The Modern Mosaic of Science and Religion – by Donovan Schaefer

Donovan Schaefer on Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion

Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320pp., $30
Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 320pp., $30
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Are science and religion doomed to clash? Are they irreconcilable — a mutually antagonistic set of beliefs and approaches to the world? Or is conflict between science and religion, when it seems to appear, about something even more basic than belief? When science and religion spar, is truth really the issue?

In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey asking Americans about their beliefs about the evolution of living things. Pew presented the results broken down by political affiliation, showing how different groups hold different views on evolution. Among self-identified Republicans, 43% of respondents stated that organisms had evolved over time, while 48% said that they had been in their present forms since the beginning of time. (The remaining 9% did not know or refused to answer.) Among Democrats, by contrast, 67% preferred the evolutionary explanation; only 27% contended that evolution had not taken place. The survey results for self-identified independents were almost exactly on par with Democrats.

What was unique about this particular report, however, was that it also offered a side-by-side comparison with the same responses given when the question was asked in 2009. In 2009, self-identified Democrats were slightly less accepting of evolution, affirming it by only a 64-30 rate. But a far more startling comparison came out on the Republican side. Whereas in 2013 Republicans denied evolution by a five-point margin, in 2009 Republicans affirmed it by a rate of 54-39. Somehow, during the first four years of the Obama presidency, the percentage of self-identified Republicans who accepted evolution declined by eleven points.

It is possible that this is simply because once-Republicans who accept evolution have drifted away from their party. But it seems unlikely that this could account for such a broad swing, especially given the low rate of increase in the number of pro-evolution Democrats (and the marginal change among independents). What seems more probable is that the conservative posture has been steadily hardened into a committed, comprehensive, anti-science worldview. This aligns with other recent shifts in conservative US politics, like the fact that none of the candidates in the Republican presidential primary — including the victor, Donald J. Trump — accepted the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Religion, politics, and hostility to science, in this case, seem to move in tandem.

At the same time, the simplistic equation of “religious” with “conservative” leaves out too many facts to make sense. Although many American conservatives, including Christian conservatives, are climate change deniers, beyond the American sphere, religious leaders have become some of the most committed voices in favor of the scientific consensus that human activity is causing dramatic transformations in global weather patterns. Pope Francis has insisted that the scientific consensus must be taken seriously not only as a matter of fact, but as a moral urgency that must be respected by Catholics. Leaders from other religious traditions around the world have added their voices, allying with scientists to promote a fact-based approach to dealing with climate change.

The science/religion conflict, then, is still with us. But the classic story of scientific secularization does not seem to fit. We have not been handed a world in which the steady advance of scientific knowledge slowly displaces religious belief, leaving in its place what the sociologist Peter Berger, in a 1968 New York Times article, called a “worldwide secular culture.” Instead, science, religion, culture, history, and politics interlace in ways that fragment the impression that they were ever really separate boxes in the first place.

This is why the work of scholars in the field of science and religion studies is pressingly relevant. Mapping the interactions between science and religion is not only a theological exercise: it has direct ramifications for understanding problems in the political and social sciences. Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion is a tour de force contribution to this discussion, designed to reconstruct the intellectual foundations of the subfield while serving as a formidable work of intellectual history in its own right. Harrison, with his characteristic mastery of the European intellectual archive, shows that a commonsense understanding of the separate fields of “science” and “religion” is the wrong starting point for mapping their relationships. Instead, to understand the terrain on which “science” and “religion” intersect, we need to first disassemble the integrity of the categories themselves.

Harrison shows that the terms “science” and “religion” — and their various prefigurations (such as scientia and religio) and synonyms (such as “natural philosophy” and “theology”) — have meant a range of different things over the course of Euro-Christian history, and that the meanings globalatinized moderns now attach to those words are recent creations. Harrison’s proposal is radical: neither “science” nor “religion” are sufficiently intellectually coherent to cooperate or conflict.


Throughout his career, Harrison’s overriding interest has been the transition from medieval cosmology and anthropology (shaped by Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelian philosophy) to Protestant models of world and human at the beginning of the early modern period. Harrison’s previous book, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, was designed to highlight a counterintuitive point of origin in the history of science. Against a theory current in some circles that the “scientific” research of the seventeenth century (then still called “natural philosophy”) was opposed to religion, Harrison highlighted how, not only was early modern science usually connected to religious modes of knowledge production (such as church-sponsored academic institutions), it was in fact a direct outgrowth of a distinctly religious innovation: the retrieval by the Protestant Reformers of a biblical anthropology. Where the medieval Thomists were persuaded by Aristotle’s notion that human beings were designed with a desire for knowledge that reflected a concordance between our reason and the world around us, the biblical account championed by Luther and Calvin stressed the total inadequacy of the free-standing human mind to know its world.

Aristotle’s framework held that humans could improve themselves to a state of excellence by training their innate virtues through mental exercises — for instance, by mastering knowledge of the world. It was this virtue-oriented approach to knowledge-production that dominated the medieval Catholic mind after Aquinas. But in the Protestant biblical interpretation, only Adam had access to perfect knowledge of the world. The Fall shattered us not only morally, but intellectually. Human reason was tainted by the depravity of our original sin, and so we were left with unreliable equipment to draw out the truth of the world. Harrison in Fall of Man showed that early experimental scientists such as Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon understood their empirical method as a necessary corrective to the shambles of human reason. What came to be known as modern science, then, grew out of an explicitly theological imperative. Not only were science and religion not in conflict, they were conceptually entangled.

Territories expands the intellectual agenda of this already ambitious project while maintaining Harrison’s scrupulous attention to his archives: the bibliography, index, and endnotes alone take up fully one-third of its 300 or so pages. Whereas Fall of Man focused on a specific moment in the prehistory of the concept of “science,” Territories plots a longer trajectory in the non-linear evolution from scientia to “natural philosophy” to the naming of “science” as a distinct method in the 1800s. But Territories also shows how the coordinates of that developmental trajectory are entangled with another concept that is radically transformed through the mixer of modernity: “religion.”

Harrison’s overarching argument is that any account of how science and religion engage or clash must begin with a recognition that these concepts have changed — radically — over time. The assumption that science and religion are always at variance with each other as two diametrically opposed strategies of knowledge production is ignorant of the historical matrix that once saw the two as inextricably conjoined. “Science” and “religion” are not natural kinds “carving the world at the joints,” but artifacts of our intellectual history whose creation “to a significant degree has been to do with political power — broadly conceived — and the accidents of history.”

Harrison begins to chart the course of these accidents in the first chapter of his book by going to the ancient sources, which he reads as antecedents to the Thomistic framework of the Middle Ages. Harrison shows that in the ancient Mediterranean world — particularly among the early Christian church fathers — neither science nor religion were identified as distinct bodies of propositional knowledge. Instead, inasmuch as either existed, they existed as moral orientations, as features for the instruction of character and virtues. It is this perspective that was resuscitated with Aquinas.

This also means that many of Harrison’s pre-modern sources should not necessarily be viewed as advocating an intellectual framework that gives any one “religion” — such as Christianity — exclusive rights to the claim of “true religion.” In Harrison’s reading of Augustine, for instance, distinguishing true religion from “superstition” leaves open the possibility that true religion precedes Christianity — or that one can be “Christian” and not truly religious. Only in the modern period does religion cease to be a set of practices designed to cultivate inner moral and personal formation. It transforms into a concrete noun, a compact body of beliefs that can be placed in dialogue or dispute with other beliefs. Religion and science can now be “right” or “wrong” in the factual sense.

What does this look like? Harrison considers the emergence of the category “religion” in the aftermath of the Reformation — which he understands not just as a religious event, but as a cascade of political, legal, and conceptual shifts that coalesced into a new intellectual template for dividing up the world. This was prompted, in Harrison’s account, by a number of factors, including diplomatic settlements between Lutheran and Catholic statesmen who established the notion of “the religion” of a land, people, or monarch, and new frontiers of contact, colonization, and invasion of non-European peoples with their own richly developed cultural and intellectual traditions. These “world religions” were classified using the intellectual resources available to the Europeans. “Whereas the religions of Europe had been generated out of the objectification of interior states,” Harrison writes, “the world religions were, in a sense, reverse engineered from the newly constructed Western religions. What were classified as religious practices thus provided the foundation for the inferences about religious beliefs.” “Religion” is not defined by an internal logic, but through a convergence of historical accidents.

By converting religio as a dimension of inner piety into “religion” as a testable devotional framework into “religions” as a set of rival belief systems, a new question emerged out of the Euro-modern intellectual framework: which religion is true? Whereas within the template of religion as internal piety — as in the case of Augustine — this question would have been defunct, Harrison shows that it gains a new urgency and traction in the modern period. “The seventeenth-century religious literature,” Harrison observes, “abounds with titles offering to discuss the ‘grounds and reasons,’ ‘evidences,’ ‘proofs,’ and ‘vindications’ of the Christian religion, along with ‘impartial comparisons’ and ‘survey’ of competing creeds.” At the moment when Christianity becomes doubtable, a new set of intellectual operations are marshaled to insist on its ironclad undoubtability. The European intellectual project of “proving” Christianity is a continent-wide case of protesting too much.

The fledgling field of science joins this project. Harrison shows how natural philosophers — proto-scientists such as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler — who had no formal theological background — began to loop their research through religious discourses. Newton in his Principia Mathematica famously proposed that the abandonment of the teleological Aristotelian cosmology — far from dissolving the presence of God in the world — instead cemented a more magisterial version of divine intelligence as inscribed in the cosmos through unbreakable, universal, law-like forces.

As a sequel to the rise of “religion,” Harrison relates the emergence of “science” as a special category in nineteenth-century Europe. Harrison notes that at the outset of the nineteenth century, “science” was a term that could be applied to any number of fields, including not only recognizably modern sciences such as geology and chemistry, but stowaways like moral philosophy, theology, and rhetoric. The unity of scientific knowledge was seen as encompassing multiple registers of existence.

By the twentieth century, however, science had been constituted according to a particular “mythos” — through differentiation from other fields, methods, domains, and professions. Put another way, science was “aggregated from a range of activities and distanced from the personal qualities of those who practiced it.” Harrison uses Google Ngram graphs to show that the term “natural philosophy,” with all its emphasis on moral attributes and personal development, was steadily replaced by “science,” a category unhinged from moral self-cultivation.

The result of this final tumbler shifting into place was the possibility of a new set of discourses about science and religion as mutually antagonistic. By uncoupling scientia and religio from their dimensions of inner virtue and converting them into frameworks of propositional knowledge, they were remapped as laying claim to the same territory. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, figures such as Thomas Henry Huxley, John William Draper, and A.D. White proposed a deeply entrenched conflict between science and religion (or at least certain forms of religion). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is this template — etched even more deeply by the evolution wars of the twentieth — that still informs popular discussions of this topic, even though academic historians have abandoned the conflict thesis altogether.

What Harrison’s history shows, ultimately, is that the notion that science and religion are pristine categories that always and of necessity find themselves in conflict is defective. The general claim of Territories is this: “if we attempt a rigid application of our modern categories to the past, we are bound to arrive at a distorted picture.” Harrison as a historian is interested in deconstructing the metaphysics of “science” and “religion” as natural kinds that occupy a particular relational space. Going much further than scholars such as Ian Barbour, who explored the various permutations of how the Real Things called Science and Religion could interact, Harrison shows that the necessary prelude to any discussion of the relationship between science and religion is a recognition that they have not always been, need not have been, and could again become something else.

How, then, to come back to our opening example, does Harrison help us to understand the multi-car pile-up between science, religion, and politics that is the reversion to anti-scientific views among American religious conservatives? Harrison calls on us to abandon the “strong” version of the “conflict thesis” articulated by Draper and White: the notion that science and religion are claimants to exactly the same territory and therefore will always be locked in zero-sum mortal combat. He demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that maps of “science” and “religion” that see them as intrinsically in conflict only make sense using modern definitions of science and religion as blocks of knowledge.

But this is, in a sense, a modest claim. The strong version of the conflict thesis has been disdained by historians for decades. While it is absolutely correct that religion and science are not intrinsically opposed, that does not mean that local configurations of religion and science never clash — or that we do not need tools for probing those points of conflict. How do we assess situations where science and religion seemingly are in conflict — such as the evolution wars in the US or contemporary American climate change skepticism?

Harrison, in his commentary on the evolution wars, offered in the book’s thoughtful and free-ranging conclusion, proposes that evolutionists and anti-evolutionists are not simply disagreeing about facts, but about a moral vision:

While the ostensible focus in high profile science-religion disputes is factual claims about the natural world, such debates are often proxies for more deep-seated ideological or, in its broadest sense, ‘theological’ battles. For their part, what religiously motivated antieveolutionists fear is not the ‘science’ as such, but the secularist package of values concealed in what they perceive to be the Trojan horse of evolutionary theory. Perhaps these skirmishes should be thought less in terms of conflict between science and religion, and more as theological controversies waged by means of science. Such conflicts are, again, irresolvable, not because there is any inherent incompatibility of science and religion, but because the underlying value systems — which are ‘natural theologies’ of a kind — are ultimately irreconcilable.

But I am not sure this is entirely sufficient as an explanation for why, for instance, conservative Christians became more hostile to evolutionary accounts of the origin of species during the first half of the Obama presidency. The wars over the status of science — still a vivid, ongoing reality for Americans, who are governed by climate change deniers and young earth creationists — cannot be so easily relegated to the high-minded domain of courtly disagreements over values. Something more complex seems to be at work.

This is precisely where Harrison’s overall framework is exactly what is needed to make sense of this case study: religion in this instance corresponds neither to the modern definition of religion as belief, nor to the premodern definition of religion as an engine of virtue. Instead, religion — here — is an avatar of identity construction, a badge or battle flag. Religion in this instance is not about belief or about the moral architecture of the universe. It is indexing another dimension of religious life: the projection of identity. It consolidates a particular group’s felt sense that it is under siege by a creeping secularism and mobilizes a coordinated agenda of resistance. We cannot understand why rates of acceptance of evolution are declining among American conservatives without also knowing the trellis-like histories of American party politics, Southern anti-black racism, exploitation by Northern land-owning elites, and transformations in the global mediascape. The definition of “religion” as a personal belief system is, at best, a flimsy envelope that tries to pull together the bulging, awkward jumble of parts that has, at various times in history, been captured by this word. Only by following this historical deconstruction of the category of religion can the actual functioning of what gets called “religion” in the rare real moments of religion-science conflict be understood.

The more challenging question is this: what do we do when certain forms of religion insist that they are engines of knowledge production, but their protocols and their conclusions conflict with modern science? On this, Harrison is cagey. He makes the borders of the territories of science and religion waver by showing how questions of fact (the modern definition) are still tinged by questions of values (the medieval definition). But does Harrison want us to go back to defining science and religion in terms of values?

My sense is that Harrison’s interest is exclusively in drawing our attention to the histories of our intellectual concepts and that he feels no pressing need to do constructive work. The center of gravity of his project is a formidable archival project. The prescriptive “argument” of his book — that science and religion need not be in conflict — is, ultimately, peripheral to the extraordinary descriptive dimension. Harrison wants to avoid taking a strong stand on what science should be, but nonetheless wants us to thoughtfully consider what has been lost as our understanding of science has shifted into the modern.

And yet, Harrison does have some suggestions for how to reimagine science going forward. Harrison seems to have an ambivalent assessment of the narratives attached to science. On the one hand, he seems slightly dismissive of scientific narratives such as the foretelling of an impending environmental crisis, which “feed into the moral program, for they demand of us repentance and contrition.” On the other hand, he maintains a “need for science to have a unifying narrative  — some kind of moral or aesthetic vision to promote its relevance to the public.” We see this, for instance, in his analysis of the loss of a teleological orientation for science that exceeds mere technological utility:

Progress had once been thought of as the movement of human beings toward certain given ends. But without at least an implicit teleology (which was precisely what the new natural philosophical approaches sought to dispense with) the notion of progress is difficult to sustain. Progress, in other words, is goal dependent; progress is toward some end. Without goals, progress is just change. This was less of a problem for those whom we regard as early modern pioneers of progress. As we have just observed, individuals such as Bacon understood themselves as participants in a providential plan, and indeed often saw their mission more in terms of reform than progress. In this sense, their utopian goals were consistent with their underlying values. The vestiges of these values have carried over into the present scientific enterprise, but arguably without any of the assumptions that would make a belief in progress rational.

But here, too, there is a risk of viewing science too much as a contraption of concepts. Why start from the assumption that science needs a definition of progress? And why foreclose the possibility that modern science could take on an urgently necessary function of truth-telling that may take on a prophetic gleam — speaking in a voice that could then be amplified by religious leaders? It seems to me that to demand that science’s narrative logic be “rational” is an eminently modern demand. The historical trajectory that Harrison has charted in this book shows that “science” is much better understood as an organic bricolage of ideas, practices, technologies, and bodies that are magnetized by different organizational rubrics at different times rather than as an unfurling internal essence. The alternative is Stephen Jay Gould’s prescriptive recomposition of science as the act of “document[ing] the factual character of the natural world” — a constructive project worth exploring, but by no means inevitable.

Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion is a subfield-defining book. It decisively demonstrates that presuming either conflict or collaboration between science and religion is premature: a preliminary to any exploration of those connections must begin with a recognition that we do not know what those terms mean, and that the jumble of meanings that we have inherited have been clumped together in starkly different ways throughout the history of western thought. Harrison’s book also intersects with methodological and theoretical conversations taking place within the study of religion, emerging alongside existing genealogies of the concept of “religion” produced by scholars such as J.Z. Smith and Talal Asad; both of whom add postcolonial perspectives in urgent need of further development in science and religion studies. Finally, Territories offers productive reading for scholars interested in the project of critical secularism studies: it deconstructs the narrative of secularization all over again precisely by refracting the integrity of one of the supposed engines of secularism — scientific progress. Neither science nor religion happen in a vacuum: they are fundamentally interconnected not only with other fields of history, culture, power, technology, and things in the world, but with one another. The flare-ups of conflict between “science” and “religion” today can only be properly understood and addressed when set against the backdrop of these multi-dimensional historical fields of change and possibility. Science-religion conflict is not an inevitability. Opposition to scientific accounts — whether of human origins, climate change, or the healthfulness of GMO food — is never just a matter of disagreement over the facts. Instead, the knowledge that we wear acts as a badge to announce ourselves to the world that emerges out of a thick matrix of dispositions, histories, and identities.