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  • Samuel Loncar

Science vs. Religion and Other Modern Myths

Samuel Loncar on Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion, and Jerry Coyne’s Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

If god is dead, myth is not. Myths are the stories that tell us who we are, and few stories are more important to our sense of identity than the myth of Science vs. Religion.

In this charming tale, first told in the nineteenth century, Science plays the white knight of Reason, and Religion the dragon of obscurantism, spitting flames of superstition that would, were it not for brave Scientists and their allies, soon consume everything true and noble, plunging us into the smoldering ruins of a new dark ages. Barbarous religion, complete with odious priestcraft, would hold sway over our irrational emotions, conquering reason with fear.

Fortunately for us, there are many white knights, willing to brave bestselling status and wide journalistic acclaim to slay dragons. The ranks of the valiant include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and most recently Jerry Coyne. If the former figures are the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then Coyne is the latecomer, riding his pony to the battlefield and hoping to cut a swath before the last trumpet.

Coyne is a distinguished evolutionary biologist, a professor at the University of Chicago, and the author of the bestselling Why Evolution is True. His latest bid to combat mendacity and superstition is Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. The titular thesis targets a wide and to Coyne distressingly respectable segment of believers and scientists (and believing scientists) who think the opposite: that religion and science are compatible (they are the “accomodationists”).

Particularly irritating to Coyne are organizations like the John Templeton Foundation that fund research that supports dialogue between religion and science, advancing the assumption that science does not entail atheism and materialism, and can even benefit and in turn learn from religion. While his last book, very much in his special area of knowledge (evolutionary biology), cogently targeted primarily those who deny evolution, this book, very much outside his competence (on the study of religion and the history and philosophy of science), targets those who think science and religion can coexist.

The problem, for Coyne, is that Science, which he takes to be basically anything that uses reason, evidence, and observation in some combination (although he often clearly means only “we natural scientists”), has a method, and this method conflicts with Religion, which in actuality is just a bad version of Science since it makes claims about reality, with a different method. Granted, this entire framework is confusing even according to Coyne’s own description. For starters, he says that “scientists and philosophers now agree that there is no single scientific method” (he’s right about this, if he means no method exclusive to the natural sciences) and “the scientific method boils down to the notion that ‘anything goes’ when you’re studying nature—with the proviso that ‘anything’ is limited to combinations of reason, logic, and empirical observation.” Coyne is here stumbling over the “demarcation problem” in the philosophy of science: how do we distinguish science from non-science, or pseudo-science?

Jerry A. Coyne. Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Penguin Books, 2016, pp. 336. $14.76 (paperback)

Essentially the “method” of science in this book boils down to Coyne’s own perspective, that is, the things he thinks evince “reason, logic, and empirical observation.” His scientist colleagues, when they disagree with him, do not count, for example, as representing science. Religion, for Coyne, is very naughty, for unlike science, which depends on reason and evidence as its method, Religion depends on “faith,” which Coyne, evincing the invincible ignorance of the New Atheists, absurdly characterizes as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence.”

The innocent reader may be shocked to discover that, once the debate has been framed in this way—Science, the champion of reason and evidence, and Religion, the defender of irrational belief—Science and Religion prove incompatible. Indeed, it is imperative to go further, and acknowledge that Coyne’s argument certainly succeeds—by definition, which is also, incidentally, how he resolves some of the most contentious issues in the philosophy and history of science and the scholarly study of religion: by ignoring the scholarship on these subjects and citing the dictionary. I cannot speak for Coyne’s field, but as a philosopher and “scientist” of religion, in Coyne’s sense (for I use reason and evidence quite liberally), I cannot, alas, resolve arguments by citing the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is one of Coyne’s methods.  Through it we learn that truth is “what really is.” Yes, indeed, that settles a few millennia of thought and debate on the subject.

When Coyne departs from the indefensible scaffolding of his argument, which depends on simplistic and incoherent conceptions of science and religion, he lands some punches. It is not plausible or historically accurate, as he rightly claims, to deny a tension between evolutionary biology and the Western Christian doctrine of original sin, which relies on a historical Adam and Eve as progenitors of the human race. This is a fairly complex theological debate, but one Coyne feels thoroughly competent to engage. Coyne seems like he has studied the arguments of Young Earth Creationists very carefully, for they make some of the exact same points he does about Adam and evil. Coyne, moreover, has a further kinship with more fundamentalist Christians, shown in his willingness to accept their framing of the issues: apparently it’s either Coyne or them, either atheistic evolutionary Science or fundamentalist versions of Genesis. So, if the creationists are right about Adam and evil, Coyne is too.

A common tactic on both sides of the Science vs. Religion debate is to say that science and religion cannot conflict, ever. Stephen J. Gould’s idea of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” (or NOMA), is perhaps the most well-known version of this idea, one usually held by both liberal Christians and scientists who are pacifists in the Science vs. Religion wars. Coyne regards the idea that religion and science in principle cannot conflict as a failure to take the truth claims of religion seriously—and he’s right about that. But because he is ignorant of the history of both science and religion, he does not recognize that liberal Christianity emerged as a conscious attempt to reconcile Christianity with modern science and scholarship, and it did so long before Darwin (I have written about science, religion, and modern theology in Germany and America previously in MRB), so this tension is built into liberal religion, and not specific to a conflict with contemporary science or evolutionary biology. Addressing it in a way liberals would take seriously requires knowledge that Coyne does not bother acquiring.

Given that there are few topics of greater concern that have attracted more careful scholarship than the origins and nature of modern science and religion, including the origins of their perceived conflict, one might wonder why, like most popular writers on this subject, Coyne acts like this material does not exist (or worse, embarrassingly waves aside serious scholarship in favor of popular books), for it constitutes the very evidence on his subject that he claims a real scientist would make use of (as a blogger he might at least have read some of the excellent blogs on the history and philosophy of science).

Coyne’s personal attitude towards religion may partially explain why he demonstrates such a remarkable resistance to his own principles of reason and evidence when it comes to science and religion. Consider his conversion to atheism, for example, in his own words:

I was raised a secular Jew […] But my vague beliefs in a God were abandoned almost instantly when, at seventeen, I was listening to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album and suddenly realized that there was simply no evidence for the religious claims I had been taught—or for anybody else’s, either. From the beginning, then, my evidence rested on an absence of evidence for anything divine.

Based on this revelation, Coyne sounds like a passionate evangelical, for whom a pop-induced epiphany suffices for answers to life’s deepest questions. He provides no indication that his Sergeant Pepper atheism followed from, or led to, careful study of Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, or any other weighty philosophers in the Jewish tradition.

Particularly remarkable is how from his revelation about Judaism he also simultaneously discovered the non-evidence for “anybody else’s” religion, too. This leads one to suspect that Coyne’s personal bias may account for his lax approach to scholarship on religion and science. He admits his long-standing ignorance of the scholarly study of science when he later says, “Until I started pondering the relationship of science and religion for this book, I never really thought about what ‘science’ was, although I’d been doing it for three decades.” Unfortunately the evidence of Coyne’s inattention to relevant work is manifest throughout the book. A wag might say this ironic, as Coyne frequently writes as if confirmation bias and other idols of the mind were unique to religion; for example, he mentions “the usual double standard in using evidence—accept it if it supports your preconceptions, reject if it doesn’t—that distinguishes sciences from religion.” By this measure, Coyne may be more religious than he thinks.

Faith versus Fact provides no insight into what science and religion actually are—the dictionary and the Beatles are ill-equipped for this task. Wishing to avoid the “murky waters” of epistemology (theories of knowledge), Coyne instead drowns in avoidable ignorance. This is a pity, because Coyne is clearly an excellent scientist and gifted communicator, writing about a topic of profound cultural significance.

His many blunders about religion and the history of science will undermine his credibility to scholars of these subjects, and they underline the irony of the entire genre of books touting science over religion. Authors claiming to champion reason and evidence ignore entire fields of relevant scholarship. It’s like an organic chef living in a pristine garden serving only leftover fast-food, all the while proclaiming the virtues of veganism.

Coyne’s book, like the phenomenon of the New Atheists generally (Coyne wrongly thinks they are “new” because they regard religion as making claims science can test; but this is an old idea), raises but has no serious answer to the basic and profoundly important question: what, actually, are “Science” and “Religion,” and where does the idea of their conflict come from?

The Quiet Revolution

Over the past century a quiet revolution has occurred. Its vanguard remains obscure, cloaked in the invisibility of scholarship that lacks the flash and pop of op-eds and New York Times bestsellers.

The only exception to this general invisibility actually proves its rule. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited books in the twentieth century. Yet how many who have heard of it, or even read it, understand that Kuhn’s own self-image in the book was primarily conveying the preliminary results of a “historiographical revolution” in the history of science? The first sentence hints at story that still remains unknown to all but a small guild: “History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote and chronology, could produce a decisive transformation of the image of science by which we are now possessed.” In spite of the fabulous success of that book, Kuhn failed in that intention, at least if we judge by scientists themselves and the general public. We are still possessed by the very image of science that Kuhn thought the history of science rendered improbable and misleading. Exorcism is harder than argument, as Coyne and practically the whole popular literature on science demonstrates.

Yet since Kuhn the history of science has produced what is arguably the most revolutionary body of historical scholarship in the past five decades. For, if it is understood, the history of science decisively transforms the dominant image of science, just as Kuhn thought, and thus it transforms our image of ourselves. Since science—i.e. the natural sciences—is the most respectable cognitive activity in the contemporary world, and to many (including many scientists, like Coyne) the arbiter of what counts as legitimate knowledge, any alteration of our view of science portends systemic changes in our view of history, contemporary society, and the role of reason and religion in public life. Indeed, the only thing in history to which the authority of science can be compared is religion, and many have made just such a comparison.

The great sociologist Emile Durkheim claimed that religion was replaced in modern society by science, and this has become a standard trope of the secularization narrative. It is a suggestive idea for at least two reasons. First, no domain of culture has had an authority comparable to that of the natural sciences in the Western world except, historically, Christianity. Second, so pervasive is this power that the predominant mode of creating an aura of authority for oneself or a discipline is to pretend or aspire to “scientific” status. Hans Reichenbach, a philosopher of science, said that “science has taken over a social function which originally was satisfied by religion: the function of offering ultimate security. The belief in science has replaced, in large measure, the belief in God.” If true, this would help explain why scientism, the idea that science alone can answer all questions of importance, not only arose around the same time religious belief was declining among elites, but is also an adamant tenet of the New Atheists.

Given its power, what does Science have to fear from history? And why has our view of Science been so little affected by decades of careful scholarship on its history?

History is not the docile discipline we often imagine it to be. In fact, no field of scholarship has done more to destroy the fundamental beliefs of people in the modern period than history. To understand the significance of history for science, we need first to understand the role of history in undermining religious belief.

It was history, not science (or natural philosophy), that most threatened and damaged traditional Christianity in the modern period (this is a crucial point made by Stephen Gaukroger, a leading historian of science). The development of modern historical study, when applied to the founding documents of the Jewish and Christian faiths, led to the discrediting of many of the core beliefs these religions held about themselves and the world.

The situation with science is similar, made all the more significant by the supersession of religion by science for many modern people. Just as people developed myths about themselves hundreds or even thousands of years ago, myths that the development of modern historical methods undermined, so the transformation of natural philosophy into the singular dominating cultural reality we call Science brought with it a number of myths about itself that cannot withstand historical scrutiny. As a result, the history of science stands to the contemporary view of science as the historical study of ancient literature stands to the Bible: a blessing to those who want the truth, a curse to those who have founded their faith in science on a myth. And there is no better book on the myth of Science and Religion than The Territories of Science and Religion, by Peter Harrison, who discusses the analogy of science and religion at length.

Among the leading scholars in the history of science, including figures like Lorraine Daston, Peter Dear, Peter Galison, Steven Shapin, (the late) Margaret Osler, Ronald Numbers, Stephen Gaukroger, and many others, Harrison is perhaps the foremost authority on the relationship of science and religion from the Protestant Reformation through the Enlightenment. Having written a series of careful and brilliant books, he has now published an invaluable summation of his scholarship to date, advancing his argument in his latest work right into the warring battlefield of dragons and knights, thereby revealing them to be pages from a picturebook, a bedtime story for the children of the Enlightenment.

He begins with an illuminating analogy, worth quoting at length:

If a historian were to contend that he or she had discovered evidence of a hitherto unknown war that had broken out in the year 1600 between Israel and Egypt, this would be treated with some skepticism. The refutation of this claim would involve simply pointing out that the states of Israel and Egypt did not exist in the early modern period, and whatever conflicts might have been raging at this time could not on any reasonable interpretation be accurately described as a war between Israel and Egypt.

Harrison modestly says that his “suggestion is that something similar is true for the entities ‘science’ and ‘religion,’ and more specifically, that many claims about putative historical relationships are confused for much the same reason as claims about a sixteenth-century conflict between Israel and Egypt: that is to say, they involve the distorting projection of our present conceptual maps back onto the intellectual territories of the past.” Harrison’s book not only explains how the concepts of science and religion developed and took on their contemporary form, but also illuminates their present relationship. Thus, like a psychologist, he not only explains how it is we have come to project ourselves onto other people, but how this projection explains our current sense of identity. The result is nothing less than the radical alteration of our very conception of modernity.

Harrison’s argument is complex and nuanced, ranging from a discussion of the key terms science (or scientia, its Latin original), faith, belief, and religion, to a concluding consideration of the contemporary “science vs. religion” framework. Among the notable facts the reader learns is that the term “scientist” was invented in the nineteenth century, and only slowly caught on as a replacement of “natural philosopher”; that it was only around the same time that the English term “science” began to refer exclusively to the study of the natural world rather than a wide field of knowledge that included metaphysics and theology; and finally that the idea of religion as a private domain rooted in belief is related to the birth of the Westphalian state, and thus did not begin to emerge in its current form until the early modern period. This last point is well known to scholars of religion, but Harrison’s discussion not only enriches the current literature on the subject but helps the reader see how the modern concepts of science and religion profoundly shaped each other’s birth and growth. Modern science is unintelligible, as a category, apart from an understanding of the concept of religion, for “the kind of authority that science assumed was borrowed from the magisterial cultural authority that had once belonged to religion. Modern science thus inherited the form of the universal claims of Christianity without the supernaturalist foundation that would render them internally coherent.”

In his conclusion, Harrison does not hesitate to describe as a myth the idea of science and religion as cultural constants, capable of bursting into conflict, and he makes the even more disturbing suggestion, “that we can reasonably ask whether the natural sciences, taken together, share some common features by virtue of which it becomes possible to speak of some generic thing ‘science,’ or whether there is merely a cluster of myths that sustain our present vision of unified science.” Harrison does not say it, but the weight of his own career—and the history of science as a field—points strongly towards the latter possibility.

I do not wish to misrepresent Harrison’s work, for the book as a whole is as careful and deep as the New Atheists’ writings are shallow and slipshod. Those serious about understanding themselves will read Harrison and find in his destruction of our mythic map of science and religion the tools for a truer understanding of own history and identity. Harrison, here standing in for the history of science as a whole, challenges us to find news ways of imagining what it means to be modern, secular, rational, and religious, without depending on simplistic stories that no professional historian of science would accept. This is the true cutting edge of modern knowledge, piercing the heart of the traditional religious and secular worldviews, for both depend upon myths of Science that will whither and fade under the light of historical knowledge.

A World Free of Myth?

Some books are only written because others are not read. Such is the story of Faith vs. Fact. Coyne and his crusading crowd (they seem to have a notable prejudice against Islam, as Coyne reveals throughout the book) are the true believers, trusting in a myth they could easily have discovered was historical nonsense, while Harrison and his colleagues give us both the theories and evidence to sort through the questions of science and religion for ourselves.

Oscar Wilde quipped, “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” The New Atheists, on this account, are botanists specializing in the rarest delicacies. They have reason to defend their tender blooms, however. For such fruit is endlessly generative. Knowledge can hamper the mind, cramping it with complicating facts, alternate theories, history, and a generally messy picture of the world. The mind likes tidiness. But scholars embrace chaos and messiness en route to knowledge as a reflection of the complexity of the world.

Whether evangelical atheists, science popularizers, or the pious are willing to be inconvenienced by the nuance, care, and insight offered by the history of science, I do not know. But I have hope, if not faith, that the time will come. Someday we will listen to the most qualified scholars, not the most popular writers, on questions of science. The revolution of which Kuhn spoke may still be too distant. It may, like Nietzsche’s prophecy of the death of God, still require time. But there is thunder and there is lightning, and we can no longer be excused for ignoring the signs of its coming.


Samuel Loncar’s philosophical practice nurtures life, integrating his movement and body work with his advisory, research, and institution-building projects. He is the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. Tweets @SamuelLoncar.


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