From Conflict to Dialogue and All the Way Back. And Then Back Again.

YVES GINGRAS’S RESPONSE to Peter Harrison’s review:

I should first thank Peter Harrison for having taken the time to review my book. I must say, however, that any reader coming away from this curious review thinking he or she has learned something about the contents of the book, or its main line of argument, would be greatly mistaken. I can understand the comment of one reader who wrote that the review “leaves this reader wondering if the book makes a decent case for the impossibility of dialogue between science and religion.”

Without even presenting a summary, however brief, of the content of the different chapters, Harrison affirms that I simply pose that “dialogue is impossible, and conflict inevitable.” He may have skipped the long quotation from Émile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society, which opens my book, thus already suggesting what is explicitly stated in the introduction: that the book aims to be a history of the long process of autonomization of the sciences (plural!) from religions (plural too). Chapter Three, titled “God: From the Center to the Periphery of Science,” shows how astronomy (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler), geology (Lyell), biology and the origins of man (Darwin and his followers), and later the history of religion (Renan and others) successively came to be defined as naturalistic endeavors excluding miracles and supernatural causes. The point is not to agree or disagree with this naturalistic conception of “science” but to follow its development through the longue durée, and see how it came to conflict with religious views at different times. Chapter Two follows the debate, ranging from the 1633 to the 1990s, between scientists seeking the annulment of Galileo’s condemnation and a Catholic Church resisting such demands — that is, until Pope John Paul II finally agreed to reopen the matter. This chapter includes a section on the role of the commemorations of Galileo’s birth and death in that process. Harrison has nothing to say on this very long history that shows that Galileo’s trial has become a real symbol and a thorn in the sides of the popes.

Instead of trying to understand the contents of the book and then evaluate its merits, as any good reviewer should do, it seems that Harrison has preferred to impose on it his own view that I should have undertaken “an analysis of the conditions that would make a conversation between science and religion possible.” And he rehearses the tired history of Tycho Brahe’s astronomical model, Galileo’s condemnation, Kilwardby’s Aristotelianism, the Vatican Observatory, and so on, instead of discussing how I treat these cases. He also misconstrues my comment about Pierre Duhem, saying that I consider Duhem’s views on the origins of modern science as “spurious reasoning.” My critique refers rather to Duhem’s idea that the condemnation of Galileo was indeed good for science as it made possible new thinking about the vacuum. Such an argument is certainly spurious when trying to justify a condemnation by the fact that it opened up new avenues of research. As I say in the book, with this kind of logic we should applaud Galileo’s house arrest in 1633 for it helped him to write his Discourse on Two New Sciences. There is no need for the historian to try to justify past events, but Duhem was a good royalist and a Catholic who did his best to promote the Church.

Chapter Six, “What is a ‘Dialogue’ Between Science and Religion?,” includes the sort of epistemological analysis that Harrison seems to call for, though he does not discuss it. But the bulk of my book is devoted to a historical analysis, not an epistemological one. Hence, Chapter Five (“From Conflict to Dialogue?”) analyzes the writings of various actors from 1800 to 2000, and shows that the notion of “conflict” was in fact a major trope in the writings on the links between science and religion, particularly after the creation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831, up until the end of the 1970s. This chapter does not seek to “reinstate the older conflict model,” as Harrison suggests, or for that matter any kind of “model” — a notion foreign to my narrative — but it simply tries to identify and understand what the actors said and how they argued.

Harrison is also silent on the lexical analysis I provide in six figures that clearly show the trends over 200 years (p. 134–141). He is also silent on the fact that I take care to define the meaning of the word “dialogue,” identify its main apostles, and show that the discourse involving dialogue takes off only after 1979, followed by an exponential growth after 1993, when the Templeton Foundation’s visibility and money was also ramping up. And far from explaining that growth by a single cause (namely Templeton money), as Harrison suggests, I clearly identify (p. 149–152) three other causes of the rise of the “dialogue” rhetoric: 1) the return of the religious after the 1970s (well analyzed in Gilles Kepel’s The Revenge of God), which led to the creation of many organizations promoting a dialogue with science, and which also put organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on the defensive; 2) Pope John Paul II’s creation (in 1979) of a committee to reconsider Galileo’s trial and to promote “dialogue” with science; and 3) the emergence of a postmodern lexicon among historians eschewing “false dichotomies” and “conflict” in favor of such terms as “conversation” (as used by Harrison), “meeting,” “exchanges,” and “encounters,” all suggesting that, after all, “everything is in everything,” and that making conceptual distinctions is a bit passé. Consciously or not, this language was used to suggest that, after all, one cannot really distinguish “science” from “religion” (rarely defined) or, even less, try to define those terms, thus committing the sin of “essentialism,” another term used to disqualify any precise analysis that shows that even natural philosophers like Kepler did know the difference between a theologian and an astronomer (p. 23–24). By the way, I even took Harrison to task (p. 10) for providing a typical example of a sophism when he wrote, in his book The Territories of Science and Religion, that the condemnation of Galileo was not a conflict between science and religion, but a conflict within science as well as a conflict within religion. As if this obvious fact precluded the possibility that it could also be a conflict between science and religion! Harrison also uses this kind of sophistry by qualifying “conflict,” making it an “unremitting conflict,” where one just sees recurrent conflict, not constant, and with only certain kinds of science: not mathematics or chemistry, but rather with astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and the history of religions.

For reasons that are difficult to understand, Harrison does not mention Chapter Four, which shows that many books were put on the Index of Prohibited Books from the 1700s to the 1940s, in addition to those of Copernicus and Galileo. Instead of using Chapter Four to discuss the many religious Darwinians shut out by Rome, he repeats the mantra that “religious opposition to Darwinism had been greatly exaggerated,” without providing any measure of what exactly “exaggeration” could mean. It is true that none of the many books on science and religion that promote the dominant view taken for granted by Harrison take the time to analyze that corpus. Their authors simply wash their hands, saying that this is in any case only a tiny minority of the prohibited or censured books with a scientific content. That’s obviously true, but this also applies to the relation between science and religion, which is a small part within the larger history of religion. But for historians who analyze the topic, this silence is surprising, and points to an agenda that favors a (never clearly defined) “dialogue,” which renders invisible even the most obvious conflict between some of the sciences (not all!) and most religions based on sacred books.

Though Harrison mentions Cardinal John Henry Newman in his review, he passes over in silence the fact that I present Newman’s views in some detail, which makes clear that even more than 20 years before the supposed creation of the myth of the conflict between science and religion by the American doctor and chemist John W. Draper, the Catholic Cardinal of Dublin was already aware that the dominant view in the public sphere was one of conflict, not dialogue or indifference. He wrote in 1855:

I think I am not mistaken in the fact that there exists, both in the educated and the half-educated portions of the community, something of a surmise or misgiving, that there really is at bottom a certain contrariety between the declarations of religion and the results of physical inquiry.

This was also the view of Pierre Duhem, who says that “between two judgments not having the same terms nor the same objects, there can be neither agreements or disagreement.” Nietzsche and Renan said the same (p. 148), but the historian must recall the difference between is and ought, and show that there were indeed conflicts where there should not have been according to some views. Duhem was an adept of what I called the “Catholic epistemology,” developed by Bellarmine at the time of Galileo and which long remained the basis of their rejection of Copernicus (p. 28–31).

It is curious that Harrison, improvising himself into a spokesperson for the Templeton Foundation, affirms that its mission excludes historical projects. This is of course again playing on words, as many conferences and books that use a historical approach to promote “dialogue” between science and religions have received large amounts of money from the Templeton Foundation over the past two decades (p. 154–158). Harrison also fails to mention that Templeton did fund many courses on the history of the relations between science and religion.

So the main reason why Harrison thinks that “the initial promise of the book’s title went unfulfilled” is simply that he is blind to the whole point of the book, which is to provide a historical analysis of views about religion and science, not just an epistemological evaluation of their validity. The latter presupposes a fixed notion of science, whereas I show that it did take time to make the explanation of any scientific subject naturalistic (thus explicitly excluding any supernatural intervention like miracles) in different fields (astronomy, geology, biology, and history of religions). And what this historical analysis clearly shows, as incomplete as it surely is, is that there were many cases over the last 300 years of conflict between science and religion. These conflicts were of course not “constant,” as nothing is, but clearly recurrent, and it is the task of the historian to try to understand them, instead of minimizing them or even denying their existence.


Peter Harrison’s response to Yves Gingras’s response:

It is an understandable human failing to seek in the past a confirmation of our present prejudices. This is why the sphere of historical inquiry can so easily become an ideological battleground. The history of science over the past 50 years has set its face against various forms of presentism, eschewing the natural tendency to construct the past solely in terms of present interests and concerns. It has abandoned the “long march of progress” style of narratives (much beloved by some of our colleagues in the sciences), has emphasized the importance of specific contexts, has sought to understand the logic and motivations of both “winners” and “losers,” and attempted to reconstruct the different ways in which the study of nature has been understood by the relevant historical actors. One of the first casualties of this revisionary approach has been “the conflict thesis” — the seductive view that science and religion have been engaged in perennial warfare. The strong consensus is now that insofar as we can speak meaningfully at all of “science” and “religion” in the past, their relationship cannot be characterized in simple terms of either opposition or concord.

That it is now more difficult to appropriate the history of science for polemical purposes seems to have become a source of profound irritation to present critics of religion such as Professor Gingras. Simple invocation of Bruno, Galileo, the Inquisition, the Index of Prohibited Books, Darwin, the 1860 Oxford Debate, or the Scopes Trial will no longer do the job for the historically literate. But rather than move on and conduct the contemporary debate on its own terms, Gingras has chosen instead to shoot the messengers: historians of science have got it all wrong; they are covert apologists for dialogue or, worse, unprincipled hacks beholden to the Templeton Foundation.

In his response to my review, Professor Gingras doubles down on the baseless contention that historians who are critical of the conflict thesis must therefore have “agenda that favors a (never clearly defined) ‘dialogue.’” Not a shred of direct evidence is offered in his book to support this claim. My best guess is that historians’ views on the matter pretty much reflect the distribution of views among general population. For my part, in The Territories of Science of Religion (to which Gingras makes reference), I did offer some remarks about dialogue, expressing significant reservations about it.

This attribution of an agenda to historians of science and religion is of a piece with the book’s thesis that “the apostles of a ‘complex’ history of science have in fact avoided studying the existing conflicts” (p. 159). This is demonstrably false. To take a prominent example, Ronald L. Numbers, targeted throughout the book for his innocuous advocacy of historical complexity, is best known for his seminal work on the history of young-earth creationism, easily the most prominent site of contemporary science-religion conflict.

Gingras is quite correct to identify the rise of the science-religion discourse in the 1980s as a noteworthy phenomenon, and the multiple causes he proposes (including the activities of the Templeton Foundation) strike me as plausible, if unsubstantiated. But this is a rather different issue from the question of whether the Foundation’s activities have somehow had a distorting effect on the history of science, which is one of the central claims of the book. Typing a phrase or two into the Google ngram search box (a.k.a. “lexical analysis”) might well provide us with an interesting explanandum, but arriving at the correct explanans takes a little more work.

How would a historian establish the claim that the “Foundation has also played a major role in ​foisting the theme of a ‘dialogue’ between science and religion onto the history of science” (pp. 2–3)? Here are a few suggestions: start by examining the Foundation’s database of grants and determine if any had been given to support primary historical research and, if so, to whom; carefully scrutinize Templeton grant policies and guidelines to ascertain their stated view of historical research; assemble recent publications in the history of science (or a representative sample) and determine which (if any) had received direct support from the Foundation and in what proportion; conduct interviews with the relevant historians of science inquiring about what motivated their work. Had Gingras pursued even one of these avenues of investigation he would have discovered that his assertions about Templeton influence on the history of science were largely baseless.

This brings me to the contention that I have somehow transformed myself into “a spokesperson for the Templeton Foundation.” Here again, the simple relating of uncongenial facts leads to the accusation of pursuing an agenda. My review sought neither to praise nor bury the Templeton Foundation, but simply offer a factual account of its operations and correct the misconception that it is in the business of funding historical research. This identification once again evinces Gingras’s regrettable tendency to confuse dispassionate descriptions with advocacy simply because he finds the facts unpalatable.

Professor Gingras complains that my review has not done sufficient justice to his theme of “the long process of autonomization of the sciences (plural!) from religions (plural too).” This is largely because he has done insufficient justice to this theme himself. He is repeatedly diverted from the pursuit of any sustained and substantive treatment of his own putative thesis by a desire to critique advocates of the complexity model. He gives the game away in his own phrasing of the matter — not autonomization per se, which involves the increasing differentiation of all social spheres, but “autonomization from religions.”

The enlisting of Durkheim’s De la division du travail social in this connection is particularly telling. Durkheim, strongly influenced by Auguste Comte, offered in this early work an account of the transition of societies from “primitive” to advanced. These old-fashioned 19th-century narratives of progress form an important part of the backdrop to the development of the conflict narrative, in which “religion” stands in for “primitive,” and “science” for progressive and advanced. On the origins of the historiography of conflict, Gingras is thus quite right to point out that the idea of conflict predates John Draper and A. D. White. The Comtean background is key, and while the idea that all societies pass ineluctably through fixed stages from the religious to the scientific is well past its use-by date, I suspect that it still lingers in the background of Gingras’s thinking about these matters. This apparent deference to Durkheim’s long-abandoned stadial approach thus seems to haunt the unfortunate remarks in the book’s final chapter in which Gingras protests the present trend toward repatriation of aboriginal remains held in scientific collections, presumably because he thinks that the “primitive beliefs” of indigenous peoples count for nothing when stacked up against the West’s “more advanced” scientific rationality.

More helpful to the case for the gradual growth in the autonomy of the sciences would have been a more consistent focus on Weberian notions of rationalization and disenchantment, or an application of theories of social differentiation as developed by Talcott Parsons and others. Such analyses have the potential to be genuinely illuminative about the evolution of modern relations between science and religion. But unhelpfully for Gingras’s idée fixe, differentiation and autonomy point more to a growth in the independence of the relevant social spheres, rather than conflict among them. And, of course, Weberian disenchantment, to which Gingras makes passing reference in the book, was on Weber’s own account driven at least partly by Protestant this-worldly asceticism. This gets us back to the complex and sometimes paradoxical role played by religion in the emergence of science and modernity. I suspect that we get only piecemeal treatments of autonomization and naturalization in the book because a sustained and systematic approach would simply reinforce the historical complexity that Gingras seeks to resist. The themes of naturalization, autonomization, and secularization of science, it is worth pointing out, are actually treated (albeit briefly) by the very historians he has most strongly criticized, Ronald Numbers and John Hedley Brooke.

Professor Gingras also contests the way I have characterized his thesis with this formulation: “that dialogue is impossible, and conflict is inevitable.” Perhaps I was misled by the conspicuous mention of “an impossible dialogue” in the title and the numerous references throughout the book to the inevitability of conflict: “clashes are often predictable and even inevitable” (p. 3), “multiple and recurrent struggles between science and religion” (p. 15), “it seems at best dubious that conflict was not inevitable” (p. 128), “the rational mode of thought inevitably undermined the more naïve religious conceptions of nature” (p. 159), et cetera.

As to his suggestion that I foisted my own view of what he ought to have done in the book — that is, “an analysis of the conditions that would make a conversation between science and religion possible” — here I was simply pointing to the likelihood of his generating misplaced expectations, given the book’s ambit claim that science-religion dialogue was in principle impossible. That claim calls for philosophical analysis. In other words, there is a mismatch between the actual methods of the book (which attempt to take in the contingencies of history and the blurriness of the concepts themselves) and the overstated rhetorical claim of the book’s title. It is also worth pointing out that logically the conditions that make dialogue impossible are also likely to make conflict impossible (and vice versa). So there is a twofold confusion here.

The reference to Pierre Duhem in the response is completely muddled, confounding condemnations of Aristotle and Galileo that were more than three centuries apart. Here is the what Gingras says in the book: “Pierre Duhem […] went so far as to say that the [1277] condemnation of Aristotle’s philosophy opened the door to modern physics. This kind of reasoning is obviously spurious.” Pierre Duhem did say something akin to that, and while the claim is contestable, the reasoning is perfectly sound. As far as I am aware, Duhem never made the claim alleged in Gingras’s response that Galileo’s condemnation (1632) was good for science. (But it is also worth noting, in this context, that unintended consequences are part of the complexity story.)

Finally, “there were many cases over the last 300 years of conflict between science and religion.” Quite, although we might quibble about what counts as “science” and “religion,” and how many is “many.” The point is that this is only part of the picture, and leaves out equally decisive cases of creative and mutual support between science and religion, and the more common instances of indifference or peaceful coexistence. Attempting to understand examples of conflict is indeed the role of the historian, but an understanding that considers only instances of conflict will be impoverished and partial, and will likely give rise to the kind of flawed and one-sided perspective that we encounter in Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue.


Yves Gingras is Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

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