A (relatively) new book on the irreconcilability of science and religion

April 16, 2019 • 10:45 am

We’ve met Yves Gingras before, when a Templeton-funded reviewer, having a severe pecuniary conflict of interest with Gingras’s views, heavily criticized Gingras’s book Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue.  At that time, at the end of 2017, I defended Gingras on the grounds that the reviewer, Peter Harrison, had an out-and-out bias, having been funded by the Templeton Foundation that Gingras criticizes and having made the usual wooly arguments for accommodationism between science and religion. Here’s a bit of what I said about Harrison’s dubious ethics:

Here’s what Harrison says:

(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 is a gross conflict of interest, and had I been Harrison trying to review Gingras’s book for, say, The Washington Post, the first question my editor would have asked me was whether I had any personal conflict of interest involving the author’s thesis. If I said I had taken Templeton money and Gingras criticizes the Templeton Foundation, I would absolutely have been prohibited from reviewing Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue. Shame on the L.A. Review of Books for even allowing Harrison to review the Gingras volume!

For, of course, if you’re in the Templeton stable, you better defend them if you want more Templeton money, and that is the prime conflict of interest at play here. Harrison, had he acted ethically, should have recused himself from reviewing this book.

If you want to see Harrison’s involvement with Templeton, check this Google search. He has given Templeton-sponsored lectures, attended Templeton-sponsored conferences, and accepted grants from the Templeton Foundation. In fact, in Templeton’s Stable of Prize Thoroughbreds, there’s a special stall labeled “Peter Harrison”. He knows which side his oats are buttered on.

But let’s get onto Gingras’s book, which I just read thanks to a strong recommendation by philosopher Maarten Boudry, whom I met for beers and dinner in Ghent. Gingras holds a professorship in the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

Here’s his book, published in French in 2016 and translated into English the next year; you can get to its Amazon site by clicking on the screenshot:

This book is similar to my Faith Versus Fact in its thesis that science and religion are incompatible, but although there is some overlap in topics (e.g., we both have a discussion of the Templeton Foundation, a criticism of U.S. governments’ going easy on people who hurt their kids by withholding medical care on religious grounds, and a defense of the older “conflict thesis” books of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White), they are largely complementary. Gingras’s book is well worth reading.

The main thing that Gingras’s book has that mine lacks is a proficiency in historical scholarship, so that he can go into the conflicts between science and religion much more thoroughly and knowledgeably than I could. So, for example, he devotes many pages to the archetypal conflict between science and religion: the case of Galileo versus the Catholic Church. Having read all the Church documents and reports right up to when the Church apologized for its behavior 350 years after putting Galileo under house arrest, Gingras makes a compelling case that this was indeed a conflict between Galileo’s scientific views and the Church’s notion that his science contravened scripture. This is important because apologists like science historian Ronald Numbers (who has also been extensively funded by Templeton) have spent many pages saying that l’affaire Galileo wasn’t about a conflict between science and religion, but was about politics, personal animus, or anything other than religion. When you read Gingras’s analysis, complete with extensive documentation and quotes from Catholic officials, you’ll see how flimsy arguments like Numbers’s really are.

Gingras continues through history, describing the medieval banning of scientific “philosophy” (as it was called) when it contradicted the Church, the numerous science books placed on the Catholic Church’s index of prohibited works because the books contradicted Church teaching, the controversy ignited by Darwin’s Origin (which continues to this day), and, to my delight, a discussion of the John Templeton Foundation’s nefarious attempts to foist an “impossible dialogue” on the public by pumping millions of dollars into softheaded projects supporting Sir John’s thesis that science and religion can illuminate one another.  A quote (pp. 153-154):

The preferred strategy of those promoting public discourse on the relationship between science and religion has always been to foster associations with already-recognized institutions, thus allowing a transfer of credibility. The technique is simple: if great scholars were associated with the [Templeton] Foundation (by receiving a prize, for example), then it certainly must be serious. Thus, in 1996, the Foundation accomplished a masterstroke by convincing the powerful American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to agree to allow Templeton to sponsor a project entitled “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion” to the tune of $5 million, a sum that has enabled the program to be active since 1996.

You can see the DoSER project’s AAAS website here, and its activities are still funded in part by Templeton (see here, here, and here, for instance). That the U.S.’s premier scientific organization has a theological arm with eight employees is beyond belief.

Gingras’s book closes by describing how both scientists and believers either implicitly or explicitly recognize the existence of a conflict. He also dispels lame attempts to “reconcile” the areas, like the frequent claim that they’re compatible because some scientists are religious. And there’s a final bit, which I greatly liked because it comports with my own thinking: the argument that a “constructive dialogue” between science and religion is impossible because religion has nothing to contribute to the practice of science. In contrast, science can affect religious thinking and discourse, usually in a “destructive” way by contradicting religious claims.

The book is aimed more at scholars than mine is, and the writing is a bit drier (perhaps because of the translation), but this is essential reading for those interested in the fraught relationship between science and religion. I second Maarten Boudry’s recommendation.

32 thoughts on “A (relatively) new book on the irreconcilability of science and religion

      1. Thyroid wants to get email notifications of new comments on this thread. So he/she posts a comment – which cannot be blank hence the brief message “sub” – and checks the box to be notified of new comments.

      2. Thyroid wants to get email notifications of new comments on this thread. So he/she posts a comment – which cannot be blank hence the brief message “sub” – and checks the box to be notified of new comments.

      3. What they said.

        I started doing that after seeing someone do it here.

        Sometimes it’s fun to make a pun with it – like the awesome crocodile ballast thread. I said “sub” – but actually…

        Never mind…

  1. Religious faith is also incompatible with historical research. Bible historians (sic) readily admit they must employ circular reasoning, and commit a fundamental error by relying on untrustworthy documents lacking in provenance simply because no other sources exist.

    To preserve the obvious fiction of the orthodox history of the early church, biblical scholars misinterpret, ignore, or suppress a growing volume of evidence — uncovered by methodologically sound research — that paints a much different picture.

    Confronted by this evidence, they nearly always resorted to ad hominem attacks against their interlocutors.

  2. I bought a copy of the English edition of Gingras’ book a while ago. I was going to bring it up here since it cites Jerry’s stuff, but I never got around to it. It is a nifty little volume and nice to see some non-pomo stuff in the history and sociology of science. The latter is interesting also because Gingras tries to show that there is another source of religion-science conflict- institutional.

    Incidentally, the _Cambridge Companion to Galileo_ also agrees with the thesis that religion played a role in the Galileo conflict.

  3. Religion has nothing I can think of to contribute to science, but science has a lot to contribute to religion: It can, among other things, provide a rational evidentiary basis to strip away the distracting mythologies, legends and accreted traditions that obscure the central point of all religions, namely, the belief that human beings have value that goes beyond the mere physical, that a person is worth more than the $5-10 of chemicals that make up the body, that people have, in their very nature, a specialness and essential dignity that no other physical objects have.

    Religious doctrines provide many erroneous reasons in their effort to explain why people have value of a singular kind, but the idea that human beings are special, not just other “things in the world” to be dealt with or disposed of as such, is an idea worth preserving. It is not, in any case, an idea that is likely to go away and if, as is surely the case, science can help bring this idea out of the underbrush that has come to engulf it, so much the better.

    1. I’m sorry, but this answer doesn’t make sense. You’re saying that science give us objective evidence that humans are special in a way that no other species is not. Well, we have big brains and culture, but elephants, tigers, and squirrels are also special in ways that other species are not. Science, in fact, tells us the exact opposite: we are just like any other species in how we got here (via evolution), and the differences between us and our relatives are quantitative, not qualitative. You are falsely asserting that science affirms a specialness of humans, and a “value” of our species, that is unique. That is bogus.

      1. With all due respect, I did NOT say that science gives us objective evidence that humans are special. I fully agree that science shows people to be, in how we got here, just like any other species. It shows our differences with other species to be only quantitative, not qualitative. The belief that human beings have any value beyond the mere physical does not come from science.

    2. Maybe I am being simple-minded but I think the fundamental question about the incompatibility of science and religion boils down to this question, to be asked of believers: do you believe the universe came into existence through natural material forces…..or do you believe it came into existence because of a creator? Only one answer is correct. And the correct answer to this question gives us the answer to the compatibility question.

    3. JAH:

      “the central point of all religions […] that human beings have value that goes beyond the mere physical, […] people have, in their very nature, a specialness and essential dignity that no other physical objects have”

      Absurd reasoning. Putting us apes up high with dominion over all other life has got us into a right old mess. Humility is part of the required urgent fix.

      1. I disagree. To me, ascribing to humans specialness and essential dignity is central to civilization. I used to think that it is a cornerstone of humanism, and back in those days, I identified myself as a humanist (no longer). It is quite compatible with humility.

      2. I don’t like that idea of elevating humans either. Sure, we’re a smart ape but we seem to think it’s acceptable to put ourselves first for all whimsical desires at the expense over all animals and the environment….that often has a Judea-Christian justification as well.

  4. The book is aimed more at scholars than mine is, and the writing is a bit drier …

    Perhaps because yours aimed to irrigate the vast American religious badlands.

  5. “Harrison, had he acted ethically, . . . ”
    That’s liking asking Huckabee_Sanders to stick to facts.

  6. In science, things happen for material causal reasons. In religion, things happen because some immaterial and imaginary being wills it. Sounds irreconcilable to me.

  7. Dear Jerry

    Iam glad you met Maarten Boudry at Ghent, one of my favourite young Flemish philosophers. But I regret you didn’t mention anything in your previous posts about the beautiful city centre (it’s Sint-Baafs-cathedral, it’s Belfry..)

  8. By coincidence I just received an email about the Faraday Institute’s latest activities (Faraday are a Templeton funded establishment at Cambridge University) and the latest newsletter mentions a visit from Peter Harrison for their summer course.

    If anyone doubts how active the ‘science and religion are compatible’ community is, just look at the list of events in their newsletter:


    In particular look at their work in schools:


    70 students from the five primary and two secondary schools in the Severn Academies Educational Trust gathered at St Bartholomew’s CE Primary School last week for a day looking at the relationship between science and faith. The day was organised by the Rector of Areley Kings, Mark Turner and was led by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge. Children had the opportunity to ask any questions they had about science and faith and took part in a number of interactive sessions around different aspects of science.

    Martha and Daniel are both in Year 6 at Wolverley Seabright Primary. Martha said: “It’s been interesting to hear that you can have religion and science at the same time and that lots of famous scientists were Christians.” Daniel said: “I enjoyed learning about the evolution of the world.”

    There really is no such initiative pointing out the conflicts between science and religion.

    1. Martha said: “It’s been interesting to hear that you can have religion and science at the same time and that lots of famous scientists were Christians.” Daniel said: “I enjoyed learning about the evolution of the world.”

      You’ve got to get them young, before they develop reflexes of critical thinking. If you fail in that, for even one generation, you’re dead as a belief system. The administrivia might persist for a generation or ten, but the belief will be gone.
      One does have to wonder how many modern “churches” have had that break and are now just waiting to die.

  9. Astrology and religion are later results along the lines of the shamanistic attempt to understand or influence nature by ritual.

    Between 1900 – 1930 Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble (and others) showed what was long suspected, the astrological signs derived from yearly patterns due to Earth rotation were uncorrelated projections on the sky – astrological mechanisms were lacking. And in the 1980s psychologist showed through double blind tests that astrological horoscope lacked predictive power.

    Conversely, in the 2000s tests showed that intercessory prayers lacked influence, and in the 2010s particle accelerator could reject putative influences of “souls”, “ghosts”, “afterlife” and “rebirth”. The same decade saw cosmology robustly show that we can constrain the contents and workings of the average universe, down to scales of the Local Group, as 100 % mechanistic against the boundary condition of flatness of space. In a loose analogy anthropomorphic “agency patterns” are – well, duh – human biased projections too, resulting in as much lack of mechanism as in astrology.

    So now we know beyond reasonable doubt, as far as I understand: astrology and religion are (self) delusions. As comedian Dara O’Brian once said: “Astrologers and priests, get in the fookin’ sack!”

    1. Coincidentally, while the flat space constraint is 3-4 sigma uncertainty, “the average universe, down to scales of the Local Group, as 100 % mechanistic” would theoretically exclude religious magic with an impressive factor 10^-12 per volume.

      If only we could test each for deviations from flat space that are not modeled (i.e. outside of the expected BAO gravitational wells). Maybe light paths can be used…

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