The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison (2015) is one of the most illuminating books I’ve read recently.  I’d like to enthuse with you about a book that gave me much food for thought regarding Christianity as a ‘religion’ as well as the nature of ‘science’.

The territories of science and religion - book cover

The book’s opening gambit beautifully sums up the plot.  Suppose a historian claimed to have found evidence that a war had broken out between Israel and Egypt in 1600: this claim could be refuted merely by pointing out that no such states existed at that time.  The land areas currently occupied by Israel and Egypt were there, of course, but it would be anachronistic, ambiguous or even complete nonsense to talk about those states in that period.  And such dangers are what Harrison’s book masterfully alerts us to if we casually talk of ‘science’ and/or ‘religion’: not only with reference to any historical period, but perhaps even now.  

First of all, in the case of science and religion, the situation is, not surprisingly, more nuanced than in the illustration above – and so also more pernicious.  The Latin words scientia and religio were in use from ancient times, but not referring to anything like our modern notions.  Both were virtues or habits: the former intellectual, the latter moral.  There was no particular contrast between them, and they went on very different journeys on the way to our English words ‘science’ and ‘religion’.

Harrison’s account of ‘religion’ is one of the most intriguing episodes of the book.  First we must note that this word is virtually absent from the Bible: the Greek word so translated in James 1:27 means a form of worship, which is also roughly what religio meant.  Only in the wake of the Reformation did anyone start to speak of ‘the Christian religion’, or more often ‘the Lutheran’ vs ‘the Catholic’ religion.  And only gradually after that did Christian belief and practice become sufficiently objectified for Europeans to form the concept of ‘a religion’, as Mohamedanism (Islam) started to be identified as something else in the same category.  Then the addition of Hinduism, Taoism and then others to the list was apparently part of a Western project of reverse-engineering the concept of ‘a religion’ onto everyone else in the world.  Apparently Christianity has not been ‘a religion’ at all for most of its history, and neither has anything else!  Apologetics around the question, “Which is the right religion?” is, it seems, a modern phenomenon.  Harrison isn’t suggesting a kind of religious inclusivism or relativism; rather his investigations seem to endorse other efforts (such as those of Tom Wright) to contextualise what Jesus’ and his followers’ proclamations of the Good News were about.  In any case, “leave your religion and join ours” may be rather like proclaiming a war between Israel and the River Nile (to play with Harrison’s metaphor).

So much for religion; what about science?  The journey here is if anything more tortuous.  In brief, the ‘book of nature’ was long studied because of the aid God’s creatures ought to lend to the pursuit of pure religion, but the Reformation contributed to a desacralizing of the creation and a shift to notions of God’s top-down control, which contributed to the recognition of ‘laws of nature’, and of man’s ability to redress the suffering caused by the Fall (an important theme in Francis Bacon’s vision of a Reformation for the sciences).  All this pertained to diverse sciences in the service of Christianity, and it was a peculiarly 19th-century project to unify these under one heading.  William Whewell’s coining of ‘scientist’ in 1834 was a key step in the professionalisation of what became science (singular), and for some advocates (e.g. TH Huxley) there was an added ideological motivation to secularize science and rid it of priests and (wait for it) women!  The sad story of the 20th-century invention of the warfare myth (science vs religion) was more familiar to me, and Harrison’s account is beautifully articulate as ever.  But as in the case of religion, we are also made to ponder whether ‘sciences’ (never mind ‘science’) is a natural category.  Have we somehow made peace between Jerusalem, Mount Sinai and camels?

This book was, for me, a work of deconstruction with redemptive overtones!  ‘Science’ cannot have been at war with ‘religion’ from ancient times, as the popular myth has it, because these categories simply did not exist: three cheers for Harrison!  But perhaps even now science and religion don’t exist – then what?  I’m actually fairly comfortable with the deconstruction of ‘religion’ as a category: I find ‘worldview‘ or ‘ideology’ far more helpful.  And I’m also keen on splitting ‘science’ into ‘the sciences’.  When Harrison suggests that the different sciences may not belong together as a natural kind, however, I think the answer is to turn to the concept of academic scholarship (as in the German Wissenschaften).  I’ve blogged before about a Reformational concept of the sciences, so I’ll stop here – and invite your comments.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]