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 in that world aren’t the caricatures of scientists or religionists that Coyne places in opposing compartments.