Topical Seminar: Science and Religion

Course Status: 
Restricted Elective
CEU code: 
HIME 5105
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Course Year: 
Academic year: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
17 Sep 2012 - 7 Dec 2012
Host Unit: 
Department of History
Co-hosting Unit(s) [if applicable]: 
Department of Medieval Studies
Aziz Alazmeh
Karl Hall
Assessment : 
10% - Participation in all sessions is expected. Students may miss as many as two sessions without advance permission, but any additional absence entails writing a 10-page makeup paper. 30% - Three response papers of 2-3 pp. will be assigned during the semester. 60% - An in-class written exam featuring a choice of four out of six questions.

Both science and religion make grand claims to organize human experience, not only as "ways of knowing," but also as drivers of complex and durable institutions that have played major roles in the life of societies, and as incubators of ontologies and cosmologies that have manifested amazing (if often internally contradictory) variety. We seek in this course to understand some of the major strategies that historians have employed to make sense of the encounter between science and religion from ancient times through the Darwinian age. Our main focus will be on the major monotheistic religions and their interactions with important strands of natural philosophy from Aristotle onward. If Western Christianity somewhat dominates the choice of themes thanks to an extensive corpus of scholarly literature, we will make a point in this course of de-centering and interrogating key historiographical themes by recourse to both the medieval Islamic tradition and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In studying the tropes of conflict, mutual isolation, and reconciliation, we will also see how the historical sciences themselves became participants in, and not just chroniclers of, these encounters.

NB: Any readings without direct links on this page may be found on the course e-learning web page.

Class Attendance

Regular attendance is mandatory in all classes. A student who misses more than two units (two 100 min sessions) in any 2 or 4 credit class without a verified reason beyond the student's control must submit an 8-10 page paper assigned by the Professor which as a rule should cover the material in the missed class. The paper is due no later than 3 weeks after the missed class.

Recommended readings:

  • R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford, 1945).
  • A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton, 1986).
  • E. Grant, Science and Religion, 400 BC - AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (Baltimore, 2004).
  • John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991).

Web resources:

Week 1: Introduction: Three models of science and religion (September 20)

Week 2: Cosmogony, myth, and natural philosophy (September 27)

  • G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason and Experience, Cambridge, 1979, ch. 1.
  • Vesnel, Henk S., “Thrice One. Three Greek Experiments in Oneness,” One God or Many? Concepts of Divinity in the Ancient World, ed. Barbara N. Porter, Chebeague, Casco Bay Assyriological Society, 2000, pp. 79-163.

Further Reading:

  • J.-P. Vernant, Myth and Thought among the Greeks, London 1983, pp. 343-374 (“Formation of Positivist thought”), 176-189 (“Geometry and Spherical Astronomy”).

Week 3: Arabic science and the Muslim religion (October 4)

  • G. Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Cambridge, Mass., 2011, ch. 5, pp. 171-192.
  • T. E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science. Islam, China and the West, Cambridge, 1993, ch. 3 ("Reason and rationality in Islam and the West").

Further Reading:

  • L. E. Goodman, "al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariyya," Encyclopedia of Islam 8 (Leiden, 1995).
  • S. H. Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam, Cambridge, 1987 (CEU ACLS Humanities E-Book), esp. ch. 12.
  • T. E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science. Islam, China and the West, Cambridge, 1993, ch. 2 ("Arabic science and the Islamic world").

Week 4: Arabic Science and Christian Learning (October 11)

  • E. Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, 1996, ch. 5, pp. 70-85.
  • W. Montgomery Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Edinburgh, 1972, ch. 5, pp. 58-71.

Further Reading:

  • H. Belting, Florence and Bagdad, Cambridge, Mass., 2011.
  • Grant, Foundations, ch. 6 and 7.
  • E. Grant, “Science and Religion in the Middle Ages,” (lecture – electronic version)
  • Saliba, Islamic Science, ch. 6.
  • A. M. Lorca, “Ibn Rushd’s Influence on Scholastic and Renaissance Philosophy,” (conference paper – online).
  • D. C. Lindberg, “The medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon and the Handmaiden Metaphor,” When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers, Chicago, 2003, pp. 1-32.
  • E. Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy from the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization, Baltimore, 2011.

Week 5: Hermeticism, mathematics, and the Galilean moment (October 18)

Further reading:

  • Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago, 1964).
  • Brian P. Copenhaver, "Natural magic, hermetism, and occultism in early modern science," in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990), 261-301.
  • Mario Biagioli, Galileo Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism (Chicago, 1993).
  • J. L. Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford, 2010).
  • Allen G. Debus, Man and Nature in the Renaissance (Cambridge, 1978).

Week 6: Mechanical philosophies (October 25)

  • René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy (1644), trans. Jonathan Bennett. [Concentrate for present purposes on Part 1, 1-12, 23, 30, 70, 73, 76; Part 2, 1-4, 37; Part 3, 1-4; Part 4, 187-207]
  • Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso: Shewing, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian (1690-91), The Works of Robert Boyle, M. Hunter and E. B. Davis, eds., vol. 11 (2000), 291-327.
  • W. B. Ashworth, “Christianity and the Mechanistic Universe,” When Science and Christianity Meet, pp. 61-84.

Further Reading:

  • P. Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Sciences, Cambridge, 1998.
  • Simon Schaffer, "Godly men and mechanical philosophers: Souls and spirits in Restoration natural philosophy," Science in Context 1 (1987): 55-85.

November 1: Hungarian National Holiday: No class

Week 7: Newtonian heterodoxies (November 8)

  • William Whiston, A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original, to the Consummation of all Things (1696) (excerpt)
  • Isaac Newton, fragments from a Treatise on Revelation (1974).
  • Margaret Jacobs, "Christianity and the Newtonian worldview," God and Nature (1986)

Further reading:

  • Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The foundations of Newton's alchemy : or, "The hunting of the greene lyon" (Cambridge, 1975).

Week 8: 1) Jesuit science 2) Enlightenment themes (November 15)

  • John Heilbron, "Science in the Church," Science in Context 3 (1989): 9-28.
  • Joseph Priestley, Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit (Birmingham, 1782 [1777]), i-vi, 257-271.
  • William Clark, "The death of metaphysics in Enlightened Prussia," The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, W. Clark, J. Golinski, S. Schaffer, eds. (1999), 423-473.

Further reading:

  • Steven J. Harris, "Transposing the Merton Thesis: Apostolic spirituality and the establishment of the Jesuit scientific tradition," Science in Context 3 (1989): 29-65.
  • Mordechai Feingold, "Jesuits: Savants," Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters (Cambridge, Mass., 2003).

Week 9: Positivism and scientism (November 22)

  • Auguste Comte and Positivism, ed. G. Lenzer, New York, 1975, pp. 71-86 = A. Comte, Introduction to Positive Philosophy, ed. F. Ferré, Indianapolis, 1988, pp. 1-33.
  • J. C. Greene, Science, Ideology and World View, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981, ch. 4, pp. 60-94: “Biology and Social Theory in the Nineteenth Century: Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.”

Further Reading:

  • D. B. Paul, “Darwin, Social Darwinism and Eugenics,” Cambridge Companion to Darwin, ed. J. Hodge and G. Radick, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 219-245.

Week 10: Science and religious apologetics in the 19th c. (November 29)

  • Cardinal Newman, "Christianity and Scientific Investigation," in The Idea of a University, Washington, 1999.
  • N. Keddie, “Imperialism, Science and Religion: Two essays by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, 1883” (electronic version).

Further Reading:

  • M. Nanda, Prophets Facing Backward. Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, New Brunswick, 2003.
  • E. Renan, L’Islamisme et la science, Paris, 1883 (online:
  • J. Hedley Brooke, “Darwin and Victorian Christianity,” The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, pp. 197-219.
  • M. Alper Yalcinkaya, "Science as an ally of religion: a Muslim appropriation of 'the conflict thesis'," British Journal for the History of Science 44 (2011): 161-181.

Week 11: Darwinism and creationism (December 6)

Further Reading:

  • Ronald Numbers, The Creationists (Cambridge, Mass., 1993/2006).
  • Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997).
  • R. Dawkins, The God Delusion, London, 2006, esp. ch. 5.
  • A. McGrath, Dawkins’ God, Oxford, 2005.
  • T. Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution, New Haven, 2009.