Jerry Coyne, a world-class scientist and a fabulous writer, recently published a long opinion piece in USA Today entitled "Science and religion aren't friends." While he and others have made similar points previously, Coyne made them now with the rhetorical flourishes that make his work so provocative and entertaining.
But being provocative and entertaining is not the same thing as being successful -- or, at least, it isn't depending upon your definition of successful.
Coyne, like me, cares deeply about science literacy and is working to help educate the public about the nature and importance of science. In my opinion, he is among the best in explaining the nature of scientific investigation. Consider this section from his USA Today piece:
Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed "true" - a notion that's always provisional - unless it's repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, "How can I find out whether I'm wrong?"
But that doesn't mean that he's successfully advancing the notion of science literacy that he values so highly. The problem, as I see it, is that he, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, to name just two, feels compelled to argue that science and religion are utterly incompatible -- that scientific knowledge can prove religious faith wrong.
Coyne makes it clear that he believes science is rational while religion is irrational, and only science is "equipped to find real truth." This leads him to conclude that any meaningful dialogue between the two is useless. Again, from his USA Today piece (with the italics appearing in the original):
Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it's not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.
Like religious fundamentalists, Coyne is arguing that people must choose between religion and science, that they can't accept both. There are, I believe, two problems with this position. First, pragmatically, studies have clearly suggested that in the United States, when people are given this choice, they will more often than not opt for religion. Now, I'm not suggesting that Coyne, or any of us who care deeply about science, should pervert our understanding of the discipline simply to make converts. No, I'm arguing that there is a way to promote the principles of scientific inquiry fully while not alienating many who are likely to be supporters by belittling their sincerely held beliefs.
Second, the extreme position Coyne has articulated is at odds with much of religion as well as with the basic precepts of science. In fact, religion isn't the monolithic, dogmatic enterprise Coyne describes, while science can't provide answers to every question humans can imagine.
As with many great writers, there is much that is wise and true in what Coyne says. Perhaps most importantly, he makes the case that when religions make empirical claims about the natural world, scientific knowledge has to trump faith. Every scientist I know would likely agree with this statement. Similarly, though, the vast majority of religious leaders I know would also likely agree. The only religious leaders apt to argue are those extreme fundamentalists who believe that their faith traditions are designed to teach us about the workings of the material world. Yes, people like Ken Ham, Albert Mohler and Pat Robertson espouse such dogma, but to imply that they are representative of the majority of religious leaders is ridiculous and gives them power that they don't deserve.
The religious leaders I know and the thousands upon thousands who have joined together to create The Clergy Letter Project, take their faith seriously and are outspoken advocates for science. Their view of religion is not as simplistic as Coyne would have us believe, and their goals are not nearly as narrow as he implies.
I wrote the following in May and it still sounds right to me:
Many, many religious leaders understand that religion is not dependent upon a single interpretation of any text. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the religious leaders with whom I interact regularly believe that religion is about morality and spirituality rather than science. They want to make the world a better, a fairer and a more just place and they believe they can accomplish that within a spiritual community.
I can well appreciate that not everyone might share those views or the belief that they might be accomplished within a spiritual community. (Please recognize that neither I nor the religious leaders about whom I am writing are implying that work within a spiritual community is the only way to achieve these goals.) I am arguing, however, that science is not positioned to deny the spiritual sense that some find within religion or the good that might arise from that sense.
I believe it is possible to turn the disagreements I have with Coyne into something positive and to use it to help demonstrate a path forward. Although I disagree vehemently with some of what Jerry Coyne has to say, particularly when he strays from science into philosophy, I also recognize the value in his science. Indeed, I am so impressed with his articulate defense of evolution that I use his wonderful book, Why Evolution is True, as a text for my class on the evolution/creation debate. In other words, our disagreement on some points doesn't preclude me from celebrating our similarities.
Coyne and other "new atheists" share many values with religious leaders. If he would stop picking fights with those most likely to be his allies, he would dramatically improve science literacy. And he wouldn't have to sacrifice any of the principles of science to do so.
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