Have science and religion been fundamentally at war throughout history? Are they incompatible? Has religion always held back scientific progress? These views may seem intuitive but few historians would defend them. Professor Peter Harrison looks at the complexity of science-religion interactions, including the cases of Galileo and Darwin, and considers how we frame the debate…
[Styles:] So, “science” and “religion” as we understand them today haven’t been constant categories throughout history, and the idea of them as independent things that can relate to one another is a recent development?
[Harrison:] If you look at the frequency of the word “religion”, no one talks about it much until the 17th century—this is true for English, originally Latin, and also the European vernacular languages, too. So, “religion” as a category is not really important to anyone until the modern period. With science, the practices that we regard as science went under a range of different labels. “Natural philosophy” is one, as is “natural history”, and “mathematical sciences” is other. These things are different in really important ways to what we regard as science.
Natural philosophy, as the name suggests, was part of the philosophical enterprise and as part of that enterprise was concerned to some degree with moral formation. Its theoretical scope extended to things like God, so natural philosophy would often include discussions of God and the soul. These topics were a clear part of its agenda. I don’t think anyone today would say that God falls within the agenda of the natural sciences. So, we have to be very careful not to project back our present conception of the subject matter and goals of science onto these activities in the past. They were actually quite different from modern science.
One way of grasping this is to think about the way that geographical territories change over time. If a historian were to claim that there was a war between Israel and Egypt at some time during the Middle Ages, we’d just know a priori that that was completely wrong. And it’s wrong because Israel is a modern state founded after World War II. Neither did Egypt exist as a nation state in the Middle Ages. To speak about a conflict in those terms is completely anachronistic.
Now, it doesn’t follow that the geographical territories that now comprise Egypt and Israel weren’t there. When I say there was no religion before the 17th century, I don’t mean there weren’t people worshiping God and praying and having certain beliefs and practices. But those beliefs and practices were not a part of this coherent idea that we call “religion”. There weren’t “religions” plural either. In much the same way, there were things that looked like scientific practices, but they weren’t gathered together under the same umbrella that we could recognise as “science”.Charles J. Styles, “The best books on The History of Science and Religion” at FiveBooks.com.