Review: The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

by Cara Rock-Singer 

Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, University of Chicago Press, 2014

The warfare between science and religion is a myth that, in the public imagination, just won’t die. It is most alive in public discourse about teaching evolution in schools or debates over climate change. It also lurks just beneath the surface of other hot button culture war issues like abortion or euthanasia. In these contentious debates, religion and science are almost personified, agents in a battle fighting to take hold in American minds. So pervasive are these forces that we just can’t imagine it any other way. Isn’t this a timeless, perpetual battle?

While we may feel that we have a much longer history of thinking this way, the categories themselves only arose relatively recently. This is what historian Peter Harrison sets out to prove in his new book, The Territories of Science and Religion. The book is an adaptation of his 2011 Gifford Lectures, a series of talks focused on science, religion and theology that has been running nearly continuously in Scotland since 1888. This text is highly readable and well-suited as an introduction to the field, especially since the lectures are pitched to be accessible to both scholars and the public.

9780226184487John Hedley Brooke (Harrison’s predecessor as the head of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford, which Harrison headed while he prepared these lectures) revolutionized the study of science and religion by arguing for a shift in narrative away from the “Conflict Myth”—the aforementioned idea that science and religion are in a perpetual and timeless war—to the “Complexity Thesis”— basically, it’s complicated. Much of the scholarship that has since responded to Brooke has focused on classifying the types of relationships between these unwieldy categories.

In the face of complex categories, Harrison’s book’s thesis is simple, though not so simple that it reduces the subject matter to a caricature of a boxing match. Instead, Harrison’s approach is to tell a “historical cartography” of how the categories themselves have been mapped out and divided. The intellectual history traces a move from internalized virtues to externalized objectified systems of beliefs and practices. His intervention is as much about how history is told as it is about the historical story itself.

As Harrison argues, religion (by which he means Christianity in the European context) only emerged as we understand it today in the early modern period and science only in the nineteenth century. Earlier than this, then, Harrison’s narrative is of myths – stories projected onto the past for political purposes. The story that reaches to the present day is one of imagination and forgetting, or as he puts it, making the categories seem real, timeless, and perpetually at war. This happens through “historical amnesia” about the constructedness of the categories, a process that covers up any “historical realities that might challenge the integrity of our…conception, and projections of human agency onto them.” This is a process Harrison compares to the founding myths of nations: “Karl Deutsch’s similarly unflattering definition of a nation—‘a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors’—is not an altogether unfitting description for those who in recent times have sought to foment hostility between science and religion.” After all, categories cannot fight, people do (this is a point that Peter Gottschalk also makes in his Religion, Science, and Empire, recently reviewed here.)

Though we often talk about science or religion before the modern period, the meaning of scientia and religio then were internal virtues —“an intellectual habit” and “a moral habit,” respectively. This changed dramatically during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when “both religion and science were literally turned inside out.” The idea of cultivating internal virtues can be traced back to Ancient Greek philosophy, the subject of Chapter Two, “The Cosmos and the Religious Quest.” Harrison argues that the Ancient Greeks thought they were doing philosophical inquiry that combined with the study of nature, moral questions, spiritual practices, and the pursuit of the “good life.” They were not after a naturalist, rationalist investigation of the cosmos. Categorical classifications like “science” and “religion” can only be projected onto their work, not found within it.

The Early Christians incorporated many elements of this Ancient philosophy into their own nascent tradition. Harrison’s history of Christianity traces how those within the tradition conceived of their own epistemological boundaries. He argues that, though belief is a key component of Christianity today, it did not always have the same meaning for Christians. He explains, “Until well into the Middle Ages…the declaration ‘I believe’ was neither an assertion of the existence of some being nor the lending of assent to propositional truths, but was primarily an expression of trust between persons.” This would change only in the seventeenth century. As the Christian religion was emerging, it was not always shaped by the same tenets or limits.

The third chapter focuses on the shifting relationship between the “book of scripture” and the “book of nature.” Medieval thinkers understood the relationship between the world and the divine in two ways, through “Signs and Causes,” the chapter’s title. Here, Harrison describes efforts to understand the relationships between symbols in nature and in scripture as well as how observations of nature could shed light on truths about God. By the dawn of the early modern period, which is Harrison’s own specialty, these two “book”-based understandings of nature and theology fell out of favor.

The Reformation brought new skepticism about human reason and its ability to uncover truth. “Experimental” natural philosophy, developed by figures like Frances Bacon, replaced a symbolic or causal understanding of the world. It is here, in Chapter Four, “Science and the Origins of ‘Religion,’” that Harrison’s narrative really comes alive, as he turns to the moment he tells us is coming from the beginning: the appearance of religion through a great shift from internal virtues perfected through habitual acts to objectified categories. Protestantism posed theological challenges to the Aristotelian ideas of ethical cultivation. As a result, Harrison explains that “[t]he content of catechisms that had once been understood as techniques for instilling an interior piety now came to be thought of as encapsulating the essence of some objective thing—religion.” This process could not have taken place in isolation, but was always in a dialectical relationship with what are often considered the precursors to modern science.

His argument that there was a shift from the internal to external is supported with quantitative charts that show the shifting use of key phrases in English books. With the changes of the Reformation, the idea of “the Christian religion,” based on belief and creed, came into existence and its use grew exponentially during the seventeenth century. The externalization of religion, along with shifts in the powers of the state, gave rise to groups of men using ordered methods to achieve social improvements: what Harrison identifies as a newly externalized set of sciences, in the plural.

Likewise, with the expansion of colonial endeavors, European Christians identified parallel systems of belief and practice in the people they encountered, which gave rise to the idea of multiple world religions. As Harrison explains, the external features of religion (like texts or rituals) were much easier to compare than any interior state. A popular response to the emphasis on the external manifestations of religion was to turn to comparison, which easily turned into competition: which was the most true? The next move, then, was the development of standards for rational proof and evidence, which in turn affected the meaning of belief, at least among English Protestants. Here, religion comes to be based on a set of objectified, propositional beliefs. Natural Philosophers, like Newton, Boyle and Kepler, used scientific procedures and values like rationality as a means to worship God and prove the truth of Christianity.

The dialectic continues into the next Chapter, “Utility and Progress,” where Harrison explains a shift in power: science overtakes religion as the reigning authority over knowledge production. Religion began to lend legitimacy to science: “In our own age, which sees enormous investment in the natural sciences, and particularly those thought to yield economic benefits, it is hard to imagine that there was ever any question about the superiority of knowledge that yields practical and useful applications,” Harrison writes. But numerous examples, most famously Jonathan Swift’s satirical treatment of the new experimentalism in Gulliver’s Travels, show us just how skeptical people were of the new scientific methods. Defenders of the new sciences had to work to prove the utility of their methods, both to produce technologies and also to promote religious projects, such as charity. The usefulness of science and its technological products, however, end up undermining religion’s social legitimacy and authority. Science reigns in the end because of its utility to bring about material progress. (The idea of progress, as we know it today, arises during this period: progress came to describe the movement of history and identifiable results in the world, not just of individual people working on their internal worlds.)

In Chapter Six, “Professing Science,” Harrison shows how the category of science finally, in the nineteenth century, came to coalesce into a singular entity, instead of the plural sciences. Part of the explanation for this was the rise of a class of professional scientists. Harrison again charts the changes in how science is popularly understood by quantifying the use of relevant terminology, like “scientist” or “natural sciences,” in English books over time. To describe the process by which this happened, Harrison identifies three steps:

Modern science…emerges from a threefold process: first, a new identity—the scientist—is forged for its practitioners; second, it is claimed that the sciences share a distinctive method, one that excludes reference to religious and moral considerations; and third, following on from this, the character of this new science is consolidated by drawing sharp boundaries and positing the existence of contrast cases—science and pseudo-science, science and technology, science and the humanities, and most important for our purposes, science and religion.

This process of “purifying” science is where the argument of historical mythology comes in most strongly.

In his epilogue, Harrison deals with the science-religion relationship as it has been imagined in modern thought. In a climate where Sam Harris can claim that “Mother Teresa, voodoo, the pope, fear-ridden peasants of antiquity, Muslim suicide bombers, animists, arid monotheism, the arch-bishop of Canterbury, séances, Thomas Aquinas, an evangelical huckster dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, Muhammad, the tawdry myths of Bethlehem, the vapid and annoying holiday known as Hanukkah, Mormons, hysterical Jewish congregations, the sordid theology of Pascal, Martin Luther King, rednecks, cobbled-together ancient Jewish books, WWII-era Japanese emperor worship, and male circumcision” are all religious, and thus unreasonable and unscientific, Harrison calls for historical depth over polemical breadth.

Harrison’s answer to moving beyond the vitriolic politics of science-religion battles is not to get them to play nice—for that just reinforces the boundary patrolling that defines the conflict to begin with. Instead, Harrison argues that:

Science and religion are not natural kinds; they are neither universal propensities of human beings nor necessary features of human societies. Rather they are ways of conceptualizing certain human activities—ways that are peculiar to modern Western culture, and which have arisen as a consequence of unique historical circumstances.

This concluding point is useful in at least two ways. First, there is the literal reading: these politically potent categories are historically contingent. This is what The Territories of Science and Religion argues convincingly. There is also another layer of insight to be read into this conclusion about the power of inclusion and exclusion from the categories of science and religion: even within “modern Western culture,” there are forms of knowledge and practice that fall outside the bounds of elite, white, male activity.

For example, I am teaching a course at Columbia University this semester called “Atoms and Eve: Science and Religion in America” which challenges students to consider the power of the categories of science and religion in American life and movements that defy the structures of their authority. They are reading about feminist groups – from gynepunk cyborg witches working to decolonize the female body to Jewish women using the mikvah ritual bath as a site for holistic healing – whose work questions the “just so” stories that maintain structures of power. The overall lesson is that there are many more features of human society and peculiar propensities of human beings to consider as we draw new maps of the territories of science and religion.

Because of the political salience of the categories of science and religion, which are deployed in so many popular debates, I am trying to take work like Harrison’s and use it to give students the tools they need to analyze the ways in which science and religion are entrenched in systems of political power. While these categories often represent opposing sides in an intractable culture war, recognizing that categories are tools and not agents opens up possibilities for imagining alternative narratives that break the cycle in which a supposed timelessness of warfare justify polemics that perpetuate it.


Cara Rock-Singer received her BA in Molecular Biology from Princeton (2009), her MSt in Theology with a focus on Religion and Science from Oxford (2010), and MA (2012) and MPhil (2013) from the Columbia Religion Department, where she studies Religion and Science in America. Her dissertation is a historical and ethnographic study of the relationship between religion, science, and gender in the lives of American Jewish women. In particular, it focuses on Jewish women’s claims to scientific and religious authority over their bodies.

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