Gingras, “Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue”

We are delayed in noticing this book by Yves Gingras, a historian of science, concerning Gingrasthe very popular idea of “dialogue” between religion and science. Gingras takes the unfashionable view that there may be nothing much to talk about in Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue (Wiley Press). Indeed, “dialogue” is one of those platitudes that is easily mouthed for seemingly all occasions of conflict, as if talking is both a kind of cure-all for conflict and an independently desirable end. Gingras clearly does not agree:

Today we hear renewed calls for a dialogue between science and religion: why has the old question of the relations between science and religion now returned to the public domain and what is at stake in this debate?

To answer these questions, historian and sociologist of science Yves Gingras retraces the long history of the troubled relationship between science and religion, from the condemnation of Galileo for heresy in 1633 until his rehabilitation by John Paul II in 1992. He reconstructs the process of the gradual separation of science from theology and religion, showing how God and natural theology became marginalized in the scientific field in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In contrast to the dominant trend among historians of science, Gingras argues that science and religion are social institutions that give rise to incompatible ways of knowing, rooted in different methodologies and forms of knowledge, and that there never was, and cannot be, a genuine dialogue between them.

Wide-ranging and authoritative, this new book on one of the fundamental questions of Western thought will be of great interest to students and scholars of the history of science and of religion as well as to general readers who are intrigued by the new and much-publicized conversations about the alleged links between science and religion.

And I should also point out this highly critical review of the book by Peter Harrison, which is illuminating in its own right. The review covers a lot of ground, but here is an especially interesting reflection on the book that has considerable application to law as well.

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.

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