Jerry Coyne, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, argues in yesterday’s USA TODAY that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. I disagree.
Good science, as Dr. Coyne says, is rooted in reason and evidence, and at home with doubt and testing. I suggest the same is true of good religion. Good science uses math and machines to investigate reality, good religion uses contemplative disciplines such as meditation, imagination, literature, art, and music to do the same.
Good science should be used by good religion to free itself from bogus notions about reality: the sun revolving around the earth, creation being only 10,000 years old, etc; and bogus history: there is no evidence for the Jews’ enslavement in and exodus from Egypt, for example. Free from the burden of affirming what is bogus, good religion can then use the tools of comparative literature and mythology and psychology to find the wisdom articulated in the myths it used to mistake for fact. Good science frees good religion from irrationality.
Of course Dr. Coyne isn’t talking about religion and science in this way. He is pitting the worst of religion (people killing other people over inane dogma), against the best of science: open minded rational seekers of truth. But science doesn’t work that way. New ideas are not welcomed in scientific establishments any more than they are in religious ones. True, scientists don’t kill one another over their findings, but they do seek to kill one another’s careers and funding.
Dr. Coyne sums matters us this way: “In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.” Nonsense. First of all he is mistaking “faith” for “belief.” Good religion and good science are both rooted in the faith that the universe can be understood and navigated wisely and well. And just as religion has faith in its contemplative methodologies, so science has faith in the scientific method and reason. What good science and good religion both reject are dogmatic beliefs. Bad science and bad religion, on the other hand, revel in dogmatism.
Dr. Coyne reduces religion to superstition. To the extent that religions are tied to superstitions and demonstrable falsehoods, they should free itself from these. That is how science can benefit religion. But the opposite is also true: the extent to which science is blind to realities uncovered by contemplative practice, or closed to the notion that meaning and value can be found in the human condition, or that the human condition is as much rooted in narrative as in physics, science needs to open its eyes.