Guest post: Bigwig Oxford theologian tries to harmonize science and faith

Here’s a guest post by pseudonymous reader Sigmund (Martin Corcoran). He was brought up as an Irish Catholic and is now an atheist and a scientist; this made him particularly incensed when he saw an Irish Catholic from Oxford University bang on about how science and Catholicism are friends.


The Conflict between Faith and Science: the Catholic response.

by Sigmund

The Iona Institute is a Dublin-based conservative Catholic lobby group whose aim is to preserve the prevailing influence of Catholicism in Ireland. Although concentrating largely on traditional Catholic opposition to female reproductive rights and gay marriage, Iona has devoted some effort in recent years to answering the challenge of New Atheism.

On February 18th, they hosted a talk in Dublin by Fr Andrew Pinsent on “The Alleged Conflict between Faith and Science”.  Pinsent is both a priest and particle physicist and is described as “Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University, a member of the Theology and Religion Faculty, a Research Fellow of Harris Manchester College and a priest of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton.” [JAC: Note that Templeton has now insinuated its filthy paws into both Oxford and Cambridge Universities: the latter in the form of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.]

Of course the Ian Ramsey Center is heavily supported by—who else?—the Templeton Foundation.

Here’s a 53-minute talk by Fr Pinsent (you don’t have to watch it all; see below):

Pinsent introduces his talk as a response to New Atheism.

“The challenge of our time is that it is alleged that there is a conflict between science and faith and indeed this is one of the main battlegrounds in what are called the culture wars, so it is important that we are able to respond.”

Unfortunately, he then proceeds n to elaborate what must be, outside the confines of the Huffington Post religion section, the worst set of arguments on this subject I have ever heard.

Pinsent is a dreadful speaker, and if you don’t have 53 minutes to spare, I’ll save you the pain of watching by summarizing his argument as follows:

A)  In the past, lots of famous scientists were religious.


B) Atheists are communists.

These two points are padded out with a lot of straw about the New Atheists who, according to Pinsent, “generally argue, and probably want to believe, that theists are generally irrational and evil”.

He then describes an interminably long list of priests who were scientists: Gregor Mendel, George Lamaitre, Nicholas Steno, Ruder Boscovich, and so on.

Echoing Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, Pinsent goes on to tell us all the wonderful things the Catholic church has done for us.

Catholic civilization is described having given the world modern geography

”Almost exclusively, the great voyages of discovery were launched by Catholic powers or Catholic individuals”

It has given us law (apparently legal systems are derived from the Catholic middle ages).

And any past transgressions are exaggerated.  For example what punishment did Galileo really have to suffer?

“He had to stay in his villa and the church made him recite seven psalms a week.

Well, in two thousand years, if that’s the worst thing we did that’s not too bad, eh.

And actually the church admitted Galileo was right, once the scientific evidence came in.

Is this that dogmatic evil institution that held back science?”

Well, considering that the Church’s admission that they were mistaken, and that Galileo was correct, occurred only in 1992, nearly 360 years after the initial trial, I guess Pinsent has some other unspoken reason why this shouldn’t be seen as the church hindering research. Perhaps they are just incredible sticklers for peer review?

Pinsent then wanders off on a strange detour to describe how religious imagery has gradually disappeared from works of art over the centuries, a point that serves no purpose in his argument except provide him with an opportunity to sneer at modern art.

Finally, we get the old tired tropes about atheistic communist regimes, Soviet Russia, Albania and North Korea—this is what happens when atheists get power!—and no mention whatsoever of secular democracies like the Scandinavian nations.

And that’s about it!

The important thing to take from this talk is that Andrew Pinsent is not some nobody on the internet. He is the head of a major Catholic theological center in Oxford university. He’s turned up at the culture wars armed only with one of those toy guns that, instead of firing bullets, just unfurls a flag. Only in Pinsent’s case the flag doesn’t say “BANG!” It says “COMMUNIST!”

Having been brought up a Catholic myself (I’m better now!) I can almost feel sorry for him. Catholic teaching, as exemplified by the Nicene Creed, is so vulnerable to scientific thinking that any efforts at apologetics are, by necessity, exercises in avoiding the subject. The direct, unflinching approach of the New Atheists have made this task almost impossible and it shows, both in Pinsent’s arguments and in his clear discomfort while enunciating them. Perhaps he is seeing what we can glimpse on the edges of this clip—that the audience is almost exclusively elderly. The young, and indeed the middle-aged, have long since abandoned the fight.


  1. Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink


    • gbjames
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink


      • Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        Me too.

  2. Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    If anyone has his email addres then he could be advised to read Superstition in all ages by Fr. Jean Meslier[1732].

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      It’s here: Superstition in All Ages on the Gutenberg site.

      Didn’t Galileo argue that the Earth was at the center of the universe because the element Earth has a tendency to sink?

      Also, observations were on the heliocentric side at the time.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

        Don’t you mean observations were on the geocentric side? (Certainly according to that site you linked to).

        Until Kepler came up with elliptical orbits, the observations did NOT support the heliocentric theory. It’s a pity that Galileo (who did valuable and correct work on mechanics) is chiefly known as a poster boy for science vs religion in an issue where he was being pigheaded, egocentric, authoritarian and just plain wrong.

        (Not that I support the catholic church, I have to add).

  3. Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    “Well, in two thousand years, if that’s the worst thing we did that’s not too bad, eh.”

    Errmh. Somewhat conveniently overlooking Giordano Bruno and a host of other similar crimes against humanity. I recently did some reading about the Auto Da Fe: that has to be one of the most unpleasant ideas any religion has managed to dream up.

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Not to mention that Galileo *was threatened*, and this so terrified Descartes that he repressed _Le Monde_.

    • skolymos
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums (In English Criminal History of Christianity) is the ten-volume main work of the author and church critic Karlheinz Deschner. It describes the misconduct attributed to various Christian churches, denominations, sects, and leagues, as well as its representatives and Christian sovereigns during Christian history. The work is planned to cover the entire history of Christianity from its biblical beginnings until the present. From its planned ten volumes, nine have been published since 1986
      see more here:

  4. lanceleuven
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Atheists are communists! That always makes me chuckle. I guess it does explain the correlation between the recent sharp rise in atheism and the recent sharp rise in communism. Oh, hold on a second…

  5. Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    ‘A) In the past, lots of famous scientists were religious.’

    Got it!

    So contraception and Catholicism are perfectly compatible because one the main people behind the development of the contraceptive pill was John Rock, a devout Catholic.

    I wonder why the Catholic church does not regard contraception and Catholicism as compatible when their leading thinkers (oxymoron alert) claims that science and religion are compatible if you can find a religious scientist.

    Don’t they even take their own arguments seriously?

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      These theists don’t push the arguments to the final and logical conclusions. The question one is wont to ask is whether religion is true and does a brilliant person believing it make it true.
      If they hold that position true, then we can say alchemy is true since Newton was an alchemist

    • Tulse
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      In the past, lots of famous scientists were religious.

      In the recent past, lots of priests were pedophiles…

  6. Occam
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    ”Almost exclusively, the great voyages of discovery were launched by Catholic powers or Catholic individuals”

    Isn’t it heartening to learn that Hatshepsut, Hanno, Pytheas, Leifur Eiríksson, Ibn Batuta, Zheng He, Francis Drake, Abel Tasman, Vitus Bering, James Cook, George Vancouver, Flinders Petrie, David Livingstone, Richard Burton, Heinrich Barth, Fridtjof Nansen, Sven Hedin (to name but a random few) have all been retroactively absorbed into the ample bosom of the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Mother Church?

    Homeric LOL!

    • bric
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      Certainly puts a new perspective on thr Zheng He controversy.

    • Curt Cameron
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      And why did the Catholics embark on voyages of discovery? Because they were scientists and wanted to learn?

      Or were they looking to exploit the peoples they found? I’m sure the Aztecs and Incas appreciated the scientific curiosity of the Catholics they met.

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    And actually the church admitted Galileo was right, once the scientific evidence came in.
    Timeline of events concerning Galileo
    1616 – Officially warned by the Church not to hold or defend the Copernican System
    1616 – The Catholic Church places De revolutionibus orbium coelestium on the List of Prohibited Books*
    1630 – Completes Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and subsequently receives approval of Church censor
    1633 – sentenced by the Inquisition to imprisonment, commuted to house arrest, for vehement suspicion of heresy
    1633 – Catholic Church places Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems on the List of Prohibited Book*
    1718 – Inquisition lifts ban on reprinting Galileo’s works
    1758 – the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of prohibited books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus remained
    1835 – All traces of official opposition to heliocentrism by the church disappeared

    Wow, the Holy Roman Catholic Church was really on the leading edge there; we should give them credit for only opposing publication of Galileo’s work for ~ 200 years.

    • Mary Canada
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink


    • Tulse
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      You missed a date:

      2000 – Pope John Paul II apologizes for the Catholic Church’s trial of Galileo

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    * Yes, the Vatican maintained the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) from 1559 – 1966. No organization which has such a list ought to be proclaiming their history of friendliness to scientific and intellectual inquiry.

    1966! That’s within my lifetime.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    And actually the church admitted Galileo was right, once the scientific evidence came in.

    Ratzinger’s 1990 remarks on Galileo
    In which a certain Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that the church was really right and Galileo was wrong, because relativity negates heliocentrism.

    … P. Feyerabend* … writes: “The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.

    But wait, there’s more:
    From the point of view of the concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents, however, C.F. Von Weizsacker* takes another step forward, when he identifies a “very direct path” that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.

    * Ratzinger had the habit of framing his more controversial remarks as quotes of others, so that he could distance himself from any blowback. He continued this habit into his papal reign.

    • Occam
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Ratzinger’s tactic was at the time quite common among ultraconservatives: abuse “left-wing” arguments to further a reactionary agenda.

      Like many who gyrated around the Zurich Federal Polytechnic in the 1980s, I attended some of Paul Feyerabend’s talks. The chap himself was a charming provocateur, but his ideas, self-avowedly ‘dadaistic’/’anarchistic’ epistemology, were a complete mess. Feyerabend’s magnum opus was aptly named “Against Method”. His remarks on Galileo vs. the Catholic church must be hence read at various tuples of a 135° angle, and with a large chunk of NaCl. It is quite in character for Ratzinger to quote them out of context and misuse them by purporting to take them at face value.

      The case of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker was more tragic. As far as I know, he never quite got over being named ad personam in the famous 1939 letter to FDR drafted by Leo Szilard and signed by Einstein:

      I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

      A committed pacifist, Christian spiritualist, and critic of scientific progress in his later years, he allowed himself to be drafted as a symbol and figurehead of Green anti-nuclear protest in the ’70s and ’80s. As early as 1956, he was a driving force among the “Göttingen Eighteen”, the pacifist scientists advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament. (At that time, the mindframe among the German Catholic clergy regarding war on ‘godless Communism’ was still largely “Gott mit uns!”) His pessimistic stance, minus his vast scientific culture, gained immense traction among the early Greens. Even before that, Weizsäcker inspired key passages of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s drama The Physicists, which created quite a stir in 1962.

      Ratzinger’s quote from Weizsäcker, given the context and background, is not just disingenuous, it is intellectually outright fraudulent. Figures.

      • Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Feyerabend was not only wrong about relativity (see Bunge’s remark that general relativity doesn’t work that way) but also dishonest. F. reproduced some of the *pirated* versions of Galileo’s work, not the originals, which had much better (and to the point) illustrations.

  10. William Stewart
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Dear Professor Coyne and visitants to his website,
    Keel University astrophysicist Coel Hellier has an article downloadable at his website Coelsblog entitled “Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist, and opposed to Darwinism.” I believe it to be extremely well argued and documented.
    William Stewart

    • Mary Canada
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the link

  11. Posted February 25, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    again, even the “professionals” fail with their fallacies and outright lies.

  12. Fastlane
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    If only the catholic church weren’t still impeding progress, and interfering daily in secular matters, this would be less an issue.

  13. Strider
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    If we go by the legal system as being derived from the ten commandments then, as far as I can tell, only 3 out of 10 of the commandments has any relevance to modern law. In addition, those 3 commandments (i.e., thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt not bear false witness) were not introduced to the world by the decalogue but were codified much earlier, by other cultures, than the revelation at Sinai. So, not only did Xtianity copy off others but they got a failing grade of 30%!

  14. Sastra
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Catholic teaching, as exemplified by the Nicene Creed, is so vulnerable to scientific thinking that any efforts at apologetics are, by necessity, exercises in avoiding the subject.


    If science and faith were really compatible, then the science which supposedly grew out of faith would be used to make faith unnecessary. The Nicene Creed would have first become the Nicene Hypotheses and then the Nicene Theory, accepted by scientists around the world for its explanatory power, scope, and ability to predict and drive new discoveries. It would be incorporated into an evolving human-wide model of reality.

    Instead, apologists have to avoid the “direct, unflinching approach of the New Atheists” with a lot of really bad diversionary tactics. Look over there — communists! Look over here — religious scientists! And you can’t see love with a microscope either, can you? No, you sure can’t. It’s too different.

    Faith and science are “reconciled” by keeping the categories distinct and avoiding the recognition that this makes a reconciliation problematic. The theologian’s defense is not like pointing out that the discoveries of physics don’t conflict with music appreciation: it’s like arguing that the discoveries of chemistry don’t conflict with homeopathy. Yes they do. You can’t harmonize them by claiming they’re different paradigms.

    • Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      With a microscope? No. But with an EEG …



  15. exsumper
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Faraday must be spinning in his grave!!

    • Sines
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Then we are obliged to attach magnets to him so that he may provide a small, but limitless, source of energy.

      Finally, we’ll have found a real scientific use for the Catholic Church.

  16. exsumper
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Surely it’s time that the use of respected scientists names by charlatans was made unlawful? A better name for this institute would be “The fairies at the bottom of the garden institute for intellectual fraud and dishonesty”.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      That institution already exists. Although your title is more incisive, they went with the shorter “Discovery Institute”.

  17. Richard C
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    A Catholic scholar is playing the atheists-are-evil-dictators card? Really?

    Yes, Joseph Stalin was a terrible dictator who did terrible things and was atheist, but has Pinsent forgotten that one of Stalin’s few good contributions to history was when he helped the rest of Europe and the US defeat a raised-Catholic-turned-German-Christian dictator named Adoloh Hiler? I’m sure anyone who thinks beyond the past hundred years will have no problem thinking of other evil things done by once- or current-catholic dictators.

    So, given his profound understanding of the Bible what was that Jesus is quoted saying about criticizing the splinter in someone else’s eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

      Or as Churchill put it, when criticised for supporting Stalin’s Russia: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

  18. Uommibatto
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    This talk is so scattershot I really don’t know what to say… “let’s throw all sorts of stuff on the wall and let’s see what sticks”… so I’ll change the topic a bit to say that this sort of “science and religion are friends” talk apparently happens all the time!

    I recently attended a slightly more pleasant version of another attempt to get religion and science to play nicely together. A local school, California Lutheran University (Thousand Oaks, CA), hosts an annual lecture series called the Harold Stoner Clark lecture. Its stated purpose is to focus on the relation of philosophy and science, with “special attention to the limitations of science.” That being said, they have had some worthwhile speakers in the past (e.g., James Burke, Jonathan Miller) and some iffy but well-known ones as well (Rupert Sheldrake).

    This year, a certain Philip Clayton gave two lectures basically arguing that between the two extremes of Intelligent Design and New Atheism is a middle ground where presumably truth must lie (another instance of the Goldilocks Argument). His primary thrust: “emergent complexity,” the apparent tendency for simple things to give rise to complicated systems (think: atomic particles become atomic elements become… life), holds the secret to something or other. Interestingly, this is pretty much the opposite of the funnel metaphor given in the video, where Pinsent goes from the complicated to the simple in an attempt to find God. Clayton seems to be going in the other direction in a similar attempt to find some form of transcendence in the beauty of the universe. In fact, he totally defended evolution (no mention of theistic evolution at all) while lambasting the IDers. Except for his somewhat woolly hopes for some form of the divine, much of his talk didn’t sound all that different from any scientist expressing wonder at the beauty of the universe.

    I’m not really sure what my point is with bringing this up, now that I read what I have written. But I would like to think that this trend towards more discussiona about the New Atheism means that more and more people are getting exposed to it, and that despite the ridicule it often receives it is definitely becoming a more widely accepted point of view. Even when the attempt is to mariginalize the New Atheism by painting it as an extremist view, this counterattack may very well backfire as people make up their own minds.

    Larry Smith (Uommibatto)

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