The seemingly intractable conflict between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ is one of the best-known cultural narratives in the contemporary West. In this account of his 2011 Gifford Lectures, however, Peter Harrison convincingly exposes it as a myth.
In order to overcome the historical amnesia that perpetuates this fallacy, Harrison presents the history of human interest in the ‘principles behind natural phenomena’ and ‘beliefs about transcendental realities and proper conduct’ (3). The boundaries and relationship of these areas of cultural concern do not correlate well with the recent conceptions of ‘science’ and ‘religion’. These distinctively modern divisions do not correspond to the historic understanding of those categories. Furthermore, they do not fall along the natural fault lines that many assume, but ‘have to do with political power - broadly construed, and the accidents of history’ (4).
The perpetual conflict myth is thus anachronistic, relying heavily on widespread historical amnesia (19). Ultimately, understanding the history of these concepts should provide ‘crucial insights into their present relations’ (3). Following a first chapter which summarises the whole project, Harrison moves on to focus in on specific issues and periods, building and illuminating his thesis from a variety of perspectives.
The natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks was ‘always pursued with moral and religious goals in mind’ (52). Natural philosophy was part of ‘an attempt to understand one’s place in the world, and to live rightly within it’ (56). In time, Christianity would take over some of these moral and religious goals. This provided the framework within which a natural philosophy shorn of those ‘moral and spiritual components’ (52) could develop for the first time.
Far from a linear secularising of natural philosophy, some aspects of naturalistic cosmology stemmed from distinctively theological concerns. In time this, coupled with a move away from Aristotelian metaphysics, would lead to ‘the equation of divine and natural causality’ (79). Eventually a harder line on the cognitive and moral effects of sin in theological thinking fuelled an increasingly critical and experimental approach to natural philosophy. These, Harrison argues, are the roots of modern science.
Both religio and scientia would shift from being internal dispositions of mind towards externalised bodies of thought. This led to the possibility of ‘scientific’ explanations of ‘religion’, an important step towards the conflict myth. Religion could now be though of as a unified and coherent cause responsible for and explainable by particular sociological phenomena. This was a shift from the ‘formative and personal to the progressive and objective’ (119). This newly emancipated natural philosophy would go on to be located within a uniquely Christian account of history, with a guaranteed and given teleology of progress and moral perfectibility.
While Christian belief has a coherent reason for this commitment, the modern scientific narrative of progress is unstable, ill-conformed to its own underlying values.
This is an illuminating and gripping account of the history of important intellectual concepts in western thought. Harrison’s narrative is more compelling and better documented than the other monographs that offer similar explanations. A wide reception of this history might both extirpate the genre of ‘secular humanist manifestos masquerading as history’ (118) and encourage better reflection on knowledge and value in the twenty-first century.