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There Be DragonsThere Be Dragons

There Be Dragons

Comment magazine editor James K.A. Smith finds in Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion a remapping of the way we have come to know the world.

James K.A. Smith
9 minute read

An older Wittgenstein looked back on his younger self and realized something: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” There is a picture – a worldview, you might say – carried in our language like a stowaway ideology. This tacit picture colours our experience and governs our observation. How we talk shapes how we see.

We’re suckers for simplistic, captivating pictures, mostly because we don’t even realize that we’re being sold a “frame”; we think we’re just seeing things “the way they are” when, in fact, we are buying into a paradigm. That’s why, all too often, while trying to talk our way out of a problem, we only dig deeper holes. The exercises and aphorisms that comprise Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, be it said in passing, are a response to this realization. His project is a kind of image therapy, an attempt to first help us see that a picture holds us captive and then offer an alternative frame.

Now imagine the picture holding us captive is a conceptual map that carves up the boundaries of ideas and disciplines, charting the course of intellectual history. A faulty map is the kind of captivating picture that is bound to mislead us. In that case, what we’d need is a therapeutic cartography. This is precisely how Peter Harrison frames his project in The Territories of Science and Religion – as a “historical cartography of the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘science.’” In particular, Harrison aims to show that the supposedly perennial conflict between science and religion is the projection of a faulty – and specifically anachronistic – conceptual map. To posit this conflict as “perennial” is to impose our conceptual maps onto a past where the intellectual territory is very different. While we take “religion” and “science” to be “natural kinds,” and thus part of the durable furniture of human culture, what we name with these terms are contingent, historical emergences that have no precise precedent prior to the 17th century.

As an analogy, Harrison cites a pronouncement of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984: “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.” This, of course, is “creative” history commissioned by Big Brother, and Harrison’s invocation of the analogy is provocative: just who stands to benefit from the similarly creative projection of a perennial conflict between science and religion?

Harrison’s previous work in the history of science has been groundbreaking. It’s careful and nuanced, which is precisely why it doesn’t get much play in a public discourse invested in the click bait of the conflict metaphor. In Territories, first presented as the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Harrison builds on his previous work to take on the new atheist “conflict” party more directly. The bulk of the book is a patient, fine-grained archaeology of the terms science and religion. Indeed, in some ways, Harrison has written a biography of these concepts. This is Begriffsgeschichte, a history of concepts, which traces the birth and life of terms we now deploy without any sense of their contingent origins – that is, without any consciousness of the “picture” that is assumed by this language.

Harrison tracks the way religio and scientia of the ancient and medieval world come to mean something very different by the time they are translated as religion and science in early modern England. In both cases, this is a move from inward virtues, habits and disciplines to reified beliefs, ideas, doctrines and data.

“From the 16th century onward,” Harrison observes, “we witness the beginning of the objectification of what was once an interior disposition.”

Ancient scientia, for example, is a different territory from what we now call science. The word named the intellectual habit that characterized the natural philosopher whose calling (or telos) was moral and theological. Ptolemy, for instance, “defends the study of the heavens on the ground that it promotes the development of moral and religious qualities.” So “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.”

Similarly, religio named a moral or theological virtue and was bound up with right worship and a certain way of life. In contrast, the religion that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries – and which we still name as such today – was an intellectualized “system of belief” collected in doctrines and propositions. Religion gets caught up in the “epistemic turn” that characterizes modernity – everything becomes a matter of what and how we know. “As a consequence of this,” Harrison notes:

“The means by which scientific and religious knowledge are thought to be attained will converge, so that to some degree science and religion will come to share a common epistemic basis. But the establishment of this common cognitive ground that made it possible for the new science to support the new religion gave hostages to fortune, for in this initially positive relationship between science and religion lay the seeds of what would become a more conflicted future.”

Much of Territories amasses the textual evidence for these claims, all with a view to showing that even if there is a conflict between science and religion in the present, it can’t be perennial because the phenomena these terms describe didn’t exist until the 17th century.

This brings us back to an earlier question: Who stands to benefit from this reconfiguration of religio as religion and scientia as science? And who benefits from the endurance of the conflict myth? This is where Harrison’s nuanced attention to contingency is perhaps most illuminating. As he persuasively points out, in 17th century England, we see Christianity sowing the seeds of its own destruction. “It seems hardly necessary to point out,” Harrison says, “that developments of this kind, while initially pursued in support of the doctrines of Christianity, were to render ‘the Christian religion’ susceptible to new avenues of criticism that focused on the rationality of its propositional contents.” The “faith” that the new science wanted to prove turned out to be one worth losing – a scaled-down system of largely deistic belief that asked little of adherents and added little to what the new science could tell us by other means.

Conversely, the emerging “new science” gained respectability by association with religion. As Harrison puts it, the benefits of this early modern collaboration were overwhelmingly one-sided:

“The natural sciences gained considerable social legitimacy through their sharing of intellectual territory with religion. Whether religion was a long-term beneficiary of this positive relationship is more doubtful. Arguably, religion thus construed became vulnerable to particular lines of criticism – hence the aphorism that no one doubted the existence of God until the Boyle lecturers undertook to prove it.”

In their start-up phase, the new scientists justify themselves as what Amos Funkenstein calls secular theologians, but once this new science begins to “scale,” they no longer need this cover. Eventually we get the scientific priesthood of Huxley’s X-club. Science was like the assistant manager who uses his connection with the father-in-law CEO to take over the company, only to then fire the person who got him into the corner office.

Harrison notes parallel implications in terms of utility and progress. When both scientia and religio were understood as virtues, then “progress” was synonymous with moral formation. Both natural philosophy and theology had the same telos in that sense, and the same measure. But once both are reified, progress is also externalized: knowledge that “counts” will be knowledge that is useful. And utility will be bound up with a distorted imperative to rule nature, coupled with a newfound effort at amelioration. Progress is thus identified, Harrison rightly notes, with “an incipient Pelagianism” that is evident above all in human capabilities:

“Now, the philosophical regimen that had once been directed toward the moral shaping of the person was objectified into an experimental program that was indifferent to the moral character of those who pursued it.… Self-dominion, as the goal of the natural philosophical life, is eventually displaced by the quest for a dominion over things.”

Again, this reified reconfiguration of progress only benefits science: “The new way of understanding progress, when applied to a reified ‘religion,’ necessarily places it at something of a disadvantage to a reified ‘science.’”

Now even the virtues of religion will be externalized: caritas, love, will become charity. We’re all technocrats today precisely insofar as we trust in the partnership between government and technology to ameliorate social ills and look suspiciously at any notion of charity as the solution. Again, this new picture places religion at a disadvantage. Indeed, the reason why op-ed pages today can get away with excoriating religion as the enemy of progress is precisely because we’ve bought this contingent reframing of progress in terms of utility. Once science gets into “the truth and goodness business,” as Harrison puts it, and goodness is identified with progress, then science becomes a competitor of religion. On this point Harrison offers a parenthetical coda: “The real issue has to do with alternative conceptions of the ultimate human good…and it is worth reminding ourselves that it is not a straightforward matter to adjudicate between them.”

Harrison regularly points out that science is not a natural kind. Similarly, he emphasizes that science is not a thing. Our use of the word science – as in, “science clearly shows us” – is predicated on its own myth, a little noble lie, a wink and a nod by which we agree to group an array of disparate human practices as if they constituted one thing. And what defines that thing? What are the parameters of science? Well, that it’s not religion. This fulfills one of the primal functions of myth: validating a view of reality and a community of practice by othering an enemy and threat. Yet this mythically constructed science lives off of the borrowed capital of the religion it displaced.

The upshot is, as Harrison notes, ironic: “It was the formation of the modern notion of religion that made possible the ceding of this territory to science.” Just why Christianity capitulated to this propositionalization is a much longer story – which one can find in a longer book such as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. When religion shifted its concern to an “exterior” territory, it was already handing the keys over to a new master of that domain.

If I have a criticism of Harrison’s otherwise remarkable book, it hinges on a tacit picture that might still hold him captive. Specifically, there might be good reasons to be a little skeptical about the interior-exterior (or internal-external) arc that emerges from his analysis.

Augustine wrote an early dialogue called De vera religione (On True Religion), which Harrison briefly discusses. But it’s hard to deny that the staid intellectual historian is penning his own account of “true” religion, one that valorizes a more ancient, more original, rendition of Christianity that focuses on an inward faith and piety, a kind of pre-theological faith that is only corrupted and distorted by its exteriorization. Indeed, while reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Nietzsche’s friend, the 19th century theologian Franz Overbeck, whose 1873 manifesto, Über die Christlichkeit unserer heutigen Theologie (On the Christianness of Our Contemporary Theology) decried the theologization of primal Christianity.

Without question, there is a shift in the form that Christian religion takes in modernity. But is this best described as a move from interiority to exteriority? Certainly, ancient and medieval forms of Christianity were concerned with habits and dispositions. But precisely because of that they were also invested in disciplines and rituals and liturgical formation, not to mention more explicitly communal understandings of the faith. Harrison is certainly right to point out that, prior to the 17th century, “the Christian religion” was understood as a way of life rather than a system of belief. But why describe a way of life as “internal”? Isn’t such an expression of faith necessarily public, communal, shared and, hence, external in important ways? To what extent is Harrison’s telling of the story inflected by a kind of Protestant imaginary haunted by Kierkegaardian ghosts?

What Harrison describes as the reification of religion might be better described, per Charles Taylor, as the intellectualization of religion and the excarnation of Christianity, whereby it is disembodied and reduced to merely a system of belief. In that sense, the internal/external dynamic might be the very opposite: when religion is reduced to a belief to which I give propositional assent, it becomes merely “personal” and thus privatized as “inward.” This is why the reified religion of modernity yields what Depeche Mode called “your own personal Jesus,” the only religion tolerated by secular modernity, and one easily trumped and marginalized by the public authority of science.

But then the other shoe of Harrison’s analysis drops: Science is its own way of life, its own contingent nexus of practices and disciplines. There is no perennial conflict between science and religion because the phenomena didn’t exist to war with one another before the 17th century. But they do exist now, and if there is a conflict between them it’s because science — the myth-making science invoked by “ideological atheists” – isn’t content to describe the territory; it’s after your heart. Thus Harrison closes by suggesting these skirmishes are less conflicts between science and religion and more “theological controversies waged by means of science.”

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