The Territories of Science and Religion

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Peter Harrison
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University Of Chicago Press
    , April
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion describes an epistemological partition running through the Western understanding of nature or cosmos. The boundary between the two “territories” corresponds roughly to the division between material facts and moral and religious values. What complicates this narrative is that the separation of the territories of science and religion is at once the creation of the modern categories “science” and “religion.”

Hence, as Harrison points out in the preface, his story is not a straightforward history of the estrangement of science from religion, for such an account assumes stability in the key terms. In this book, which is based on his 2011 Gifford Lectures, Harrison provides a well-researched, richly detailed argument for how the epistemological map of nature in the West was radically redrawn in the passage to modernity, sharply distinguishing facts from values in the creation of the specifically modern territories of science and religion.

Harrison’s argument is broad and deep. Instead of attempting to summarize it, I’ll simply recount the story that he tells. His point of departure is the popular view that understands the conflict between science and religion to extend back to antiquity. A crisis point occurs in the Dark Ages when the Christian Church grows powerful enough to stymie the progress of science. But, beginning with the reemergence of Greek thought in the Renaissance, science takes flight in the 17th century.

This process is described most succinctly by Alexander Pope: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.” Science never looks back. From the 17th century forward, its authority continuously waxes while that of religion wanes. Secularization—the death of God, to invoke Nietzsche’s vivid image—is the prime outcome of this process. The popular account, in short, is the story of science über alles (above everything else).

Harrison carefully and methodically demonstrates that this popular account is more legendary than historical. The most convincing argument he makes against the popular account is that the ancients had no terms that correspond easily to our modern concepts “science” and “religion.” “Natural philosophers” were the ones concerned with inquiry into the workings of nature. But philosophy, as Pierre Hadot has argued, was viewed by the ancients less as a system of propositional beliefs and more as a way of life.

For them, philosophy was a set of therapeutic practices for the purpose of transforming the philosopher’s mode of perceiving and being. This approach fused, rather than separated, what we today consider to be the Balkanized territories of science, ethics, and religion.

Harrison connects this understanding of philosophy to Aristotle’s understanding of final cause and his model of the virtues. All natural things have an end that they move naturally toward. Progress describes this movement, and progress is distinguished from mere change by its inclusion in a teleological framework. Happiness is the natural end of human beings, and happiness is obtained through virtuous action. In order to act virtuously, one must cultivate, through habit, a virtuous character. Virtue, according to Aristotle, directs attention to the person’s interior disposition, rather than the outcome of their actions. Action, put differently, is simply the manifestation of a person’s character or the stable equilibrium of the soul. Hence—and this part of Harrison’s argument I find quite exciting—scientia and religio for premoderns were understood to refer to interior states or dispositions. Aquinas identified scientia as an intellectual virtue and religio as a moral virtue, one related intimately to interior acts of devotion and prayer rather than their outward expression.

The Aristotelian bulwarks that support this understanding of scientia and religio collapsed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Religio by this time was already becoming identified with a body of propositional knowledge external to and independent of the individual (“religion”), rather than an interior state or disposition. “Religion” could be particularized, as in the Christian religion. One could at this time also begin to speak of religions. The recognition that there was more than one religion quickly presented what Harrison calls the “new and distinctively modern” problem: Which religion is the true religion? (102). Apologists, seeking to resolve this problem, took the propositional content of religion to be the focus of debate. Natural philosophers then provided rational evidence drawn from nature to bolster the propositional content.

This division of labor, however, opened the door to religion being critically evaluated according to a naturalistic standard charged with the normative distinction between rational and irrational. Tacit acceptance by apologists and natural philosophers alike of the cognitive authority of this naturalistic standard proved decisive in setting the stage for the later conflict between science and religion.

Harrison contends that specifically modern “science” did not emerge fully, however, until the 19th century. Following the collapse of the older Aristotelian framework, scientia was reimagined initially as ever growing knowledge in general. “Natural philosophers” (not “scientists”) continued to be the ones responsible for the study of nature.

But natural philosophy as a field proved to be an unstable amalgam of the physical, the ethical, and the theological. Between the 17th and 19th centuries those normative ethical and theological elements were discarded, making clear the now familiar concept of “science” distinguished by a particular set of practices (the scientific method), a particular community of inquiry (scientists), and clear separation from axiological modes of thinking (the theological, the ethical, and the metaphysical).

Both science and religion claimed propositional content—both were concerned with knowledge—but science now claimed cognitive authority by virtue of its empirically adequate models, the production of useful technologies, and accurate causal accounts of the operations of nature. The utility of science, ultimately, is what buttresses its claim not only to provide a unique and privileged access to truth but also to stand as a normative rampart against the forces of irrationality and superstition.

The Territories of Science and Religion helps us rethink the origins of the key modern categories of science and religion, and in doing so provides a new vantage point on the rise of modernity. If you happen to be new to Harrison’s work, this tome will leave you searching for more by this fine scholar.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lynchburg.

Date of Review: 
June 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Harrison is Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author or coeditor of numerous books, including Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science, also published by the University of Chicago Press. 


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