Many people have written about the conflict between science and religion but most get it wrong, especially the apologists for religion. Jerry Coyne is an exception. I don't always agree with his views about evolution but when it comes to the conflict between science and religion he has hit the nail on the head.
Read his article in The New Republic—it's disguised as a review of Ken Miller's book Only a Theory and Karl Giberson's book Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution [Seeing and Believing].
Coyne exposes the fallacy of theistic evolution, a theme close to my own views [Theistic Evolution: The Fallacy of the Middle Ground], ... only Coyne says it so much better ...
True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.I've met many "liberal theologians" who claim to believe in some version of "process theology"— a wishy-washy concept that, as Coyne correctly points out, is just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. The catch is that when you follow these so-called "liberal theologians" back to the safety of their church you'll find that they quickly revert to another form of religion altogether. The "sophisticated" version of Christianity that they proclaim in public is just a sham designed to make them look as though they accept science and all its implications.
The easiest way to harmonize science and religion is simply to re-define one so that it includes the other. We may claim, for example, that "God" is simply the name we give to the order and harmony of the universe, the laws of physics and chemistry, the beauty of nature, and so on. This is the naturalistic pantheism of Spinoza. Its most famous advocate was Einstein, often (and wrongly) described as believing in a personal God ...
But the big problem with this "reconciliation," in which science does not marry religion so much as digest it, is that it leaves out God completely--or at least the God of the monotheistic faiths, who has an interest in the universe. And this is unacceptable to most religious people. Look at the numbers: 90 percent of Americans believe in a personal God who interacts with the world, 79 percent believe in miracles, 75 percent in heaven, and 72 percent in the divinity of Jesus. In his first popular book, Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth Miller attacked pantheism because it "dilutes religion to the point of meaninglessness." He was right.
A meaningful effort to reconcile science and faith must start by recognizing them as they are actually understood and practiced by human beings. You cannot re-define science so that it includes the supernatural, as Kansas's board of education did in 2005. Nor can you take "religion" to be the philosophy of liberal theologians, which, frowning on a personal God, is often just a hairsbreadth away from pantheism. After all, the goal is not to turn the faithful into liberal theologians, but to show them a way to align their actual beliefs with scientific truths. Theologians sometimes suggest a reconciliation by means of naturalistic deism, the idea that the creation of the universe--and perhaps the laws of physics--was the direct handiwork of a deity who then left things alone as they unfolded, never interfering in nature or history again. For the faithful, this has been even more problematic than pantheism: it not only denies miracles, virgin births, answered prayers, and the entire cosmological apparatus of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and much of Buddhism, but also raises the question of where God came from in the first place
The real value of Coyne's review is the dismantling of Ken Miller's version of theistic evolution. Miller, like most theists, wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to accept science and evolution but, at the same time, he wants to sneak God into the picture so that humans are special. This is a recognition of the fundamental conflict between science and religion; namely, that according to what we know about the natural world, humans are not special in any way and life does not have a purpose. There are very few believers who can stomach those ideas, hence their science and their religion are in conflict.
Miller opts for theology. Although his new book does not say how God ensured the arrival of Homo sapiens, Miller was more explicit in Finding Darwin's God. There he suggested that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics allows God to intervene at the level of atoms, influencing events on a larger scale:Exactly. The difference between Ken Miller and Michael Behe is trivial compared to the difference between Ken Miller and Richard Dawkins. Coyne is not the only one who has trouble seeing why Behe isn't a theistic evolutionist and Miller isn't an intelligent design creationist."The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay."In other words, God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they're invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God's micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.
Coyne has written a great article and you must read all of it. Here are two more teasers that I hope will entice you to learn more ...
Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: 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.
Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God.
This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence--the existence of religious scientists--is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.Visit The Edge to see how otherwise intelligent men and women respond to Coyne's argument. Some of them make the kindergarten error of confusing disagreement with intolerance.