The myth of a religion/science conflict

Throughout history, the tacitly understood relationship between religion and science could be described as follows: these two institutions—or worldviews or domains of life or lenses for interpreting the universe (take your pick)—are and always have been in conflict. The former reflects a primitive state of consciousness that in the past couple of centuries has succumbed to the accelerating victories of rationalism and empirical science. Churches and clerics have thus ceded long-standing cultural, intellectual, and political authority to science and technology and their concomitant institutions, supplanting the tyranny of the arbiters of faith with a modern, democratic regime of reasoned progress.

To which account we might be expected to reply, Amen.

Not so fast. According to Peter Harrison, every piece of this tacit narrative is false. Not just historically false, but conceptually false, and painfully so. In The Territories of Science and Religion, a provocative historical unpacking of the religion-versus-science debate, Harrison contends that the idea that there is something called religion and something else called science is a phenomenon of the recent past. Only since the 19th century or thereabouts have religion and science been separately identifiable. The narrative history proffered by those trumpeting the victory of scientific rationalism over superstitious faith is thus, in Harrison’s words, a conflict myth.