Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: A Word on Categories

Dixon et al - Science and Religion New Historical PerspectivesBorrowing a line from Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, Dixon, Cantor, and Pumfrey’s Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010) may be said to argue that “there is no such thing as a conflict between science and religion, and this is a book about it.” Whenever the words “science” and “religion” appear together in a sentence, they are likely to conjure up other words like “debate,” “conflict,” and “inevitable.” That set of associations, real or imagined, is the underlying subject of this book. A fascinating set of subjects, including discussions on “categories,” “narratives,” “evolution and creationism,” and “the politics of publishing,” are all brought together in honor of John Hedley Brooke, celebrating his work in redefining the narrative of conflict between science and religion.

Dixon, in his introduction, describes the narrative as embodying “the hackneyed but popular idea that, ever since the Scientific Revolution, ‘science’ and ‘religion’ have been locked in a deadly battle in which science emerges triumphant.” But as the work of Brooke clearly demonstrates, says Dixon, one should adopt a far more nuanced perspective.

The influence of Brooke is so great, Dixon admits, “one might be forgiven for thinking that there was some pro-religious apologetic intention lurking here. At the very least, whatever the intentions of particular historians, the scholarly destruction of the conflict thesis is of obvious utility to those seeking to argue for the reasonableness of religious belief on the basis of its compatibility with modern science.” Thus there is a real danger that the new history tends to paint science as the aggressor and religion as the victim, of confusing dismissal of narrative of conflict and denial of any actual conflict. But Brooke has always displayed remarkable balance here. Brooke argued against the overly simple assumption that conflict between science and religion is inevitable because of the essential nature of the two and that all interactions between the two must be adversarial. But that is different from saying that there is, or has been, no conflict. For Brooke there is not just one “science” or one “religion,” and any interplay between whatever science and religion was, is—and are—socially conditioned. In other words, both sides of the apparent debate must be seen as necessarily complex and contextualized.

Science and Religion is not a book about science and religion per se, for nowhere in the text do either terms receive definition (or even conflict). Rather, the authors remind readers, again and again, that science has changed since its eighteenth-century days as natural philosophy, and that religion is neither a set of beliefs nor a code of practices, but some undefined mixture of the two. The book is instead a work of historiography, that is, “the study of the way history has been and is written…the changing interpretation of those events in the works of individual historians.”  While each chapter has its own particular subject, a key theme developed throughout is the insistence that there can be no simple one-to-one relationship between science and religion, because each area of science and each branch of religion will react to the interaction in different ways at different times.

Under the rubric of “Categories,” Peter Harrison starts things off with considering the historically conditioned nature of “science” and “religion.” He discusses the implications of recent literature that categorizes both terms as nineteenth-century social constructs. Presumed continuities in the history of science are called into question when we realize that the “sort of activities that are part of science at any one time are extremely heterogeneous, and they change through time.” He looks at the connotations  of “science” in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods, arguing that “science” was never independent from “religion.” In the early modern period, for example, the study of nature took place within the boundaries of “natural philosophy,” which was “frequently pursued from religious motives…based on religious presuppositions” and drew “social sanctions from religion.” The birth of the modern discipline of science took place during the nineteenth century, often serving the political purposes of those deploying “a rhetoric of conflict between theology and science.” The historizing of the term therefore shows that “science” is a human construction and reification.

But if “science” is a category that took on its characteristic form during the nineteenth century, “religion,” defined as a belief in certain propositions (about God, humanity, redemption and so on), is a category that first emerged amongst Enlightenment scholars grappling with the fragmentation of Christendom in the Reformation. Following the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Harrison evokes the etymological origins of religio, arguing that during the medieval period “religion” had been “faith or piety—an inner dynamic of the heart” (see also Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment [1990]). A shift occurred, however, beginning in the European Enlightenment and culminating during the nineteenth century with the creation of “religion” as a reified entity. This new conception, which was intended to model religion on the newly emerging sciences, “was less about emulating Christ than it was about giving intellectual assent to the doctrines that he had preached.” Not surprisingly, “religion” defined in these terms began to look like an inferior or immature version of science rather than a spiritual exercise. “The problem of the relation of Christianity to science is thus,” writes Harrison, “a problem generated to a large degree by the categories in question.” “It is the God of the philosophers,” he continues, “who figures in many discussions of the science-religion relation—the God who is necessary cause for the existence of the universe, who sustains the created order and its mathematical laws, who works, if necessary, within quantum uncertainties, in short the God in whom reason induces belief.”

Harrison concludes with some prospects of future science-religion discussions. First, those who deploy such abstractions as “science” and “religion” must do so with great sensitivity to their limitations and their inherent distorting affects. As such, it is important to also consider the political dimensions that each category and their relations has served. Moreover, the personal dimension of individuals espousing one view or the other ought to be taken more seriously. And finally, historical analysis is key in providing insight and visibility to such categories, events, and figures.

The suggestion that “religion” is better seen as spiritualizing practice or exercise, or the “inner dynamic of the heart,” rather than as belief systems is intended to challenge the way we have viewed its relationship with “science.” If we adopt an artificial definition of religion modeled on science, it is easy to see why the two areas have come to be depicted as mutually exclusive or hostile to one another—”science” is simply replacing an obsolete version of its own, perennial program. The implication seems to be that if we switch our definition of religion to focus solely on practice, the arena for conflict simply disappears because we are no longer looking at rival systems based on assent to proposition about the world.

But just how far can this approach take us in the area of science and religion? Can we really say that religion never focuses seriously on beliefs? This problem is highlighted in the following chapter by Jan Golinski on Bruno Latour’s religion. Latour, a sociologist of science and an anthropologist known for his work in the field of science and technological studies, is not widely known outside France that he is a practising Catholic who nevertheless insists that his religion is also non-propositional. According to Golinski, Latour sees a problem in belief-centered definitions of religion, “it assimilates religion to a scientific or factual model, in which it is taken to be primarily concerned with making claims about reality.” Religion is misunderstood “if it taken to operate in the same way science does. It does not share the aim of aligning representations so that information is transmitted effectively.” The notion that religious imagery and language represent a hidden reality behind that experienced by science is a double mistake: mistaken in its assumption that science grasps reality directly, and mistaken in ascribing the same aim to religion. Rather than a system of factual knowledge or beliefs, Latour argues, religion is performative, that is, it transforms both enunciator and audience. That is, religion “operates performatively by making something present in the act of enunciation; and what they make present is what Latour calls ‘the divine.'” “Religion is not about transcendence,” he writes, “a Spirit from above, but all about immanence to which is added the renewal, the rendering present again of this immanence.”

As Golinski points out, however, “those who hold certain theological doctrines as central to their faith will see Latour’s analysis as another version of the human sciences’ attempt to explain religion—and thereby to explain it away.” But more importantly, according to Golinski, Latour “overstates his case when he asserts that religion has only been construed as a system of beliefs since science established its epistemological primacy” in post-Reformation Europe. If this were true of all religion, particularly Christianity, why all those heresy disputes and trials in the past? According to scholars like Philip Schaff, Jaroslav Pelikan, J.N.D. Kelly, and John H. Leith, “Christianity has always been a ‘creedal’ religion in that it has always been theological.” It was rooted, writes Leith, “in the theological traditions of ancient Israel, which was unified by its historical credos and declaratory affirmations of faith.” Interestingly enough, the discomfort with creed or doctrinal statements is itself a byproduct of the modern consciousness. “The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” were marked, Claude Welch observes in his Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, by “the antidogmatic, antienthusiatic temper of an age tired and disgusted with religious controversies.” In turn an emphasis emerged on authentic “faith,” of personal feeling and experience. The fides quae creditur was subordinated by the fides qua creditur, the “faith which one believes” to the “faith by which one believes.” Defined most memorably by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), in his The Christian Faith, as “the feeling of absolute dependence,” this revised definition of “religion” or “faith” replaced not only the traditional proofs for the existence of God, but of dogma, creed, and confession as well. Golinski also argues that “the notion that science provided an epistemic model that influenced conceptions of religion has more plausibility in the nineteenth century, when the cultural authority accorded to science had increased considerably.”

At any rate, “science” and “religion” are clearly products of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Science,” in the modern sense, was invented sometime between 1780 and 1850. The term “scientist” was first coined by William Whewell in 1833, but not widely adopted until the end of the century. Religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian kind, has historically been doctrinal, propositional, creedal, and confessional. After the Reformation, with the emergence of abundant new sects, it only became more confessional. Exhausted by the religious wars, a new emphasis soon emerged, encouraging a Christianity of more feeling and emotion than of intellectual assent to certain propositions. This new religion of feeling, however, was juxtaposed to a new understanding of science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and, in the end, came out lacking. The point is that both categories are products of long gestation that require detailed contextual and historical analysis in order to make sense of science-religion discussions.

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