Jerry Coyne’s recent book could not have come at a better time. The science-religion debate is out of control.
In the first chapter of this book, Coyne lays out the problem: the notion that science and religion are compatible is detrimentally influential and widespread despite overwhelming and mounting evidence that the two are irredeemably at odds and despite the plethora of contradictory argumentation for the compatibility thesis.
Why is this problem a problem?
In the preface, Coyne notes that his personal interest in this topic relates to the difficulties he has faced in trying to persuade others in the validity of evolution, both as a teacher and author of a well-known pro-evolution anti-creationist book Why Evolution is True. Noting the rather small conversion (or de-conversion, depending on one’s perspective) of his audience given the abundance of empirical evidence, Coyne is moved to consider this issue from a more abstract level—science versus religion. Religious claims about the natural world amount to hypotheses that are being answered in pseudo-scientific terms, and he notes that “religious people were staking their very lives and futures on evidence that wouldn’t come close to, say, the kind of data the U.S. government requires before approving a new drug for depression” (xv). Furthermore, Coyne asserts that accepting the compatibility thesis dilutes science and renders it impotent. Thus, Coyne’s work seeks, in an odd way, to protect religious believers (though I doubt he would phrase it quite this way), and, more importantly, to protect science and its affordances as a natural knowledge enterprise.
There are at least two problems with the problem as identified by Coyne.
On page 22 Coyne hints to some of the implications of accepting a religious worldview that is not based on the types of truths offered by a rigorous and reliable science. He suggests that accepting religious truth claims implies accepting the social and moral imperatives wherewith they are packaged, including the relentless control of sexuality and social order. This element gets only a passing reference in this chapter, and he promises to develop this further in the next. I agree with Coyne on this assertion, but I think its role as a key driver in the compatibility debate is understated, to say the least.
The second problem, and one that I hope to explore more thoroughly, is that Coyne, as with other authors of the same ilk, assume that somehow science is automatically a better truth generator in regards to claims upon which social and moral parameters can be grounded.
Of course science is a far superior method of generating truths about the natural world, but the realities of how science gets done does not reflect the idealized truth-generating rigorous science that is generally assumed.
Take, for example, the unending science proclaiming the inexorable distinctions between males and females. Every day I see that science is showing how men’s brains are different from women’s brains, how men sleep differently from women, how men drive differently from women, and on and on. Such science, though likely showing some truthful elements, blackens out the ways in which the genders are the same, or the statistical range of similarities. Such studies emphasize a distinction that hides overlaps and contributes to an ethos in which gender segregation is understandable and sensible. All those who fall outside of these norms are instantly pathologized, and this gets translated into a whole host of scientifically-sanctioned social injustices. Now many will argue and say that such representations of science are a product of a pathologically-gender-obsessed media. And while certainly this is a big part of the issue, the selection of research questions produces the types of results that the media wants to report.
This discussion is taking Coyne’s work far beyond what he has written in this first chapter, but it points to larger issues just under the surface of this debate. The point that I want to bring to the fore is that science, like religion (and I am not a big fan of religion), are tools that can be manipulated in multifarious ways. Science is not automatically apolitical, and it is the political dimension of this debate that I think is of the most interest and significance.