Science vs. Religion

Can Science and Religion Coexist? —in the Atlantic, a review of Faith Versus Fact by Jerry Coyne, which says they can’t.

Coyne refutes the “accommodationist” position that science and faith belong to “two non-overlapping magisteria”—a theory coined by his late colleague Stephen Jay Gould that espouses that science concerns itself with establishing facts about the physical universe, while religion is interested in spiritual matters, and the two therefore cannot be in conflict. Reconciling the two is impossible, he writes, because religion’s “combination of certainty, morality, and universal punishment is toxic,” while science, in contrast, acknowledges the fact that it might err, arriving at truths that are “provisional and evidence-based,” but at least testable.

“Truths that are provisional” is another word for hypotheses. Now, I’m not using that word the way some Christians do. I don’t care if we keep getting new ancestors (as I’ve blogged about previously here) because it’s the nature of science to progress.

But in the meantime, misplaced faith in Science can do a lot of damage. Some people, as a matter of faith, refuse to bake cakes for lesbian weddings and are fined for it. I’m not sure where Science stands on the matter today, but it wasn’t all that long ago that a gay man, Alan Turing, the father of computer science, was administered Scientific therapies including electro-convulsive shock. The theory behind it was as provisional as the Spanish Inquisition, and as wrong.

The article begins with the story of a girl who died of cancer when her parents refused to allow her to be treated. Their faith couldn’t coexist with the reality of a treatable disease. The scientific thing to do would be to make the girl a ward of the state and treat her cancer. And if I were the judge, I might be willing to go that far.

But where does it stop? For example, if a prisoner goes on a hunger strike because of his beliefs (be it the cause of human rights or as a continuation of asymmetric warfare), should he be force-fed by his captors? Why? Scientifically, I mean.

And, of course, there’s a climate change angle. According to the article, Coyne says that climate change is an example of the conflict between religion and science. Which shows that Coyne hasn’t done enough homework to form his hypotheses. Lots of Presbyterians and Methodists are onboard with climate change, along with Pope Francis.

I’m dubious myself, but that’s not because of my faith (see the last sentence). My college roommate got a Ph.D. in atmospheric physics, and I know just enough to be dangerous. Apart from people who start with the dimensions of Noah’s Ark to work out the number of species in existence in 4000 BC, I can’t think of a better example than “climate change” of beginning an investigation with the conclusion predetermined.


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