Caricatures & Compartments

One of my favorite features of The Browser is its Five Books series, which recently featured selections from evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. While Coyne’s book choices are good, this portion of the accompanying interview is less so:

Coyne: A lot of religious people accept evolution. They’re accommodationists. People like to think there is no inherent conflict between science – in particular evolution – and religion, and to show that Darwin could have been a religious man shows that religion and science can be friends.

Browser: Can they not?

Coyne: I don’t think they can, no. To me, they are completely conflictual world views. People always point to the fact that Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, is an evangelical Christian. They use him as an example that religion and science are not incompatible, because here you have a religious scientist. They’re trying to do the same with Darwin. To me, showing that somebody can hold two diametrically opposed views of truth in their head at the same time doesn’t show these two views are compatible, but simply that humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalise.

There is more than a bit of compartmentalizing irony here. In Coyne’s cloistered world, there are two compartments: science and religion. These compartments are then imagined to be “completely conflictual” and mutually exclusive. I think this says more about Coyne, and his own compartmentalizing tendencies, than it does about either science or religion.

While I can understand Coyne’s frustration with creationists and their ilk, they are hardly representative. Nor, for that matter, are the various forms of Christianity that Coyne spends so much time combating.

While it may be comforting for compartmentalists to imagine a dichotomous war for Truth between science and religion, I don’t see it. Coyne is creating fictitious boundaries, placing people in artificial boxes, and judging disputes according to his own cramped definitions and rules. The real world isn’t like that, and most people aren’t the caricatures of scientists or religionists that Coyne places in opposing compartments.

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4 thoughts on “Caricatures & Compartments

  1. Michael Waterhouse

    I don’t think Coyne, in the excerpt you have quoted has set up “fictitious boundaries” or established “cramped definitions and rules”. It may be right that Coyne is arguing about views at one end of the spectrum of those who count themselves “religious”. But his example was of an evangelical Christian. My impression is that the vast majority of people who would apply this description to themselves would also ascribe to the belief that God is really true in the same way that they believe trees, cats and stones are true. A large share of persons with these beliefs would also believe the Bible to be true and the word of God, and therefore that God created living things on earth. If you isolate this subsection of persons with religion, then this last view seems to be incompatible with the scientific explanation of evolution. If a person with these religious views also holds that evolution is true, then these seem to be incompatible beliefs. It is difficult to distinguish whether individuals have arrived at religious views that are not evangelical as I have characterised it and therefore don’t think some parts of their religion are true, or whether they hold incompatible views in their head by way of cognititve dissonance. Both seem likely. By identifying one of these groups, Coyne is not necessarily creating “fictitious boundaries” etc.

  2. Michael Waterhouse

    I note that you have explored this further in your earlier post here:
    Daniel Harlow’s position which you refer to here:
    “Broadly speaking, there are three possible
    responses to the apparent erosion of biblical truth
    by modern science: (1) dispute the science, (2) finesse
    one’s interpretation of Scripture to accord with the
    science, or (3) assign the Bible and science to two
    separate spheres of authoritative discourse.” seems quite reasonable, and seems to me similar to Coyne’s position. That is, there is an incompatibility requiring one of these 3 responses.

  3. Cris Post author

    My comments about Coyne’s boundaries and definitions were not based so much on these particular quotes as they were informed by my reading of his blog for the better part of a year. While I often found myself agreeing with Coyne, especially when he was lambasting creationist evangelicals and tendentious theologians, I also found that he tends to view religions through a lens so restricted and/or distorted that it amounts to caricature.

    Coyne generalizes from his primary (and worthy) targets — certain kinds of Christians and Muslims, to religionists as a whole. The subset of religions he attacks, with considerable justification, represents just a small portion of lived religion in the modern world, and it makes no effort to comprehend religions throughout history. These subsets have very little in common with the much larger variety of lived religions in history and elsewhere in the world. I think Coyne would be well-served by a serious course of study in the history of religions leading to the Axial Age, and a cross-cultural study of religions in smaller-scale societies. He seems to think that evangelical Christianity on the one hand and intellectual Christianity on the other are somehow representative of religions generally. They aren’t.

    With this in mind, I see that you focus on a similar set of beliefs — those Christians who believe in the Truth of the Bible and God. They make for an easy and tempting target, and while they need to confronted (especially on issues of science education), ultimately they aren’t representative. They may fit in a certain kind of box but that box isn’t so large that it renders science and religions as mutually exclusive and “completely conflictual” worldviews.

    All this aside, my disdain for Coyne’s dichotomies derives from two sources: his failure to understand religions outside of evangelical or intellectual Christianity, and his overestimation of the power of science and the knowledge that it has established. With respect to the first, Coyne would be well served by a serious course of study in the kinds of animism-shamanism that humans practiced for perhaps 50,000 years before the Neolithic transition. Many humans continued in these lifeways until fairly recently (and some still do). These kinds of “religions” are fundamentally different from those which Coyne lumps as the irrational and untrue “religion” that Coyne imagines to be opposed to science. Along these same lines, Coyne would also benefit from a serious course of study in eastern religious traditions, especially those of China.

    With respect to science, Coyne seriously overestimates what is known by science and the kinds of issues it is capable of resolving. When I say this I am not coming at the issue as a religionist attempting to place science in a box and restrict what it can address. I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t have any religious beliefs but recognizes that science will always have a long way to go in answering all the questions we might pose, and that it simply can’t address certain kinds of questions. I’m okay with this but Coyne isn’t. His claims for science are overbroad and overreaching. It pains me to say this because I don’t want to give any ammunition to his vociferous evangelical (Christian) opponents or his voluble intellectual (Christian) opponents, but it strikes me as being true.

    The best way I can put it is that Coyne likes his bright-lines and boxes because he is a scientist, and a really good one. I really admire Coyne when he does science, just as I really like Dawkins when he does science. I also enjoy them both when they go after evangelicals, creationists, fundamentalists, and theological woo. But their battles against these types seem to have blinded them to other positions and radicalized their estimates of science.

  4. Cris Post author

    I did briefly address these issues in that post, but I was talking about a small minority of creationist and literalist Christians. They don’t represent religionists more broadly and their beliefs don’t establish a fundamental conflict between science and religions.

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