It has been a much commented on irony that biblical literalists and atheistic materialists agree somewhat on the terms of the debate over science and religion but just take opposite sides. Specifically, this may be that, say, the evidence in the rocks should confirm or deny the Biblical account of creation and it is just that either side interpret the evidence differently, with the atheists saying the rocks disprove the Genesis timeline and the creationists saying the Bible shows that the atheists’ interpretation must be flawed. Beyond this is an assumption about what science and religion as monolithic entities do, can do and should do.
Peter Harrison’s book The Territories of Science and Religion digs a lot deeper than this, pardon the pun, to examine the origins of our modern interpretation of the terms ‘science’ and ‘religion’, and argues that both are modern abstractions that do not fit with past ideas. Against modern ideas from those happy to concede a harmonious complementarity between the two, or those who see only antagonism, Harrison suggests that in the past ‘science’ could only be viewed as ‘sciences’ plural, which encompassed religious investigations, and that ‘religion’ was a way of living, not primarily doctrines that one must agree with. Importantly, the two domains were intermingled, and it was a legacy of the Reformation and the Enlightenment that religious believers began to agree that their views had to be validated by the methods of thinkers determined to invalidate them.
Harrison is not the only one to be reminding us that the medieval worldview was far more subtle than we sometimes think, and that our own, often simplistic, views are not always an improvement, but he has incorporated this into a book that is attractively concise. He also limits the abstraction by describing the views of individuals such as Isaac Newton (above), who, for one, embodied the complicated attitudes of his time.