Ian Ramsey Centre

“The Shifting Territories of Science and Religion?” - Peter Harrison

Discussions of the relationship between science and religion often assume that it is a relatively simple matter to establish clear boundaries for what counts as science and what counts as religion. Indeed, the idea that we can meaningfully discuss this relationship at all—whether it is conceived in positive or negative terms—relies to a large extent on our capacity to demarcate both science and religion from other activities. In this lecture I suggest that many theoretical demarcation efforts fail to capture the essence of the activities as they conducted in practice. And while this is true of science and religion in the present, it is especially true of these enterprises in the past. During the Middle Ages, for example, scientia was understood primarily as one of the intellectual virtues. The plural ‘sciences’ (scientiae) promoted the development of this mental habit which, in turn, led to the perfection of the intellect. The seventeenth century witnessed the demise of the intellectual virtues and the beginning of a process in which ‘science’ referred less to personal qualities and more to methods and bodies of knowledge. This reification of the intellectual virtue scientia parallels the fate of the moral virtue religio which, from the seventeenth century onwards, is no longer understood to be a personal quality but is reconceptualized as a system of beliefs and practices. The early modern objectification of these two virtues was a precondition for the modern relationship between science and religion, and this understanding of science and religion is a distinctive feature of Western modernity. I conclude with some reflections about what this might mean for our contemporary discussions of science and religion.

PETER HARRISON is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Previously he was the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and Director of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre. He has published extensively in the area of intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period, and has written, more generally, on the historical relations between science and religion. Author of more than 100 articles and chapters, his six books include The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge, 1998), The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge, 2007), and The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge, 2011). His most recent book, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago, 2015), is based on his 2011 Gifford Lectures and was awarded the 2015 Aldersgate Prize.

See also Oxford University Podcasts