Review: The Territories of Science & Religion, Peter Harrison

October 1, 2015 — 1 Comment

Relgion and Science Peter HarrisonPeter Harrison, the director of Queensland University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, recent book, ‘The Territories of Science and Religion,’ counters the myth of a conflict between science and religion. Uncovering long hidden connections, Harrison concludes that the perceived conflict between science and religion involves a fabrication of historical facts. This work is best described as an in-depth treatise that locates the origins of the conflict myth, surveying concepts, categories, and the shifting definitions of religion and science.

Harrison states that when the information is more closely reviewed, any perceived hostile exchange is in fact contained within each respective sphere. Science was, and perhaps because of its very nature, is still in some ways at conflict within itself. For instance: the divide in the science community about “global warming”. Therefore an historical war between religion and science, or the Church and the Enlightened, as the popular assumption goes, did not exist.

Correcting the often used polemic against religion, Harrison invokes the Galileo controversy, arguing that any perception of a conflict between science and Christianity, at that time, ignores the differing and predominant scientific views of the day. This along with other similar examples that Harrison provides, gives clear evidence of a conflict myth that is being pushed forward by a ‘distortion of historical and conceptual contexts which are projected back over history.’ (p.172)

Harrison’s points are strong. Working his way up through Greek antiquity to modern liberalism, he shows that the conflict between science and Christianity was invented. This invented narrative maintains the perceived supremacy of science by painting religion, in particular Christianity, as the antagonist. Harrison suggests that this is not without agenda. Science is always in flux, for it to stay a unified boxed up entity, a crisis is needed. This crisis unites the populace, conscripting them in a stand against a perceived common enemy, hence the need for a conflict between science and religion.

‘The modern moral program is fed by an ersatz eschatology which points to environmental crisis, demanding repentance and contrition […]This is connected to there being a need for science to have a unifying narrative with some kind of moral or aesthetic vision to promote its relevance to the public’ (p.179)

As for progress and the progressive, those who invalidate Christianity tend to validate the science vs. religion conflict, deploying an easy to sell utilitarianism. As first espoused by Thomas Huxley and later Social Darwinism, science, it is claimed, is the only sure answer; the only certain way to manage vice, ensure freedom, progress, purpose, meaning and moral development. By way of selling a concentrated narrative of material solutions to the human condition, science and all that is squeezed into this modern narrow definition of it, is forced to dismiss its own origins. As a result it is cut off from its historical connection with philosophy and theology.

Harrison’s argument here flows well because of the way in which he unpacks the dialogue from the mid-19th Century up until now. This enables him to connect the presumed conflict between science and religion with evidence to support the conclusion, that this presumed conflict is built on a dubious distortion of context, concept and category. This includes the modern liberal fusion of science to progress and it’s all encompassing, go-it-alone, promise to bring about the general betterment of all humanity. Something Harrison suggests is in need of honest critique:

‘The generally considered neutrality of the public space of Modern Liberalism, where no single religious tradition is favoured, needs to be brought into question. This is because Modern liberalism [as opposed to classical 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.’ (p.190)

The problem, as Harrison outlines, is that progress implies the teleological. Meaning and purpose has to fit in somewhere because for progress to be progress it must have an end or a goal to move towards, otherwise it’s simply just change. Science has its own limitations and vices. That the modern progressive pushes to disallow room for taking the theological or philosophical seriously, means that the current concept of progress is without any real direction.

‘There is something inherently unstable in 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. Without goals, progress is just change.’ (pp. 143-144)

Harrison moves through a chronology of historical facts,  identifying influential events and key historical players. Such as the significant role natural theology and natural philosophy played in the development of natural science from the early modern period. Starting with Aristotle, Harrison works his train of thought up through to Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and then John Locke. Stating that the conceptual context of natural theology for Augustine and Aquinas is vastly different to that of the natural theology of early modernity.

The redefining not just of the roles, but the concepts of natural philosophy and natural theology accompanied the newly created, one-size-fits-all categories of religion and science. The latter groupings were no longer aligned with the valuable theological virtues of religio and the ‘complimentary role’ (p.133) of the intellectual virtue of scientia. Faith seeking understanding was gradually replaced with the fabrication that faith is historically hostile to understanding.

In sum, ‘The Territories of Science and Religion’ is a well stated counterpoint to the long-held assumption that science and Christianity are inherently at odds. I am in agreement with Harrison’s conclusions. His overview of the changing concepts of religion and science, which encompassed the redefining of religio and scientia are a clear highlight. Another standout is in how Harrison illustrates the slow transformation and later dismissal of pre-enlightenment natural theology and natural philosophy for the new categories of science and religion.

Of importance is the light Harrison shines on the instability of the ‘modern moral program’ (p.179), which employs the perceived conflict between science and religion in order to sustain superiority. To do this modern liberalism, new atheism and even creation scientists focus on selling science, marketing the obvious benefits of science to suit a particular agenda. Rather than taking up an ancient fight against religion, they instead create a conflict where historically one did not exist.

For new atheism and modern liberalism this is achieved through perpetuating confusion about categories, concepts and definition. Through a fabricated narrative and distortion of historical events the supposed superiority of modern liberal constructs is bolstered. The aim to control what is labelled religion and what is labelled science, a success. Controlling the role of science to demonise, and undermine the legitimate and historical role of theology and philosophy.

The value of ‘The Territories of Science and Religion’  is that Harrison counters this. While maintaining that clear boundaries exist between natural science, and the science of theology and philosophy, Harrison opens up an in depth enquiry into the conflict myth. In turn encouraging a review of popular assumptions about a perceived conflict because historically, it was in fact a complimentary relationship, dominated by civility and discourse, not vitriol and conflict.


Harrison, P. 2015 The Territories of Science And Religion, The University of Chicago Press, Kindle Ed.

Related post:

Despite Popular Opinion The Historical Conflict Between Christianity & Science Is a Myth

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  1. Year in Review: Top Twenty Posts of 2015 « Gratia Veritas Lumen - January 2, 2016

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