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Religion and Science: Respecting the Differences

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Just so there's no confusion, I want to make my two main points right up front. First, I don't believe that religion and science must be in competition with one another. Second, those who disagree with my first point call me an "accommodationist," and while I don't particularly like the term, I am perfectly content to fall into that broad category.

Let me explain and provide some context. I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I believe that science is an incredibly powerful way of understanding the natural world. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is largely scientifically illiterate. By that I don't mean that most people don't understand the specifics of any particular science, which is unquestionably true, but rather that most people don't understand the nature of science. They are unable to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or, as I like to say, among science, nonscience, and nonsense. Collectively, we regularly suffer the consequences of scientific illiteracy, from poorly conceived public policies to atrocious educational practices.

Scientific investigation is a process that depends upon hypothesis testing and demands that scientific claims be offered in a manner that permits them to be falsified. Simply put, if you can't phrase your hypothesis in a falsifiable manner, it falls outside the bounds of science. Science is, therefore, one of the few fields of human endeavor that has opted to limit its own scope -- and it's that limitation that makes it so useful.

By defining its boundaries in this fashion, science isn't implying that any question or endeavor that falls outside its reach is unimportant. I doubt, for example, that many scientists would dismiss questions of aesthetics as being unimportant or uninteresting even while arguing that they are not amenable to scientific investigation.

Where does that leave religion? Well, it depends what you mean by religion. When religion (or more likely its fundamentalist adherents) begins to make claims in the complete absence of evidence and in a manner that is not falsifiable, and when those claims are passed off as scientific, the record must be set straight. Creationism, in all of its guises, including intelligent design, regularly makes claims of exactly this sort. Rather than addressing evidence, creationists simply make faith statements and expect that those faith statements be taught in science classes.

While none of us should hesitate to attack such activities, it's well worth pointing out that most mainstream religions don't do this. Consider, for example, the resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the United Methodist Church at its quadrennial conference in 2008: "Be it resolved that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church go on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools."

And consider that The Christian Clergy Letter, a part of The Clergy Letter Project, signed by more than 12,500 Christian clergy members, says unequivocally, "We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."

Let me repeat my main point here: these statements of support for evolution are from religious leaders. It's unlikely that you could find stronger testimonials from any other segment of our society. For those of us who care about science literacy and who recognize the centrality of evolution, it makes sense to celebrate rather than criticize the efforts religious leaders are making on this front.

There's very good reason to believe that the voices of clergy are particularly important on this issue if progress is going to be made in bringing a broader segment of the American public to an acceptance of evolution. A 2007 Pew Research Center report noted that "when asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding."

The fact is, though, that the teachings of most mainstream religions are consistent with evolution -- but the message has not yet reached congregants. There isn't any better way to improve the situation than to praise religious leaders who continue to speak out forcefully, and scientifically appropriately, on this topic.

Unfortunately, however, in some quarters, criticism has greatly outdistanced praise. (If you have any doubt about this, just read through the comments on almost any Huffington Post blog touching on creationism.) At times it appears that anyone who professes a belief in religion is assumed to be indistinguishable from a fundamentalist and is, therefore, assumed to be anti-science.

It is difficult for some to understand how an evolutionary worldview may be compatible with deeply held religious convictions. But this difficulty is no reason to attack those who manage to comfortably balance the two.

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 respect those goals and, as I've said, I believe that religious leaders who understand the nature of science and are willing to speak out about it deserve to be praised. I have no problem being labeled an "accommodationist" for taking such a stand. I also have no problem arguing vehemently when anyone, religious or otherwise, crosses the line from science to nonsense.

Because the term "accommodationist" was coined by critics as an expletive (see, for example, a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education and University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne's blog), it says more about their intolerance than it does about those of us who respect positions that fall outside the bounds of science.