Friday, June 1, 2012
Are Science and Religion Compatible? – I
We are indebted to a fellow blogger, Tildeb, whose blog is called "Questionable Motives" (questionablemotives.wordpress.com) for drawing our attention to a recent article in Evolution by Jerry A. Coyne entitled "Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America." Dr. Coyne teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, and is a well known proponent of evolution. He is also the author of the best-selling book Why Evolution Is True.
Dr. Coyne, it appears, is very much distressed by the state of evolution in America. Polls show, among other things, that only 16% of Americans subscribe to the completely naturalistic version of evolution favored by Dr. Coyne. And this bothers him, for to Dr. Coyne it shows an abysmal ignorance of science on the part of the public. This, in turn, he says, is the result of the widespread presence of religion in America.
Does this mean that science and religion are somehow incompatible? Dr. Coyne thinks so. He discusses several attempts by scientists to accommodate religion, and pronounces them all failures, including the late Stephen J. Gould's concept of "non-overlapping magisteria." Dr. Coyne then suggests that the only way to gain greater acceptance for evolution is to weaken the hold of religion on America. Astonishingly, he specifically suggests persuading Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants to give up their faith! (Presumably we evangelical Protestants are beyond hope!)
But the question remains, are religion and science really incompatible? Dr. Coyne discusses three different aspects of science, as he conceives of it, that come in conflict with religious belief: methodology, outcome, and philosophy. Dr. Coyne says that the scientific method "relies on reason, empirical investigation, criticism, doubt, predictive power, and repeatability of observations by different investigators" (p. 3). Religion, on the other hand, is based on "dogma, authority, and revelation."
This, in turn, results in a difference of outcome. Here Dr. Coyne simply asserts that science has "disproven" the claims of religion, and that "not one scientific truth has been disproven by religion." (This latter statement is, of course, a tautology: if it is really a "truth" then by definition it has not been "disproven." Aside from that, however, most conservative Christian apologists would deny that science has "disproven" the claims of religion, and would insist that the subject of evolution is very much in debate.)
Thirdly, there is, Dr. Coyne says, an incompatibility of philosophy. The scientific view, he says, is that "supernatural beings are not just unnecessary to explain the universe (methodological naturalism), but can be taken as nonexistent (philosophical naturalism)." This is an extraordinary claim on Dr. Coyne's part. Assuming that he includes God as a "supernatural being," what he is saying, in effect, is that science is necessarily atheistic. It will be recalled, however, that some of the most scientists in history, such as Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton, believed in the existence of God. Indeed, they thought that what they were studying was God's handiwork. Nature makes rational sense precisely because it was created by an Intelligent Being.
If Dr. Coyne is right about the implications of science, then he is right about the larger question as well: science and religion are indeed incompatible. But we think that he is wrong, and will attempt to show why in our next blog post.