History is rife with conflicts between religious dogma and scientific discovery. Even The Simpsons couldn't put it to rest, although Judge Snyder did enter a restraining order to keep science and religion at least 500 yards apart at all times. The most notable modern flash point is the evolution/creationism debate, which seems to rage anew every few years as the creationists reboot and come up with new packaging for their old arguments.
With that background in mind, Jerry Coyne has a lengthy column in a forthcoming issue of The New Republic (via PZ) that covers the conflict. In the context of reviewing two books in which authors try to reconcile the use of evolutionary theory and their religious views. Coyne concludes, rather persuasively, that it can't be done:
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births. Without good cause, Giberson and Miller pick and choose what they believe. At least the young-earth creationists are consistent, for they embrace supernatural causation across the board. With his usual flair, the physicist Richard Feynman characterized this difference: 'Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.' With religion, there is just no way to know if you are fooling yourself.This is important beyond the interesting philosophical issue. Why?
And so the culture wars continue between science and religion. On one side we have a scientific establishment and a court system determined to let children learn evolution rather than religious mythology, and on the other side the many Americans who passionately resist those efforts. It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative. Among thirty-four Western countries surveyed for the acceptance of evolution, the United States ranked a dismal thirty-third, just above Turkey. Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, 'Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old.'That bodes ill for our future. In an ever complicated world in which rational thinking and problem solving become more critical, we as a nation cannot afford to slip further beneath the waves of faith-based public policy.
It's a problem. I just don't know how to deal with it.