From Conflict to Dialogue and All the Way Back

By Peter HarrisonDecember 27, 2017

From Conflict to Dialogue and All the Way Back

Science and Religion by Yves Gingras

TERRY EAGLETON once remarked that regarding religion as an attempt to offer a scientific explanation of the world is rather like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus. Eagleton gestures toward a confusion that often afflicts those who advocate for an essential conflict between science and religion — the assumption that the two enterprises are competing for the same explanatory territory. Were this to be true, conflict between them would indeed be pretty much inevitable. An alternative view holds science and religion to be essentially independent operations, concerned with quite different questions. On this model, conflict is unlikely. Equally, dialogue would be unnecessary, perhaps even impossible?

My initial expectation, on approaching Yves Gingras’s Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue, translated by Peter Keating, was that he might be undertaking an analysis of the conditions that would make a conversation between science and religion possible, and concluding that the requisite conditions could not be met. Something like this has been maintained by others, including the 19th-century churchman John Henry Newman, whose stance (as noted by Gingras) was 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.” An updated analysis along these lines would have been a welcome intervention into a field in which the merits of dialogue are often taken for granted. But the initial promise of the book’s title went unfulfilled. Gingras instead adopts an alternative and somewhat puzzling configuration: dialogue is impossible, and conflict inevitable.

With this curious combination in mind we turn to the two stated aims of the book: first, to explain how the issue of the relations between science and religion, along with calls for a dialogue between them, came to be a significant topic of discussion in the 1980s; second, to analyze the historical relations between science and religion as institutions in the Western world since the 17th century.

For Gingras, what connects the two tasks is the work of historians of science over the past 40 years, and the consensus among them that there is no overarching pattern to past science-religion relations — neither perpetual harmony, nor unremitting conflict, only complexity. Indeed, historians of science-religion relations now routinely speak of “the conflict myth,” a distant and discredited historiography that arose in the 19th century. Gingras seeks to challenge this consensus and reinstate the older conflict model. A focus on institutions, he believes, will reveal the underlying pattern of conflict that our present-day historians all seem to have overlooked in their faddish insistence on complexities of history.

As for the increasing profile of the idea of science-religion dialogue since the 1980s, this, too, is laid at the feet of the same historians, whose insistence on the complexity of past science-religion relations is linked to present calls for dialogue. Connecting both, and adding a further institutional dimension, is the activity of the Templeton Foundation, which invests considerable funds in the promotion of dialogue between science and religion. A central claim of Gingras’s book is that the Foundation has bankrolled “the new ‘industry’ of the history of the relations between science and religion.”

Gingras’s revisionary history of religious conflict begins in the 13th century, with ecclesiastical attempts to control what was taught, and by whom, in the universities. The most celebrated instance of putative conflict took place at the University of Paris in 1277, when bishop Stephen Tempier issued a condemnation of 219 propositions in theology and philosophy. The facts of the case are much as Gingras records them, but already we encounter the difficulty that few of the relevant propositions concern what we might identify as “science.” Moreover, if we take the institutional perspective that Gingras recommends, it is surely significant that it was the Church that founded the medieval universities in the first place. Tension between universities and clerics, and turf wars between faculties, are undeniable and to some extent inevitable. What is not obvious is that such tensions can be shoehorned into a simple science versus religion story, since “religion” and “science” were typically represented by individuals and institutions on both sides of the controversy.

This becomes even more apparent with Gingras’s recounting of the fact that the Paris condemnations were followed in England by a similar, if shorter, list of condemnations promulgated by Robert Kilwardby, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Kilwardby, it turns out, was one of the most acute philosophical minds of the time and an enthusiastic early adopter of aspects of Aristotelian thought. He wrote influential commentaries on the Greek philosopher’s logical writings and authored a popular encyclopedic introduction to the sciences. It is clear, moreover, that at least some of the condemned propositions were philosophical errors, and that in these instances the intention was to correct what we might call “scientific” misconceptions. Again, we can say that “science” was represented on both sides of the controversy. Heavy-handed use of such formal prohibitions might be an affront to modern sensibilities, but it is a mistake to regard them as emblematic of a religiously motivated hostility to science.

Another complication with the medieval story comes from the fact that opposition to Aristotelian philosophy would later become a hallmark of scientific innovation. One of the prohibitions (listed by Gingras) concerns the existence of a vacuum, since this was something that God could instantiate if he so wished. It has been plausibly suggested that such prohibitions liberated Christian thinkers from too slavish an adherence to Aristotle, and that the theological emphasis on the unrestrained power of God that lay behind a number of the prohibitions promoted counterfactual thinking and hypothetical reasoning. Pierre Duhem, one of the pioneers of the history of medieval science, went so far as to say that the 1277 condemnations mark the beginning of modern science. This claim has been contested by other historians, but it cannot be summarily dismissed as a case of “spurious reasoning.”

More generally, on a number of occasions, Gingras makes much of prohibitions and book censorship on the assumption that this is a sign of an enduring battle between science and religion, or at least between the institutions that stand in for them. But this reading results from a failure to understand the universality of regimes of censorship and their ultimate goal. Legislative restrictions placed on the expression of religious, political, moral — and, in a small minority of cases, scientific — views might have served to maintain the power of particular institutions, but their goal was also the preservation of social order. It is patently clear, moreover, that religious views were far more likely to be subjected to the coercive powers of the state (and, in those cases where it could exercise temporal power, the Church) than were scientific ones. The most determined and courageous instances of resistance to such attempts at control, overwhelmingly, were religiously motivated. The history of censorship, then, does not pick out anything distinctive about science and religion, since “religion” itself was the most common target of censorship.

This brings us to the Galileo affair, which makes a predictable appearance as a set piece. The basic details of the story are well known, and again Gingras does a creditable job of reconstructing them. Galileo was warned by the Inquisition in 1616 not to teach or defend the heliocentric hypothesis first propounded by Copernicus over 70 years before. Following the publication, in 1632, of an insufficiently ambiguous defense of Copernicanism, Galileo was placed on trial, and in the following year he was found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy and ordered to recant. He did so and remained under house arrest until his death almost 10 years later.

This looks like an open and shut case of science versus religion. But there are complications. For a start, Galileo’s theory lacked proof, and his argument for the Earth’s motion based on a theory about the tides was simply wrong. Not only that, but the absence of observable stellar parallax provided apparently unassailable evidence against the motion of the Earth. The planetary model of Tycho Brahe, which had the planets orbiting the sun, and the sun orbiting a stationary Earth, offered a good compromise solution, and accounted for at least some of Galileo’s telescopic observations without the physical difficulties of putting the Earth into motion. In short, at this time there was no consensus in the scientific community about whether Galileo was right, and good reasons for thinking he was wrong. For its part, the Church was well informed on the relative merits of the various systems, and its support for the Tychonic model in the later 17th century was scientifically defensible.

Turning from science to religion, it may seem obvious that in this controversy the Inquisition will stand in for “religion.” But again, recall that the Inquisition was founded in 12th-century France to combat heresy, that its scope expanded following the Protestant Reformation, and that its most notorious activities on the Iberian Peninsula were directed against Jewish and Muslim converts. Considered in this light, the existence of the Inquisition better reflects conflict within religion, and not between “religion” in abstract and something else. Cathars, Waldensians, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims would quite understandably not consider the Inquisition to be representative of “religion” in some general sense, and neither should we.

Matters become even more complicated when we consider other institutions that were part of the Catholic Church. Mention has already been made of the medieval universities, which were the chief sites of scientific activity in the Latin Middle Ages. Subsequently, the Collegio Romano, founded in 1551, provided considerable institutional support for the sciences conducted by members of the Jesuit order, with a particular focus on astronomy and mathematics. The present-day Vatican Observatory, which traces its origins back to the Roman College, bears further witness to the Catholic Church’s sponsorship of astronomical research. In fact, between the 12th and 18th centuries the Catholic Church’s material and moral support for the study of astronomy was unmatched by any other institution. In light of this, the unfortunate prosecution of Galileo is beginning to look like the exception rather than the rule. Affording emblematic status to the Galileo affair is a little like proposing, on the basis of the Athenians’ equally notorious trial and execution of Socrates, that the ancient Greeks were implacably opposed to philosophy.

Gingras’s rehearsal of well-known historical episodes thus turns up nothing new, and his focus on institutions simply reinforces what historians of science have been saying all along: the historical picture is complicated, and while we can construct tensions that are analogous to our modern “science and religion,” conflict is neither inevitable nor does it constitute an enduring pattern.

Moving into the present, and continuing the theme of a focus on the role of institutions, Gingras advances the bold proposal that the historians’ insistence on the complexity of past science-religion relations can be attributed in large measure to the activities of the Templeton Foundation. This foundation is a charitable organization with six funding areas, one of which is “Science and the Big Questions.” A search of the Foundation’s database reveals a number of grants under this rubric that are indeed devoted to the topic of dialogue between science and religion. (Full disclosure: I have been the recipient of Templeton funding, although none of my books on the historical relations between science and religion have been supported by them.) This looks promising for the second main argument of the book. However, Gingras’s key claim is not that the Foundation has sponsored dialogue between science and religion — which, given its stated mission, is a dead giveaway — but that it “has also played a major role in foisting the theme of a ‘dialogue’ between science and religion onto the history of science [emphasis added].” There is nothing obvious about that claim, and in fact it turns out to be well wide of the mark.

Historians of science tend to cling to the old-fashioned idea that effects come after their causes. The canonical works that first began to dismantle the idea of a perennial conflict between science and religion — God and Nature (1986) edited by David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, and John Hedley Brooke’s classic Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (1991) — were written before the Templeton Foundation’s funding activities had begun to have an impact in the 1990s (the Foundation itself was not constituted until 1987). Earlier still was James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979). This book was instrumental in identifying the 19th-century progenitors of the conflict thesis, conclusively laying bare its deficiencies, and showing how religious opposition to Darwinism had been greatly exaggerated. The insinuation that authors such as David Lindberg or John Hedley Brooke might have penned their books, written in the early 1990s, in the hope of winning a modest prize that was only instituted in 1996 (and only partly supported by the Templeton Foundation) is unfortunate.

Had Gingras pursued his investigations with a little more diligence, he would also have discovered that the Templeton Foundation explicitly excludes historical research from the list of activities that it supports — much to the chagrin of a least a few historians. One of its websites expresses it unequivocally: the Foundation “typically does NOT fund […] historical projects, unless such a project is done for the sake of clarifying some non-historical question that falls within the scope of eligible topics.” Not only were the key works that first exploded the conflict myth written before the Foundation began its activities, but also, given its stated policy, there could hardly have been a subsequent myth-busting “industry” conducted by historians of science and bankrolled by Templeton funds.

It is true that, against the run of play, a handful of books dealing with historical topics have received some support from the Templeton Foundation. Gingras lists a grand total of five titles, of which four are edited collections. The acknowledgments in these four collections suggest that modest funds were expended not to support primary historical research, but to convene a meeting of editors and contributors in order to ensure thematic coherence and uniformity of style in the final collection. Some of these works make no reference at all to dialogue between science and religion. Of those that mention it, none advocate it.

There are, almost certainly, numerous other books and articles that have received support from the Templeton Foundation and that do explicitly advocate dialogue between science and religion. Determining their number, authorship, disciplinary orientation, and reception would have been a good place to start for a researcher seeking to establish a connection between the activities of the Templeton Foundation and a rise in the prominence of the idea of science-religion dialogue. Why Gingras did not pursue that course of action remains a mystery to me.

His book, however, is not without merits. It is well written, has a clearly stated thesis, and is informed by a considerable amount of historical research. I admire the author’s courage in taking on a whole subfield of intellectual inquiry. But the volume falls well short of establishing any of its central claims, falters on key issues of historical interpretation, and ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of its title.

This is a shame. The thesis of an “impossible dialogue” is underrepresented in the literature and is worthy of more attention. In pursuing it by other means Gingras could have found common cause with figures such as John Henry Newman, and indeed with theologians who share his doubts about the value of natural theology, albeit for different reasons. But the idea of an impossible dialogue is not well served by the simple rehearsal of a discredited conflict narrative. As for the effectiveness of the Templeton Foundation in fostering dialogue, a more careful and fine-grained analysis is called for here, rather than gestures toward correlations and the deployment of evidence that barely rises above the anecdotal. Again, Professor Gingras could find common cause, in this case with an institution that would share his interest in establishing the effectiveness of its own activities. Perhaps for his next project he might consider applying for a grant.


Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Queensland.

LARB Contributor

Peter Harrison is a Professorial Research Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of several books, including the prize-winning Territories of Science and Religion.


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