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The Evidence of Things Not Seen

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Making of Scientific Religion

The study of religion and science has overwhelmingly focused on intellectual histories of conflicts between Christianity and evolutionary biology—evolution, eugenics, intelligent design, stem cells, you get the gist. My dissertation approaches the topic of religion and science ethnographically, both to include new voices in the conversation and to highlight religion and science’s contingent and processual nature. This dissertation shifts the conversation away from these controversies, which have overrepresented one religion (Christianity), one science (evolutionary biology), and one kind of person who is authorized to speak for both (white dudes), to a consideration of how the pursuit of scientific knowledge can itself be a religious endeavor, invoking religiously coded questions, concerns, and themes—unseen presences produced through complex technological mediations, utopian expectations and anxieties about the present and future, enchantment and a sense of wonder at the natural world. In doing so, I hope to contribute towards an understanding of science and religion as things always in the making, practiced and performed by participants as they go about their work and confront the questions that motivate it. Through this exploration, my dissertation will demonstrate the value of terms and concepts coming out of religious studies to the analysis of a broader range of social phenomena than those typically considered to be the domain of religion. My dissertation explores these questions through an ethnographic and archival study of the radio astronomers engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), a group of researchers deeply invested in their identities as scientists and committed to the rigors of objective research and the scientific method, but who still look toward the skies in search of powerful beings who may hold the keys to humanity’s salvation. 

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