THE GREAT RIFT: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide

By Jongsma, Calvin | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, June 2019 | Go to article overview

THE GREAT RIFT: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide


Jongsma, Calvin, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


THE GREAT RIFT: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide by Michael E. Hobart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. xiv + 506 pages, with appendices, endnotes, and index. Hardcover; $39.95. ISBN: 9780674983632.

Michael Hobart's book The Great Rift presents a novel and provocative perspective on the age-old conflict between religion and science. In his words:

My central thesis may be baldly and succinctly stated: the shift 
between two distinct information technologies--literacy and 
numeracy--resides at the source of how science and religion went their 
separate ways, producing the Great Rift between them. (p. 4)

To be clear, Hobart does not specifically address the alleged discord between science and religion but delineates how a chasm (his word) opened up to drive them apart. Nevertheless, Hobart holds that as life became ever more secularized, religion became less relevant to science and was "not so much conquered as ignored" (p. 10), so that "from the late nineteenth century to our own times we have reached the point where observers and participants alike... have come to view the widening separation between science and religion as an impasse, or even a war zone" (p. 323).

To support his thesis, Hobart fleshes out and refines some research begun two decades earlier with a colleague on transitions between the three stages in the history of information technology: literacy, numeracy, and computerized information processing. The result here is a well-researched book, based on a lifetime of work, that extensively examines medieval and Renaissance developments in mathematics as well as Galileo's seminal role in the rise of modern science. The detailed scholarly treatment given these topics, which we cannot adequately recapitulate here, makes the book well worth its modest price, completely aside from its take on the science-religion divide.

Hobart begins his narrative with a brief look at the ancient world, which introduced and developed the information technology of recorded language. Greek writing is epitomized by its literature and philosophy, which make extensive use of definition and classification to capture the essence of things. Aristotle systematically codified forms of deductive reasoning based on this type of thinking in his logic. Medieval schoolmen later adopted this mode of knowledge acquisition in their educational practices and intellectual debates. Classification and fine distinctions permeated the writings of those who studied the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) as well as the writings of those dedicated to more advanced topics in theology and philosophy.

During this time period, there was a methodological unity overall to science and religion. Thinkers described the observed behavior of natural phenomena in terms of causes related to their essential natures, leaving room for divine purposes at the head of it all. They employed the same sort of reasoning that explained the structure of the natural world to incorporate religious ends and means. Science and religion in medieval Europe formed a fairly harmonious whole.

As people began to use mathematics more consistently in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in order to relate things in everyday arenas such as commercial transactions, music, perspective painting, and astronomy, the explanatory focus for natural phenomena moved away from appealing to the intrinsic nature of things to demonstrating how they functioned quantitatively. Mathematically relating numerical features of events or activities via ratio and proportion (the rule of three was an omnipresent mainstay) became the new mode of accounting for natural phenomena. This approach was fruitfully employed by Galileo in his scientific analysis of terrestrial motion, yielding his times-squared law for falling bodies and parabolic paths for projectiles. Such an approach left both traditional philosophy and theology on the outside, creating a fault line between science and religion. …

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