1 August 2015


Peter Harrison. The Territories of Science and Religion. The University of Chicago Press, 2015

This book explores the history of the interactions between what we now refer to as science and religion. There is a tendency to believe that they belong to two distinct domains, and that they always have done but, as the author discusses at length, it is a modern idea to consider that science is concerned only with understanding the nature of the universe and that religion deals with questions concerning human meaning and value.
Science is believed to have its origins in ancient Greece, when philosophers began to seek rational explanations for natural phenomena. It is then believed to have suffered a setback caused by Christianity, but after its decline in the Middle Ages it was revived with the Renaissance and scientific revolution.

This version of events is dissected by Harrison who notes that the philosopher Thales of Miletus (d. 546 BC) is considered to be the founder of Western science by virtue of rejecting supernatural explanations and engaging in rational debate about the world and its operations. This was said to have made classical culture lose its nerve, and this caused the rise of mystery religions and the eventual success of Christianity. Christian writers were said to have associated Greek science with paganism and to have discouraged its practice.Thus there developed the popular notion of the clash between science and religion. Here, Harrison unsurprisingly gives us the familiar example of Galileo's problems with the Inquisition, of which many authors of popular science books have given ludicrously oversimplified and misleading accounts.

The prevailing view is that when religious and scientific explanations came into conflict it was science that always won. In fact, it was not until modern times that science and religion and were regarded as belonging to quite separate domains. To the ancient Greeks there was nothing equivalent to what we now call science. "The ancient philosophical schools, for all their differences, agreed that philosophy was about how life was to be lived." Natural philosophy was in some ways similar to what we call science, but one of its main aims was the moral reform of the individual. In other words, one could deduce moral principles from the study of natural processes, unlike modern science, which regards morality as an entirely separate subject.

Chapter 4 describes the processes by which science and religion gradually came to be seen as quite distinct from one another, so that today we tend to see science as concerned with facts and religion as concerned with values. Harrison's description of how this came about is too complex to be summarised here, as this work is intended to be studied, rather than being an interesting but easy read. The book concludes by stating that those who advocate positive relations between science and religion, and argue that science supports religious belief, tend to reinforce the very conditions that make conflict possible. -- John Harney.

No comments: