DAMON LINKER JANUARY 27, 2009
Elsewhere at TNR readers will find Jerry A. Coyne's illuminating review essay on the incompatibility between science and religious faith in a personal, providential God. As someone innately suspicious of those who deny the need for tough choices, I agree with Coyne's conclusion that "a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims." In other words, the drive toward synthesis between science and religion will inevitably end up forcing one or the other to sacrifice something essential about itself. There is no Third Way.
Yet along the way to this sensible conclusion, Coyne makes the perplexing assertion that "anything touted as 'truth' must come with a method for being disproved -- a method that does not depend on personal revelation." Yes, that is the way truth looks to a scientist: no unfalsifiable statements about the world allowed. But isn't (non-watered-down) religious truth essentially different? Isn't religious truth inevitably grounded in a personal revelation whose absoluteness renders it incapable of being disproved? Isn't this -- the chasm separating the modest, provisional truths uncovered by reason and the exalted grandeur of the Truth disclosed by revelation -- what, more than anything else, separates science and religion?
So which is it? Does Coyne want to separate science and religion for the benefit of both? Or does he want to insist that religion play by the rules of science (which excludes the possibility of personal revelation a priori) -- a demand that would (in theory) quickly produce a world without religion?
As for me, I'm all for keeping reason and revelation cordoned off from one another at the level of ideas -- as distinct modes of thinking about humanity and the universe. But politically speaking, I'd be quite happy to live in a country filled with watered-down deists. (And perhaps I already do.)