Science and Religion
An Impossible Dialogue
- ISBN: 9781509518937
- Published By: Polity Books
- Published: July 2017
Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue is an English translation of the French, L’impossible dialogue: Sciences et religions, which was first published in 2016. Yves Gingras, a historian and sociologist of science at the University of Quebec at Montreal, has produced a polemic reminiscent of those written by John W. Draper and Andrew D. White at the end of nineteenth century. But unlike these turn-of-the-century polemicists, who in fact offered a more nuanced argument than commonly claimed, Gingras posits a quintessential “conflict thesis,” in which he argues for an essential conﬂict between science and religion that began in the seventeenth century and continues to this day.
Gingras is mainly concerned with modern calls for “dialogue,” and how this discourse came to occupy historians of science and religion since the 1980s. This “ecumenical vision,” which he finds in the writings of such scholars as David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, John Hedley Brooke, Richard Olson, and Peter Harrison is, according to Gingras, spurious sophistry, since he regards such dialogue as impossible (10). Gingras believes that conflict has regulated the relations between science and religion from the beginning of the modern era. He thus seeks to challenge those in the science-and-religion “industry,” especially those supportive institutions such as the Templeton Foundation, who have, he says, (mis)used history to promote such discourse. Gingras is particularly scornful towards recent scholarship that treats the conflict between science and religion as nothing more than a “myth.”
While Gingras states at the outset that his primary concern is the “historical relations between science and religion as institutions in the Western world since the seventeenth century” (5), this is essentially part of the problem with his analysis. Gingras has decided to eschew biography, and thus context, from his understanding of the interactions between men and women of science and men and women of faith. He does not care about the personal beliefs of scientists or religionists, and thus completely ignores them. The depth of his analysis is, therefore, unavoidably limited.
In the first couple of chapters, readers will find a return to a “Galileo Affair” type of argumentation. Gingras sees Bishop of Paris Étienne Tempier’s famous proscription in 1277 of 219 theses of Aristotle as marking a point of rupture. Thus, at the very beginning of the thirteenth century, Gingras asserts that we find “the establishment of a system of inquisition, the ecclesiastical censorship of books and the excommunication of delinquent authors whose dubious teachings were reported and denounced to religious authorities” (17). As a result, Copernicus hesitated before publishing his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, knowing that his work would arouse the ire of the theologians. Thus the conflict was fundamentally about the autonomy of natural philosophy vis-à-vis theology (21).
The case of Galileo is emblematic for Gingras. This is not new scholarship; Gingras extensively cites Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s book The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (University of California Press, 1989). He continues with Galileo in the following chapter when he turns to the historical sources of the Inquisition.
In chapter 3, Gingras reviews the slow movement toward the secularization of scientific practices. He argues that the implementation of naturalist methods in the different fields of science emerged with the correlative exclusion of God from the field of science. This was not only an institutional separation, but also an epistemological division, Gingras claims (71-74). However, Gingras has provided only a cursory analysis when he claims that we see this separation in, for example, the Royal Society of London or the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Simply put: this is just sloppy. There has been extensive work done on both these societies, all demonstrating that religion continued to play a dominant role among members. On the Sunday of the British Association meeting, for instance, official business was suspended so members could be free to attend sermons from local and visiting preachers from surrounding churches.
Here Gingras also makes the absurd claim that “science as conceived by Kepler, Galileo and [others]…was neither theology nor metaphysics; it sought only to understand phenomena through constant and invariable laws of nature that were discovered by experimentation and mathematical demonstrations” (72). Actually, Kepler was a deeply religious man: his God was a rational, logical creator of a mathematical cosmos. He was not only one of the makers of modern astronomy, but a leading astrologer as well. Kepler’s idea of the universe was from the beginning Platonic, or perhaps Pythagorean, and thus guided by metaphysical commitments.
Almost every single figure Gingras discusses, from Newton to Darwin, is either extremely selective or glaringly shallow in his analysis. One of the central weaknesses of this chapter and others is Gingras’s refusal to see these figures as engaged in anything more than “rational reasoning” versus “religious reasoning.” Changes in theology allowed men of science to make new hypotheses, and conflict or controversy was not so much about “science and religion” or even “science and institutionalism” as it was a battle between contending theological traditions. Thus one cannot help but feel that Gingras’s constant refrain of “institutionalism” is mere rhetorical dressing.
Historians of science will likely be most interested in chapter 5, however, where Gingras offers an analysis of recent attempts to minimize conflicts between science and religion for the benefit of “dialogue.” In the 1990s, attempts at “dialogue” or “convergence” between science and religion flourished. The rise of the theme of “dialogue” and even “complexity” is, for Gingras, the product of a convergence of several ideological currents: the will of the Christian church to enhance dialogue, the development of New Age movements, and postmodernism. Above all (and this is perhaps his most original contribution), Gingras highlights the Templeton Foundation and its interference in the very functioning of science through generous scholarships for scientists with religious convictions. From its inception, the Templeton Foundation invested heavily in books, meetings, and demonstrations, that insisted on dialogue, consensus, and harmony between science and religion.
In the final two chapters, Gingras attempts to show that from a philosophical point of view, the dialogue between a believer and a scientist is strictly impossible. The theological impulse for dialogue is rooted in the ideal that there is some hidden reality that only the mystery of the divine can reveal. Only religions and their spokespersons demand this dialogue (163). According to Gingras, the conflict between beliefs and knowledge is still there, as evidenced by the difficulties of American archaeologists faced with the refusal of indigenous groups to see fossil skeletons under investigation. The ﬁnal chapter thus departs from the book’s general focus on Christianity and the gradual autonomy of science from religion’s authority. Here the focus is on contemporary confrontations pitting indigenous, local traditions of knowledge that lay claim to a kind of private autonomy against that of the (state-endorsed) archaeological and medical scientiﬁc establishments.
In his conclusion Gingras repeats the old trope that science leads to disenchantment and secularization, even though numerous historians, sociologists, and other scholars have seriously questioned and qualified this assertion. In this sense, this book was obsolete before it was even published. All in all, Gingras seems to show very little understanding of the complexity of concepts he discusses, and possibly less understanding of the historical figures he brings into his narrative.
James C. Ungureanu is a post-thesis fellow and honorary research fellow in studies in religion at the University of Queeensland, Australia.James C. UngureanuDate Of Review:October 23, 2017