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Are Science and Religion Compatible?

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Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today's website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is "yes, of course," for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives -- a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover. But my position seems precarious to me in many ways, since I am getting shot at so vigorously by both sides.

The events of the past few days have driven this home with great clarity. At the end of June, Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave an address emphasizing the importance of reading the Genesis creation story literally as a way to protect the Bible from attacks by science. Such a reading, according to the persuasive Mohler, demands that we affirm that the "days" of Genesis are 24-hour days, and that the earth, therefore, is less than 10,000 years old. His audience clapped when he made this point.

I think Mohler's position has been indefensible for 200 years. I find it amazing that such a large group of people -- 100 million Americans agree with him -- can get themselves onto an intellectual island and float so far away from modern science that they can't see the shoreline any longer. But Mohler and his audience are not hillbillies with straw hats, smoking corncob pipes, drinking moonshine and laughing about "Darwin's dumb theory about ape-men." They are well-educated and intelligent. They have simply decided that the consequences of changing their traditional views under pressure from science are too great. They are protecting something they value that feels threatened.

Mohler's central point, however, was not that a young earth is essential or that science must be resisted. Few Young Earth Creationists would call themselves anti-science. His point is that the Bible must be taken seriously if one wants to be a Christian and, for Mohler, seriously means literally. And literally means the earth is young. And so much of modern science must be rejected in favor of a literal reading of Genesis.

Jerry Coyne, who wrote the excellent Why Evolution Is True and runs a blog of the same name, wants to know how in the world Mohler's religion can ever be compatible with science. Framing the question like this closes the discussion. Young Earth Creationism is completely incompatible with science and we can all agree on that.

But I don't think this comparison is fair. Juxtaposing "empirical science" with "revealed religion" in this particular way seems unbalanced. Mohler's views have broad popular appeal, to be sure, but they don't represent the best in Christian thinking. Few Catholics or Anglicans, for example, would agree with him. If we want to make a comparison with "populist" religion, we should use "populist" science. The great masses of religious "faithful" should be juxtaposed with the great masses of people who "believe" in science but are not leading professionals. What do you suppose "science" would look like, were it defined by these "believers"? The physics would be Aristotelian; astrology and aliens would be accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind, as we occasionally read on these blogs.

Here is the kicker: all these people would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science, as "lived and practiced by real people" who "believe" it, is quite different from the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.

The observations of science do indeed trump revealed truth about the world. Just ask Galileo. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein supplanted Newton. This did not undermine the scientific enterprise, however, even though it showed that the science of that time was in error.

In the same way, modern theology has replaced traditional theology. The mere fact that old-fashioned ideas persist does not mean that they can be legitimately used in an argument that religion is incompatible with science.

If "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, then surely religion can do the same.

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