DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?

Jerry Coyne [1.21.09]
Topic:

 

We will restore science to its rightful place... We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. —Barack Obama, Inaugural Address

Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works. —Jerry Coyne

An Edge Special Event

Introduction

"The real question," writes biologist Jerry Coyne in his New Republic article "Seeing And Believing", is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

We no longer have President George W. Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Senator John McCain announcing in August 2006 their support for teaching Intelligent Design in pubic schools. That was a mobilizing moment for the champions of rational thinking such as Coyne, Richard DawkinsDaniel C. DennettSam HarrisChristopher Hitchens, and P.Z. Myers to mount an unrelenting campaign against superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance. The dilemma as Coyne notes is that against the backdrop of scientific knowledge available to us today, these three words are applicable not only to the texts that inform literal fundamentalists but also to the rarefied theological mumbo-jumbo of the most refined, liberal theologians.

On inauguration day, President Obama announced the goal of "restoring science to its rightful place" while, in the same speech, acknowledging that nonbelievers are citizens of this nation in the same way as followers of religion. In light of the growing tendency of scientists to speak out about their lack of faith, isn't it now time to ask a few questions? Is "belief in belief" as defined by Dennett a good thing? Is there merit in the late Stephen Jay Gould's assertion that religion and science form "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) which address two independent ways of arriving at truth? Isn't it now time for an honest discussion about whether science and belief are indeed compatible?

But as Coyne points out:

Would that it were that easy! True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward."

In the next few days, Edge plans to publish a series of brief responses by selected contributors addressing these issues.

—John Brockman

JERRY A. COYNE is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book is Why Evolution Is True.

Jerry Coyne's Edge Bio page

THE REALITY CLUB: On Jerry Coyne's "DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?"

Lawrence Krauss, Howard Gardner, Lisa Randall, Patrick Bateson, Daniel Everett, Daniel C. Dennett , Lee Smolin, George DysonEmanuel Derman, Karl W. Giberson, Kenneth R. Miller, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer
 


THE NEW REPUBLIC

February 4, 2009

SEEING AND BELIEVING
by Jerry A. Coyne
The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail.

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)

...Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow" book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Statistics support this incompatibility. For example, among those thirty-four countries surveyed, we see a statistically strong negative relationship between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution. Countries such as Denmark, France, Japan and the United Kingdom have a high acceptance of Darwinism and low belief in God, while the situation is reversed in countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Turkey, and the United States. And within America, scientists as a group are considerably less religious than non-scientists. This is not say that such statistics can determine the outcome of a philosophical debate. Nor does it matter whether these statistics mean that accepting science erodes religious faith, or that having faith erodes acceptance of science. (Both processes must surely occur.) What they do show, though, is that people have trouble accepting both at the same time. And given the substance of these respective worldviews, this is no surprise.

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.

THE REALITY CLUB: On Jerry Coyne's "DOES THE EMPIRICAL NATURE OF SCIENCE CONTRADICT THE REVELATORY NATURE OF FAITH?"

 

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