12 Mar

The novelty of “science” and “religion”

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/12/21

Peter Harrison on the contingency of boundaries that divide our lives

“So familiar are the concepts ‘science’ and ‘religion,’ and so central to Western culture have been the activities and achievements that are usually labeled ‘religious’ and ‘scientific,’ that it is natural to assume that they have been enduring features of the cultural landscape of the West. But this view is mistaken. 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.

“In pointing out that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are concepts of relatively recent coinage, I intend to do more than make a historical claim about the anachronistic application of modern concepts to past errors. 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. In much the same way that we can make sense of certain contemporary international conflicts by attending to the historical processes through which national boundaries were carved out of a geographical territory, so too, with the respective territories of religion and the natural sciences. Just as the borders of nation-states are often more a consequence of imperial ambitions, political expediency, and historical contingencies than of a conscious attending to more ‘natural’ faultiness of geography, culture, and ethnicity — think in this context of the borders of the modern state of Israel — so the compartmentalization of modern Western culture that gave rise to these distinct notions ‘science’ and ‘religion’ resulted not from a rational or dispassionate consideration of how to divide cultural life along natural fracture lines, but to a significant degree has been to do with political power — broadly conceived — and the accidents of history.”

— from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Peter Harrison taked about this book on Volume 131 of the Journal. Other excerpts from this book may be read here and here.