The War That Never Was But Now Is

he ‘war’ between science and religion,” Jerry Coyne writes, “then, is a conflict about whether you have good reasons for believing what you do: whether you see faith as a vice or a virtue.” Coyne is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. This quote comes from an article that is one among many he has written to trash the religious point of view. The only problem with his article is the glaring and unmistakable quality of its being wrong.

For starters, Coyne goes so far as to dismiss the role that the religious outlook had on the development of science. Coyne states, “it’s debatable whether, in the long run, the progress of science has been promoted by religion.” There are just too many sources refuting that thesis to mention. I’ll simply include a quote from Harvard Professor Steven Shapin, which comes from his book The Scientific Revolution, published by the University of Chicago Press:

“In the late Victorian period it was common to write about the ‘warfare between science and religion’ and to presume that the two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it is a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science.” (Stephen Shapin, 1996)

Apparently, no one told Coyne the war is long over. Actually, it never was. Science grew out of a Christian view of the world. As C.S. Lewis once said, “men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”

But make no mistake: there is a war. It isn’t a war between science and religion, it’s a war between certain scientists and religion. It’s a war between worldviews: atheism and Christian theism. In this case, it’s a conflict between Coyne and Christianity. That’s why I agree with Coyne when he says, “both religion and science rest on ‘truth statements’ about the universe – claims about reality.”

It is here that the Christian is free to explore both the physical facts about the universe, but also the spiritual realities that make sense of the human experience. We can explore and embrace non-physical realities like justice, love, truth, and even the real ability to make meaningful decisions. We can believe that both gravity and morality are real laws at work in the world. We don’t have to choose. We can be both scientific and spiritual, since they are not at odds.

It is interesting, for someone who claims to be strictly evidence-based that Coyne ignores the body of research in philosophy regarding the existence of God. Of course Coyne is not a philosopher, but it is rather shocking that he goes so far as to say, “And while science has had success after success in understanding the universe, the ‘method’ of using faith has led to no proof of the divine.” To be honest, there are far too many philosophical arguments for the existence of God to even get started here. There so many arguments for God’s existence, it has led to the what is called the “argument from so many arguments.”

But on the other hand, Coyne isn’t nearly as dismissive of ideas that he is in favor of, even when they lack the sort of physical proof he demands from others. For example, in this post, Coyne goes to great efforts to nuance and clarify and seek out theoretical and interpretive evidence for the multiverse theory, a view that is popular among many atheist thinkers.

Coyne doesn’t brush the multiverse theory aside as nonsense. Why? Because it fits with his worldview assumptions and priorities. But when it comes to those who believe in God without the sort of physical evidence he demands, Coyne says:

“In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the ‘truths’ undergirding your faith.”

Here we can see Coyne’s tactic made plain. When it comes to theoretical or interpretive evidences for the multiverse he is just fine, but when it comes to theoretical evidences for God it must be dismissed as wishful-thinking. I think I smell a double-standard.

This moving goal post might be explained with the possibility that Coyne is drawn to such theories, even when they don’t meet his normal standard of physical proof, because those theories better fit the way he wants the world to be. This could be coined “Atheistic wishful-thinking.”

But there’s another layer to his article that is worth teasing out even if just for a moment, and it’s something I’ve never really understood from atheists like Coyne. He says “it’s irrational to decide . . . “ That’s interesting. You don’t have to look far to see that Coyne doesn’t believe humans are capable of deciding anything, since he rejects the idea of free will. Why get angry at Christian Theists when you don’t believe they have the ability to change their mind, or should I say brain? They can’t really decide anything based on his view.

There is a war, make no doubt. But it’s not a war between science and religion. It’s a war between worldviews. In this case, between atheism and Christianity.

As Alvin Plantinga points out, in the end it’s actually atheism that is in conflict with science. Though I don’t agree with Plantinga’s acceptance of theistic evolution, I agree with him that where the conflict really lies is between naturalism and science. If the universe is an accident, then we are accidents, then our brain is an accident, then our thoughts are accidents, then . . . what are we talking about again? Oh, yes, the question about whether or not science and religion are at war. The answer is no.