Science Versus Religion: A New Angle

The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320 pages.

The battle between Science and Religion has been presented to the wider public as a struggle between reason and superstition.  In the present intellectual climate, where the ghosts of logical positivism have been far from exorcised from the corridors of scientific thinking, any countering of the reigning attitude is most welcome.  The volume under review is an absorbing historical account of the way the words scientia and religio have been used through time, and how they have changed their meanings since about the middle of the 19th century.  The book under review is scholarly yet readable, comprising six chapters, an epilogue, fifty plus pages of notes, and indices.

It may seem that a book-length study on two archaic words would scarcely qualify as a riveting read, still less that it would be of any relevance.  But Peter Harrison, who is a distinguished historian of science at the University of Queensland in Australia, has managed to produce a study which does both things.  The resultant work is a real contribution to the Science versus Religion debate; a debate that has been impacted to a large degree by its wrong understandings of the terminology.

In six well documented chapters the author ranges from ancient and medieval beliefs about the world and about a life well-lived to the changes in point of view ushered in during the 16th century and especially during the Enlightenment and its aftermath.  When we think of “religion”, or even “faith” today, we think about a certain tied-down set of beliefs.  This impression becomes stronger when it is contrasted with “Science” – the ideal of which (often portrayed by scientists themselves) is the dispassionate search for facts via detached experimentation and cool analysis.  But neither view, whether or not it is the correct definition of the words at the present time, should be thought to capture the mindset of most people, scientists included, prior to about 1850.  Harrison shows that before that time, and certainly before the Reformation had caught hold, the Western mind saw both scientia and religio in terms of development in the attainment of inner virtue (e.g. 47-48).  As he puts the matter later on, “Modern religion had its birth in the seventeenth century; modern science in the nineteenth.  Properly speaking, then, this belated appearance of “science” provides the first occasion for a relationship between science and religion.” (147).

From this point of view it becomes obvious that a critical delving into the past is essential to help in clearing away the rhetoric and the false assumptions which have accumulated over the past century or so.  The basic theme of the book is that there has been no “warfare” between science and religion; at least not until relatively recently.  The author’s object is to prove that, contrary to what is usually supposed, the two terms, “Science” and “Religion” have not traditionally described two distinct activities whose definitions have remain unchanged over time (6).  Rather, the two words share a mutuality historically; a shared trajectory which needs to be understood so as to bring balance to the present arena of conflict.

Briefly then, the word “Religio” was seen as part of the improvement of the individual, particularly in the cultivation of the interior live; of piety in other words (7).  The concern of the ancients as well as the Medievalists, was “for moral and spiritual formation” (40), more than to objectify doctrine.  Thus, “early discussions about true and false religion were typically concerned not with belief, but rather with worship…” (8).  Meanwhile “Scientia” was about the accrual of intellectual virtue through the use of good mental habits (11, 13, 15, 69).  This is part of the reason why modern appeals to Greek ideas of science to support the contemporary naturalistic consensus are totally misguided (25f.).  In fact, Harrison claims that these forbears saw theology as being an important part of science (31-33, 52).  The Stoics, for instance, held up theology as “the most elevated branch of physics.” (31).  This also means that attempting to read the Greeks as if they were on the same page as scientific naturalists simply ignores their understanding of natural philosophy (211 n.12 & n.14), and the different ideas of pagans and Christians as to the best means of pursuing spiritual growth (37f.).

Seeing Christianity as a way, even if it is the best way, of improving mind and soul, goes to explain the easy appropriation of pagan philosophers by the likes of Justin, Clement, and Origen (41).  Tertullians’s opposing Jerusalem and Athens might be thought of as a reference more to a “mode of life” than to doctrinal standards – a contention which, it must be said,  appears to be at odds with Tertullian’s argument in the Prescription where he insists that Christian truth “is our palmary [i.e. admirable] faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”  Here I think Harrison overplays his hand, but he makes enough sense to contribute value to topic.

What can be admitted is that the book makes a convincing case for his thesis about inner cultivation.  He provides much support from the works of Christians like Augustine (40) and Aquinas (69), or pagans like Epicurus (45-46) and Porphyry (32) that the goal of knowledge was to encourage moral excellence, however understood (See the quotation of Bonaventure on 226 n. 51).  He does note that despite mockery from educated pagans, Christians refused to reify the celestial bodies (53). There is even an interesting chapter about the use of Bestiaries to teach moral qualities from animal characteristics which lends support to his reasoning (see chapter 3, esp. 58-66).  It is when Christianity becomes “the Christian Religion” around the 17th century that attention begins to shift on to doctrinal fidelity (104f.).  At the same time of course, Enlightenment science was getting a head of steam, and the onset of metaphysical naturalism pushed “Science” in a new direction too. Harrison maps out this wind-change, demonstrating how it opened up a fissure between what had once been reciprocal pursuits.

He includes illuminating discussions of Natural Theology as a response to this new climate of thought (113-114, 149-150).  The several tensions which surfaced all contributed to the eventual collapse into naturalism (80, 90, 126, etc.).

As the antagonism between the more objectively defined versions of Religion and Science continued, we begin to see the rise of “the scientist” as a professional academic sequestered away in a laboratory (159f.).  The amateur naturalist and the clergyman astronomer became more a remnant of a former era.  At the same time, history was rewritten (e.g. 160), and Christianity’s role as the adversary of science (e.g. the ‘Flat-Earth’ myth, 172), was popularized by the likes of John William Draper, Andrew Dickson White (171-175), and August Comte (147), and even the environmental moans of Lynn White (137).  But Harrison is yet another prominent historian to affirm the fact that “Christianity underpinned the scientific project” (137).

There is no room to expand upon the writer’s helpful treatment of Aristotelian teleology and its eventual rejection, for differing reasons, by both Protestant theologians and Enlightenment thinkers (16, 84, 85, 87, 92.  But see 144).  Nor is there time to comment on his insights into Christian doctrine of the Fall and its noetic effects (45, 53, 66, 88).

Harrison should have dealt with the “rule of faith” doctrine which was so important in post-Apostolic Christianity up until the end of the Roman Empire.  He also needed a chapter on the deliberations of the Councils of the Church.  He does not write as a believer, therefore he seems to miss the doctrinal import of the Scriptures.  However, as a study of fracturing of two companion activities, and as a corrective to the positivist just-so stories which still do service for the atheistic community, Harrison’s book has much to commend it.






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