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So, what is science and what is religion and why do you think they clash?

So, what is science and what is religion and why do you think they clash?

Peter Harrison is a softly–spoken man in a very noisy field. Formerly Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, now Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, he is a careful and widely–respected scholar in a territory – some would call it a no–man’s land – where we have seen ignorant armies clashing by night and by day for many years now. When we met in London it was precisely to discuss that territory.

Harrison has just written a book on the territories of science and religion, reviewed here. Most people most of the time have a pretty good understanding of what they mean by science and what they mean by religion. And because we know what kind of thing science is and we know what kind of thing religion is, we can readily see how they interact (read: clash) with one another.

The trouble with this is that what I mean by science and religion is possibly not quite what you mean by science and religion; is probably not what a Francophone or German–speaker means by ‘la science’ or ‘Wissenschaft’ (or indeed religion); and is almost certainly not what our forebears meant by science, or scientia, or religion, or religio. In other words, we reify at our peril.

When we speak, Harrison makes the point through the example of biblical criticism. “In nineteenth century England, biblical criticism was regarded as a science, partly because I think they got it from the Germans.” When Victorians had the faith rocked by science, as some of the more articulate and vocal did, it was not necessarily geology, still less biology, that they had in mind, as the science of textual criticism.

This is not just a historical problem. “I’ve got a very short article on the concepts of science and religion that came out in the Journal of Religion,” Harrison tells me. “It was translated into German and we had a big headache with science and Wissenschaft”. The latter is the obvious German word for translation but it actually covers the natural sciences and the humanities in such a way as to obscure the very point that Harrison was making. Whereas the statement ‘science is a narrow category in contemporary discourse’ makes sense, saying the same thing of Wissenschaft does not.

This is not simply a narrow linguistic point. As Harrison says, “if you have a narrow definition of science, then scientism” – the belief that the method of the natural sciences is universally applicable, uniquely reliable and supremely authoritative across all intellectual fields – “becomes more a possibility than otherwise.” That certainly helps to explain why the science vs. religion debate has been so fierce in the Anglophone world, whilst would–be New Atheists from other milieux, Michael Onfray for example, have taken a different, less ‘scientistic’ tack.

This problem is not limited to the territory of science. Harrison’s book been translated into Chinese, and he tells me of some challenging exchanges with the Chinese translator. “We were trying to get on to ‘habit’. So what do you mean by habit? Is it the same as disposition? In the West there’s a whole lexicon of philosophical terms which, when you try to translate them, pose real difficulties. Conceptions of virtue, for example, are central to Territories, but when you try to translate them, when put that in the Chinese context, it’s hard to know how you can even get the argument right.”

Harrison’s intent with this analysis is not simply to deconstruct, to show us all how difficult it is to engage in this dialogue across, and even within, defined linguistic traditions. That science and religion debate has, at one level at least, been at times a dialogue of the wilfully deaf, as a depressing number of religious believers (and not just religious believers, as Theos’ Rescuing Darwin project showed) deny evolution, and a smaller, but no less depressing coterie of ‘scientists’ peddle an exhausted myth about the long–standing and on–going warfare between science and religion.

Harrison makes no disguise of how wearied he is by the state of affairs. It’s not surprising. Having spent a lifetime teasing apart the true nature of the relationship between these shifting territories, to hear people dismiss one or other out of hand, or to recycle long–discredited narratives about warfare must be depressing. “I was at a conference in America earlier this year about the ‘myth that would not die’.” The title is apt but sadly, he admits, “there’s only so much authors can do. After that, you just need good advertising.”

He’s probably right, but advertising is ultimately parasitic and without a good product it is empty air. Harrison has a number of other projects on the go, not least a forthcoming article which looks at the (in)famous Credo quia absurdum, usually translated “I believe because it is absurd”, attributed to Tertullian. This has long been cherished by anti–clericals (like Voltaire), agnostics (Darwin quoted it in his autobiography), and atheists (most recently Dawkins) as a gloriously frank example of Christianity’s wilful idiocy. Yet, Harrison’s work traces how the phrase was discovered, used, translated, and attributed in some tellingly different ways, in early modern Europe, from Thomas Browne, through Locke, through Voltaire and beyond. In so doing, he throws new and revealing light on what Tertullian meant versus how he has been interpreted and is understood by the polemicists.

It is precisely the kind of painstaking scholarly attention to detail that the public debate that rages over these shifting territories needs. Harrison may be right when he suggests that such work is not sufficient, and that the science and religion debate needs new narrators and new advertisers. But even if it is not sufficient, it is certainly necessary.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos 

Peter Harrison is Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. His book The Territories of Science and Religion is available here


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Image from wikimedia.orgavailable in the public domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Director of Research at Theos. Nick is an acclaimed author of books and reports, most recently The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 22 September 2015

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