Quote of the week: Jerry Coyne on the incompatibility of science and religion

4 03 2009

Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, reviews two books by theistic evolutionists in The New Republic:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board. With his usual flair, the physicist Richard Feynman characterized this difference: “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.

[. . .]

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

As Coyne acknowledges, Miller is always devastating in his critique of intelligent design. On the other hand, I have always found him to be devastatingly inept whenever he is asked about his own theistic evolutionist views (which turn out to be, as Coyne shows in his review, a paler shade of ID), his defences of which are about as convincing as, say, Alister McGrath’s wet-tissue-grade apologetics. (I admit this is unfair, as I am only going by Miller’s on-air appearances where the topic has been raised; I haven’t read his books, and it is possible he does a better job there.) The only reason Miller (who rejects deism and pantheism) keeps it up, Coyne argues, is that if he didn’t, he would have to abandon his Christian beliefs. Coyne’s final point about the fundamental disconnect between theism and science being the scientific community’s “dirty little secret” was illustrated in two recent interviews with Miller, on the American Freethought and Declaring Independence podcasts, where I felt the hosts were a little reticent to draw too much attention to the elephant in the room.

It is very tempting to use theistic evolutionists like Miller as examples of Christians who accept evolution, in order to reach out to creationists whose fingers are otherwise firmly planted in their ears. I myself have done this recently in exchanges with a 15-year-old creationist blogger. But let’s face it: this is rank dishonesty (not to mention fallacious), commensurate with the Lying For Jesus I have so often highlighted and condemned in Christians. If empirical science is indeed incompatible with theism, what is the point of pretending that it isn’t?

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7 responses

4 03 2009
Dwight

A few comments

I’m not sure where the dishonesty is. There are millions of Christians, including the Vatican that believe in evolution . Is it that the number of theists in most branches of the sciences are quite low? Even still, the question is whether in principle it’s possible to reconcile the two. Not how many folks attempt to do just that. In that I believe it can be done.

But the author in the New Republic is certain that liberal folks like myself only exist in the academy and are not represented by the 90% of folks who believe in God. And he inserts personal God. I’m pretty confident that the 90% includes all manner of beliefs, personal and not, transcendent and not, a higher power, and anything else that would allow a person to answer in the affirmative.

Which is to say that the great middle (who these books are designed to serve) are not all fundamentalists who any revision of theism must be unacceptable. They have a market because that isn’t the case at all. Fundamentalists are reading this stuff. The folks for whom there is some fluidity in their concept of God is. And in that, despite the critiques of the specific authors in question, I don’t see this as a doomed project.

4 03 2009
Dwight

Typo: fundamentalists are *not* reading this stuff. The folks with some fluidity in their concepts of God are.

4 03 2009
AV

I’m not sure where the dishonesty is.

I think the dishonesty is on my part, insofar as I am dubious of the compatibility between theism and science, and therefore perhaps should not be recommending theistic evolutionist books to creationists. I dunno . . . I feel like a bit of hypocrite doing it.

(Note: it isn’t that I don’t acknowledge that there are many theists who accept evolution. But that is quite a separate matter from the question of whether science and theism are actually compatible.)

And he inserts personal God. I’m pretty confident that the 90% includes all manner of beliefs, personal and not, transcendent and not, a higher power, and anything else that would allow a person to answer in the affirmative.

Do you think a majority, or at least a significant plurality of that 90% wouldn’t believe in a personal God? The two largest religions in the world, Christianity and Islam, are both Abrahamic monotheisms.

5 03 2009
Andrew

I think Coyne (and others) put it too strongly when they say that modern science is “incompatible” with religion. It isn’t; definitionally, nothing can be incompatible with something that posits an all-powerful being unconstrained by space and time!

I mean this seriously: argue with (say) young-earth creationists, and you’ll realize that many of them would rather believe that God created the Earth with fake dinosaur bones and light already streaming (“in situ“) from fake supernovae and galaxies millions of light-years away, and the whole ball of totally insane wax. Under that worldview, nothing can possibly serve as counter-evidence.

Fortunately for us — and I mean that sincerely — most Christians have liberalized their beliefs somewhat, and so the six-day-creation story doesn’t really mean six days, and the fixed firmament in the sky containing all the stars is just “poetic language,” the “four corners of the Earth” doesn’t really mean the Earth is flat, the heart isn’t really the seat of emotions, and so forth. I think that’s real progress.

Of course, the challenge to the Christian is coming up with a set of criteria that allows them to differentiate between the poetic language that’s not meant to be taken literally — even though it clearly was in the past; viz. the firmament and the four corners of the Earth — from the language they insist is to be taken literally. But I guess I prefer to leave it up to them.

If you’ll forgive a plug to my blog, I do discuss this issue in some detail, and I think the conclusion I draw is that the more you understand science, the more the Bible looks like a product of the men of its time.

5 03 2009
AV

If you’ll forgive a plug to my blog, I do discuss this issue in some detail, and I think the conclusion I draw is that the more you understand science, the more the Bible looks like a product of the men of its time.

Forgiven, of course. ;) Evaluating Christianity has been in my blogroll for some weeks now. I’ve been remiss in not visiting it more often.

I think Coyne (and others) put it too strongly when they say that modern science is “incompatible” with religion. It isn’t; definitionally, nothing can be incompatible with something that posits an all-powerful being unconstrained by space and time!

I mean this seriously: argue with (say) young-earth creationists, and you’ll realize that many of them would rather believe that God created the Earth with fake dinosaur bones and light already streaming (”in situ“) from fake supernovae and galaxies millions of light-years away, and the whole ball of totally insane wax. Under that worldview, nothing can possibly serve as counter-evidence.

You might also use the example of Last Thursdayism. Basically, it amounts to the apologist saying: “I so define God that his existence is compatible with science, and moreover, meets and refutes any objection that can be raised against the claim that he exists.” What I wonder is, do Miller et al. really see their theological beliefs operating at that level of absurdity and ad hockery?

Of course, the challenge to the Christian is coming up with a set of criteria that allows them to differentiate between the poetic language that’s not meant to be taken literally — even though it clearly was in the past; viz. the firmament and the four corners of the Earth — from the language they insist is to be taken literally. But I guess I prefer to leave it up to them.

If they are theistic evolutionists, and hold with the NOMA principle, they have further challenges, not wholly unrelated: identifying where to draw the line between science and religion (and defending this judgment), and determining what exactly is properly the province of religion (and defending that judgment also). My own preference is that, when they are interviewed on the subject, interviewers would press them more often to meet these challenges.

6 03 2009
Andrew

Agreed on all counts. BTW, “ad hockery” is going into the personal lexicon. :)

25 04 2009
Garrett Oden

Even still, the question is whether in principle it’s possible to reconcile the two. Not how many folks attempt to do just that. In that I believe it can be done.

Anybody can believe anything.

Fortunately for us — and I mean that sincerely — most Christians have liberalized their beliefs somewhat, and so the six-day-creation story doesn’t really mean six days

Ah well that idea just undermines God’s power. It clearly states in the Bible over 10 times six days</em

Of course, the challenge to the Christian is coming up with a set of criteria that allows them to differentiate between the poetic language that’s not meant to be taken literally

Though the Bible is many times very confusing, there is still ways to tell if it’s literal or figurative.

I think the conclusion I draw is that the more you understand science, the more the Bible looks like a product of the men of its time.

I would say the opposite.
http://foreverchristian.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/gravity-an-example-of-fine-tuning/

And thanks for linking to my blog!

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