Los Angeles Review of Books

ANYONE TEMPTED to believe that the history of human thought tends toward progress — that we learn from past mistakes, that our scientific and cultural advancements build on one another, leading us forward into a brighter future — is well advised to consider the long-running, endlessly circular arguments over science and religion. Despite all evidence to the contrary, belligerents on both sides continue to believe that this is a debate worth having, a debate that can be won.

To take just one recent salvo in this centuries-old fight: The biologist Jerry A. Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, which argues, once more, against the pernicious folly of religion and for the inviolable truth of science. A follow-up to his 2009 Why Evolution Is True, Faith Versus Fact sets out to argue that, while science and religion both seek to understand the realities of our universe, only science has the proper means to do so. There can be no dialogue between the two: “anything useful will come from a monologue — one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening. Further, the monologue will be constructive for only the listener,” since religion “has nothing to tell scientists that can improve their trade.” The reverse, however, is not true, for what “might be considered a real contribution of science to religious belief is the empirical demonstration that some of those beliefs are wrong.”

One always feels a bit for scientists like Coyne, who have no doubt spent much of their professional careers dealing with people who irrationally discount their ideas and their work. Arguments over the age of the Earth or the origin of the species are exhausting even to the most casual observer; one can only imagine how dispiriting they are to one who’s made evolutionary biology her or his life’s work. But the problem with all of these arguments is the belief that the debate between science and religion is a thing one can “win,” as though there were some central set of propositions and axioms that all parties could agree to, a basis for some kind of lucid exchange and final judgment everyone would accept. If there is one belief one can empirically demonstrate to be wrong, it’s that these debates are anything but circular and fruitless.

The antidote to this endless, futile conversation is the historian Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion, which, in place of polemic, offers a genealogy of these two terms and tells us how they’ve come to assume the meanings they have. In Harrison’s words, “science and religion are not natural kinds; they are neither universal propensities of human beings nor necessary features of human societies.” Instead, he argues, “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.” Both “science” and “religion,” in the ways we now use these terms, are recent constructs that would have made very little sense to anyone prior to the 19th century. Which is not to say, of course, that we were without religious belief or inquiries into the natural world, but rather that only recently have we understood them as competing conceptual frameworks vying with each other for “truth” status.

In tracing the origins of a debate we now take for granted, Harrison debunks the traditional, tripartite history of science, which presupposes an original break from religion among early Greek scientists, a falling away during the Christian medieval era, and a rediscovery of pure science in the Enlightenment. For both Greek philosophers and early Christian theologians, in fact, the study of the physical world — what was once referred to as “natural philosophy” — went hand in hand with spiritual and religious enlightenment. Ptolemy believed one should study astronomy because “it makes its followers lovers of this divine beauty, accustoming them and reforming their natures, as it were to a spiritual state.” The Church Fathers borrowed this attitude almost wholesale, focusing on habitus, habits of mind that arose out of the study of the natural world, as a means to get closer to the divine, a progression of development that Augustine described as moving from scientia, a knowledge of earthly things, to sapientia, a wisdom of heavenly things.

Surprisingly, Harrison explains, the great divide between science and religion in the West only came about because of schisms within religion itself. After the rise of Protestantism, there was no longer a single church, and thus no single homogenous explanation of the way the universe worked. As such, religions themselves became subject to external verification and objective assessment. The need for an external measure to judge the truth claims of competing varieties of Christianity opened the door for a kind of empirical methodology that would in time divorce itself from religion altogether. At the same time, Protestant philosophers such as John Calvin emphasized preordained grace and rejected the notion that certain habits could perfect the moral and intellectual powers, thus shattering the notion that a study of the natural world could lead to salvation.

It was not until the early 19th century that the term “natural philosophy” was replaced by “natural science,” and its cousin “natural history” by the neologism “biology.” “[T]his was not simply the substitution of one term by another,” Harrison notes; it “involved the jettisoning of a range of personal qualities relating to the conduct of philosophy and the living of the philosophical life.” The practices and methodologies of natural knowledge became associated with a new cultural figure: the “scientist,” a secular product of 19th-century professionalization. Scientia, in this new landscape of thought, could no longer lead to sapientia; it was to be pursued for its own sake and on its own terms, without reference to gods or miracles.

Which is not to say, even after this definitive schism between science and religion, that there wasn’t still common ground between the two. Among the many similarities that persist between the two entities is their fondness for teleological narratives. Both science and religion can tend toward descriptions of history that focus on an inexorable progression toward some kind of end. Just as Christianity has long focused on the Second Coming and the End of Days, science has at times adopted a Whiggish sense of itself, shaped by the belief that it is constantly progressing forward. These strains have always been a part of the Western intellectual tradition, but natural philosophy and natural history once permitted alternative conceptions of time, self, and thought. In the reorganization of knowledge in the 19th century, these alternatives were downplayed, delegitimized, and, for the most part, forgotten.

No one seems to have time for natural philosophy anymore, not with the End Times so close at hand. The discourse of popular science journalism has become thoroughly imbricated with the religious rhetoric, where global warming is described in explicitly “apocalyptic” terminology: in a recent piece for Reuters, to take one such example, David Auerbach predicted that “[a] child born today may live to see humanity’s end.”

This tendency to appropriate biblical rhetoric for questions of science and policy only reinforces the blurring that has taken place between the supposedly diametrically opposed poles of science and religion. “Such popular accounts of science not only assume the social functions of myth with their attendant moral imperatives,” Harrison writes, “but some also propound their own ersatz eschatologies.” One need not be a climate denier to recognize that the rhetorical moves of many scientists today are the result not of science’s incompatibility with religion, but its long dependence on it. And while such rhetoric may be thought of “as bearing the effete vestiges of the morally robust cosmological traditions of antiquity and the Middle Ages,” on a more fundamental level they also point “to the continuing need for science to have a unifying narrative — some kind of moral or aesthetic vision to promote its relevance to the public.”

Harrison’s way out of the dilemma is to first recognize that “science” and “religion” are only tentative shorthand for a disparate collection of various competing ideas and methodologies. “Science,” for example, has become synonymous (or at least closely allied) with “technology,” even though the two often have very little in common. Much of what goes on in the “tech sector” these days is based entirely on semiotics; coding, after all, has nothing to do with applied sciences and has everything to do with linguistics and logic. And yet “technology” becomes the means to justify science to the public: “Science is true, we are repeatedly told, because it works,” Harrison writes.

There is, of course, a subtle slight-of-hand [sic] involved in this line of justification, and one that becomes apparent as soon as we consider how many scientific theories and models that have yielded true predictions, practical outcomes, or useful technologies have nonetheless been superseded […] The history of science is a graveyard of theories that “worked” but have since been replaced.

And the struggles between science and religion are rarely about “truth,” anyway. “While the ostensible focus in high profile science-religion disputes is factual claims about the natural world,” Harrison notes, “such debates are often proxies for more deep-seated ideological, or, in its broadest sense, ‘theological’ battles.” The real questions up for debate have to do with politics and policy, with Darwin and the Bible only standing in for different views on governance, family, and education. “For their part, what religiously motivated antievolutionists fear is not the ‘science’ as such,” Harrison argues, “but the secularist package of values concealed in what they perceive to be the Trojan horse of evolutionary theory.” No one involved truly cares about what happened in the past, whether that past was 6,000 years ago or 4 billion years ago; what they care about is who gets final say over their own lives, and their children’s lives. “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.”

Once one recognizes that science and religion are not based on stable definitions and are instead loose amalgamations, it becomes clear that the way they are deployed in contemporary debates is polemical rather than rational. The sooner we recognize this, and the sooner we drop the nonsensical pretense that we’re actually arguing about creationism or evolution, the sooner we can hope to actually make headway on these real questions.

Outside of the realm of policy, though, what is available to the rest of us is a return to natural philosophy, a habitus that involves using the study of nature as a means to personal understanding and betterment. Such study not only brings back the element of personal introspection and refinement into discussions of the natural world, but it also rejects the teleological aspect of modern science. It is less concerned with the steady march of progress toward some final state of knowledge, and more concerned with an inner progress in which one recognizes both the scope and majesty of the natural world, as well as one’s specific place within it. Far more productive than simply knowing the “truth,” perhaps, is the mode of inquiry described by Thomas Babington Macaulay in his discussion of Seneca’s concern with natural philosophy. Seneca, according to Macaulay, studied nature,

not because it tended to assuage suffering, to multiply the conveniences of life, to extend the empire of man over the material world; but solely because it tended to raise the mind above low cares, to separate it from the body, to exercise its subtlety in the solution of very obscure questions.

Scientists — those who have devoted their life to the study of the physical and biological world — can be forgiven for thinking they are assuaging, multiplying, and extending. But the rest of us might be better served to use their discoveries not to one-up the believers in our midst, but to enrich our own personal habits of mind.


Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith, and the forthcoming Ghostland.

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