The Territories of Science and Religion | Reflections & Notes

Peter Harrison. The Territories of Science and Religion. The University of Chicago Press, 2015. (300 pages).


Let’s start by mentioning climate change, infectious diseases, vaccines, energy, and food production. Each of these is critical to human existence and flourishing. Over the years, through a long-haul of human history, we have developed methods by which we can attain the best understandings of each of these areas and deploy that knowledge for improving the human condition. Anyone who cares about human life will care about the truth of these matters.

Now let’s mention ethics, morals, mental health, human bonds, meaning, and purpose. These are distinctly different categories of human existence, but just as critical for the flourishing of the human condition. Anyone who cares about human life will care about the effectiveness of these matters as well.

It is for these reasons that understanding the “territories of science and religion” is so critical, and necessary. Getting either one of these wrong, at the sacrifice of the other no less, is a detriment to our humanity. The results of the perennial contentious misunderstandings is harm to our planet, illness to our biologies, and the demoralization of our spirits. I’m so grateful for Jonathan Sacks’s religious and philosophical framework in the axiom, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” I am an adherent to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle, a proposition of “respectful noninterference accompanied by intense dialogue.” And now, Harrison in Territories has provided the historical framework that helps provide the chronicled journey of these terms and ideas.

So, regardless of your religious affiliation and affirmations (theist, atheist, nontheist, agnostic), I commend this to you for a better and more refined understanding of our dilemma between, what is traditionally been called, “religion” (and/or faith) and “science.”



In one sense, then, this book is about the history of science and religion in the West. But it would be more accurate to say that it seeks to describe how it is that we have come to understand the world in terms of these distinct categories “science” and “religion”–how, in other words, we have come to separate the domain of material facts from the realm of moral and religious values. (ix)

A significant part of this exercise will be a consideration of the fortunes of the Latin terms scientia and religio. These two notions both begin as inner qualities of the individual–“virtues,” if you will–before becoming concrete and abstract entities that are understood primarily in terms of doctrines and practices. … One of my suggestions will be that there is a danger of systematically misconstruing past activities if we mistakenly assume the stability of meaning of these expressions. (x)

1. The Territories of Science and Religion

Maps and Territories

Figure 1. Abraham Ortelius’s map of the Ottoman Empire, from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570).

At issue here would be not whether the relevant geographical territory existed then, but whether there were comparable boundaries and self-conscious national identities. Denial of the existence of a sixteenth-century Israel does not entail a denial of the existence of the territory that currently comprises that nation, but rather a denial that the territory was then viewed in a particular light, as something circumscribed by a set of boundaries and informed by particular ideals of nationhood. During this period the territories of what we now know as Israel and Egypt were part of the same thing, namely, the Ottoman Empire. The idea of a medieval Israel and a medieval Egypt could only come about through the mistaken application of our present maps onto past territories. (2)

| My suggestion is that something similar is true for the entities “sci-(2)ence” and “religion,” and more specifically, that many claims about putative historical relationships are confused for much the same reason as claims about a sixteenth-century conflict between Israel and Egypt: that is to say, they involve the distorting projection of our present conceptual maps back onto the intellectual territories of the past. … To be sure, it is true that in the West from the sixth century BC attempts were made to describe the world systematically, to understand the fundamental principles behind natural phenomena, and to provide naturalistic accounts of the causes operating in the cosmos. Yet, as we shall see, these past practices bear only a remote resemblance to modern science. It is also true that almost from the beginning of recorded history many societies have engaged in acts of worship, set aside sacred spaces and times, and entertained beliefs about transcendental realities and proper conduct. But it is only in recent times that these beliefs and activities have been bounded by a common notion “religion,” and have been set apart from the “nonreligious” or secular domains of human existence. (3)

What I have in mind is not only to set out the story of how these categories “science” and “religion” emerge in Western consciousness, but also to show how the manner of their emergence can provide crucial insights into their present relations. (3)

The Joints of Nature

Careful examination of the internal structures will reveal a different pattern of affinities, but so would the evolutionary history of these creatures, assuming that the latter could be established. The family histories of these groups would make it apparent that whales and bats should both properly be classified with the mammals. Similar considerations apply to both “religion” and “science,” and we can reconstruct the history of these ideas with much greater precision than we can establish the phylogeny of biological taxa. …the use of “science” for both historical sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology and physical sciences such as chemistry and physics tends to mask fundamental differences. These differences will necessarily complicate any global claims about the entities “science” and “religion” and their imagined relationship. (5)

[via: cf. Why Fish Don’t Exist.]

…the idea of a perennial conflict between science and religion must be false,… And this will be equally true for any claimed relationship between science and religion before the modern period. (5)

Part of the burden of this book, then, is to ask whether these particular ways of dividing aspects of contemporary Western culture–“science” and “religion”–are helpful ones. In addressing this question I hope to show that “science” and “religion” are not self-evident or natural ways of dividing up cultural territory…and that persisting with these categories in an uncritical fashion can not only generate unhelpful conflict between science and religion, but can also disguise what perhaps ought to be legitimate sources of tension between the ways of faith and the formal study of nature. (6)

The History of “Religion”

…it is clear that for Aquinas religion (religio) is a virtue–not, incidentally, one of the preeminent theological virtues, but nonetheless an important moral virtue related to justice. He explains that in its primary sense religio refers to interior acts of devotion and prayer, and that this interior dimension is more important than any outward expressions of this virtue. Aquinas acknowledges that a range of outward behaviors are associated with religio–vows, tithes, offerings, and so on–but he regards these as secondary. … There is no sense in which religio refers to systems of propositional beliefs, and no sense of different religions (plural). Between Thomas’s time and our own, religio has been transformed from a human virtue into a generic something, typically constituted by sets of beliefs and practices. It has also become the most common way of characterizing attitudes, beliefs, and practices concerned with the sacred or supernatural. (7)

…something more like “inner piety,” as we have seen in the case of Aquinas, or “worship.” As a virtue associated with justice, moreover, religio was understood on the Aristotelian model of the virtues as the ideal middle point between two extremes–in this case, irreligion and superstition. (8)

…in describing Christianity as “true religion of the true god,” [Tertullian (ca. 150-ca. 220)] is referring to genuine worship directed toward a real (rather than fictitious) God. (8)

I argued at great length and in many ways that true religion means the worship of the one true God. – Augustine, Retractions

cf. Six Questions in Answer to the Pagans, Augustine.

What the true religion reprehends in the superstitious practices of the pagans is that sacrifice is offered to false gods and wicked demons. – Augustine, Letter 102, Augustine to Deogratias 19, Works, vol. II/2, p. 30.

All religion has something good in it; as long as it is directed towards God, the creator of all things, it is true Christian Christian religion. – Marsilio Ficino (1433-99)

Latin has no articles–no “a” or “the.” …the connotations of “true religion” and “christian religion” are rather different from those of “the true religion” and “the Christian religion.” The former can mean something like genuine piety” and “Christlike piety” and are thus consistent with the idea of religion as an interior quality. Addition of the definite article, however, is suggestive of a system of belief. (10)

With the increasing frequency of the expressions of “religion” and “the religions” from the sixteenth century onward we witness the beginning of the objectification of what was once an interior disposition. Whereas for Aquinas it was the “interior” acts of religion that held primacy, the balance now shifted decisively in favor of the exterior. This was a significant new development, the making of religion into a systematic and generic entity. The appearance of this new conception of religion was a precondition for a relationship between science and religion. While the causes of this objectification are various, the Protestant Reformation and the rise of experimental natural philosophy were key factors,… (11)

The History of “Science”

In an extended treatment of the virtues in the Summa theologiae, Aquinas observes that science (scientia) is a habit of mind or an “intellectual virtue.” (11)

Aristotle (384-322 BC),…taught that all natural things are moved by intrinsic tendencies toward certain goals (telē) [τελη]. For Aristotle, this teleological movement was directed to the perfection of the entity, or to the perfection of the species to which it belonged. … As Aristotle famously wrote in the opening lines of the Metaphysics, “all men by nature desire to know.” (12)

He was by no means a slavish adherent of Aristotelian doctrines, but nonetheless accepted the Greek philosopher’s premise that the intellectual virtues perfect our intellectual powers. Aquinas identified three such virtues–understanding (intellectus), science (scientia), and wisdom (sapientia). Briefly, understanding was to do with grasping first principles, science with the derivation of truths from those first principles, and wisdom with the grasp of the highest causes, including the first cause, God. To make progress in science, then, was not to add to a body of systematic knowledge about the world, but was to become more adept at drawing “scientific” conclusions from general premises. “Science” thus understood was a mental habit that was gradually acquired through the rehearsal of logical demonstrations. In Thomas’s words: “science can increase in itself by addition; thus when anyone learns several conclusions of geometry, the same specific habit of science increases in that man.” (12)

Carnal vices result in a certain culpable ignorance and mental dullness; and these in turn get in the way of understanding and scientia. – Eleonore Stump

The intellectual virtue scientia thus bore a particular relation to formal knowledge. On a strict definition and following a standard reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, a body of knowledge was regarded as scientific in the event that it had been arrived at through a process of logical demonstration. But in practice the label “science” was extended to many forms of knowledge. (13)

…the seven “liberal arts” (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, music, geometry)–were then known as the liberal sciences. … Aquinas noted that the standard classification of the seven liberal sciences did not include the Aristotelian disciplines of natural (14) philosophy, mathematics, and theology. Accordingly he argued that the label “science” should be given to these activities, too. (14)

Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we will witness the beginning of a process in which the idea of religion and science as virtues or habits of mind begins to be overshadowed by the modern, systematic (14) entities “science” and “religion.” In the case of scientia, then, the interior qualities that characterized the intellectual virtue of scientia are transferred to methods and doctrines.

SCIENCE, in philosophy, denotes any doctrine, deduced from self-evident and certain principles, by a regular demonstration. – the entry for “science” in the 1771 Encyclopaedia Brittanica

Overstating the matter somewhat, in the Middle Ages scientific knowledge was an instrument for the inculcation of scientific habits of mind; now scientific habits of mind are cultivated primarily as an instrument for the production of scientific knowledge. (15)

Science and Religion?

Were the questions put to Thomas Aquinas, he may have said something like this: Science is an intellectual habit; religion, like the other virtues, is a moral habit. …the issue of science and religion is now generally assumed to be about specific knowledge claims or, less often, about the respective processes by which knowledge is generated in these two enterprises. (16)

[via: A proto-NOMA idea.]

The word theologia appears for the first time in Plato (ca. 428-348 BC), and it is Aristotle who uses it in a formal sense to refer to the most elevated of the speculative sciences. Partly because of this, for the Church Fathers “theology” was often understood as referring to pagan discourse about the gods. Christian writers were more concerned with the interpretation of scripture than with “theology,” and the expression “sacred doctrine” (sacra doctrina) reflects their understanding of the content of scripture. (17)

…philosophy, as practiced in the past, was less about affirming certain doctrines or propositions than it was about pursuing a particular kind of life. Thus natural philosophy was thought to serve general philosophical goals that were themselves oriented toward securing the good life. (18)

Forgetting–I would go so far as to say historical error–is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation. – Ernest Renan, “What Is a Nation?” (1882)

…we are here reminded that founding myths also require a kind of negation–an amnesia about what came before, and a forgetting of historical realities that might challenge the integrity of our new conception. (19)

…a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours”–is not an altogether unfitting description for those who in recent times have sought to foment hostility between science and religion. (19)

2. The Cosmos and the Religious Quest

Natural philosophy substitutes for festering superstition that unshaken piety that is attended by good hopes. – Plutarch, Life of Pericles

It is not a question of a “doctrine” being handed down by uniform repetition or arbitrarily distorted; it is a question of a life, again and again kindled afresh, and now burning with a flame of its own. – Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity?

If science is a modern idea, we must ask ourselves what those whom we traditionally regard as having pursued science in antiquity imagined themselves to be doing. Equally, if there was no religion before the early modern period, how did such groups as the early Christians conceptualize what it was that they were committed to? (21)

No one who has read the extant fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers can fail to be struck by their ubiquitous references to gods and divine principles. Thales, the purported progenitor of science, declared that “all things are full of gods,” and on discovering his famous theorem he is said to have sacrificed an ox. (24)

…in various ways other pre-Socratic philosophers had postulated similar principles–Anaximander’s Aperion, Heraclitus’s Logos, Xenophane’s “One God”–that imply an ordered, yet divinely animated, cosmos. (25)

…the beginnings of (scientific) Hippocratic medicine coincide exactly with the rise of the (religious) cult of Asclepius, and that these apparently incompatible approaches to healing coexist happily in the same geographical regions. Practitioners of these district therapies also shared many of the same methods, to say nothing of the fact that the Hippocratic oath invokes apollo, Asclepius, and “all the gods and goddesses.” … The narrative of an opposition between “science” and myth also betrays too crude an understanding of the role of myth and its relation to reason. Myths were not thought to offer alternative explanatory accounts to “science.” Not only were they regarded as compatible with rational, philosophical accounts of the natural world, but they were also considered to be important vehicles for the transmission of profound philosophical truths. (25)

Natural Philosophy and the Good Life

The ancient Greeks had neither activities nor occupations that are directly equivalent to our terms “science” and “scientist.” Those who concerned themselves with the phenomena of nature were then known as “natural philosophers” (physici) and their activities fell under the rubric of philosophy. (26)

Socrates (ca. 469-399 BC)…explains that philosophy is the business of examining life and that its aim is the moral reform of the individual. … The ancient philosophical schools, for all their differences, agreed that philosophy was about how life was to be lived. (26)

Socrates, it must be said, seems to have held that the study of the cosmos was largely irrelevant to what really mattered to the philosopher. But for a number of his successors a connection between the study of nature and the philosophical life was provided by the assumption that a moral order is built into the structure of the cosmos. (27)

And the motions which are naturally akin tot he divine principle within us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. These each man should follow, and by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe. These each man should follow, and by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, should correct the courses of the head which were corrupted at our birth, and should assimilate the thinking being to the thought, renewing his orginal nature, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future. – Plato, Timaeus

For Plato, it was the mathematical study of the heavens in particular that contributed to the moral and intellectual formation of the philosopher. He thus contended that mathematics is a kind of “divine art” that raises the mind to a godlike state: hence the tradition according to which the entrance to Plato’s Academy bore the inscription: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here.” (28)

| For all his differences with Plato, Aristotle agreed that the cosmos was characterized by a particular harmony and order, and that the natural parts of human beings correspond to those of the universe. Like Plato, he also associated mathematics with “the true and the good.” … The stoics famously regarded the good life as a life lived in accordance with nature. Zeno of Elea (ca. 490-ca. 430BC), the founder of Stoicism, declared that the virtuous life was the same as “life in agreement with nature.” “Live according to nature” was a predominant theme in the letters of Seneca. Epictetus likewise explained that God had introduced us into the world as both spectators and interpreters of his works. … (28) Knowlege of nature thus enabled the philosopher to align his life with the rational principle that pervaded the cosmos. (29)

In his influential taxonomy, Aristotle had distinguished three speculative or theoretical sciences: natural philosophy, mathematics, and theology. (Ethics was separately classified as a “practical science”; the arts were “productive sciences.”) Aristotle’s speculative sciences were distinguished by their respective objects: theology, the most elevated of the sciences, deals with what is eternal, immovable, separable from matter; natural philosophy is concerned with objects that are the opposite in each respect, that is, finite, movable, and inseparable from matter. The objects of mathematics (or at least some parts of it) lie between these, being immovable, probably not separable from matter, but embodied in it. (31)

In Stoic philosophy those who understand the operations of the cosmos will also know how to conduct themselves within the cosmos. (31)

Thus logic was pursued in order to discipline judgment, physics to discipline desire, and ethics to discipline the inclinations. (32)

Physics (phusiologia) is useful: in the affairs of daily life, because it provides the principles of technologies such as medicine and mechanics (understood above all as the art of manufacturing machines of war) because it contributes to leading the superior part of the soul, which is the intellect, towards its perfection–for which study o theology is particularly valuable; it is an auxiliary for moral virtues; a ladder that leads towards knowledge of God and ideas; and finally it incites us to piety and to acts of thanksgiving towards God. – Simplicius (ca. 490-560)

With regard to virtuous conduct in practical actions and character, this science [mathematical stronomy[ above all things, could make men see clearly; from the constancy, order, symmetry and calm which are associated with the divine, it makes its followers lovers of this divine beauty, accustoming them and reforming their natures, as it were to a spiritual state. – Ptolemy, Almagest

The ultimate end of astronomy, as Ptolemy understands it, is moral and spiritual formation. Ptolemy’s moral astronomy is thus wholly in keeping with the tradition established by Plato’s Timaeus, in which the goals of the philosophical life are intimately related to the study of the cosmos. (33)

| What I hope to have shown up to this point is that the classical Greek engagement with nature, while often touted as an ancestor to modern science, was so imbued with theological and moral elements that its relationship to “science” as we now understand it is at best complicated. It is not just that astronomy and natural philosophy had some additional ethical elements that were largely peripheral and have now fallen by the wayside. It is rather that the study of nature was given a role in a broader philosophical enterprise that had moral goals and, quite often, theological presuppositions. Unlike anything in the modern sciences, the study of physics or natural philosophy was an exercise directed toward the transformation of the self. To claim that our science was born in ancient Greece is to overlook what for ancient Greek philosophers was the main point of the exercise. (33)

What is Christianity?

Since I see, most excellent Diognetus, that you are exceedingly anxious to understand the godliness [theosebeia] of the Christians, and that your enquiries respecting them are earnestly and carefully made, as to what God they trust and how they worship [thrēskeuein] Him. … You wonder, too, why this new race [genos] or way of life [epitēdeuma] has appeared on earth now and not earlier.

the author [of the Epistle to Diognetus] speaks not of a system of beliefs and practices but of godliness, modes of worship, a new kind of race, and a way of life. Second, I want to suggest that with the inception of Christianity we see the appearance of something quite new-not simply another species of some existing genus “religion,” but a whole new genus, albeit one that draws to some extent upon existing models. (35)

…true worship will take place not in a temple cult located in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim, but in the hearts of believers who “worship in spirit and in truth.” In this new form of religiosity, cultic practice is interiorized so that the worshipper is not bound to a particular sacred place. Neither, in spite of the centrality of the historical events of Christ’s life, is Christianity limited to a particular time, since it was argued that in some form, Christianity had existed since the beginning of time. (36)

| The coming into existence of this new identity has sometimes been referred to as the “disembedding” of religion–a process through which religion is separated out from the cultural forms with which it had been amalgamated. (36)

Saint Paul had identified the closest existing models, albeit not in the most enthusiastic terms, in his observation that the Christian Gospel was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Greeks” and again in the double negation of “neither Jew nor Greek.” Note again that the categories to which Christianity is compared are closer to what we would call ethnic or cultural categories than religious ones–Jews and Greeks, not Jewish religion and Greek religion. …the first Christians also adopted positive understandings of their relation to their cultural milieu, the two most obvious models being that of the “New Israel” and “the true philosophy” (or philosophy as a preparation for the Gospel–praeparatio evangelica). …the first Christians do not represent themselves as a new “religion” and they do not confront pagan (natural) philosophy as a “science” but rather as an element of a competing spiritual practice. To some degree, both “Jewishness” and Greek wisdom will be understood as offering different and deficient versions of the spiritual life and the means to realize it. This will lead to the idea of “Judaism,” “Hellenism,” and Christianity as rival forms of religio. (37)

| When we come to speak of the relations between Christians and Jews in the first centuries of the Christian era we must immediately confront the fact that a this time Jewish identity was itself undergoing a profound transformation. (37)

Guy (37) Stroumsa has observed, with the cessation of the Temple cult Jews came to experience sacrifice internally in terms of metaphor and myth. This transition contributed in a crucial way to what I have called the “interiorization” of religion. (38)

Second, as a religion with a sacred book, Judaism contributes to “the emergence of a textual culture” and bequeaths to the fledgling Christian faith the idea of the divine word and a central text. (38)

Finally, when considering the way in which Judaism influenced early Christian identity it is important to bear in mind that the changes that “Judaism” undergoes are themselves determined partly by the Christianization of the Roman Empire. (38)

Folly to the Greeks?

…it can be said that the philosophy of pagan antiquity also contributed to a model of Christian identity, specifically through the idea of Christianity as the realization of the unfulfilled goals of pagan philosophy. (39)

First let me tell you in general that there is one overriding concern common to all philosophers, and that in this common concern they divided up into five different sets of special opinions. In common, all philosophers strove by dedication, investigation, discussion, by their way of life, to lay hold of the blessed life (beata vita). This was their one reason for philosophizing: but I rather think that the philosophers also have this in common with us. … Therefore the urge for the blessed life is common to philosophers and Christians. – Augustine

The apparent ambivalence of the Church Fathers toward philosophy can thus be accounted for in terms of their affirmation of the ends of philosophy, but skepticism about the means. (40)

[philosophy is] the greatest possession, and most honourable before God, to whom it leads us and alone commends us. – Justin Martyr (AD 103-65)

[philosophy is] the work of divine providence [and] a handmaid to the Greeks. …a preparatory training [for the Christian Gospel]. – Clement of Alexandria (ca AD 150-ca. 220)

…the danger of natural philosophy was not to do with its content, but with the possibility that it might be regarded as an adequate and self-sufficient path to wisdom and that its adherents might become preoccupied with the lesser goods of the material world. (43)

If we now consider early Christian identity in relation to both the Jews and the Greeks, it can be seen that a dominant motif–that philosophy for the Greeks and the Law for the Jews ere a preparation for the Gospel–involves a mapping of the notion of fulfillment onto their respective histories. (43)

Christianity was thus “the most ancient organization for piety, and the most venerable philosophy, only in recent times codified as the law for all mankind.” [Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel 1.2. Rendering theosebeia as “godliness,” and eusebeia as “piety.” Cf. Ecclesiastical History 1.4.1.] (43)

Beliefs, Creeds, and Doctrines

The expression “catechism” was used for the canonical doctrines of Epicureanism, and the rehearsal of the Epicurean creed was aimed at inculcating the appropriate attitude to life. (45)

And these few words are known to the faithful, to the end that in believing they may be made subject to God; that being made subject to God; that being made subject, they may rightly live; that in rightly living, they may make the heart pure; that with the heart made pure, they may understand that which they believe. – [Augustine, “Treatise on the Faith and the Creed” 10.25 (NPNF I, vol. 3, p.33). He speaks here of the Apostle’s Creed. This idea will later be incorporated into Anselm’s famous motto fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).

The creed is thus an introduction to Christian life, and believing is concerned with subjection to God and right living. (46)

…the starting point of a good life…is right faith. – Augustine

Consider also the role given to words in the philosophical therapies of the ancients. The basic premise of ancient rhetoric was that words, in addition to their referential and cognitive functions, have an affective dimension that is capable of moving and remediating the soul. (46)

Christian writers were similarly convinced of the inseparability of moral and epistemological error. The fall of Adam was thus thought to have precipitated the human race into a state of ignorance. On this understanding, not only did the original moral failings of humanity lead to false belief and proneness to cognitive error, but they continued to do so. (47)

| The Church Fathers and their medieval successors thus routinely linked immorality and heresy. It was for this reason that Clement offered the otherwise puzzling remark that “the ideas entertained of God by wicked men must be bad, and those of good men most excellent.” Upright living and right belief go together. Heretical movements were rarely censured purely for the fact that they promoted false beliefs. The threat of heresy was moral and social. Constantine the Great (272-337), the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, was particularly concerned to ensure right worship in the empire for this reason. In a letter to the North African bishops, dispatched in the year 330, he speaks of “heretics and schismatics, who, deserting good and following after evil, do the things that are displeasing to God, are proved to cling to the devil, who is their father.” So great is their “wicked and shameless perversity,” he goes on to suggest, that “they might even break out into tumults, and stir up men like themselves at their crowded meetings, and thus a state of sedition might be produced, which could not be allayed.” [“Receipt of Constantine to the Bishops of Numidia,” in The Work of St. Optatus, trans. O. R. Vassall-Phillips (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917), p. 413.] … These associations of heterodox belief with improper worship, immorality, disloyalty, and sedition give a strong indication of the fact that religious belief was not a discrete variable of some notion “religion.” Beliefs as we understand them were embedded in, and hence inextricable from, social and political realities. Returning to the homiletic practices of the Fathers, we can conclude that the preaching was less concerned with the communication of doctrine to the faithful than (47) with the attempt to use a form of words to direct their spiritual growth and shape the boundaries of a moral community. (48)

When Seneca observes that “the first way to worship the gods is to believe in [credere in] the gods” he is not suggesting that believing in the existence of the gods is a form of worship. Rather, he means to say that the beginning of worship consists in placing one’s trust in the gods. A sufficient condition for worship, he goes on to say, is imitation of the gods. Augustine sets out a similar view, proposing that believing in God (credere in) means “to love Him, by believing to esteem highly, by believing to go into Him and be incorporated into His members.” Elsewhere he contends that believing in God “is a great deal more than believing what God says”: it is “to cling by faith to God.” (48)

The contraction of the scope of “I believe,” and the assumption of its more familiar modern meaning–“to believe in the actual existence of some person or thing”–begins in the seventeenth century. … It becomes a matter of disinterested intellectual assent to putative facts and, increasingly from the nineteenth century, to doubtful or false claims. It is no coincidence that these transitions are accompanied by the growth of the ideal of scientific objectivity and the gradual disappearance of moral and formative elements from natural philosophical discourse. For the moment, however, my suggestion is that “belief” is not a historically stable concept in the West, and thus it provides a poor foundation for a notion like “religion,” for which is claimed both transhistorical and cross-cultural applicability. (49)

…there are numerous linguistic traditions which make no provision for the expression of belief and which do not recognise such a condition in their psychological assessments. … Belief is a relatively modern linguistic invention, and it does not correspond, under any aspect, to a real, constant, and distinct source of the self. – [Rodney Needham, Circumstantial Deliveries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 78. The argument for this thesis is set out in detail in Belief, Language and Experience.]

In antiquity, doctrina meant “teaching”–literally, the activity of a doctor–and “the habit produced by instruction,” in addition to referring to the knowledge imparted by teaching. Doctrina is thus an activity or a process of training and habituation. (49)

…not even love itself, which is the end of the commandment and the fulfilling of the law, can be rightly exercised unless the objects of love are true and not false. – Augustine

While it was important that the narratives of scripture be regarded as true, the study of the Bible for the Church Fathers and their medieval successors was primarily a matter of becoming acquainted with the moral demands of scripture and, by enacting those in daily life, growing in the likeness of their divine author. (51)

Thus, a man who is resting upon faith and hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold on these does not need the scriptures except for the purposes of instructing others. [1 Cor. 8:1. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1.36.40; 3.15.23 (regnum caritatis–trans. “reign of love” in NPFN I); 31.39.43. Elsewhere in this work, Augustine explains that scripture “is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present. But all these tend to nourish and strengthen charity, and to overcome and root out lust.” 3.10.15.]

The encounter with scripture was thus the occasion for self-transformation. (51)

Three specific aspects of this alternative narrative are worth briefly highlighting. (52)

| First, the idea that natural philosophy or science was subordinated to theology by the Church Fathers and, after them, the scholastics, is quite mistaken. (52)

Second, to a degree, Christianity is responsible for a diminution of the scope of natural philosophy, but in the sense that it begins to take over some of the moral and religious goals that were once intrinsic to natural philosophy. (52)

Third, and related to this, it is not yet possible to set up an opposition between naturalistic and religious accounts of the cosmos. … The early Christians, for example, were on the whole more skeptical than their pagan counterparts about astrology, anthropomorphic deities, the world-soul, and the divinity of the heavens. …Philoponus (ca. 490-570) believed that the motion of the heavens was to be explained by a “motive force” imparted by God at the moment of creation. In his view, all natural motion was thus imparted, and he may, on this account, be credited with having supposed a unified theory of dynamics. His conception of impetus subsequently influenced Galileo. …consider that Christian critique of pagan philosophy is (53) often interpreted as evidence of bias against “science.” In fact much of that critique was directed against astrology, divination, the worship of deified heroes, and belief in the divinity of the celestial bodies, which is to say, against “superstition.” [See, e.g., Tertullian, Ad nationes 2.6; Augustine, City of God VIII.18-26; On Christian Doctrine 2.20-23.] (54)

3. Signs and Causes

The idea that the world had been created out of nothing (ex nihilo) by a benevolent Deity contrasts with the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the world, with Platonic and Gnostic teachings about the inferiority of the material world, and with the Neoplatonic idea of the world as an emanation from the divine. …the Church Fathers were to speak of two linked mods of divine communication–one in the book of scripture, and one in the book of nature. … Reading scripture and nature together become an integral part of medieval contemplative practice. (56)

As a divine artifact, the world was also causally related to God–as pagan thinkers, albeit in different ways, had recognized. In the Christian understanding of this relation, God was not only the efficient cause of (56) things–the original cause that had brought them all into being–but was understood to be the source of the matter and form of the creatures, and the end or final cause to which all things were drawn. The study of nature, on this understanding, pointed to God as the causal power that ultimately underpinned the existence of all things. (57)

The Order of Meanings

[Romans 1:18-20] This passage provided a crucial link to the Greek divisions of the speculative sciences, in which the inquirer proceeds from the mutable, temporal objects of this world to the invisible objects of metaphysics and theology. (57)

Origen takes up these themes in his commentary on the Song of Songs — (57) the work most closely associated by patristic and medieval thinkers with the ascent of the mind beyond the realm of the material world. Here he suggests that “all the things in the visible category can be related to the invisible, the corporeal to incorporeal, and the manifest to those that are hidden.” For Origen, there are hidden theological and moral meanings in all created things for, he argues, in much the same way that man bears an image and likeness to God, so all created things have a resemblance and likeness to heavenly things. (58)

Evagrius Ponticus (345-99)…suggested that when we read the book of nature our own minds become books in which God inscribes words of wisdom and providence. (58)

Following Origen, a number of Church Fathers developed three- and fourfold schemes of biblical interpretation. The most common medieval classification distinguished four senses of scripture: literal or historical, tropological, anagogical, and allegorical. The literal sense is more or less self-explanatory. The tropological sense referred to the moral application of the text–how it could be put into practice. The anagogical sense referred to the promises of scripture and the foretaste of heaven–what was to be hoped for. Finally, the allegorical sense places Christ in the center of history. (59)

For our purposes what is significant is that all of these exegetical schemes, whatever their terminology, posit a basic division between the literal sense and the higher senses. These higher senses were collectively known as “the spiritual sense” or simply just “allegory.” (59)

…all creatures are essentially a certain image and likeness of Eternal Wisdom. – Bonaventure (1221-74)

Figure 2. Illustration of the pelican from Ashmole Bestiary.

The key element of the description in the Physiologus, related in all of the bestiaries, is as follows:

David says in Psalm 101, “I am like the pelican in loneliness.” …If the pelican brings forth young and the little ones grow, they take to striking their parents in the face. The parents, however, hitting back kill their young ones and then, moved by compassion, they weep over them for three days, lamenting over those whom they killed. On the third day, their mother strikes her side and spills her own blood over their dead bodies…and the blood itself awakens from them from death. [Physiologus vi, from Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lord, trans. Michael Curley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 9 f.]

This account is followed by commentaries on the various meanings of the creature. The Aberdeen Bestiary (ca. 1200) explains that the pelican signifies Christ, Egypt, and the world. It symbolizes Christ because “it kills its young with its beak as preaching the word of God converts the unbelievers. It weeps ceaselessly for its young, as Christ wept with pity when he raised Lazarus. Thus after three days, it revives its young with its blood as Christ saves us, whom he has redeemed with his own blood.” Further explanations are offered for why the pelican also signifies Egypt and the world. (62)

…the pelican became an enduring emblem of Christ’s atoning death,… (62)

…[the] visible works of the Creator have been created and disposed for this, that they may both serve the needs of the present life and also exhibit a shadow of future goods. …we ought to understand some things simply and seek nothing in them according to the mystical sense, while some things … are capable of representing something according to the mystical sense.” – Richard of Saint Victor (d. 1173)

Understood in these moral and symbolic terms, it was a world that was not primarily to be explained causally, nor exploited materially, but to be read and meditated upon. (63)

The Uses of the Creatures

The fact that the world was understood as providing for the material, moral, and spiritual needs of its human inhabitants meant that the Church Fathers adopted what in some respects was a “utilitarian” approach to nature. (63)

…there is nothing without a purpose. … What you consider as useless has use for others. – Ambrose

…[everything in the world had been created] to contribute to some useful end and to the great advantage of all beings. – Basil


The whole world is a shadow, a way and a trace; a book with writing front and back (Ezekiel 2:9). Indeed, in every creature there is a refulgence of the divine exemplar, but mixed with darkness. … When the soul sees these things, it seems to it that it should go through them from shadow to light, from the way to the end, from the trace to the truth, from the book to veritable knowledge which is in God. – Bonaventure

…the arts and sciences provide a means for the partial restoration of the prelapsarian perfection of the world. Hugh [of Saint Victor] contended that the goal of the arts is “restoring our nature’s integrity, or the relieving of those weaknesses to which our present life lies subject.” Philosophy, he stresses, echoing both Cicero and Augustine, is a “cure” or a “remedy.” (66)

The Order of Causes

Whatever is said of God and creatures is said according as there is some relation of the creatures to God as its principle and cause, wherein all the perfections of things preexist excellently. – Thomas Aquinas

My suggestion is that the appropriators of Aristotle are less interested in using his “science” to support theological propositions than they are in seeing the whole exercise as promoting particular kinds of virtues, broadly understood. What we have here is a kind of mental training that prepares the mind for the acknowledgment of certain truths. (69)

In proposing that sacra doctrina is a science, Thomas Aquinas is arguing that it is a practice that leads to a particular state of mind, as a consequence of which one can habitually reason from cause to effect. …scientia is not just a set of ordered propositions, but is also a mental disposition. (69)

“Science” is a handmaiden, not so much because it offers premises for a propositional theology, but because it entails the performance of mental exercises that promote the personal transformation that is the goal of the theology. Ultimate truths about divine things can be known only to the properly prepared mind, and the study of nature was seen as contributing to that preparative process. [For Aquinas, the kind of knowledge of God at which human beings aim cannot be identified with innate knowledge of God, nor with demonstrative knowledge (science of God), nor even with knowledge gained through faith. For this reason, such knowledge is not possible in the present life. SCG 3.37-40.] (72)

Medieval Natural Theology?

[natural theology is…] the enterprise of providing support for religious beliefs by starting from premises that neither are nor presuppose religious belief. – William Alston

Aquinas thus follows Varro and Augustine in distinguishing three kinds of theology: “natural theology” (physicum theologiae), “mythical theology” (essentially euhemerism, the worship of dead heroes), and “civil theology” (state-sponsored worship of images), all of which he regarded as forms of “superstitious idolatry.” (72)

As it turns out, the project of constructing arguments for God’s existence based on putatively neutral premises gets under way in earnest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when a secular conception of reason begins to emerge. It appears in tandem with a new understanding of religion in which propositional beliefs come to play a significant role, and with a rethinking of the goals and purposes of natural philosophy. In short, to relate this development to one of our leitmotifs, we can say that the birth of natural theology accompanies the objectification of the virtues of religio and scientia, which cease to be qualities of the individual and come to refer solely to activities and bodies of knowledge. (74)

The Discarded Image


Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it. – Galileo

God imparted various motions to the parts of matter when he first created them, and he now preserves all this matter in the same way, and by the same process by which he originally created it. – René Descartes (1596-1650)

Motion, then, is not a feature of matter itself, but depends upon the divine will. This conception of nature as obeying arbitrary laws conferred by God would help to motivate empirical inquiry into the operations of nature. As Descartes explained:

Since there are countless different configurations which God might have instituted here, experience alone must teach us which configurations he actually selected in preference to the rest. – Principles of Philosophy, in CSM vol. 1, p. 256. Cf. Isaac Newton: The Principia, trans. I. B. Cohen and A. Whitman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 393 (preface by Roger Cotes)

In his characteristically labored prose, Boyle explained that living things were “texts” whose interpretation called for “penetrating indagations” directed toward the discovery of their “unobvious properties.” Alluding to the practices of shorthand, then much in vogue, Boyle also referred to the objects of nature as “the stenography of God’s omniscient hand.” (78)

These developments signal the death of a universal hermeneutical framework in which the books of scripture and nature were interpreted together. Now, even the book of nature was subject to a plurality of hermeneutical practices–mathematical, anatomical, taxonomic. But the collapse of the unified system of interpretation, and the separation of the study of texts and the natural world, by no means implied that the study of nature was to be pursued independently of theological considerations. Instead a new partnership developed between theology and the new science. (78)

Lost Causes

occasionalism–the idea that God is the only true cause of natural events–culminated in David Hume’s (1711-76) suggestion that causation was essentially psychological rather than ontological, in human minds rather than the world. Occasionalism also fitted well with the idea of God promoted by the Protestant Reformers, who emphasize the primacy of the divine will and stressed God’s omnipotence and transcendence. (79)

| Somewhat paradoxically, then, the pious idea that God was the only genuine cause in the cosmos and that natural objects had no causal powers of their own led to the direct equation of divine and natural causality. For a number of key seventeenth-century natural philosophers, and in particular the Newtonians, the regularities of nature were a manifestation of the continuous and direct activity of God. (79)

…theologian Samuel Clarke thus maintained that there was no such thing as “the power of nature” or “the course of nature.” There was, rather, “nothing else but the will of God producing certain effects in a continued, regular, constant, and uniform manner.” In this collapse of the distinction between natural and supernatural causation lay the seeds of a thoroughgoing naturalism, for once divine activity was placed on the same level as natural activity the operations of nature could be understood as having either divine causes, or natural causes, but not both at once. Causal explanation became a zero-sum game, and the disjunction God-or-nature would increasingly be resolved in favor of the latter. … In much the same way that symbolic meanings of nature and scripture were collapsed into a single literal sense, the various causal layers of Aristotelian scholasticism came to be flattened into a single layer of univocal efficient causes. There was one order of meaning–the literal sense–and one level of causation–efficient causation. Both of these developments were promoted by religious thinkers, and for religious reasons. They were both a precondition for the emergence of modern science.Yet, the ultimate effect of this flattening of the scope of meaning and causation was that modern science and theology would come to occupy the same explanatory territory, and this established the conditions for competition between them. (80)

[via: In concert with Sean Carroll’s argument in The Big Picture.]

4. Science and the Origins of “Religion”

cf. David Sloan Wilson’s, Darwin’s Cathedral (2002)

What began to take place then was that the philosophical exercises and bodies of knowledge employed in the inculcation of the interior virtues of scientia and religio came to stand in for the things themselves in their entirety. The 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. Religion was vested in creeds rather than in the hearts of the faithful. In a related process, the label “scientia,” which had traditionally referred to both a mental disposition and a formal body of knowledge, came to be associated with the latter alone, eventually giving rise to an objective thing–science. (84)

The End of Ends

John Duns Scotus put it this way: “If the proper operation of the intellect…is to know the thing which is true, it seems hardly fitting that nature should not endow the intellect with what is prerequisite for such an operation.” The application of this principle to the intellectual virtues gave rise to the view that, all other things being equal, the exercise of scientia (along with intellectus and sapientia) will normally (87) give rise to reliable knowledge. For this reason, Aristotelian natural philosophy was based on commonsense generalizations drawn from everyday observations of the natural world. (88)

| For those who took seriously the deleterious effects of the Fall, however, there were no guarantees that our corrupted faculties, operating in a postlapsarian world, would naturally point us in the direction of truth. On the contrary, they were more than likely to lead us into error. (88)

[Francis] Bacon’s ambitious project to set science on new foundations was motivated by this basic question: “whether that great commerce between the mind of man and the nature of things…might by any means be restored to its perfect and original condition.” In seventeenth-century England, exponents of the new experimental approach to philosophy stressed the fallibility of human reason, the impossibility of penetrating to the true essences of things, the need for repeated experimental observations carried out under special conditions, and the necessity for scientific researches to be concerted, collective, and cumulative. Exemplifying this general attitude, Robert Hooke, first curator of experiments at the Royal Society, wrote of the human condition that “every man, both from a deriv’d corruption, innate and born with him, and from his breeding and converse with men, is very subject to slip into all sorts of errors.” He concluded that “these being the dangers in the process of humane Reason, the remedies of them all can only proceed from the real, the mechanical, the experimental Philosophy.” (88)

[via: So, Harari posits the discovery of ignorance, Harrison proposes the belief in infallibility.]

| So it was that an “unnatural” and somewhat counterintuitive regimen of experiments was designed to interrogate a fallen nature with the appropriate level of skepticism, while at the same time addressing the human predilection for delusion and self-deception. (88)

By whatever standard soever we frame in our minds the ideas of virtues or vices … their rectitude or obliquity consists in the agreement with the patterns prescribed by some law. – John Locke

On his model, “virtues” are now understood in terms of the behaviors they generate–as one commentator has recently put it, they are explained “from the outside in.” In the case of religion, the virtue of religio will increasingly be understood from the outside in, as the modern ideas of religion and the religions make their first appearance. (91)

Definite Articles

Another reason that religio came to be understood “from the outside in,” as it were, was that the religious reformers of the sixteenth century were insistent that religious faith be “explicit.” A prominent feature of the rhetoric of Protestant Reformers was their denigration of traditional notions of implicit faith–the idea that explicit knowledge of the more abstruse doctrines of Christianity need not be enjoined upon the laity. The Reformers insisted instead that Christian believers be able to articulate the doctrines they professed, and do so in propositional terms. In his Institutes, John Calvin thus decried ignorance of the doctrines of Christianity:

[The] true religion which is delivered in the Scriptures, and which all ought to hold, they readily permit both themselves and others to be ignorant of, to neglect and despise; and they deem it of little moment what each man believes concerning God and Christ, or disbelieves, provided he submits to the judgment of the Church with implicit faith.

…the expression “the true religion” places the primary focus on the beliefs themselves, and religion thus becomes primarily an existing thing in the world, rather than an interior disposition. … A largely unintended consequence of an insistence on explicit belief and creedal knowledge was thus the invention of the Christian religion, constituted by beliefs. (93)

In his Lexicon Philosophicum (1613), Rudolph Goclenius gives two senses of “scientia“–first, “a habit acquired through demonstration,” and, second, “knowledge acquired through demonstration.” … Robert Recorde,…gave this definition: “Science is an [sic] habit, (that is) a ready, prompt and bent disposition to doe anything, confirmed and gotten by long study, exercise and use.” … Robert South would speak similarly of “an Act of Demonstration producing a Habit of science in the Intellect.” Common to these examples is the idea that the purpose of study is to instill intellectual virtues. The assumption behind these traditional understandings of scientia is that the study of logical reasoning and the rehearsal of mathematical demonstrations will produce scientia in the individual in much the same way that catechesis will instill religio. (95)

Religion and Religions

One important difference between the trajectories of religio and scientia lies in the fact that while in the Middle Ages there were “sciences,” understood as discrete bodies of systematic knowledge, there were no plural “religions” (except in the narrow sense of different monastic orders). …confessional statements could be put to other uses, too, most significantly in the drawing of territorial boundaries. The Peace of Augsburg (1555), for example, sought to resolve conflicts between the Holy Roman emperor Charles V and the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Lutheran princes. … The principle of these territorial divisions came to be encapsulated in the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio–“whose land, his religion”–which upheld the idea that the religion of the prince would become the official religion of the region. For the first time, “religion” could be understood as a political and legal construct. As a measure of this, various religious “tests” were developed that would establish whether or not one genuinely subscribed to one religion or another. (97)

[via: “confessionalism.”]

The idea of plural religions as codified sets of beliefs and specific practices that can exist independently of political considerations and are capable of relegation to a “private sphere” was one of the end products of this process of state building. Indeed, it is not a complete distortion to reverse the received understanding of these wars and say that the formation of the modern state was their cause, and the modern notion of religion a consequence. (98)

The inscribing of these religious boundaries onto the map of Europe, coinciding as it did with the beginning of Western colonial projects, was followed by the creation of what we now call world religions. These came into existence through the projection of the religious fragmentation of Western Christendom onto the rest of the world. (99)

cf. William Turner’s The History of all Religions in the World (1695)

Figure 4. Title page of The History of all Religions in the World (1695), one of the first works of “comparative religion,” in which William Turner describes religions in terms of theory and practices.


This proto-anthropology of religion necessarily brought with it the idea that religion was to be identified (101) with what could be dispassionately observed. Since the external components of the religions could be established with much more certainly than the interior, the former became a proxy for the latter. There is a sense in which, with the proliferation of this understanding of religion, Western thinkers became religious outsiders to all traditions but their own. (102)

True Religion Revisited

The appearance of discrete religions in Western Europe brought with it a new, and distinctively modern, problem: which religion is true? This problem was further exacerbated by the imaginative construction of non-European religions. When religion is understood in terms of an attitude of inner piety, the question of its rectitude relates to whether it is properly directed and motivated, or whether it strikes the right mean between the extremes of superstition and atheism. The patristic discussions of true religion that we considered earlier thus focused on worship and the proper object of worship. For this reason, true religion could not simply be equated with Christianity. With the first appearance of religions under-(102)stood in terms of beliefs and practices, the question of truth could be directed to their propositional content. Furthermore, understood propositionally, only some religions–and possibly only one–will be true, while others will be necessarily false. (103)

In the early modern period there were three possible responses to this conundrum. Most radical was that proposal that “all are refuted by all,” as the French political philosopher Jean Bodin put it. … A second solution was to contest the new reified religion and insist that true religion was still to be identified with piety. … The third response was to concede, or even embrace, the propositional nature of religion and seek ways to adjudicate between the rival claims of the religions thus understood. This option, or some version of it, was widely taken up, for it was consistent with the almost universal assumption that Christianity was the true religion, and with the conviction that its truth could be established by rational argument. Western science, increasingly understood as a unique embodiment of rationality, will come to play an important role in this process, either by confirming or contesting the truth claims of Christianity. (103)

cf. Robert Boyle, “The Diversity of Religions.”

[via: All this is highlighting the problem with the phrase, “thousands of religions,” or “so many religions” in the world.]

…no man of prudence or moderation will imagine that, surrounded by such a variety of opinions and warring sects, each with learned men amongst its followers, he is at all likely to embrace the one and only true religion, especially when everyone maintains that his religion is true, and all acknowledge that there is only one true one while some suspect that none is wholly true. – Robert Boyle, “The Diversity of Religions,” in The Works of Robert Boyle, ed.

The truth of religion, thus understood, now came to hinge upon the vital question of how one might adjudicate between competing claims of these “systems of belief.” … Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli…thought that Christians were capable of exhibiting true and false religion. The seventeenth century witnesses the beginning of a quite different understanding of true religion, and of how to establish the veracity of the propositions that now constitute it. (104)

[via: cf. James 1:26-27]

Bishop Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), who, no coincidentally, was a key apologist for the Royal Society and the new experimental science, wrote that “Christ himself understood better the Interest and Power of his own Religion. He knew, that the design of his coming into the World, was…to introduce a rational, moral, spiritual Doctrine, and a plain, unaffected, saving way of teaching it.” In sentiments such as this we encounter the idea that Jesus had professed a propositional religion. This is not to say that personal piety became unimportant for these individuals. Indeed for many it remained a central aspect of their understanding of the Christian life. Yet the traditional emphasis on piety was now accompanied by a new understanding of Christianity as a propositional religion that had been instituted by Christ. This is a novel development, since traditionally God was thought to have revealed himself in Christ, and not a religion. (105)

[via: God revealed in Christ —> Christ revealed in creeds.]

cf. Richard Baxter’s Reasons of the Christian Religion (1667)

In the idiom of modern analytic philosophers of religion, “belief in” is to be equated with “belief that.” (106)

The things of faith are not proposed in themselves but by certain words and likenesses which fall short of expressing or representing them; consequently they are said to be known as through a mirror in a dark manner. – Aquinas

To some degree, then, all assent to propositions was necessarily implicit, given the lack of precision in the verbal formulas that captured theological truths. (107)

| Something of this older association of belief with trust is maintained in Francis Bacon’s early discussions of heresy. In his Meditationes Sacrae (1597), Bacon suggests that atheism and heresy are not to be understood primarily as a lack of appropriate propositional belief in the one case and ob subscribing to false propositional beliefs in the other. Rather, both arise out of a lack of trust–they “rebel and mutiny against the power of God; not trusting to his word, which reveals his will.” Certainly, atheism and heresy involve false beliefs, but those beliefs are the consequence of a more fundamental moral failing. (107)

By way of contrast, for a number of influential English protestant thinkers in the second half of the seventeenth century, faith and belief were to be reduced to a cognitive act rather than a relational virtue. (107)

cf. Rational Account of the Grounds of the Protestant Religion (1664), by Edward Stillingfleet; Letters Concerning Toleration by John Locke

Science and the Age of Evidences

…this most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. – Isaac Newton, “in the celebrated General Scholium appended to the 1715 edition of the Principia

Indeed for Newton, natural philosophy could not be wholly distinct from theology, for he went on to say that discourse about God “is certainly part of natural philosophy.” (109)

Science–or, to speak more accurately, the new experimental natural philosophy–did not yet speak with an authoritative voice and, as will become evident in the next chapter, during this formative period it was the new philosophy that needed to establish its epistemic credentials, its religious respectability, and its social utility. (113)

Thus, in these physics-theological exercises we witness the birth of natural theology, understood as the provision of supporting arguments for theological doctrines, based on reason alone. …it was the institution of a new approach to nature that was at once more modest and more ambitious than (113) the theologies of nature that preceded it: more modest, because it sought to demonstrate the truth of a relatively restricted range of ideas about God; more ambitious, because it aimed to do so on the basis of a putatively neutral reason alone, and making fewer assumptions bout shared, preexisting theological commitments. (114)

Related to this is the modern idea of knowledge as “justified true belief,” along with the assumption that what constitutes an appropriate justification should be drawn from the sphere of natural philosophy. The most extreme exemplification of this tendency came with the demands of the logical positivists of the last century that aesthetic, moral, and religious claims be subjected to the verification principle that was then thought to characterize scientific knowledge. Strict adherents of this criterion insisted that no proposition was meaningful unless it was capable, in principle of some kind of empirical confirmation. (114)

It is worth observing, by way of conclusion, that with the rise to prominence of a new conception of religion the older notion of religion as piety did not disappear. (115)

So it is not the case that the understanding of religions as sets of beliefs and practices totally displaces the earlier notion. The point is rather that from this time on religion and religions can be understood in terms of beliefs and practices that are empirically available for comparison and analysis. Religion now exists concretely as something that can serve as an explanation for historical events and which in turn can be “explained” by various social sciences. Religion thus understood can be identified as a “cause” of violence and terrorism and is given a prominent role in interpretations of world events, particularly those that draw upon the idea of a “clash of civilizations” made popular by political scientists such as Samuel P. Huntington. Religion also offers itself as a phenomenon that can be accounted for by cognitive scientists or evolutionary psychologists such as David Sloan Wilson, often on the assumption that the persistence of obviously false beliefs cries out for such explanations. Finally, it is religion thus conceived that subjects its beliefs to confirmation or disconfirmation by the modern disciplines of philosophy and science. (116)

5. Utility and Progress

…in the opening paragraphs of [Thomas Babington Macaulay]’s History of England, that “the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.” (118)

…each branch of our knowledge…passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the theological, or fictitious; the metaphysical, or abstract; and the scientific, or positive. – Auguste Comte (1798-1857)

My main argument in this chapter will be that changes to our conceptions of science and religion at this time were intimately related to the emergence of a new understanding of progress. One significant factor in this development is the way in which early modern natural philosophy self-consciously locates itself within a Christian understanding of history–as part of a preordained reformation o knowledge, as a prelude to the end of the world, as a providential and partial restoration to the human race of knowledge lost at the Fall, or some element of all of these. (119)

Two Ideas of Progress

In the first chapter we saw how Thomas Aquinas has an idea of the growth of “science” (scientia) as the development of a particular human capacity: “science can increase in itself by addition; thus when anyone learns several conclusions of geometry, the same specific habit of science increases in that man.” In fact, most of Aquinas’s references to progress (profectus) in the Summa theologiae relate to personal progress toward virtue. This idea of progress sits within he broader context of a general teleology, common to a number of the classical schools and to medieval theology, in which the goal-oriented entities move naturally toward their ends. (120)

That which is the purpose of each thing’s construction and the destination of that construction is the destination of this progress; the destination of its progress is that in which its goal lies; where its goal lies is where each thing’s advantage and good lie. – Marcus Aurelius

Once scientia becomes a reified entity, a “something” that exists objectively, progress comes to mean something quite different, namely, the cumulative addition to, and incremental improvement of, an external body of knowledge. It is often said the the idea of progress first appears in the West with the advent of modernity, and indeed that it is one of the hallmarks of modernity. But another way of describing this development would be to say that the idea of progress is relocated from the sphere of the individual into the historical realm–a (120) realm that, incidentally, is inhabited by these newly reified notions “science” and “religion.” On this new understanding, progress will no longer be trammeled within the relatively short life span of the individual, and the sciences become identified with a quite different conception of human progress, exemplified in a long term and open-ended historical development. Nature will also be given a new role in the process. Not simply the mere backdrop against which human advancement takes shape, it will itself become the subject of improvement. (121)

Thence it is that by an especial prerogative, not only does each man advance from day to day in the sciences, but all mankind together make continual progress in proportion as the world grows older, since the same thing happens in the succession of men as in the different ages of individuals. So that the whole succession of men, during the course of many ages, should be considered as a single man who subsists forever and learns continually, whence we see with what injustice we respect antiquity in philosophers. – Blaise Pascal (1623-62)

For both Pascal and Bacon this confidence in the progression of human knowledge is directly related to a new kind of natural philosophy that, to use Pascal’s words, “consists in experiments and not demonstration.” (121)

| While this sounds very much like a simple advocacy of a new experimental method, it is important to understand that these assertions were directed as much against the traditional goals of the natural philosophy as its methods. It was not simply a matter of replacing logical demonstration with experiment, but in coming to understand that philosophy should be concerned less with personal edification and more with contributing to a common storehouse of knowledge. Bacon mad etc point that even the most earnest seeker after truth, following the traditional understanding of the goals of the sciences, “will propose to himself such a kind of truth as (121) shall yield satisfaction to the mind and understanding in rendering causes for things long since discovered, and not the truth which shall lead to new assurance of works and new light of axioms.” (122)

…if books and laws continue to increase as they have done for fifty years past, I am in some concern for future ages, how any man will be learned. – Jonathan Swift

Since the sum of what could be known exceeded what could be contained within even the most capacious mind, it no longer made sense to justify the acquisition of knowledge primarily in terms of the role that it plays in intellectual and moral formation. A finite body of knowledge would do that just as well. So the usefulness of this ever-increasing pool of information was related instead to a general improvement in human welfare, understood primarily in material terms. Such a view necessitated a major revision of the traditional goals of natural philosophy, and of the end or use of the sciences. As we saw in the previous chapters, Bacon would speak of a natural philosophy directed toward “the uses of human life.” Descartes spoke similarly of “the invention of innumerable devices which would facilitate our enjoyment of the fruits of the earth and all the goods we find there, but also, and most importantly, for the maintenance of health, which is undoubtedly the chief good and the foundation of all the other goods in this life.” (2124)

The Utility of Knowledge

Whereas learning had once been primarily for the edification of the individual subject, now the expectation was that learning should be useful for the commonweal. (124)

These satirical observations are illustrative of the fact that the social status of the new natural philosophy was by no means as secure as we sometimes assume. Champions of the experimental approach found it necessary to appeal to factors extrinsic to science in order to establish its social utility. Part of their strategy was to appeal to religion, the legitimacy of which was tat that time beyond question. If this sounds counterintuitive, it is only because in the centuries between then and now a dramatic inversion of the relative status of science and of religion has taken place, so that it is far more likely now for religion to be seeking to secure its legitimacy by appealing to science than the reverse. Indeed, for some, religion is legitimate only to the extent that it can demonstrate its credentials on the terms set out by science. The situation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was rather different. (126)

These arguments for the usefulness of natural philosophy attempt to address both old and new conceptions of utility, and do so in three ways. Joseph Glanvill pointed out that “the Real Philoosphy…will assist and promote our Vertue, and our Happiness; and incline us to employ our selves in living according to it.” By “real” philosophy he means the new experimental philosophy that deals with “real” things rather than notions or definitions. The new way of philosophizing thus encompasses the moral aims of traditional philosophy. Beyond this, experimental natural philosophy is religiously useful because it establishes premises for natural theology:

the study of Nature and God’s works, is very serviceable to Religion. …and the Divine Glory is written upon the Creatures, the more we study them, the better we understand those Characters, the better we read his Glory, and the more fit we are to celebrate, and proclaim it. Thus the knowledge of God’s Works promotes the end of Religion.

But in a third argument Glanvill insisted on a new understanding of the usefulness, one that is to do with what Bacon designated “the relief of the human estate”: “I say then, That it was observed by the excellent Lord Bacon, and some other ingenious Moderns, That Philosophy, which should be an Instrument to work with, to find out those Aids that providence hath laid up in Nature to help us against the Inconveniences of this State, and to make such applications of things as may tend to a universal benefit.” (127)

…it is not primarily that our science yields practical benefits in a way that early modern science did not (although in some sense this is true). Rather, a profound change has taken place in what counts as useful knowledge… (127)

The Relief of the Human Estate

A third illustration of the general trend toward objectification of the virtues, and one linked to the new notion of progress, is the case of Christian charity. … Of the theological virtues, as we have already seen, “faith” is transformed from something like personal “trust” into what will eventually become a kind of epistemic vice: faith, in the modern period, entails belief in certain propositions. Understood pejoratively, faith is belief in the absence of requisite evidence. Charity also undergoes a major reconfiguration. In much the same way that changes in the meaning of “religion” are signaled by the addition of an article, we can see in the earliest uses of the idea of “a charity” the objectification and institutionalization of what had once simply been an inherent quality. (131)

cf. Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration (1620)

As we have seen, Bacon regards human infirmity as resulting from the Fall, and the need to relieve the human estate is a direct consequence of the primeval defection of Adam. Science is depicted as offering a means of human redemption alongside religion, which is assigned the complementary role of redressing the moral corruption that followed the Fall. (134)

…practitioners of the experimental philosophy could respond that scientific pursuits actually satisfied another biblical injunction to do with charity–the command to love God and love neighbor. Natural philosophy fulfilled the former, because it uncovered evidence of divine wisdom in the frame of nature, thus promoting love of (134) God; the latter, because the material contributions of science were to be understood as manifestations of love of neighbor. (135)

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. – Steven Weinberg

From this period onward, the study of nature is pursued not only for the purpose of moral edification, but also to yield technologies that will offer ways of relieving the human conditions. In time, the latter will completely displace the former. (136)

Self-Dominion and Dominion over Nature

The historical Lynn White Jr.,…[suggested] in an influential paper in the 1960s that on account of the biblical injunction to exercise dominion over nature, the Judeo-Christian tradition “bears a huge burden of guilt for environmental deterioration.” (136)

The other weakness of the [Lynn] White thesis, and the one that most concerns us here, is its incomplete analysis of the influence and meanings of the biblical motif of dominion before the rise of science. (137)

As noted earlier, patristic and medieval exegetes frequently interpreted the imperative to exercise dominion over the beasts as an advocacy of psychological mastery of bestial passions. (137)

Understand that you have within yourself herds of cattle…flocks of sheep and flocks of goats…and that the birds of the air are also within you…you are another little world. – Origen

From this perspective, the injunction to exercise dominion was understood as a command to exercise of [sic]self-control, with the animals representing, variously, “the inclination of the soul and the thought of the heart,” or “bodily desires and the impulses of the flesh.” (137)

Then the wild animals are quiet and the beasts are tamed and the serpents rendered harmless: in allegory they signify the affections of the soul. … So in the “living soul” there will be beasts that have become good by the gentleness of their behaviour. … For these animals serve reason when they are restrained from their deathly ways. – Augustine

Man in a certain sense contains all things; and so according as he is master of what is within himself, in the same way he can have mastership over other things. – Aquinas

A new set of priorities comes into play in the early modern period. For a start, the idea that the human person was a microcosm fell into decline. At the same time, as we have seen, a change of emphasis in the sphere of biblical hermeneutics saw a renewed focus on a literal reading of the Genesis narratives. This meant that the fanciful allegorizing upon which rested the idea of the beasts as representations of states of the human soul began to fall from favor. As a further consequence, dominion over nature was increasingly understood, quite literally, as the exercise of control over the natural world. (138)

For man by the fall fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse made altogether and forever a rebel, but…is now by various labours…at length and in some measure subdued to the supplying of man with bread; that is to the uses of human life. – Bacon, Novum Organum

“Knowledge is to be sought not for the quiet of resolution but for a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power…which he had in his first state of creation.” Here Bacon has in mind the restoration of Adam’s original encyclopedic knowledge of nature and, equally, his dominion over it. Bacon thus rejects the idea that the philosopher is to be concerned first and foremost with the quiet consolations of the contemplative life. Rather, the philosopher is to be engaged in a mission to restore the natural world to its original perfection, or at least something approaching it. … Stephen Gaukroger has more recently argued that Bacon represents “the first systematic comprehensive attempt to transform the early modern philosopher from someone whose primary concern is with how to live morally into someone whose primary concern is with the understanding of and reshaping of natural processes.” Self-dominion, as the goal of the natural philosophical life, is eventually displaced by the quest for a dominion over things. (139)

Thomas Hobbes writes in the Leviathan (1651) that “the felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied.” Philosophy, he says elsewhere, is not about “the inward glory and triumph of mind that a man may have for the mastering of some difficult and doubtful matter.” Rather the goal of philosophy is “that we may make use to our benefit of effects formerly seen…for the commodity of human life.” René Descartes also speaks of a new practical philosophy “which would be very useful in life.” Through this philosophy, says Descartes, we will “make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature.” Finally, Robert Boyle noted that “the barren philosophy, wont to be taught in the schools, hath hitherto been found of very little use in human life.” … Each of these thinkers, in his own way, makes the point that natural philosophy is not about cultivating the virtue of scientia, but is about the practice of an activity that in many ways resembles modern science. (140)

| In sum, the motif of “dominion over nature” undergoes a similar mutation to the ideas of progress, utility, and charity that we have considered in this chapter. Again we witness a change of emphasis away from the interior psychological aspects toward the external world. … The idea of a partial return to a paradisal perfection was replaced by a new idea of progress (140) that had originally been justified in religious terms, but increasingly assumed a normative value of its own. Progress had once been understood as progress toward a particular end. Now it had become an end in itself. (141)

Thus, when history is reconstructed on the basis of an assumption of the inevitability of progress, the question of science’s origins and development is typically framed not in terms of the unique and contingent conditions that make the emergence and persistence of science possible. Rather the question is posed in this way: given the intrinsically progressive nature of science, what are the factors that have inhibited its natural flourishing? The answer for many came in the form of “religion,” understood as a historical reality in which the differences between rival versions–Protestant or Catholic–were less significant than what they shared: namely, an inflexible commitment to (142) a set of unchanging truths derived from authorities. In this version of things, not merely is science itself progressive, but its appearance on the stage of history signals a new and more advanced phase of social development. This view of history was powerfully captured by Comte, who saw religion as a primitive stage through which humanity must pass to achieve scientific maturity. Few, if any, historians now subscribe to this crude historicism, but this pattern of progress nonetheless informs many present-day assumptions about the future of science and religion. (143)

| Finally on the question of progress, it is worth pointing to the fact that progress is an axiological concept–that is to say, it draws upon the realm of values. … The real issue was to do with alternative conceptions of the ultimate human good–the progress of the human soul or the material betterment of mankind–and it is worth reminding ourselves that it is not a straightforward matter to adjudicate between them. (143).

…there is something inherently unstable in (143) the modern understanding of progress. Progress had once been thought of as the movement of human beings toward certain given ends. But without at least an implicit teleology (which was precisely what the new natural philosophical approaches sought to dispense with) the notion of progress is difficult to sustain. Progress, in other words, is goal dependent; progress is toward some end. …individuals such as Bacon understood themselves as participants in a providential plan, and indeed often saw their mission more in terms of reform than progress. In this sense, their utopian goals were consistent with their underlying values. The vestiges of these values have carried over into the present scientific enterprise, but arguably without any of the assumptions that would make a belief in progress rational. (144)

6. Professing Science

We shall, for convenience’ sake, use the word ‘science’ in the sense which Englishmen so commonly give to it; as expressing physical and experimental science, to the exclu-(145)sion of theological and metaphysical. – William George Ward, 1867

His article, it must be said, was largely unremarkable save for the fact it provided one of the first references in the English language to a newly emerging and restricted sense of the term “science.” (146)

The Meanings of Science

A Common Context?

From the beginning of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, natural theology provided a vital unifying theme for natural history and natural philosophy. (149)

…all nature is link’d together by one universal Law of Harmony and Agreement…as the Whole Earth declares itself to be the Work of one only all-wise Creator. – Noël-Antoine Pluche

cf. William Paley’s The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785); The Evidences of Christianity (1794); Natural Theology (1802); Samuel Clark’s Boyle Lectures (1704-5); John Wilkins’s principles and Duties of Natural Religion (1675); George Chene’s Philosophical Principles of Religion (1715); Robert Jenkin’s Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion (1700).

The university curriculum in England thus reflected a fundamental conviction of the age–the unity of theological and physical truth. (150)

Natural theology represented not only a substantive unifying principle for those investigating nature, but also provided a pedagogical orientation to those seeking to communicate etruths about the natural world. (150)

God has arranged all things for the purpose of teaching us these [moral] lessons, and he has created our intellectual and moral natures expressly for the purpose of learning them. – [Francis Wayland, The Elements of Moral Science (New York: Cooke and Co., 1835), p. 127.]

…the observation of the calm, energetic regularity of nature, the immense scale of her operations, and the certainly [sic] with which her ends are attained, tends, irresistibly, to tranquilize and re-assure the mind, and render it less accessible to repining, selfish, and turbulent emotions. – John Herschel

…[the] great end of the study of Geology ought to be, a moral rather than a scientific one. – George Fairholme, 1833

…all truths must be consistent with all other truths, and…therefore the results of the geology or astronomy cannot be irreconcilable with the statements of true theology. – William Kriby

“Science” and the Beatification of Bacon

Natural theology is an inductive science. Our knowledge o the existence of God, as far as that knowledge is traceable by the light of nature, is acquired by an intellectual process strictly analogous, and exactly similar, to the intellectual process by which we acquire our knowledge of the laws of the physical world. … Newton discovered the true system of the heavens; and it is only by this reasoning that the theist can ascertain, from the light of Nature, the existence and attributes of Him who made the heavens. The proof of a divine intelligence ruling over the universe, is as full and as perfect as the proof that gravitation extends throughout the planetary system. (153)

…it was an inductive science (153) (which is to say that it was based on generalizations drawn from a large number of specific experiences). Natural theology was nothing other than “inductive philosophy…applied to theology.” (154)

The true method of theology is…the inductive, which assumes that the Bible contains all the facts or truths which form the contents of theology, just as the facts of nature are the contents of the natural sciences. – Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

I have already ventured to express an opinion that Inductive Minds, those which have been able to discover Laws of Nature, have also commonly been ready to believe in an Intelligent Author of Nature; while Deductive Minds, those which have employed themselves in tracing the consequences of Laws discovered by others, have been willing to rest in Laws, without looking beyond to an Author of Laws. – William Whewell

Whewell went so far as to suggest that the success of the inductive method, along with the progress of natural knowledge that resulted from it, was in itself evidence of the providential designs of the Deity. (156)

The Scientist

cf. “Will to Believe,” William James (1842-1910), first delivered in 1896 as a lecture to the philosophy clubs of Yale and Brown universities

cf. “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber, 1918

Science, for James and Weber, was a disinterested and agnostic activity that demanded neither special moral qualities nor religious commitments of its practitioners. (159)

| Assuming that these characterizations are correct–and they are largely consistent with the present view of the natural sciences–the obvious question to ask is this: what happened to the moral and theological elements that had once been integral to the study of nature and the person of the naturalist? The short answer is that the second half of the nineteenth century witnesses the disintegration of the common religious and moral context of scientific endeavors, and sees the reconstruction of “science” around the principle of a common method and a common identity for its practitioners. At the same time, the older moral and theological unifying principles are systematically rejected as this new aggregation seeks actively to demarcate its new territory and to distinguish itself from a range of newly “nonscientific” activities. Modern science, then, 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 distinct-(159)ive 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 religion. (160)

Part of the problem Whewell believed, was “the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” In an attempt to remedy this deficiency, he coined the term “scientist,” which, of a range of suggested alternatives–“philosophers,” “savans,” “nature poker,” “nature peeper”–he thought the most dignified. (160) … The suspicion that the word had originated in America, although untrue, also counted against its adoption. … Perhaps what ensured its eventual triumph in England was the difficulty in pronouncing the term that was its chief rival–“physicist.” (161)

Diminishing clerical membership in scientific societies was one of the consequences of a growing specialization and professionalization of the sciences. But it was also partly the outcome of a deliberate attempt to reduce clerical influence on the political machinery of scientific organizations. This was the explicit mission of Thomas Henry Huxley and his colleagues in the “X-club”–a group not inaccurately described as a kind of “masonic Darwinian Lodge.” Formed in 1864, the club’s membership was united by a “devotion to science, pure and free untrammelled by religious dogmas.” (162)

The professionalization of science necessarily brought with it a re-(163)appraisal of the moral and religious qualifications thought to be essential to the investigator of nature. (164)

cf. Francis Galton, English Men of Science …concluded that the offices of priest and scientist were incompatible.,…that “the sons of clergymen rarely take a lead in science” and that “the pursuit of science is uncongenial to the priestly character.” (164)

Science and Its Methods

The most conspicuous marker of this change was the replacement of “natural philosophy” by “natural science.” In 1800 few had spoken of the “natural sciences” but by 1880, this expression had overtaken the traditional label “natural philosophy.” (164) …this was not simply the substitution of one term by another, but involved the jettisoning of a range of personal qualities relating to the conduct of philosophy and the living of the philosophical life. (165)

…in 17999…Thomas Beddoes declare[ed] that “biology”–the doctrine of living systems–is “the foundation of ethics and pneumatology.” (166)

Biology came to be thought of as a more scientific approach to the natural world for a number of reasons. First, as the name suggests, natural history entailed a “historical” approach to the study of living things, with descriptions of organisms bearing some comparison to descriptions of human deeds in the discipline of civil history. In the early modern period, there were understood to be two branches of history–natural and civil–and both had been given a didactic, moral function. In other words, the record of human deeds and the descriptions of living things had an exemplary function, and this was carried over into the physico-theology of the eighteenth century. The adoption of the new term “biology” brought with it the opportunity to divest the study of nature of these lingering, but nonetheless persistent, exemplary elements. (167)

…the growth of experimental biology brought with it a new venue for the biological research–the laboratory. And whereas the natural world had been available to all, the restricted nature of laboratory access necessarily meant that amateurs were excluded from making contributions to the new and increasingly specialized experimental biology. (167)

cf. Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and the Scientific Method, by William Stanley Jevons, 1874.

Thomas Henry Huxley…reported in 1871 that “all men of (169) science would more or less pin their faith” on the proposition that “the scientific method was the only method by which truth could be ascertained.” This, he suggested, was a necessary implication of the idea of the ultimate unity of truth, for “unless anyone was prepared to maintain that there were two different sorts of truth and two different kinds of Logic, then it was inevitable that what they called the scientific method must extend itself to all forms of enquiry.” The scientific method, thus understood, entails the view that underlying the various scientific disciplines there is a single unified and generic “science,” and that this science offers us a unique and privileged access to truth. (170)

| The appearance of the scientific method, along with the loss of the terminology of “natural philosophy,” also marks the final stage of the evacuation of personal moral qualities from the persona of the man of science. (170)

Together, then, the creation of a special professional identity (the scientist), the specification of a distinguishing set of methods (the scientific method), and the replacement of a traditional nomenclature (natural philosophy and natural history), signal the distillation of modern science out of a range of social practices in which it had been embedded. This coalescence of science in the late nineteenth century makes possible for the first time a relationship of science with religion, which had itself undergone a similar process of disembedding some centuries before. These developments make it possible to speak about science and religion as if they were two independent things that had a real existence in the world. (170)

Boundary Work and Myth Making

cf. Nicholas Wiseman’s Lectures on the Connexion between Science and Revealed Religion (1836)

The story of the invention of the “conflict myth” is now a commonplace among historians of science, but it is a story that bears retelling. Two of the chief architects of the myth were John William Draper (1811-82) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918). Draper was an American chemist and amateur historian who in 1875 produced the seminal History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. White, the inaugural president of Cornell University, followed up with a two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1897). Between them, Draper and White cataloged or constructed most of the now prevalent myths about the putatively pernicious influence of religion on science–medieval Christianity was inhospitable to science, the church banned human dissection, Pop Callixtus III had excommunicated Halley’s comment, ancient and medieval thinkers believed in a flat earth, heliocentrism was resisted because it demoted humans from the center of the cosmos, Galileo was tortured and imprisoned by the Inquisition, the church opposed vaccination and anesthesia, Darwin’s Origin was met with universal resistance from religious quarters, and so on. (172)

But these are myths not only because they are historically dubious, but also because they fulfill a traditional function of myth–that of validating a particular view of reality and a set of social practices. …the myths also serve to reinforce the boundaries of religion, which has a negative role to play in shoring up the identity of modern science. (173)

From point to point in this vast progression there has been a gradual, a definite, a continuous unfolding a resistless order of evolution. … By degrees, one species after another in succession more and more perfect arises, until, after many ages, a culmination is reached. – Draper

Again, then, “science” takes on a metaphysical significance far greater and more coherent than the disparate specialized practices from which it had been aggregated. It now becomes the telos or goal toward which society naturally progressed. (174)

cf. Auguste Comte, Course on Positive Philosophy (1830-42); The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer (1890)

The time approaches when men must take their choice between quiescent, immobile faith and ever-advancing Science–faith, with its mediaeval consolations, Science, which is incessantly scattering its material blessings in the pathway of life, elevating the lot of man int he world, and unifying the human race. Its triumphs are solid and enduring. … Religion must relinquish that imperious, that domineering position which she has so long maintained against Science. – Draper pp. 364, 367

…a great part of the reverence once given to priests and to their stories of an unseen universe has been transferred to the astronomer, the geologist, the physician, and the engineer. – A. W. Benn

Diplomatic Relations?

A common typology of science-religion relations sets out four such possibilities: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. …first developed by Ian Barbour. (175)

…the idea of a generic religion, of which the world religions are specific instances, gave rise to the problem of religious pluralism. (176)

…while the process of reification is similar in some respects to that of religion, the differences are equally important. The modern construction of “science” was less an unintended consequence of other historical developments, and more an intentional project. (176)

The present cognitive authority of science thus rests on a subtle conflation of the diverse goals of its once distinct constituents: the construction of empirically adequate models (mathematical astronomy), the production of useful technologies (arts or productive sciences), detailed descriptions of the natural world (natural history), and the provision of true causal accounts of the operations of nature (natural philosophy). … The nineteenth-century construction of science completed the process by bringing about a unification of natural history and natural philosophy, while at the same time harnessing the practical benefits offered by technology to lend additional weight to its authority. (177)

| Turning to relations between science and religion, the various alternatives of conflict, independence, and dialogue arise out of the fact that both are considered to be predominantly concerned with knowledge. … Whether the relations between science and religion, thus construed, are positive or negative depends to some degree on how the present boundaries of the categories are understood, and on the extent to which vestiges of their pre-nineteenth-century boundaries intrude into their present self-understandings. (177)

[via: So, is the conflict because we haven’t yet matured beyond our ancestral understanding? Science was once the realm of meaning and value, and therefore today, it still makes meaning and value claims.]

Acutely conscious of the intimate connection between nature and the moral order, Darwin had sought to replicate in his own narrative the kinds of moral and religious sentiments that were associated with natural history. (178)

| In the twenty-first century, attempts to imbue science with quasi-religious significance play little role in routine scientific activities, but are common in some influential popular presentations of science, particularly among those who seek to promote the image of an essential antagonism between science and religion. (178)

…[scientific materialism] presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion. …[the story of evolution–or, the] evolutionary epic…is probably the best myth we will ever have. – E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature, p.192, 201

cf. Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century, Martin Rees (2003)

At one level, these relatively “thin” scientific stories might be thought of as bearing the effete vestiges of the morally robust cosmological traditions of antiquity and the Middle Ages. At another 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. Natural theology had fulfilled these functions for its predecessors, natural history and natural philosophy. But from the late nineteenth century onward, it was a kind of negative version of religion that came for many to take the place of natural theology. The otherwise puzzling antireligious rhetoric of some contemporary scientific popularizers is thus to be understood as a kind of inversion of a long-standing historical relationship that bound the study of nature to deeper moral and religious concerns. (180)

The history of science is a graveyard of theories that “worked” but have since been replaced. This conflation of truth (181) and utility is an artifact of the manner in which “science” was aggregated from a range of different activities over the course of the modern period. (182)

[via: Just a note that this is a good thing, that science progresses by eliminating bad ideas.]

| The irony in all of this is that it was the formation of the modern notion of religion that made possible the ceding of this territory to science. The capacity of natural philosophy to provide rational support for the propositions that comprised “the Christian religion” lent it social legitimacy at a crucial historical moment. The simultaneous investment of utilitarian outcomes with moral and eschatological significance similarly made it possible for justifications of scientific activity to be couched in terms of its practical utility, and these continue to represent the chief grounds for ongoing investment in science. (182)


…my suggestion in this book has been that at least some of our contemporary quandaries to do with competing religious truth claims and conflicts between scientific and religious doc-(183)trines arise out of the way in which we presently deploy the terms “religion” and “science,” and that the history of the way in which these terms came to take on their present meanings will help us see them in a new light. (184)

This twentieth-century development stressed the way in which our ideas are socially constructed and do not simply map directly onto features of the natural or social worlds. That is not to say that there is no mind-independent reality, but merely that the way in which we conceptualize reality is inevitably influenced by social factors and this is reflected in our language. Two influential approaches to history have embraced this insight. The contextualist approach, advocated by Quentin Skinner and John Pocock, is synchronic, with a tight focus on a specific period, particular historical actors, and a defined geographical setting. Here the idea is that the relevant ideas can only be understood in the context of their linguistic environment. … Conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte)–the history of concepts–shares with contextual history a concern with language and its social contexts, but is more ambitious in its historical range. …it aims to track changes in these meanings across time, as this book has attempted to do with “science,” “religion,” and a number of related notions. (184)

All Coherence Gone?

cf. After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre

John Donne lamented that the “new philosophy calls all in doubt” before rendering the verdict: “all coherence gone.” [An Anatomy of the World] (186)

Whether one considers modern science, as a category, to be coherent really depends on how one views what took place in the nineteenth century, when the aggregation of a range of activities under the concept “science” took place, attended by the explicit exclusion of others–notably religion and metaphysics. This conglomerated science no longer enjoys the moral and theological justifications that in the early modern period had lent legitimacy to a number of its original constituents. It relies instead on the dual devices of “the scientific method” and “the scientist.” And to some extent it also depends upon standing in a particular relation to “religion”–as representing a kind of rational counterpart to an irrational belief system, an alternative source of meaning and value, or a more advanced stage of human development that was destined to replace a more primitive age of religion. (187)

Modern religion’s relation to these developments has been threefold. First, the reification of religion is related to the demise of the Aristotelian virtues, as is the reification of scientia. That process means that “religion,” too, is incoherent, again not in the sense that the activities that it purports to represent are incoherent, but in the sense that “religion” problematically claims to stand for some universal feature of human existence. Second, when experimental natural philosophy and early modern natural history are finding their feet, it is a reified religion that offers them support, and a degree of unity, in the form of a new natural theological project. Third, and somewhat paradoxically, “religion” has now become a contrast case for modern science. Religion is what science is not: a kind of negative image of science, and this contrast has become important for the integrity of the boundaries of science. It follows, to a degree, that the legitimacy of modern science depends on its capacity to compensate for what once was offered by religion, or if not, in demonstrating that we can dispense with it. (187)

The diffidence of seventeenth-century naturalists was lost in the nineteenth century, when the original reasons for their epistemic modesty were forgotten and the idea of progress became firmly embedded into the West’s self-understanding. (188)

Epistemic Grace

cf. Science and the Shaping of Modernity, Stephen Gaukroger

First, he also notes that the modern scientific project begins not with a separation of Christianity and natural philosophy, but with the forging of a more intimate relationship between them: “Christianity took over natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, setting its agenda and projecting it forward in a way quite different from that of any other scientific culture, and in the end establishing it as something in part constructed in the image of religion.” The success of the new natural philosophy of this period, he observes, was because experimental natural philosophy “could be accommodated to the projects of natural theology.” (189)

Both [Charles] Taylor and [Alasdair] MacIntyre have questioned the putative neutrality of this public space where no single religious tradition is favored, suggesting that modern liberalism might be thought of more along the lines of a competing ideology or religion, asserting its own supremacy at the cost of other traditions. (190)

This positivist ethos still lingers, and the insistence that science sets the standards for what counts as genuine knowledge remains a characteristic feature of the modern Western epistemological discourse. Arguably, the epistemic imperialism of science was inherited from the supposedly neutral grounds of eighteenth-century natural theology from which it emerged. (190)

A product of modern European civilization, studying any problem of universal history, is bound to ask himself to what combination of circumstances the fact should be attributed that in Western Civilization, and in Western Civilization only, cultural phenomena have appeared which (as we like to think) lie in a line of development having universal significance and value. – Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p.xxviii.

This book has sought to describe some of the circumstances that gave rise to our present understandings of science and religion. It was the construction of the notion “religion” in the early modern period, itself premised upon a unique understanding of religious identity forged by the early Christians int he first three centuries of the common era, that provided the prototypical model of a belief system for which is claimed universal and transcultural significance. The new conception gave rise to a new kind of problem–that of the conflicting truth claims of other “religions,” constructed in the image of Christianity. This was followed by the construction of the neutral epistemic space in which Christianity was “impartially” judged to be the true religion. In the nineteenth century, the assumption of universal applicability came to be built into the fabric of the newly constructed “science.” At this juncture in history the West’s sense of the source of its superiority “shifted seamlessly” from its religion to its science. The new conception of science changed the locus of conflict from competing religious truth systems to the competing truth claims of science and religion. The birth of the conflict model, and its projection back into history, were thus consequences of this transfer of epistemic authority from religion to science. One of the reasons that our science makes universal claims, then, is that it borrows from “the Christin religion” its notions (191) of universal applicability. The modern idea of religion made it possible for Christianity to claim to be the one true religion. Modern science now claims an analogous universal applicability. (192)

The very first ecclesiastical historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, proceeded on the assumption that heresies had a history, but not Christianity. There was an ideal and eternal form of Christianity that had existed since the beginning of time, albeit shrouded within a variety of cultural forms and practices. We see this also in Augustine’s insistence that “true religion” had always been present from the time of creation, albeit in a variety of implicit forms. Divine providence, working in accordance with its own logic, ensured the preservation of this true religion, while deviations from it were to be accounted for by other factors. So-called internalist histories of science followed a very pattern, assuming that the progress of science entails the unfolding of eternal (192) truths, and that the only genuine contingency in the history of science is to do with whether the requisite genius is present at any particular historical time to discover them. In this style of history, historical actors are rational insofar as their discoveries anticipate what will become scientific orthodoxy, and irrational if they deviate from the lineage of modern science. (193)

The Conflict Myth?

As I hope is now apparent, 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. (194) ...the fact that science and religion are not natural kinds means that there are no firm criteria for adjudicating what should or should not be included in the concepts. As the examples above illustrate, this makes it possible to generate perceived conflicts simply by filling out these incorrigible categories in a particular way. (195)

At the very outset of his Natural History of Religion (1757), Hume observes that with regard to religion “there are two questions in particular which challenge our principal attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature.” Hume helpfully illustrates two features of the emerging object “religion”: first, that it is understood as akin to a “natural kind” and that, as such, naturalistic explanations can be offered to account for it; second, that religion is susceptible to rational analysis and that it can be established whether or not the propositions that constitute it are grounded in reason. Religion can now provide the subject matter of what we would now call the “science of religion,” on the other. Hume here assumes that there is a thing, religion, that is primarily constituted by beliefs, and about which we can ask two questions: are these beliefs warranted, and what kind of naturalistic explanation can we offer for their having arisen? (195)

To offer a naturalistic account of religious beliefs is not to explain them away. The warrant for believing something is independent of the mechanisms through which we came to acquire the beliefs. (195)

Religion, similarly, is a number of different things that we have decided to lump together. And this precludes there being any single naturalistic explanation of religion’s origins. (196)

Hypotheses that link religion and violence are unhelpful not simply because the categories are confused, but also because they prevent us from understanding the true complexion of causes of those ills for which a constructed “religion” is the convenient scapegoat. (196)

Finally, while it is clear that there cannot have been perennial warfare between science and religion, the conflict myth continues to serve the role for which it was originally fashioned in the late nineteenth century, of (196) establishing and maintaining boundaries of the modern conception “science.” … Popular critiques of religion that enlist science in their cause might thus be understood as representing a persistence of the classic form of nineteenth-century popular science that used natural theology as a medium to provide narrative coherence and real-life relevance to broad general audiences. … While the ostensible focus in high profile science-religion disputes is factual claims about the natural world, such debates are often proxies for more deep-seated ideological or, in its broadest sense, “theological” battles.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. Such conflicts are, again, irresolvable, not because there is any inherent incompatibility of science and religion, but because the underlying value systems–which are “natural theologies” of a kind–are ultimately irreconcilable. Given this situation, it is interesting to reflect upon whether the contemporary amalgam “science” needs to be sustained by an underlying value system in the same way that early modern science was sustained by its framework of natural theology. Naturalism or atheism may be able to perform this role. But one reason for doubting this relates to a general intellectual difficulty of atheism as an ideology (as opposed to a personal conviction), which is its reliance on the more systematic belief structures that it seeks to negate. In other words ideological atheism is parasitic on the modern construct “religion,” understood as constituted by propositional beliefs that require rational justification. (197)

Advocates of positive relations between science and religion, who argue that science supports religious belief, also act to reinforce the modern boundaries of (197) “science” and “religion.” Much like the “secular theologians” of the early modern period, their urging of a consonance between science and religion has the potential to reinforce the very conditions that make conflict possible. Advocates of constructive dialogue are thus unknowingly complicit in the perpetuation of conflict. Often, they concede the cultural authority of the sciences, the propositional nature of religion, and the idea of a neutral, rational space in which dialogue can take place. (198)

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