Science and Religion

An Impossible Dialogue

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Yves Gingras
Peter Keating
  • Maiden, MA: 
    Polity Books
    , July
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is a post-thesis fellow and honorary research fellow in studies in religion at the University of Queeensland, Australia.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yves Gingras has been a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal since 1986.


Yves Gingras

I very rarely respond to reviewers of my books since I usually respect their opinions when they follow the implicit rules of ethical book reviewing based, incidentally, on the principle of interpretative charity. I did it only once, twenty-five years ago, when I considered the review was dishonest. I do it again today as I think the author does not honestly present the content of the various chapters before making his personal critical comments, which should be argued and not just stated peremptorily.

The reviewer seems upset by the book and expresses his feelings using words like “absurd,” “sloppy,” and “shallow.” The problem is that the reader has no clue about the precise content and conceptual approach of the book and the many primary and secondary sources it used and referred to in about six hundred endnotes. Also, the reviewer used quotation marks for the expressions “rational reasoning” versus “religious reasoning”—thus suggesting a quote from the book—when in fact the book contains no such expression as they are not part of my analytical lexicon, as a full-text search easily shows. I make no such opposition between kinds of reasoning but only between science and religion as institutional structures. Also, in writing that “according to Gingras” the analysis of many scholars suffers from “spurious sophistry” he again suggests I wrote such a contradictory expression (which I of course didn’t) for if the sophism were “spurious” then it would not be a sophism! In fact, I do show in detail why some assertions by historians of science are indeed sophisms and I quote them precisely to show why that is the case (10).

It has become a custom in some circle to invoke the anathema of “essentialism” to discredit an argument, again without showing how exactly the notion used is indeed “essentialist,” a term rarely defined in any case. What the reviewer does not say is that I address that question explicitly in the book and reject in advance that notion. I wrote: “those who criticize the notion of ‘conflict’ have often suggested that it is the fruit of an ‘essentialist’ conception of science and religion that views the two as unchanged for four hundred years. These critics cite no precise examples for the obvious reason that, of course, nobody has never explicitly supported such a simple-minded thesis that ‘science’ did not change between the 17th and the 19th century.” And I add: “It is obvious that the practice of science at the beginning or even at the end of the seventeenth century differs from that in the middle of the nineteenth century” (132).

The reader is not told either that my criticism of the “myth of conflict” is based on a thorough quantitative analysis of the expression “conflict between science and religion” in hundreds of texts published in English between 1820 and 2000 (133-49). These data clearly show that discussions of “conflict” were not simply the result of Draper and White polemical books, as seems to be the dominant view, though it obviously surged after that, but began more than two decades before. What the reviewer seems to have missed is that the question is not whether we may now believe that there should not be conflict but rather how in fact historical actors perceived the relations between science and religion. Same for the idea of dialogue, as I quote Cardinal John Henry Newman who already asserts in 1855 that “Theology and Science, whether in their respective ideas, or again in their own actual fields, on the whole, are incommunicable, incapable of collision, and needing, at most to be connected, never to be reconciled” (145). Chapter 5 analyses what actors say about the conflict and show these discourses transformed into “dialogue” only after the 1980s. Note also that the reviewer never provides a definition of the term “dialogue,” whereas I do. For without a precise definition of that term one cannot know exactly what one is talking about. So, in chapter 6, titled “What is a ‘dialogue’ between science and religion?” I explain: “For the dialogue to have a chance to engender agreement, the protagonists must have a common ground and speak about the same things. If they are not, then they are unable to understand each other in much the same way as Alexandre Koyré said of Menon and Socrates in his study of Platonic dialogues, when he said that ‘their thoughts move on entirely different planes’” (162).

The reader is also never told that a whole chapter is devoted to analyzing the many scientific books put on the Catholic Index of prohibited books not only in the 17th century—as if there were no more cases after that time—but also from the 18th to the 20th century. Neither can the reader imagine that chapter 3 provides a history of the long process of autonomization of many sciences (astronomy, natural history, history) from religion, both defined as social institutions that have their own logic. For it should be obvious that “religion” is not synonymous with “personal beliefs” or even “spirituality.”

The reviewer seems upset by the fact that I eschew the biographical approach. I respect his penchant for biography and I explicitly say in the book that biography is legitimate and in fact a dominant mode, but add that “to show that the personal beliefs or religious motivations of a given researcher positively influenced his or her research may be interesting from a biographical point of view, but it fails to enlighten us about the way in which religious institutions have responded to a given scientific discovery or theory” (7). This lack of understanding of the sociological approach of the book is made clear by the case of Kepler. Referring to page 72 of my book, the reviewer tells us that he “was a deeply religious man,” thus implicitly suggesting I don’t mention that obvious fact. Not only do I devote a whole section to Kepler’s debate with theologians (23-25) but I also wrote on page 73 that “as we saw in the first chapter, Kepler, although a very pious Lutheran, did not hesitate to oppose theologians by reminding them that if, in theology, one had to take the views of authorities into account, only the weight of reason counted in philosophy.” In fact the case of Kepler and many others natural philosophers and scientists clearly show that despite the obvious fact that they were all sincere believers, they nonetheless did defend the autonomy of their scientific practice in front of theologians, as did also Immanuel Kant in his 1794 book on The Conflict of Faculties, that I analyze also (16-17).

There would be more to say about other affirmations based on appeal to authority instead of closely argued arguments, but these examples should suffice to show that the reviewer has failed in his task of providing the reader or Reading Religion with a review that could have been the start of a rational dialogue about the history of the relations between science and religion.


James C. Ungureanu

I would like to thank Yves Gingras for responding to my review. It is always a pleasure to interact with other scholars who share similar interests. That being said, Gingras has not clearly addressed the difficulties I raised in my original review, and I regret to say that I am not convinced by his latest reiteration. A book such as Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue requires a significant amount of evidence to demonstrate its thesis. Gingras does not provide such evidence. Moreover, what evidence he does provide is misconstrued and often taken out of context.

While my original review was mostly critical, there were a few things that I did agree with Gingras. For example, I too agree that discussion of “conflict” predated Draper and White. In fact, I think Gingras understands Draper and White better than many other historians of science and religion. My own work looks at the how Draper and White were merely synthesizers of a long history of Protestant anti-Catholic polemic. Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, this polemic had transformed into a Protestant self-critique, which, in turn, had been appropriated by secularists and freethinkers at the end of the century and the beginning of the twentieth as a polemic against all religions. So, I agree with Gingras that “conflict” predated Draper and White—a point I never contested. However, Gingras’s understanding of the nature of this conflict is entirely ahistorical. Not only does he look at the history of this “conflict” from a presentist perspective, it is entirely uneven in approach as well.

Gingras charges that I have misrepresented his book in my review. Among other things, he claims that I have “no clue about the precise content and conceptual approach of the book.” I beg to differ. My own work traces in detail the origins, development, and popularization of the “conflict thesis.” Our difference is that while he takes an abstract and philosophical approach to the topic, my own approach is historical and contextual. He claims that he never uses the expression “rational reasoning.” However, that is the exact expression he used to characterize Charles Lyell’s approach to observing and analyzing natural phenomena (84). This view, he says, eventually “collided” with “biblical belief.” Yet he neglects to mention that this methodologically naturalistic approach to studying nature was advocated and promoted by deeply religious men and women in the nineteenth century. Gingras repeats more than once that I’ve misunderstood the sociological approach to the book. That is possible. But while that may be the case, Gingras’s alleged sociological approach does not tell us much about the history of the (“impossible”) dialogue between science and religion. Again, we are dealing with individual, historical figures, not abstract notions of “institutions,” “science,” and “religion.” Moreover, merely stating that Kepler was a “very pious Lutheran” is not enough. In Kepler’s day, natural philosophy was not something autonomous from theology. As Andrew Cunningham and many others have shown, “natural philosophy” always purported to describe and explain natural phenomena in relation to God, however conceived. In other words, we have theologians arguing with other theologians about the nature of the natural world, not “scientists” with “theologians.”

Gingras insists on having a "rational" discussion—but if that means talking in abstractions, eschewing biography, and ignoring historical context, then I’m afraid he will find very few dialogue partners.


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