Thursday, March 17, 2016

Books Worth Reading (6): The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

In recent years I have found myself in several conversations during which a definite disquiet has greeted the suggestion that modern science depended on Christianity for its origins. The claim has often been heard as an triumphalist apology for the Christian faith (and by extension a denial of the legitimacy of, for instance, Islamic science). It is actually a historical claim about the history of ideas and, as a historical claim about the history of ideas, it is (more or less) uncontroversial. That the claim has become historically uncontroversial owes much to the work of Peter Harrison, formerly the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and now the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Over the last decade or so Harrison's work has significantly re-shaped the understanding of the history of the relationship between science and religion by demonstrating that both 'religion' and 'science', as we use those words today, are modern conceptual inventions and that the invention of the latter was especially shaped by theological considerations. Many of the arguments that ground these claims (together with some new arguments) are presented in The Territories of Science and Religion, the published version of Harrison's 2011 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The essence of the argument is crystallised in a helpful analogy at the book's outset. Harrison invites his readers to imagine a contemporary historian presenting a claim about a war between Egypt and Israel in 1600. Such a claim would actually be meaningless because neither 'Egypt' nor 'Israel' - as we now understand those signifiers - existed in 1600. Yes, there may well have been a war between different parties which then occupied parts of what our maps now identify as 'Egypt' and 'Israel', but this would not have been a war between the modern nation states that are now designated Egypt and Israel. Analogously, claims about the history of science and religion can involve projecting these modern concepts onto earlier practices which only just, if at all, overlap with what we mean by 'science' and 'religion'.

So what were scientia and religio in the ancient world and how do they differ from what 'science' and 'religion' are in the modern world? In brief, and with all the dangers of summarising a complex argument, the differences can be explained like this. In the ancient world, both scientia and religio were more like inner virtues than external practices. In the modern world, on the other hand, both 'science' and 'religion' are external, objectified practices. In the ancient world, the purpose of scientia was to form particular mental habits. In the modern world the purpose of 'science' is to advance the human capacity to manipulate the physical world. In the ancient world, religio was identified by the cultivation of piety. In the modern world, 'religion' is identified by bodies of belief and identifiable institutional, communal practices. 

In the first instance, recognising this conceptual history enables some critical historical leverage on the commonly-held idea that with the emergence of Christianity, the previous  progress of 'science' on the part of the ancients was arrested, impeded by the allegedly intrinsically obscurantist tendencies of Christianity. Only with the loosening of Christianity's influence in the modern era, so the argument goes, has 'science' been set free again to take up its historical trajectory of bringing light where religion only brought darkness. This particular 'myth of the conflict between science and religion' employs the same degree of category mistakes employed in the analogy about the 1600 war between 'Egypt' and 'Israel'. In the ancient world, 'science' and 'religion' were not the sorts of things that would be in conflict. (To add my own analogy, it would be like suggesting that the Australian Football League was in some perennial, essential conflict with the Oslo Society of Cabinet Makers.There is simply nothing about their respective concerns that require them to have a relationship of any sort, let alone one of conflict.) Only in the modern era do 'science' and 'religion' emerge in ways that the possibility of 'conflict' attaches to their relationship.

So how did 'religion' and 'science' emerge as modern concepts and what is it about their respective definitions which means that they might be in conflict? In the case of religion, a principal factor was the insistence of the sixteenth-century Reformers that 'faith be explicit' in contrast to the 'implicit faith' of medieval Catholicism. As Harrison notes: "The Reformers insisted instead that Christian believers be able to articulate the doctrines they professed, and do so in propositional terms" (p.92).  As such, religio as a virtue was replaced by 'religion' as body of beliefs. Now externalised, it could become the object of comparison and objectification: religion becomes something that attracts the definite article. Harrison documents this shift with reference to the emergence of the phrase 'the Christian religion' in books published in English between 1530 and 1690 (see pp. 92-94). The shift is also crystallised in the translation history of the title of John Calvin's Institutio Christiannae Religionis. The title given in English translation changed as follows:
  • 'The Institution of Christian Religion' (1561)
  • The Institution of the Christian Religion' (1762)
  • 'The Institutes of the Christian Religion' (1813).
Thus, the "modern rendering is suggestive of an entity 'the Christian religion' that is constituted by its propositional content - 'the institutes'. These connotations were completely absent from the original title" (p.11).

If religion now attracts the definite article, it can also be pluralised. Religion becomes a genus of which there are particular species. This move is especially highlighted in the way the West designates as 'religions' the other traditions and ways of life it with which it comes into contact during colonial expansion. This phenomenon has, of course, been well-documented in recent decades. Harrison draws particular attention to the fact that colonial expansion was more or less coincident with the religious fragmentation of Europe. 'World religions', itself a new concept, "came into existence through the projection of the religious fragmentation of Western Christendom onto the rest of the world. ... The 'other religions' were thus constructed as inferior versions of the territorialized Christian religions of Europe" (p.99). (An upcoming 'Books Worth Reading' will be summarising Brent Nongbri's Before Religion: The History of a Modern Concept (2013) which addresses this issue in much more detail.)

What then of the origins of science? Those who first developed an experimental approach to understanding the natural world did not at first necessarily consider themselves 'scientists'. Yes, they were producing bodies of knowledge about the world that represented a shift from scientia as an internal virtue to something objective and measurable. In producing such bodies of knowledge they would have they thought they were doing 'natural philosophy' or even 'natural theology'. But, at some point, not before the nineteenth century, these experimental activities, and their consequent bodies of knowledge, came to be described as 'science' and to break free of their philosophical and theological frameworks. Harrison quotes an 1867 article which defines science in terms of "physical and experimental science, to the exclusion of theological and metaphysical" (William Ward quoted by Harrison, p. 145f.). This is the significant move which constitutes modern science: not that people were only now using experimental methods to increase their knowledge of the world, but that the knowledge so produced was being separated from any philosophical or theological framework. Harrison summarises this shift in these terms:

In the nineteenth century, 'science' as we now understand it, came to be constructed in a way that resembled the early modern construction of the idea 'religion'. That is to say, it was aggregated from a range of activities and distanced from the personal qualities of those who practiced it. This took place when 'science' came to be linked to a putatively unified set of practices ('the scientific method'), associated with a distinct group of individuals ('scientists'), and purged of elements that had once been regarded as integral to its status and operations (the theological and metaphysical). 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 (p.147).
Only in the nineteenth century, therefore, do religion and science - both defined as bodies of knowledge, produced by particular communities engaging in certain practices to make particular claims about the world - become the kinds of phenomena which can be compared, contrasted - and brought into conflict.

Yet, as Harrison explores developments in science's self-understanding, it becomes apparent that certain remnants of its theological origins remain. (This is also a helpful way to return to the disquiet about those theological origins noted at the outset of this post.) The early experimental scientists used theological ideas to evaluate and understand their scientific work and its achievements. To take one example of the many which Harrison provides, Francis Bacon. With a particular understanding of Genesis providing the backdrop, Bacon writes as follows of how science is able to 'repair' the fallen state of humanity.  
For man by the fall fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse made altogether and forever a rebel, not by various length in in some measure subdued to supplying of man with bread; that is to the uses of human life (From Bacon's Novum Organum, quoted by Harrison, p.138).

This leads to a link between science, the 'relief of the human estate' and therefore 'progress'.  "The stuff of nature is pursued not only for the purpose of moral edification, but also to yield technologies that will offer ways of relieving the human condition. In time the latter will completely displace the former" (136). In other words, the link between the rhetoric of progress and modern science has a theological foundation, and even if the theological foundation is discarded (which it now has been), the nexus between science and progress has its origins in that cluster of Christian theological convictions.  From this emerging independence of the rhetoric of progress other things flow: "Progress had once been understood as progress towards a particular end. Now it had become an end in itself" (p141). A new cultural status is now granted to both the discipline of science and its practitioners:  "Now the wonders of nature become the wonders of science, understood as the product of scientists' rigorous application of the scientific method" (169). So yes, the theological origins of science are clear enough: but given the ambiguity of 'scientific progress', Christians might pause before pointing to the 'Christians' origins of science.

Harrison concludes the book by referring to various contemporary debates. These include debates about the coherence of science, something which is prone to being exaggerated. He insists that 'science' and 'religion' are not cultural constants, highlighting as he does so the manner in which ideological atheism is parasitic on the distinctly modern construct of 'religion'. He also cautions against over-enthusiastic claims about a "consonance between science and religion", precisely because such claims often involve conceding the cultural authority of science and the propositional nature of religion.

It goes without saying that this book is a work of advanced scholarship. It would be most easily read by people with some existing knowledge of the history of ideas in general and, more specifically, the history of science and religion. Nevertheless, Harrison presents his arguments in an accessible and engaging style. Some of the more technical details of the various arguments are placed in endnotes, thus allowing the general reader to take in the larger argument more easily. The book would be of interest, I imagine, to anyone (Christian or not) involved in the science/religion discussion. It would also be of value to ministers and preachers who confront the pastoral issues raised by the rhetoric of conflict between science and religion (remembering, though, that this is not a book of Christian apologetics) as well as to anyone who wishes to know a little more about the history of Western culture and some of the formative ideas which have given it the particular shape it has.

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Links to videos of the lectures at which Harrison first presented the material making up The Territories of Science and Religion are available here.

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(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

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