templeton Research Lectures on Religion, Science and Technology: Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism (2006-2011) and, with Hurlbut, The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization and Eschatology (2012-2014).

Combined, those projects have produced six books—including the 2016 volume “Perfecting Human Futures: Transhuman Visions and Technological Imaginations”—two special journals, numerous articles, and a series of high profile lectures, conferences and workshops, many of which are available on iTunes.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs.

Story by Erin Schulte