Science & Religion: Myths, errors and new possibilities

October 10, 2014

One common view of science and religion is that they are in direct competition with each other, offering incompatible explanations for the same phenomena. Hence, conflict between science and religion is seen as inevitable. Projecting this idea back in time, the whole of Western history can be understood as a protracted battle between science and religion. Science seems now to be winning that battle, even though there remain significant pockets of religious resistance.

Above: Image courtesy of Wiki Commons
In recent years, historians of science have attacked this idea of a perennial conflict between science and religion, demonstrating the numerous ways in which, over the course of history, science has been supported by Christian ideas and assumptions. These positive relations came about partly because the boundaries of science and religion were understood quite differently in the past. In the 2014 New College lectures Professor Peter Harrison discussed how these boundaries shifted across the centuries, and the way this offers insights into science-religion relations in the present.

In the first lecture Prof Harrison began by looking at how we have come to understand the world in terms of the distinct categories “science” and “religion”. He explored how we came to separate the domain of material facts from the realm of moral and religious values.

He spent some time unpacking how the use of the Latin word ‘religio’ in pre-modern times, was not the same as the later English translation ‘religion’. Rather than signifying specific beliefs and practices, it was seen as a form of worship. He cited varied sources including Augustine, who described ‘true’ religion as involving a form of inner worship rightly directed at God. Early Christians he stressed saw ‘religio’ as a form of worship not just propositional content to be claimed and accepted.

In the second lecture he outlined how modern science was invented. He argued that for centuries Natural Philosophy like Theology was also seen as an inner quality, not just knowledge and propositions. Aquinas building on Aristotle’s teaching, argued that science too was an inner ‘habit’, an intellectual virtue that was a gift from God.

But while in the pre-modern period Christianity and Natural Philosophy were seen as rival spiritual practices, by the 19th Century we were to see Religion and Science replacing Theology & Natural Philosophy, and the unfolding of a fierce conflict between what were now seen as two incompatible sets of beliefs.

In the final lecture on night three, Professor Harrison considered how the myth of conflict between Science and Religion developed and offered an insight into the narrative of the two contending powers. He also considered the work of New Atheists and their failure to understand how and why faith and reason, or religion and science can be held in relationship to one another.

For my part, this has been an extremely engaging series of three wonderful lectures. If you would like to listen to all three lectures visit the New College website for the lectures and a copy of his powerpoint presentation that you will need while listening to them.

You will find Lectures 1 and 3 on our website as well as the powerpoint presentations for all three lectures HERE

We are unable to provide the second lecture as the audio file has been corrupted.

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