Somebody is going to have to declare Jerry Coyne an official member of the “New Atheist” club and send him the fancy hat and instructions for the secret handshake. He has a substantial piece in The New Republic that is both a review of two recent books by theistic scientists, Karl Giberson (who really detests me) and Ken Miller, and a definite warning shot across the bows of those who believe science and religion can be reconciled.
First, let’s consider the reviews of the two books — they’re less interesting, not because they’re poorly done, but because Coyne’s opinion is almost identical to mine. The main point is that both books shine when they’re taking on the misconceptions of the creationists, but are weak and unconvincing whenever they move on to religious apologetics.
Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.
Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God.
That last paragraph in particular sounds like Larry Moran, who puts the theistic evolutionists on the same non-science side as the creationists. It’s going to grate on the authors, I’m sure, because both have clearly been strongly outspoken against creationism, and I don’t doubt the sincerity or honesty of either in their repudiation of creationism in any of its Intelligent Design, young earth, or old earth flavors, but they are both pushing a different flavor, a kind of weak tea flavored brand of theistic babble that is notable only its reliance on a diffuse vagueness instead of strong claims about the nature of the universe. They are equivalent in being equally unsupportable. They are equivalent in requiring their proponents to walk away from evidence and rigor in order to suggest that a peculiar entity was critical in creating the universe, life, and humanity — while at the same time, Miller and Giberson at least declaim the importance of scientific thinking honestly (the creationists who are a real problem also declaim the importance of science dishonestly, as they are doing their best to consciously undermine it.)
I also thought their unfortunate praise for superstitious dogma was the key flaw in both books — and their attempts to pin the blame for creationism on secularism instead of religion was disingenuous at best. The same could be said for another author with excellent scientific credentials, Francis Collins, who was even more outrageous in the way his logic lapsed whenever he introduced his deity into the discussion.
Criticizing an unfortunate turn in their books is one thing, but Coyne wins his New Atheist oak leaf cluster for taking it one step further, and making the case that religion and science are antagonistic. Readers here will know that this is also a view I share, and that I also think this pattern of trotting out yet more scientists who go to church is growing old. It does not argue that science and religion are compatible at all — all the coincidence of these ideas in single individuals tells us is that human beings are entirely capable of holding mutually incompatible ideas in their heads at the same time. The question is not whether a person is capable of swiveling between the church pew and the lab bench, but whether religion can tolerate scientific scrutiny, and whether science can thrive under dogma. I say the answer is no. Coyne agrees.
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.
So the most important conflict—the one ignored by Giberson and Miller—is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science—every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason—only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful—those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths—fall into the “incompatible” category.
Coyne is admitting something that most of the scientists I’ve talked to (and I’ll openly confess that that is definitely a biased sample) agree on: we don’t believe, and we find no virtue in faith. At the same time, we’re struggling with an under- and mis-educated population that believes faith is far more important than reason. So what most scientists do is keep as quiet as possible about it all, or fall under the spell of ‘framing’…that is, lying about their position. That is changing.
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.
There is a way to make it stop, though…at least I believe it will work. And that is to stop hiding the facts, and show people that secular reasoning works and is far superior to faith-based delusions. Science will not and cannot adopt religious thinking without being destroyed, but citizens can learn about the power of secular reasoning, and become stronger and better people for it. That’s where our attention should be focused, not on trying to reconcile science with its antithesis, but on getting everyone to think.
I do have one quibble with the article. In it, Coyne defines four common traits of all creationists.
But regardless of their views, all creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God’s image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called “irreducible complexity.” This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God.
This is true for the vast majority of creationists, but it isn’t quite universal. I know a few atheist creationists, and they are just as incoherent as the necessary conflict between the two terms in that phrase implies. They do exist, however. There is a subset of creationists who are more like radical denialists: they reject evolution because the majority of scientists accept it, or in some cases because they are so egotistical that they reject anything they didn’t think of first, or because they have some other wild hypothesis that they have seized upon, or because, frankly, they’re nuts. Coyne’s generalization may be accurate in 99% of all cases, and is certainly true for the leadership of the creationist movements in the US, but saying “all” opens up the idea to trivial refutation when the DI makes a sweep of the local insane asylums or trots out David Berlinski to pontificate supinely.