What Athens had to do with Jerusalem

Debates between religion and science often seem to be paradigmatic of a conflict between two irreconcilable things. Popular media is replete with arguments and counter-arguments about the validity, legitimacy or demonstrability of the claims of religion and science. No matter what form such discourse takes, it seems rare that the words “religion” and “science” can be used in the same sentence without at least some suggestion of tension between them. 

The relationship between religion and science is the subject of Peter Harrison’s aptly titled The Territories of Science and Religion. But Harrison’s book is not an attempt to take sides in the debate – Harrison’s goal is to expose the artificiality of the debate. Running through The Territories is a simple argument: neither “religion” nor “science” is a unitary or discrete human activity, nor are they self-evident ways of dividing up cultural territory. Rather, both are the product of historical circumstances, and are actually far newer ideas than the proponents of either tend to think: the modern idea of religion, as a defined set of practices and propositional beliefs, dates to the 17th century; while the idea of science, as the amoral and objective study of material phenomena, is far more recent, arising only in the mid-19th century. The questions of what came before these ideas, and how they were created, provide the narrative foundation of Harrison’s book.

The emergence of science and religion was the result of the separation and the reification of parts of what was once a unified idea. Christianity, incubated in the Greek language and Greek thought, adopted the Greek idea of the unity of moral and epistemological knowledge. Not only did this unity reject a distinction between naturalistic and divine/mythological explanations of the world, it also adopted a justification for knowledge and inquiry that was the total reverse of what it is today. Knowledge was not an end in itself – knowledge was the means by which to attain virtue and moral perfection. In this view, religion and science were simply different kinds of moral habits, the former concerned with internal piety, the latter with moral development through the logical development of knowledge. While they both involved separate activities and subject matter, they were never ships passing each other in the night. They were both virtuous activities with no innate antagonism between them. 

What changed all of this was the Reformation. The cause of salvation by grace could not be anything but a rebellion against the idea of moral virtues resulting from personal practice and self-improvement. Also, in positing new doctrinal tenets, it was necessary for the reformers to make religious belief explicit: to write it down, explain it, justify it, and contrast it to what was not proper belief. Belief was no longer defined by personal piety, but was instead defined by adherence to a particular set of propositions.   

Harrison illustrates this transformation of the idea of religion in a curious way: by the publication history of John Calvin’s great work. First written in Latin, the book Institutio Christianae Religionis was a manual for Christian piety. Later translations, including English ones, would add a definite article, resulting in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic treatise on a particular, objectified religion. 

The idea of science would also become externalized and objectified, but would follow a slightly different path than religion. First, the moral dimension of science shifted from self-improvement to the improvement of society through the understanding, utilization and improvement of the material world people lived in. Eventually, around the mid-19th century, all of the moral elements of science would drop out of favour. Instead, what was left was supposedly an amoral, objective activity defined by a specific class of participants, scientists and a universal method, the scientific. 

It was only at this time, less than 200 years ago, that the idea (or the myth) of an intractable and perpetual conflict between science and religion first started circulating. Harrison argues that part of the reason why this myth arose was because it granted modern science a unifying principle and a unified identity it might not otherwise have had. It allowed science to be defined in direct opposition to religion. This is a trend which we can still see today in popular forms of atheism, many of which exist in a parasitical relationship with the propositional religion they readily decry. However, Harrison is even-handed in his criticism. He notes that modern religions are just as guilty of invoking sensationalist or selective histories to justify themselves in the present-day. 

Harrison does not believe that the religion versus science debate can simply be made to disappear overnight – the concepts are too firmly entrenched in our cultural lexicon. But in the short term, he offers a different way of thinking about the debate, one that he hopes might avoid unnecessary conflict or the creation of tensions where none need truly exist.

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