The data points were clear. Yet, the data didn’t fit the received wisdom, and so they had to be wrong.
This is the crux of Professor Jerry A. Coyne’s article in The New Republic which dismisses Elaine Ecklund’s recent research as “a vapid effort.” Eukland’s survey of 10,000 Americans showed that only 27% of American believe that science and religion are in conflict. Although he hasn’t seen the study, Coyne concluded that its conclusions must be flawed. Coyne backs up his dismissal of Eukland by citing a 2009 Pew Research poll that showed that 55% of those surveyed answered yes when asked are “science and religion often in conflict?” But what Coyne neglected to mention is that the same 2009 Pew poll showed that 61% of the same sample did not believe their own religious beliefs conflicted with science.Like Coyne, I haven’t seen Ecklund’s study yet, and I would not attempt to issue judgments before seeing the actual research. However, the numbers that she announces actually seem to be backed up by this earlier Poll research.
For most people science is not a collection of theories about evolution or about the beginning of the universe. Science is—an iPhone, a high school biology textbook, chemistry facts gleaned from the new episode of Breaking Bad.
Coyne sees the symptoms of conflict in the different cosmologies of Science and Religion. On the on hand is Religion with its creation myths and claims about the existence and nature of deities, and on the other is Science with specific data and theories. Coyne believes it is impossible for religious people to believe in a theological cosmology and not reject science. But why would the data contradict the received wisdom about the conflict between Science and Religion? How is it possible that religious people believe that their religion is not in contradiction with science, when its basic theological claims are clearly in contradiction with scientific theories?
It is a fallacy to argue that most people belong to a religious tradition just because they find its theological claims plausible. This is akin to arguing that New Yorkers become Yankee fans just because they like pinstripes. Most fans are simply born into their home team. Similarly, a lived religion is not a collection of theological concepts and creation myths. Rather, religions are communities that underwrite specific forms of social and psychological support, and provide moral and behavioral reference points. Theological claims, ritual practices and creation myths represent symbols and performances of these belongings and are only animated through the lived experience.
Similarly for most people science is not a collection of theories about evolution or about the beginning of the universe. Science is—an iphone, a highschool biology textbook, chemistry facts gleaned from the new episode of Breaking Bad. It is the technology that make our lives run, the medicine that cures our ails, the facts that instruct and entertain us.
These lived experiences are not contradictory at all. In fact, they are empirically proven to be perfectly compatible. If you don’t believe me, look at all the people living with one single world-view that includes both.
But then again, is even this picture really Religion? Or really Science?
Science and religion have a life together because they reside together in the minds and in the lives of so many people.
And so I come to the major problem with the writings of Coyne et al. There is no one Science. There are many sciences. The methods, tools, and even the paradigms governing the investigations in biology, physics, medicine, psychology, economics, mathematics, and social sciences are vastly different. This much we have learned from Nancy Cartwright, John Dupre, Peter Galison and other members of the “Stanford disunity mafia.” And the history of science continues to show us how much these sciences change over time. Not too long ago, eugenics was a legitimate cutting-edge scientific inquiry. And although many scientists today might wish this chapter in the history of genetics were an aberration, historians have shown us that in fact, eugenics was the bedrock of the biology of human heredity for several decades. The legacies of eugenics remain inscribed on our brains as well as the Eiffel Tower—famous eugenicist Paul Broca claims a namesake on each.
And there is no one Religion. Not only because there are so many of them that are different from one another in almost every conceivable way. But also because any given religion changes over time to address the views and concerns of its believers. And although many believers would like to think that the core values of their belief system have remained the same over thousands of years, history simply shows that this is never the case.
Personally, I self-identify with the variable number of scientists and scholars who are either atheist or agonistic, although I find this unrelated to this discussion. I also firmly believe in the scientific theories regarding the origins of the universe, evolution and many other things that a lot of religious people may find objectionable. However, I do not think that there is any value in arguing that science and religion are incompatible. Simply put, I believe that science and religion are not self-contained independent beings but exist only in so much that people and institutions exist that hold religious beliefs and scientific ideas. In my work in history, psychiatry, and public health, my subject is the human and the human condition, and I continue to learn that both are ever evolving, changing and without any discernible essence.
Science and religion have a life together because they reside together in the minds and in the lives of so many people. As a scholar, I simply do not have an ideological position on whether science and religion should or shouldn’t, could or couldn’t reside together. My questions are about the inequality in the production and distribution of knowledge and resources in both sciences and religions among people of different races and gender. I ask about the disenfranchisement of groups of people. I ask about the structures of authority governing these different and ever-changing paradigms. I care immensely about how women, queer individuals and communities, minority groups, and communities that are socially and/or economically disadvantaged are commonly and continuously marginalized and disenfranchised in most arenas of sciences and religions. And it is this that I believe we should be wondering and arguing about!
Ahmed Ragab is a scholar of science and religion. He is a physician, a historian of medicine and directs the Program for Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School.
Image from Flickr via Geo Du Lauragais