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The Territories of Science and Religion

The Territories of Science and Religion

“If a historian were to contend that he or she had discovered evidence of a hitherto unknown war that had broken out in the year 1600 between Israel and Egypt, this claim would be treated with some scepticism.”

So begins Peter Harrison’s study of the respective “territories” of what we today term “science” and “religion”. His point is simple and goes to the book’s heart. Israel and Egypt did not, of course, exist in 1600 and whatever conflicts that raged in the region at the time could not be described as, or straightforwardly ascribed to, ‘Israel vs. Egypt’.

As with Israel and Egypt, so with science and religion: to read into those categories a long-standing history of relentless antagonism is not simply to misread history (historians of ‘science and religion’ have long recognised that) but to retroject contemporary borders onto past territories. ‘Science’ and ‘religion’ existed in 1600, even in 600, but as radically different things from what they are today. It is by tracing the development of those shifting territories that Harrison seeks to make sense of certain contemporary conflicts in the region.

He begins in the classical world in which scientia and religio were both virtues. The former comprised the study of nature but under the overarching philosophical aegis of learning to live well. Mathematical study of the heavens, for Plato at least, contributed to the moral and intellectual formation of the philosopher. The Stoics understood the good life as that lived in accordance with nature (hence the need to know how nature lived). The Epicureans advocated the study of nature so that humans could be free of the fear of capricious gods, of human death and of post-mortem punishment. Scientia was a form of knowledge of the natural world that enabled the philosopher to live his life in grain with the rational principle that pervaded the cosmos.

Religio, by contrast, meant something like inner piety or right worship, rather than a discrete and correct set of statements about, and practices concerning, the divine. Early Christianity, because it wasn’t anchored to a particular region, social class or visible God – the first Christians were, notoriously, “atheists” – disturbed this (as it did so many things). Christianity became a creedal religion, taking great pains to define what did and did not constitute the true faith. However, as Harrison points out, even here Christian belief was akin not to the kind of propositional believe (“I belief that…”) with which we are familiar, but rather to the relational belief (“I believe in…”) that is better expressed today in English by the verb “trust”.

However much classical Christianity was ultimately responsible for the concept of ‘religion’ as we now understand it, there was certainly no natural antagonism between it and scientia. The Church Fathers often understood scientia as a path to sapientia or wisdom. They had reservations, of course. They were wary of the conclusions some philosophers drew from studying the natural world – but in this they were not alone: Cicero once remarked that there was nothing so absurd that some philosopher had not already said it. Furthermore, the Fathers resolutely refused the idea that the natural world was itself divine (which resulted, ironically in the light of today’s philosophical landscape, in Christian theology driving an agenda of naturalism). However, there was no normative conflict here. A war between scientia and religio in the 4th century made as much sense as one between Israel and Egypt in the 17th.

The Middle Ages, the topic of Harrison’s third chapter, inherited many of these categorisations. A number of Church Fathers had considered nature to be a book in which God had revealed himself, and mediaeval thinkers discerned often elaborate ways of reading that book. Animals were not only, literally, animals, but also moral and even spiritual tutors. Studying nature could lead to both “the exaltation of the creator and the perfection of our souls”, in the words of the 13th century William of Auvergne. Again, however, the scientia by means of which people came to understand nature was more mental habit than it was body of knowledge.

The many and complicated ways of reading both Bible and world came under scrutiny in the later middle ages, and then wholesale criticism in the Reformation. Just as there was only one way of reading the Bible aright – the literal way – as the Reformers argued, so it was with God’s other book, of Works. In early modern period, it was not “contemplative, hermeneutical practice” but mathematical skill that could read the cosmos aright, and, subsequently, experimentation that could do the same to the natural world.

At the same time, just as importantly but less widely recognised today, the early modern period witnessed the collapse of the idea of multiple-level causation, the idea that a phenomenon could simultaneously have a natural and a supernatural cause. “In much the same way that symbolic meanings of nature and scripture were collapsed into a single, literal sense, the various causal layers of Aristotelian scholasticism came to be flattened out into a single layer of univocal efficient causes.” This boded ill for the future as it meant that (what would become) ‘science’ and ‘religion’ – still, then, largely in harmony, in spite of the Galileo-goes-to-jail myths we now all know – “would come to occupy the same explanatory territory.”

Further tensions emerged in the period with the Protestant unease at the idea of habit and merit. Why pursue the intellectual habit of scientia in order to be good if divine grace was sufficient? This didn’t strangle the scientific revolution at birth. Indeed, paradoxically, it was the distinctly Protestant emphasis on the Fall which fuelled the 17th century attempt to recapture a proper understanding of and mastery over nature (lost at the Fall) among science’s first luminaries, as Harrison has explained at length elsewhere. However, the abandonment of scientia as a virtue further reformed the landscape, increasing the potential for conflict. By 1700, scientia had shifted decisively away from being a habit that fostered human good towards a series of practices that generated knowledge and control over nature.

This need not have necessarily brought it into conflict with religion. Indeed, Harrison is very good at showing how early experimental science badly needed the legitimacy of Christianity to justify its existence, and help it survive the kind of mockery perfected by Jonathan Swift in the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, in which he visits Grand Academy of Lagado (read: the Royal Society) and found men trying to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers or reduce human excrement to its original food.

However, religion itself was undergoing its own important conceptual shift at the time. The Reformation had forced upon Western Christianity a new (and combative) attention to the propositional content of belief – what did Catholics and Protestants actually believe, why, and who was better justified in holding those beliefs? At the same time, it also territorialised religiosity under the Augsburg settlement of Cuius regio, eius religio: “whose realm, his religion”.

At about the same time, Europe began to discover the rest of the world, and the cultures of belief, piety and worship that existed therein, and they reached for the idea of ‘religion’, as a well-formed, coherent, propositional, and territorialised set of beliefs and practices, as a means of understanding them. “‘Other religions’ were constructed as inferior versions of the territorialised Christian religions of Europe.”

When the inevitable question of which of these newly-discovered religions was correct arose, it was answered through a variety of methods, one of which was to look at the natural world, newly understood through the nascent practices of science for justification. This appeared to work well at first but when it emerged that science at best supported deism rather than particular confessional beliefs there was a problem. In any case, the very fact that it was ‘religion’ that was now appealing to ‘science’ for justification meant that the horse was already half-way out of the stable.

By the mid-19th century, it was gone. Utility, as it cashed out in terms of collective material progress (rather than personal moral progress), became the justification for science, which acquired “scientists” in the 1830s, and slowly detached itself from the clerical milieu that had been its womb for two centuries. ‘Science’ didn’t mean on single, coherent, universally-agreed thing, of course – it doesn’t today – but it did have acquire “a special professional identity… the specification of a distinguishing set of methods… and the replacement of a traditional nomenclature [natural science instead of natural theology, philosophy or history]” that made it possible to have a relationship with “religion”.

That relationship wasn’t necessarily tempestuous. There was ample scope for tension with ‘religion’, at least when it was understood as a largely propositional set of beliefs and practices centred on the nature and existence of God and his creation. And, indeed, the 19th century saw a great deal of boundary negotiations, with religion ceding more and more territory. But the idea that conflict was necessary or longstanding or habitual was a myth born of a certain time and circumstance, when some prominent religious folks were at the most prickly and defensive, just as science was “scattering its material blessings in the pathway of life, elevating the lot of man in the world, and unifying the human race”.

In reality, as Harrison concludes, four types of science-religion relationships are possible – conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration – and there are cogent and erudite voices in support of each. Harrison’s purpose in this brilliant survey is clearly, therefore, not to pretend that there is or can be no conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘science’. Rather it is point to the fact that those categories are not self-evident, still less timeless, and that any conflict – or indeed any independence, dialogue or integration – between them will depend largely on how each of the territories is defined. His study ends towards the end of the 19th century but it is lesson we still need to hear today.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick

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.org available under this Creative Commons Licence

Posted 22 September 2015

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