In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard revels in the simultaneous creativity and cruelty of nature: “Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit’s free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky’s distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.” She finds beauty and unity in the curling patterns of the clouds; startling and cold death among the insects and others who populate the riverbank. At one moment she feels an affirmation, an embrace. At another, deep into winter, she knows that “if I got lost now on the mountains or in the valley, and acted foolishly, I would be dead of hypothermia and my brain wiped smooth as a plate long before the water in my flesh elongated to crystal slivers that would pierce and shatter the walls of my cells.”
For Dillard, nature—that outpouring of life and death that frames our every action and minute—grounds our reality and brings us to the edge of all possible experiences. It draws us toward joy and sorrow, peace and violence. She writes of a chance encounter: “I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.” In the daylight she finds unity. The energy that fills each body vibrates through Dillard and her surroundings. Yet this contact with reality also hides a gritty side: later she speaks of newborn insects dying by the thousands, of bitter colds that spare no living creature.
Ask any religious studies scholar and they’ll tell you that defining religion—a term that itself developed in a specifically Protestant environment—is game you’ll always lose.
Dillard embraces this tension, and her book in a way offers a mystical exploration of an unnamed, ultimate truth. She cites Thomas Merton and Martin Buber alongside medieval mystics and modern biologists. Her language is religious, but not doctrinal. It approaches truth in a way that mingles the secular and the spiritual, the scientific and devotional.
It works as a fitting counterpoint, then, to Jerry Coyne’s recent article in the New Republic deriding any potential “compatibility” between science and religion. He has a point—science and religion are not toddlers at some parent’s dinner party. We don’t need to force them to “get along” or “be friends,” no matter how much we might want to do so. There are, of course, numerous issues with the piece, of the sort we might expect in any polemic. Coyne tries his best to define religion clearly and succinctly, and he does an at times admirable job. But ask any religious studies scholar and they’ll tell you that defining religion—a term that itself developed in a specifically Protestant environment—is game you’ll always lose.
So I think it’s more important to look at how Coyne understands science’s goals. In a curious way, his view comes close to Dillard’s own scientific-mystical experiments. He notes, “science is designed to prevent you from that kind of confirmation bias: it’s a method, as physicist Richard Feyman noted, that keeps you from fooling yourself and finding what you’d like be true instead of what’s really true.” Science, in Coyne’s view, cuts to the heart of the world. It offers us unmediated access to a stable core—something that just is—that supports everything around us. He applies this same understanding to his critique of polls that suggest many Americans see no conflict between religion and science. It doesn’t matter what they think—the conflict just is.
Dillard doesn’t just observe nature—she learns to let go, to embrace, to loosen control over her own boundaries.
This kernel of timeless truth does, in a sense, represent one of the many goals of both religion and science, as Coyne rightly observes. This does lead to conflict—no one who accepts modern science can adhere to a strictly literal reading of Genesis. Though, as a side note, we should remember that this literalist method of interpreting the Bible is itself a quite recent phenomenon, one, as some have argued, intellectually indebted to modern science. St. Augustine, who marveled at the near-innumerable layers of meaning behind each page of Holy Scripture, would have found such a reading truly bizarre.
But Coyne, in urging us to forgo religion’s search for the real in favor of science, leaves some questions unanswered. In understanding the truth of science as a supreme statement of what is, he narrows and confines our own role in comprehending that truth. There is an ethic to confronting truth. Dillard doesn’t just observe nature—she learns to let go, to embrace, to loosen control over her own boundaries. If we decide to view religion as a way of approaching the truth—as a response to, in the words of anthropologist Michael Jackson, situations “at critical junctures…suspended between a familiar world in which we think of ourselves as actors and a foreign world in which we are simply acted upon”—then it does conflict, or rather overlap, with science. But it also goes beyond science and speaks of human orientations and styles of confronting a given reality.
In this sense, religion does add something to the scientific conversation. But science can also provide a valuable voice here too. Science and religion have justified racism, sexism, homophobia, and numerous other horrors. They need to speak to one another if they are to take seriously a search for truth. And while conflict is inevitable, Dillard’s work shows that when two ways of knowing coincide in such a way there are other possible interactions. We can mix and match, flow between these different thoughts. Where Coyne sees problems we can see promise.
Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974), 266.
 Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 258.
 Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 33.
 Jerry Coyne, “Another Vapid Effort to Claim that Science and Religion Can Get Along,” New Republic, March 19, 2014.
 Michael Jackson, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiousity, and the Real (Durhan: Duke University Press, 2009), 37.
Image from Flickr via gmark1