Since the 1970s, historians have come to agree that the notion of an inherent conflict between science and religion—a notion dating back at least to the trial of Galileo—is a myth. The historian Yves Gingras, in his book Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue, seeks to overthrow this consensus. But, to Peter Harrison, the consensus is right, and Gingras’s argument is unconvincing:
[O]n a number of occasions, Gingras makes much of prohibitions and book censorship [of scientific work by the medieval and Renaissance Church] 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. . . .
Matters become even more complicated when we consider other institutions that were part of the Catholic Church. [The Church created] 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. . . . 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.
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