Review - The Territories of Science & Religion

Image of The Territories of Science and Religion
by Peter Harrison
University of Chicago Press 2015
Hardcover 320

Science Versus Religion: a New Angle

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.

9088 reads

There are 19 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Sounds like an interesting book.  Appreciated the fine review.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

What he said.

Nice to see a writer going after some of the popular confusion a bit. I hope these ideas will get more attention.

Mark_Smith's picture

That doesn't help me at all. Maybe it does you.

Paul had been publishing a series of articles on science. Particularly he rejects "naturalism" assuming I understand him. I would like some things from him because I am confused as to what he is saying.

-Define "naturalism" using your words. Don't quote someone else.

-I assume you think science is a discipline that studies the natural world. Yet you have implied, if not stated, that science should not look for natural explanations of natural phenomena. How does science observe, explain and describe nature, and make predictions of future behavior, if it doesn't look to nature's operation?

-If you think that science should look to nature for operation of local phenomena, but not more distant phenomena, either because it far away in space or in the past, what is the cut off between the two? 

Thanks, Mark

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Well, I can't speak for Paul, but I think most Christians (me included) operate in a way that implies naturalism, even if we don't use the term.  I was a chemistry then physics major for two years before I switched to math, which means I know just enough about science to be dangerous.  I (like just about everyone I know) look to nature for explanations before reaching out for the supernatural.  I realize some don't define that as naturalism, but I'm not sure what you would call it instead.

Even the Bible record shows that miraculous events were few and far between compared to what "normally" happened when the world just functioned according to natural principles that God laid down.  So when I see someone recover from a disease, or I see something that appears to be beyond nature operating according to the various physical "laws" that have been discovered and recognized, I don't immediately reach for an explanation outside natural events, even if it's something I (or even the experts) can't immediately explain.

In this area, the difference between me and your typical atheist scientist is that I don't reject the possibility of the miraculous or supernatural outright.  To many in the scientific world, God can *never* be an explanation for something like life coming from lifelessness, or even the reason there is something instead of nothing, while orthodox Christians, even those that have some understanding of science, accept that God can indeed explain those events.  (I know that's often derided as "God of the gaps").

I don't know that I have ever witnessed a legitimate miracle in my lifetime, though some of the events I have been involved with (a friend of mine whose cancer "inexplicably" disappeared) could possibly indicate the direct hand of God.  Given we don't live in the apostolic age, and to my knowledge, have not yet reached the end times, I'm not generally going to believe that anything that happens is a true miracle unless no other reasonable explanation is possible.  But that's what will divide Christians from atheists -- we don't have to keep looking for ever more improbable "natural" explanations of something when the natural processes we know or can even theorize don't provide the answers.  Even so, for average, ordinary, every-day events, most of us will assume that there are natural causes and explanations that can explain them.  That's how we make sense of the world around us, and learn to understand and use the natural laws that apply to the universe God gave us.

Dave Barnhart

dgszweda's picture

I would have liked to have seen the book to have expanded the discussion between the 3 areas are used to increase in knowledge (Religion, Science and Philosophy).  Over history each one has juggled around in priority and importance.  And at each point in history one has reigned superior over the others.  We have been in an age, where Science is now the predominate study and all others are now subservient to science.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

@Mark... I don't see where the difficulty is. Naturalism has already been defined. Why should quoting a perfectly serviceable definition be a problem?

But fwiw, there are different ways to talk about causality. Aristotle is helpful as a starting pt on that.
As for thinking Christianly about causality, it helps to look at ultimate cause vs secondary causes & also cause-within-cause.

The former has to do with instrumentality. This is what science today studies most of the time. But Christians know that natural instruments are not ultimate causes.
Cause within cause is just a shorthand I use to convey that Christians also know God is not *only* ultimate; He is also immanent in all that happens. He is present & involved in every molecular bond ("by Him all things consist")... though *how* He is involved is not revealed.... And so must remain mysterious for now.

Mark_Smith's picture

I have a PhD in physics. I have taken some biology, lots of chemistry, and a boat load of physics. I took a geology course also.

NOT ONCE did "ultimate cause" in the theological/philosophical sense come up in any of those classes.

 

Mark_Smith's picture

Does Jesus holding all things together have anything to do with chemistry of molecular bonds?

Paul Henebury's picture

Mark,

 

Perhaps you were away, but a better and more timely post to list your reservations would have been my last one on Scientism and Naturalism - which seemed to pass under the radar somewhat.  In that post I argued, among other things, that parsing "naturalism" into metaphysical and methodological approaches means adopting some equivocation in the meaning of the term; an ambiguity which is seen as pointless by most and is accepted by just the few for their own reasons (i.e. theology).  In the book by Harrison we have another writer who pinpoints the anti-theological agenda of the modern scientific establishment.  He says, for example:

"At first sight, it may seem that "the inductive method" would serve the purpose of giving a methodological unity to to the new notion of the natural sciences.  But...it was insufficiently exclusionary." - 168   

What needed to be excluded was Divine causation. (see here what I wrote previously about information).  

In commenting on the myths invented by science propagandists like Andrew Dickson White (think the Galileo affair, or the 'Inherit the Wind' fairy-tale), he adroitly observes,

"[T]hese are myths not only because they are historically dubious, but because they fulfill a traditional function of myth - that of validating a particular view of reality and a set of social practices. - 173  

This "particular view of reality" is enshrined within the general understanding of methodological naturalism.  

You have said that MN is "the every day practice of science, which by definition is to look for natural explanations to the physical world." (my emphasis).  Well, that definition is not problematical so long as we don't imply an "only" in the epistemology of science.  I said so in my previous post:

 Many a scientist will say they are simply looking for natural explanations of phenomena they come across. If that really were the case, there would be no difficulty at all. - Scientism isn't Science 

Clearly then, I am not at odds with looking for natural explanations in the natural world.  This is because of natural law, which is inferred by e.g., Genesis 1:10-11.  God's providential power is behind it all. Still, neither am I going to pretend that MN is more often than not freighted with assumptions which are at variance with Biblical Christianity.

Finally, you ask: "Does Jesus holding all things together have anything to do with chemistry of molecular bonds?"  Answer: Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3b.

I may need to expand this answer into another post, but I think, Mark, that in view of all I have written recently, it is you who needs to clarify your meaning. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mark_Smith wrote:

I have a PhD in physics. I have taken some biology, lots of chemistry, and a boat load of physics. I took a geology course also.

NOT ONCE did "ultimate cause" in the theological/philosophical sense come up in any of those classes.

Which proves what, exactly?
The fact that science nowadays pretty much ignores anything beyond the empirical is not in dispute, is it?

But I would think a decent PhD program in physics would at least dabble a bit once in Aristotle's study of causation...  He doesn't exactly go into the ultimate cause idea, but he goes way beyond the narrow focus on "efficient" causation we see in today's science. It's an interesting read... http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/  (Disclaimer: I confess I find Aristotle hard to understand, but I'm apparently not alone given the varying explanations of what he supposedly meant!  ... maybe he doesn't get much beyond the empirical really either, but he was trying to)

I love science, even the modern thin version of it, as far as it goes, but by itself it's just so... inadequate.

On Jesus and molecular bonds... I would answer your question with a question: if what He is doing in holding all things together has nothing at all to do with chemistry and physics, how is He holding all things together? What is He doing to cause things to stay together rather than fly apart?

Mark_Smith's picture

What I am looking for is a word for this, the process by which science looks for physical explanations for physical phenomena by a combination of observation of the physical world, hypothesizing about physical causes, making testable predictions based off of those observations, and then conducting tests of the physical world.

You here seem to dislike the word "naturalism", so what would you use?

I apologize if you all think this doesn't belong in this thread. Does it really matter if I post the questions here or on an earlier thread? 

Paul Henebury's picture

"I apologize if you all think this doesn't belong in this thread. Does it really matter if I post the questions here or on an earlier thread?" 

Nothing to apologize for Mark.  Only in the earlier thread I wrote this:

"If, for the minority, the “naturalism” of MN is not the same as the “naturalism” of PN then perhaps it would be better all round for these equivocalists not to use the term methodological naturalism at all. From my point of view, I think this would be advisable so as to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding, especially for Christian supernaturalists who believe that the laws of nature do not hang in the deterministic ether, but are reliant every moment upon the powerful word of God. They should not and need not be in denial of this central fact when pursuing science, but they may have to rename their method to better reflect a biblical position. Perhaps something like “reasoned” or “critical empiricism”?"

"Naturalism" is loaded and is opposed to supernaturalism.  As such it is not a tenable position for a Christian - methodologically or otherwise.  Even though you don't mean what most scientists and science writers mean by it, there it is.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

What I am looking for is a word for this, the process by which science looks for physical explanations for physical phenomena by a combination of observation of the physical world, hypothesizing about physical causes, making testable predictions based off of those observations, and then conducting tests of the physical world.

I seem to recall that Ken Ham had a nice term or turn of phrase for this in his debate with Bill Nye. Can't remember what it was. Unfortunately I don't remember much more than that at the moment, and the debate is 2 plus hours. But if I remember right, Ham uses a counterargument to Nye's claim that if you accept creation (aka religion) and the flood, you are rendered incompetent to do science. Ham's counter is that the sort of work you pretty much described above is not conducted differently if you have a biblical view of origins.

Of course, the criticism of methodological naturalism is that Christian thought must go beyond a biblical view of origins and a include a biblical view of the phenomena... at least, that's my understanding of it at this pt.  But even then, the realm of "observable cause and effect" ... works the same. We do it the same way. (We just think differently, or should think differently, about it while we do it.) 

Anyway, Ham might have some help w/terminology, though he's probably written about it more succinctly somewhere else.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6kgvhG3AkI

 

Mark_Smith's picture

Do you seriously expect me, a PhD physicist, to quote Ham at a secular university?

 

Do you have a job for me to replace the one I would lose?

Mark_Smith's picture

If I worked at a Christian university, I would use a term like Paul recommends, like "critical empiricism". But, unfortunately, almost no Christian schools hire PhD physicists to teach their physical science classes. The few that do pay so little I can't live on that amount. Trust me, I have looked. Think BJU for example. The problem, for all of the ink spilled over science and Christianity, Christians just don't care to learn about it. They would rather a pastor tell them about science, or hire an engineer to do it. Hey, physics and engineering are the same right? At least, engineers are more respectable anyway.

So, that forces me to work at a secular university where I am under attack from every side. The theologians hate me and accuse me of holding un-Christian positions for qualifying very carefully what I mean by methodological naturalism, and the secularists hate me for being Christian at all. It is rough...

I should have been a lawyer! That is a more respectable profession.

Mark_Smith's picture

Empiricism has its own problems, does it not. Empiricism is based on the idea that only sensory experiences are real. At its heart the idea of empiricism would reject supernatural or spiritual action, just like naturalism does.

Now let me go grade exams!

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mark_Smith wrote:

Do you seriously expect me, a PhD physicist, to quote Ham at a secular university?

 

Do you have a job for me to replace the one I would lose?

LOL. No, I wd definitely not use his name!

Paul Henebury's picture

You are right Mark.  That is why I called it "reasoned" or "critical".  However, I guess that on the same grounds you could make a claim for "critical" naturalism - meaning looking for the functions and laws built into the world.  I still think "naturalism" is so habitually opposed to supernaturalism that the issue won't go away.

 

BTW, you make a good point about how Christian institutions don't respect certain highly trained professions as much as they should.  

 

I wonder, have you approached the bigger Creation organizations?

 

God bless,

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.