McGrath, Barbour, Harrison, and a New Fourfold Taxonomy of Science-Religion relations

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Alister McGrath’s Science and Religion is one of the most respected and widely adopted textbooks in the field. It uses Ian Barbour’s fourfold taxonomy of science-religion relations as a helpful means of approaching the field, while noting some criticisms such as its inadequacies to do justice to the complexity of history (Cantor and Kenny). More recent arguments by Peter Harrison have led many scholars to abandon taxonomies altogether. In this paper, I argue that such an abandonment is unwarranted by offering a new 4C taxonomy which improves upon the pedagogical advantages of Barbour’s taxonomy and avoids its weaknesses. The four Cs exhaustively cover all possibilities as follows:

Either the relata are perceived to overlap, or not (Compartmentalization). If overlap, then either there are perceived as contradictories (Conflict), or not. If not, then either they are perceived to have a relationship of evidential support (Convergence), or not (Conversation). By clarifying that the relata can be aspects of science and religion, and that different ‘C’ may or may not be applicable to different time periods, communities, doctrines, theories, methodologies, and practices, my taxonomy takes into account the complexity of history and its social, cultural and political aspects. In reply to the objection by Cantor, Kenny, and Harrison that the boundaries of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ have changed over time, I argue that we can nevertheless identify common properties that can be used to define continuous scientific and religious practices from past to present, and one can refer to entities having these properties and evaluate whether they have been in conflict. Citing Augustine’s rejection of Manichaeism and Xu Guangqi’s conversion to Catholicism on scientific grounds, I demonstrate the inadequacies of Harrison’s own approach and show that my taxonomy is helpful for studying science-religion relations historically and cross-culturally.


Conference2022 Ian Ramsey Centre (IRC) Summer Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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