Chronicle nr. 1

The impact of religious, secular, and political worldviews on contemporary science

A core idea of a recent publication within theme 6 – Science and Religion – of the Impact of Religion is that science today is increasingly becoming customized in various ways, whether it be to fit the economic interests, the political ideologies, or the religious or antireligious convictions of different institutions and groups in society; and that due to this development, people’s conception of science is changing. It is not just that science customizes us, changing our ideas about nature, society and ourselves; we customize science in return, and increasingly so.

customized science is, roughly, a science built according to, altered to or fitted to a particular group’s specifications, that is, the group’s needs, interests or values, its political ideology or worldview. It is a science governed, not merely by epistemic goals such as increased knowledge and explanatory power, but also by non-epistemic goals such as economic growth, sustainable development, the equality of women, the end of religion, or the glory of God. One recent example would be the Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg’s attempt to customize an atheistic science. He says that “anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilization.” This is, of course, not a science for all, but a science for those who embrace the ideology of secularism.

This customization of science either could take place on a collective or group level or else it might be located at an individual or personal level. It is of course a matter of degree, but as Steve Fuller in this publication points out, there is a trend in society today to take science more personally. The general public is showing an increased willingness to try to make sense of the findings of science on their own, regardless of what the scientific establishment takes to be the orthodox interpretation of these results.

This questioning of whether scientists can be trusted to provide a disinterested interpretation of their own findings is typically not directed against science per se and is thus not an expression of an anti-scientific stance. It is more a matter of treating scientists as merely human; of acknowledging the difficulty, if not impossibility, of being an expert yet not also an advocate, especially on issues that bear upon what sort of life one should live.

Such a changing attitude towards science is induced by the ability of people to access on the internet almost the entire storehouse of scientific findings and theories from virtually any starting point. Science is perhaps increasingly becoming customized in the way that religion in the Western world has been customized ever since the Protestant reformation!

You could read more about this research in: Steve Fuller, Mikael Stenmark, Ulf Zackariasson (eds.), The Customization of Science: The Impact of Religious and Political Worldviews on Contemporary Science (Palgrave 2014).Mikael Stenmark
Professor in the Philosophy of Religion
Impact of Religion, Uppsala University

Surrogacy in the Nordic countries

Surrogacy is currently under discussion in several Nordic countries. One question being asked is whether it is better to allow surrogacy arrangements at clinics in the Nordic countries instead of people going abroad to bring home babies from clinics in for example the US or Ukraine. In 2016, a Swedish legislative report took a position on the issue. Iceland’s parliament has in recent years debated a bill, which proposes legislation to permit altruistic surrogacy regardless of marital status or sexual orientation. Norway has in recent years chosen to clarify the rules for children born through surrogacy arrangements abroad, but neither Norway nor Denmark has plans to legalize surrogacy at domestic clinics.

Finland has been a pioneer in the field. Surrogacy occurred at clinics in Finland from 1991 to 2007 while it was unregulated. Four clinics offered heterosexual couples so-called altruistic surrogacy arrangements. However, surrogacy was prohibited in 2007 through the Act on assisted reproduction (1237/2006). In 2012, a Finnish report investigated possible legalization of surrogacy. In the consultation process, the majority of those who took a position advocated legalization of altruistic surrogacy on medical grounds. However, in 2013, the Ministry of Justice announced that further research on surrogacy is needed, and the investigation stopped.

Neither commercial nor altruistic surrogacy should be permitted in Sweden, according to a working group led by investigator Eva Wendel Rosberg. An extensive report was submitted to the Government of Sweden 24 February 2016. The report Olika vägar till föräldraskap (Different paths to parenthood) concludes that the disadvantages outweigh the benefits, and that there is too little knowledge about consequences of surrogacy for children that are born. A child perspective is the focus of the report, but it also mentions the risk that women face pressure to stand as surrogate mothers. The report was circulated for comments, but it remains to be seen how the process will continue at a political level, because the political parties currently have varying positions on the issue.

References to the child's best interests are common in Nordic legislative preparatory work on surrogacy. However, the child's best interests is a vague argument, since the concept can be understood and used in different ways. I discuss this in my doctoral thesis. The risk of commercialisation is often mentioned as another critique, or that it is morally wrong that reproduction becomes an object of trade. Third parties, such as surrogacy agencies, can earn a lot of money on people’s wish to have a baby. Altruistic surrogacy is clearly the preferred alternative in Nordic legislative preparatory work.

Another common claim in Nordic reports is lack of knowledge, and that there is too little research on surrogacy and its consequences. Is this really true? As a researcher in this field, I think there is pretty much international research on surrogacy. For example, Amrita Pande has studied how Indian surrogate mothers perceive their mission, and how a reproductive market was developed in India to receive intended parents from home and abroad. However, India has in recent years restricted surrogacy arrangements to Indian intended parents. Kalindi Vora has analysed perceptions of transnational surrogacy as affective and biological labour. Several studies have analysed how transnational surrogacy may be linked to inequalities due to ethnicity, class, nationality and gender. Commercial surrogacy has been analysed in somewhat greater extent than altruistic arrangements.

However, there is not much research yet on how surrogate children perceive their origin and the way they were born. I imagine that they face similar issues as adopted children or children born through other types of assisted reproduction, e.g. thoughts on how the social parenthood relates to the biological. Families are not created only through birth certificates or genetic heritage, but also through ‘family practices’. ‘Family practices’ is a concept by family sociologist David Morgan, which refers to how families are performed through ordinary actions in everyday life. Some surrogacy families may choose, in one way or the other, to include the surrogate mother in their family practices; in particular if she is a relative or friend, as is often the case in altruistic arrangements. 

I hope that my research on surrogacy in the Nordic countries will contribute to increase our knowledge about different ways how families are created.
Lise Eriksson, PhD, Sociology
Post-doctoral researcher, Åbo Akademi University
Impact of Religion, Uppsala University

Doing fieldwork in a country at war

On June 2014 I traveled to Israel to start my first period of fieldwork. I had been in Israel for long periods of time before, but nothing of what I had experienced in my previous visits had prepared me for what I would encounter. Days before my arrival, three Israeli youngsters had disappeared in the West Bank. After weeks of searches and wild speculations, their lifeless bodies were found near the town of Hebron. The following day a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and brutally murdered in retaliation. A week later, the 2014 Israel-Gaza war erupted and for the first time rockets launched from Gaza were able to reach as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

I soon realized that my plans for fieldwork would probably be disrupted by the war, but any eventual setbacks felt petty and unimportant at a time of such tragedy and loss of life, particularly in Gaza. After making an assessment of the security situation with my supervisors, Mia Lövheim and Lena Roos, we decided that it was okay for me to stay and to try to make the best out of the circumstances. At the end, the war affected my fieldwork less than expected. Some participants cancelled interviews and everyone’s mobility was restricted due to the incoming rockets, but all in all I was able to conduct enough interviews to get my research going.

One of the disturbing experiences of being in a country at war is to see how it develops its own daily life. With time, the exceptional becomes common place but any appearance of normality is just a fragile illusion. That surreal feeling was constantly with me, as was also a vague sense of guilt for the progress I was doing in the midst of a flaring conflict. This is not the kind of questions you think about when you write your application for the ethics committee. With the rockets still flying, the situation was literally way over my head.

As I mentioned, at the beginning of the war I was uncertain about how that would affect my fieldwork. After a while I realized that for all of us who work with real people in real life failure is always a possible research outcome. It cannot be otherwise. The beauty of doing ethnography-inspired research is that you never know what you are going to encounter, especially if you happen to end up in a country at war.

Oriol Poveda is a PhD student in sociology of religion and his research topic is how transgender Jews with an Orthodox background negotiate the intersection of religion and gender.

Senast uppdaterad: 2022-02-21