Are religion and science mutually exclusive?

Jeffrey Tayler, writing at the Atlantic, has a review of a new book by Jerry Coyne titled Faith Versus Fact. In this instance, the review might be even more interesting than the book itself, but it’s a topic which has been a perennial bone of contention among the commentariat here. The discussion, particularly in terms of how Tayler seems to give a favorably nod to Coyne’s work, raises some of the same old issues about science and faith and tries in vain to measure the value of each on the same scale.

The review begins with a an old favorite of atheists, pointing out a tragic case involving Ashley King, a 13 year old girl in a family of Christian Scientists who was refused medical treatment for a massive tumor and ended up dying. If the book approaches takeoff on the same runway it’s almost excusable to stop reading right there. These stories are heartbreaking, but they are also incredibly cheap shots at religion in general and Christianity in particular because the authors rarely bother to point out exactly how far out of the mainstream these practitioners are. Personally, I don’t consider the practice of Christian Scientology the Church of Christ, Scientist a viable defense for negligent homicide, nor do I think many Christians would be quick to defend it. I similarly don’t pretend to understand the practices of some congregations who handle serpents as part of their services, but as long as they are adults I’m willing to let them live with the consequences of their choices. (Or not live, as the case may be.)

Once you get past the easy, low hanging fruit of attacking religion as described above, the book purports to set aside the idea that faith and science are two separate worlds where each can be left to their own devices. Why is that an outdated idea? Because the author moves into the realm of saying that the two can not be evaluated on the same grounds because science consists of self-correcting wrongs while religion is just wrong for eternity.

In calm, levelheaded prose, Coyne refutes the “accommodationist” position that science and faith belong to “two non-overlapping magisteria”—a theory coined by his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould that espouses that science concerns itself with establishing facts about the physical universe, while religion is interested in spiritual matters, and the two therefore cannot be in conflict. Reconciling the two is impossible, he writes, because religion’s “combination of certainty, morality, and universal punishment is toxic,” while science, in contrast, acknowledges the fact that it might err, arriving at truths that are “provisional and evidence-based,” but at least testable. Unlike religion, science self-corrects, points out its errors, and tries again.

The irony of this argument is that it relies entirely on a dishonest premise just as fully as the author asserts religion does. That entire section of the argument devolves from a claim that religion is unbending when, in reality, religions adapt over time in well documented ways, though change tends to come at a more stately pace than in the scientific community. Christianity, for example, has undergone huge shifts from the protestant schism to the politically driven evolution of the Anglican Church and many, many more. Even in the modern era, the faith as practiced by the Puritans at the founding of the United States would be almost unrecognizable to most mainstream protestants today. And even when faith runs directly afoul of science the Church has, on occasion, shown it’s ability to adapt. (Heck, the Catholics even pardoned Galileo after only a few centuries.)

The article next takes the inevitable turn toward claiming that the current debate over global warming is proof of the ignorance of the faithful, and then goes on to generalize from there.

Primarily, though, Coyne focuses on the epistemological. He notes that religion has always advanced hypotheses about the cosmos and the origins of life—matters that he argues belong within the realm of science. He bluntly evaluates faith’s record of teachings about the natural world as a “failure of religion to find out the truth about anything.” Worse, he states, faith from the start leads humans toward “thinking that an adequate explanation can be based on what is personally appealing rather than on what stands the test of empirical study.”

Coyne is clear in his argument that to understand the cosmos there is no need of a “Creator.” What science says about the temporal nature of our own solar system, in fact, renders more than improbable the existence of a divine plan for humanity. “Human tenure on Earth,” he writes, “will end when the sun … vaporize[s] the Earth in less than five billion years,” while the universe “will also end [through] heat death,” with temperatures falling to absolute zero. What does this say for those who insist there’s a divine plan for mankind on Earth? The “God of the gaps,” Coyne argues, is losing out as science fills in the missing pieces.

Speaking from the corner of one who takes the opposite view of the author’s – that science and faith can happily exist in their own realms and can never be accurately weighed on the same scale – the arguments put forth by Coyne again commit the same cardinal sin which he accuses the religious of, namely the practice of basing your entire argument on something which can never be proven. For the scientist to stare into the blackness of the universe and declare that he’s on the path to explaining it all for us he must rely on one baseline assumption: that everything he sees is, in fact, exactly as it appears. And yet science is always backtracking and second guessing itself (as it should) without ever really questioning the starting point.

The definitive example of this is found in the endless old chestnut of creation. I don’t tend to run with the creationists myself, finding no reason to say that God couldn’t have set up the universe billions of years ago with a particular design intended to produce the result we see today. But by the same token, I recognize that the creationists can never be truly proven wrong. If we accept that God is both omnipotent and omniscient, then there is absolutely no reason that He couldn’t have created an Earth with a bunch of dinosaur bones and oil reserves buried under the surface, leaving them there for us to find. For that matter, He could just as readily have created a universe of stars and planets and cosmic dust all swirling in motion as if they had been doing so for 14 billion years. Proving that negative is impossible and it’s a waste of time to make the attempt.

In any event, this was still an interesting read even for the faithful and an exercise in caution for those looking to entirely dismiss religion. Your arguments will be analyzed in a far more scientific light than any discussion of theology so you should endeavor to anchor your facts a bit more firmly before you begin.

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