Can Religions and Sciences Dialogue?

How can we explain the strong resurgence, starting in the 1980s and 90s, of interest in the relationship between religion and science and the appeals to “dialogue” between them, even though they are so far apart in their objectives and methods?

As Brother Marie-Victorin, the famous scientist from Quebec, said in the middle of the 1920s, the idea that we need to “let religion and science travel on parallel paths, towards their own goals [translated here]” and not get bogged down in attempts to find harmony at all costs between religious beliefs and scientific discoveries, was a consensus in the scientific world until recently. As a student of physics in the 1970s, I don’t remember any such discussions among professors and students during the coffee breaks, even less in public debate or in the publishing world. Even in the 1980s, while I studied the history and sociology of science, this idea was still rare and limited to followers of counterculture and the New Age. How do we explain this new interest in dialogue?

Different worldviews

To answer this question, I went back to the source and retraced the long history of their conflicting relationship. Despite the recent trend of many historians of science who claim that these conflicts were not inevitable, it goes without saying that certain scientific theories are incompatible with certain religious beliefs based on a literal reading of texts considered sacred. It is also true that these different conceptions of the world only transform into open conflicts when organized social groups or institutions mobilize to counter scientific discourses that clash with their views. But the fact is equally true that clashes are sometimes predictable and even inevitable when science touches upon themes that are debated in sacred religious texts.

In fact, while mathematics or taxonomy raised few problems for organized religions, the same was not true for cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology and the humanities and social sciences, such as with the history of religion or the origins of humanity. As sociologist Max Weber remarked at the beginning of the 20th century, “Wherever rational, empirical knowledge systematically caused disenchantment with the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism, tension would definitively appear with claims of the ethical postulate according to which the world is a cosmos ordained by God [translated here].” This opposition, he added, “was felt with a consciousness or thinking that is highly variable in intensity.”

History of a divorce

The historical conflicts between Religion and Science have always been a power struggle between institutions and groups of divergent or even conflicting interests. At the dawn of modern science in the 17th century, scientific institutions were rather weak compared to the Catholic Church, which largely dominated the intellectual world.

CC Wikimedia Commons

I devoted two chapters to the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, which became a symbol marking the entire history of the relationship between Religion and Science. To begin with, I showed that it was the power struggle between theologians and scientists that explains Galileo’s condemnation. The next chapter then covers the numerous attempts by scientists over three centuries to have that decision reversed. Galileo’s rehabilitation was finally achieved by Pope Jean-Paul II in 1992 on the 350th anniversary of the death of the Italian scientist.

The third chapter explains that while cosmology was long a bone of contention between Christian theology and science, at the beginning of the 19th century it gave way to natural history and geology – sciences which became institutionalized in turn and gradually applied a naturalist method to all of nature, which increasingly pushed any invocation of the divine outside the sphere of science.

Against the dominant tendency in the history of science at the end of the 1980s to deny or underestimate the serious conflicts between Religion and Science, Chapter 4 assesses the numerous instances of censorship of scientific studies by the Catholic Church, its Sacred Congregation of the Index, and the Inquisition from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle of the 20th. I also showed that although many Protestant churches were less organised than the Catholic Church, they still had the means to ban publications and dismiss or silence the researchers whose scientific conceptions conflicted with their religious creeds.

In brief, these four chapters retrace the history of the divorce between Religion and Science, as well as the numerous conflicts that marked this process from the 17th century up to today.

From Conflict to “dialogue”

To better understand the context leading to the rise of discourse on “dialogue,” chapter 5 retraces its evolution. This retracing through time is based on quantitative data on the relative importance of expressions such as “science and religion” and “conflict between science and religion” contained in the millions of texts in Google Books. Identifying appearances of the term “conflict” between science and religion from the beginning of the 19th century, this approach enabled us to see the discourse on “dialogue” that emerged. This happened at the very beginning of the 1980s, when Jean-Paul II took the decision to review Galileo’s trial, the ultimate symbol in scientific and popular imagination of the opposition between scientific thought and religious beliefs.

While a decision taken at the highest level of the Catholic Church may have been the trigger, this is not enough, however, to explain the multiplication of books from the 1980s that combined the words science, religion and God in different ways. During the 1960s and 1970s, a syncretic current of thought, associated with counter-culture and the New Age, grew in strength. This current tried to bring together old philosophical and religious traditions with the mysteries of quantum physics, a theory considered challenging to both logic and common sense. This development created a fertile ground. Based on this, a great many books for the general public claimed that the “most advanced” science had ended up confirming the intuitions of the “oldest” spiritual traditions.

Since the 1975publication of a highly influential book in that current, The Tao of Physics by physicist Fritjof Capra, publishers saw a good business opportunity and multiplied catchy titles in the same vein. You can no longer count the number of books linking science and God! Whether these links, which are often superficial, result from sincere beliefs or from cynically exploiting a lucrative market matters very little.

The sixth chapter analyses the way certain scientific discoveries have been used to justify religious or theological positions that have nothing to do with the sciences, but which take advantage of their prestige to suggest to very religious readers that modern science is in fact compatible with their beliefs. Moreover, faced with the rise of fundamentalist religious groups, who are critical of scientific research that challenges their deep beliefs, several scientists and their organisations support (to appear accommodating) these dubious harmonisations. They suggest that believers no longer need to be suspicious of modern science, which, far from leading to atheism as was often thought, instead points toward nature as being created by a superior being.

Science and religion in paradise…

Another important element in the explosive growth of books on the relationship between science and religion in the last twenty years has been the work of John Templeton (1912-2008) and his Foundation. A native of Tennessee and devout Presbyterian, he made a fortune in finance and settled down in the tax haven of the Bahamas. Believing that science and religion should come together, in 1972 he created the Templeton Prize to reward those who contributed to the “progress” of religion. He became a British national and was promoted to the rank of a Baron by Margaret Thatcher, becoming Sir Templeton in 1987. In the same year, he set up the John Templeton Foundation and ten years later, he created the Templeton Press.

CC Pixabay ArtsyBee

Endowed with a capital of more than one billion dollars, every year this Foundation grants tens of millions of dollars to researchers who want to study the links between science, religion, and spirituality. From the mid-1990s, the Templeton Prize has frequently been awarded to astrophysicists who suggest, directly or indirectly, religious or spiritualistic interpretations of modern physics. The Foundation has also played a major role in imposing the theme of “dialogue” between science and religion on the history of science. I show that these so-called dialogues are in fact only a modern reformulation of the old themes of natural theology, whose arguments have not really changed since end of the 17th century.

The Relative autonomy of science: a fragile acquisition

By looking at institutions, my book takes the opposite view of the dominant current today among historians of science who study the relationship between science and religion from the mid-1980s. Too many debates on the relationship between science and religion confuse the religious beliefs of scientists with the Church’s discourse as an institution. It is striking to see the curious unanimity in: underestimating the most well-known conflicts that have opposed the sciences and certain religious beliefs and their related institutions; in confusing the levels of analysis; or even in ignoring sources (see chapter 5). Showing how the religious motivations or beliefs of a particular scientist positively influenced his/her research may be interesting for a biography, but does not shed any light on the manner in which religious institutions reacted to certain scientific discoveries.

CC Pixabay WikimediaImages

Finally, the increasing separation between scientific and religious institutions has not prevented various religious groups from continuing to exercise external pressure (political and social) to restrict the freedom of scientific research. In fact, various religious groups who continue to believe in texts they consider “sacred,” as they are inspired – or even dictated – by God, will probably never stop trying to restrict the freedom of research on any issue that questions some or all of these “revelations.” Since the 1980s, these struggles, especially those concerned with the theory of evolution, have had a global impact since they affect the Christian world as well as the Muslim one. They are the most recent examples of attempts made to diminish the autonomy of science in the name of beliefs that certain organised groups want to impose on everyone.

The last chapter analyses the rise of indigenous spiritualties and beliefs in “traditional” medicine that calls into question well-established science. These controversies show in a concrete manner that the practice of science has nothing natural or universal about it. As sociologist Max Weber said, science rests on cultural assumptions which, if they are not common to all, will generate dialogues of the deaf and create communities whose thinking is incommensurable. These recent questionings of scientific thought also remind us that the relative autonomy of science is the fruit of a long struggle, and we would be naïve to think that this acquired autonomy cannot be lost.

Crédits image à la Une : CC Wikimedia Commons Cristiano Banti  et crédits image d’entrée : CC Geralt & Mondes Sociaux


Yves Gingras

Centre Interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST), Université du Québec à Montréal (gingras.yves@uqam.ca)

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Yves Gingras

Centre Interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST), Université du Québec à Montréal (gingras.yves@uqam.ca)

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