Where Science Ends and Religion Begins: The Human Body

Sociological work on religion and science has typically centered on the connection between religion and attitudes toward issues involving—from a Christian standpoint—Biblical authority and science, like evolution. But the new terrain of debate about religion and science among contemporary people is the human body. Historically, religion has held the grip of ethics related to key points of the human body in the life course, such as when life begins and the ethical implications of how death and dying occur. In contemporary times, these issues involving the human body are a place where science intervenes, due to the advancement of medical technologies, such as those involving fertility technologies, medical advances in brain science to address mental illness, and interventions designed to prolong life.

But it is in these areas specifically where we might flip the secularization narrative to ask not how science is overtaking religion with relationship to the human body but where science ends and religion remains strong. Using a nationally representative survey of 2,000 and follow-up interviews with 60 respondents, I will investigate how people, both religious and non-religious, as well as medical professionals and religious leaders, understand the boundaries between religion and science in four key areas: (1) beginning of life and fertility technologies, (2) mental health and illness, (3) aging, and (4) conceptions of death and dying. Additionally, this study will analyze how people view the relationships among science, religion, and the body at different points in the life course and across different racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

In addition to the survey and interview data collection, outputs will include the publication of a book accessible to both scientists and religious people, research articles, academic presentations, and public outreach (including op-eds and a gathering of religious and medical leaders (in an aligned effort with the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University). This study and its outputs will contribute to a growing sociological subfield devoted to the sociology of science and religion by expanding the scope of scholarship past established topics and showing the distinctive contribution of the discipline to vital science and faith topics related to the body. The findings from this study will also create new opportunities for public dialogue around science and religion and how their relationship effects how we understand and care for our bodies.