Peter Harrison: The territories of science and religion

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The lines and conflicts drawn between science and religion have not always existed, and learning their history can open new ways of conversation, says a professor of science and religion.

The relationship between science and religion is often imagined to be one of unremitting conflict. A common popular perception is that science and religion have a troubled past and that present tensions are simply the contemporary manifestation of an inevitable and long-standing pattern.

But what if the very ideas “science” and “religion” themselves are part of the problem? What if the friction that now seems evident to all arises out of the ways in which we have come to think about what counts as science and what counts as religion?

These questions are difficult even to ask, because science and religion just seem to be obvious features of our culture, and indeed most human cultures. But there is good historical evidence that these two concepts are in fact recent inventions of the modern West.

Making the case for this claim requires a detailed study of the relevant history and is difficult to demonstrate in a few words. But we can consider a few examples from the past that point us in this general direction.

It is striking, for example, that the canonical documents of the great religious traditions make no reference to “religion” in our modern sense. The nearest equivalent in the New Testament (the Greek word thrēskeia, subsequently rendered into Latin as religio) appears a mere four times (including variants).

The first Christians did not think of themselves as subscribing to a religion. They spoke instead of a new mode of worship and a new way of life. Some of the church fathers made reference to religion, but in keeping with the handful of New Testament references, they meant by it something like piety or rightly directed worship.

Augustine would thus speak of “true religion,” but he did not equate this with Christianity. True religion, he proposed, was rightly motivated worship of God, and this had been in existence since the beginning of the world.

Religion was not a central category for medieval thinkers either. Medieval Christians did not imagine themselves to be adherents of something called “the Christian religion”; nor did they understand “religion” to refer to a set of beliefs and practices. Thomas Aquinas, for example, classified religion (religio) as but one of the moral virtues.

The concept of religion became prominent in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The specific idea that there was such a thing as “the Christian religion” thus emerges for the first time in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is evident from patterns of English language usage.

Relative frequency of ‘the Christian religion’ and ‘Christian religion’ in English books, 1550-1680 Source: Peter Harrison


A similar story can be told for the idea of “science.” Before the 19th century, the formal study of nature was distributed across several categories: natural philosophy, natural history, the mixed mathematical sciences and so on.

Natural philosophy was the nearest equivalent to our science, but it differed in significant ways -- in its inclusion, for example, of topics such as God and the soul. As for the term “science” (Latin scientia, Greek epistēmē), it referred primarily to an inner virtue, a capacity to perform logical operations. Interestingly, then, both religio and scientia were classified by Thomas Aquinas as virtues rather than bodies of knowledge or practices.

Only during the 19th century did “science” come to refer to the full range of diverse approaches to the study of nature. During this period, there also emerged distinctive terms for those who conducted science and for the methods they were imagined to employ.

The terms “scientist” and “scientific method” were also coined in the 19th century. Crucially, theological and moral elements that had been integral to natural philosophy were now explicitly excluded from the new “science.”

Whereas it had once been commonplace for clergy to be active natural philosophers or natural historians, the new profession of scientist came to be regarded as incompatible with the religious vocation.

None of this is to deny that there were scientific or religious practices in the past. The point is that they were not grouped together in quite the same way, and this makes an important difference.

A helpful analogy is to think of the ways in which nation-states come into being, and how their territorial boundaries change over time.

The modern state of Israel, for example, came into existence only in 1948. This does not mean that the River Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, the city of Jerusalem and other geographical features did not exist before then.

But these entities take on a different complexion when considered together as part of a single thing -- namely, modern Israel. Moreover, the territorial boundaries change over time -- most notoriously, in the case of Israel, those of the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

These changes, and indeed the original partitioning of Palestine, did not result from any natural way of dividing the territory but from various historical contingencies. Present tensions between Israel and its neighbors, then, are best understood as resulting from ways in which the territory was divided. No one would argue that there has been an enduring historical conflict between Israel and Syria or Israel and Egypt, for the simple reason that for much of history, these entities simply did not exist.

So, too, for science and religion. It became possible to speak of conflict between them (or any relationship, for that matter) only after the boundaries of the respective enterprises had been drawn up. That did not happen until the 19th century. Again, the growing frequency of the phrase “science and religion” in published English works is suggestive of this new possibility.

Relative frequency of ‘science and religion’ in English books, 1780-2000 Source: Peter Harrison


The territories analogy is relevant here, because the character of the present relations of science or religion with their disciplinary neighbors is very much tied up in how the boundaries of the disciplines came to be drawn in the past.

What follows from all of this for our understandings of science and religion?

The most obvious takeaway relates to the conflict thesis -- the common idea that science and religion, by their very natures, have been engaged in an enduring conflict. This cannot be true, simply because the relevant categories did not exist in the past.

This is also helpful for thinking about present relations, because when apparent tensions between science and religion flare up today -- almost always in relation to evolutionary theory -- it is often assumed that this is simply the manifestation of a long-standing general pattern. But that cannot be true either, and so the explanation for the so-called conflict needs to be sought elsewhere. In the case of religiously motivated objections to evolution, for example, what is mostly at stake is a set of values assumed to be embedded within an evolutionary worldview. There is a genuine conflict, but it is primarily a conflict between competing values.

More generally, we can conclude that attending to the history of boundary drawing brings to light other possibilities for dividing up the territory, and in ways that might be more irenic and fruitful.