Anthro Mini-Lecture: Can Religion and Science Coexist?

In his book, Faith Versus Fact (Penguin Books, 2015), evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne seeks to tackle a problem the modern Western world has been struggling with for several decades now: Can Science and Religion coexist? For those of you who don’t feel like reading all of the below, the answer is ‘yes’ but it largely depends on how you intend to use them.

Not surprisingly, for a book whose sub-title is Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, Coyne, like (also evolutionary biologist) Richard Dawkins before him, comes to the conclusion that they aren’t. For the most part, Coyne focuses on problems of epistemology (i.e., how you know what you know). And by that, I mean that he takes great pains to focus on how religious doctrines seek to explain the existence of the cosmos or the origins of life; matters that, as far as he is concerned, belong solely to the realm of science (I’m going to guess he is also essentially unconcerned with the works of E. Evans Pritchard and Stanley Tambiah on the social relationships between Science and Religion, but I digress). As far as Coyne is concerned, Religion’s record of flawed and dubious teachings about the natural world constitute a “failure of religion to find out the truth about anything.” What’s even worse is that he then goes on to accuse all forms of theology of leading humans toward “thinking that an adequate explanation can be based on what is personally appealing rather than on what stands the test of empirical study.” If it isn’t already clear by my tone, I think Coyne has missed the point.

Part of the problem of compatibility or irreconcilability is that this particular discourse has too often shaped both Religion and Science as discreet, self-sustaining, entities that essentially diverge on the grounds of objectivity and epistemology (or you might say, “who is going to get the monopoly on the truth”). In other words, this argument imagines Religion and Science as two neatly bounded concepts that are currently facing off over who gets to “win” and be the king of the cultural hill. If you view Science and Religion as a line in the sand in the midst of an all or nothing battle to conquer viewpoints (or souls, if you are so inclined) for one side or the other, of course you are going to believe they are irreconcilable.

What arguments like this fail to consider is that neither Religion nor Science are neatly contained little individuals. Rather, systems of knowledge are messy, constantly morphing, and ever-changing methods by which people do things in the world (as we say in anthropology, these systems do “cultural work”). Meaning, that both of these systems of knowledge are used by people (let’s not forget that neither exists without people) to accomplish certain ends. For example, try to think about Creationism not as some kind of cosmic force “out there” opposing Cosmology (thus implying that one side must ultimately be eliminated), instead think of Creationism as having been created to work in opposition to Cosmology because many modern day political power struggles frame “victory” as having sole ownership of “the truth about things.” Whoever has “the truth” gets the power, and Religion is a very good method of trafficking in “absolute truths.” And as Science generally does not deal in “absolute truths,” Religion becomes a viable method of attack in order to attempt to strip Science of its growing cultural power and authority (a kind of cultural power and authority many religious traditions once enjoyed). Note here, however, that I am not saying that both Religion and Science are always on same footing in terms of evidence, application, and meaning. I am not, in any way, advocating for the inclusion of religious ideologies, like Creationism, in the Science classroom. Rather, I am pointing out how the use of knowledge and systems of knowledge often has more to do with their “problems” than the actual knowledge produced.

I’m also being a bit overly simplistic here because, unfortunately, a more extensive and verbose essay on the subject wouldn’t make for a particularly entertaining blog post. But in any case, the point is that I think we need to stop wringing our hands over what will become of a battle between Religion and Science that continuously pits them against one another as sole sources of “truth” and start asking ourselves why we need to see the two systems as polar opposites in the first place.

Lastly, if it isn’t already obvious, I’ll be posting more on precisely this topic in the coming months. But this is a good start to get us going.

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