Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Religion and Science Debate

The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does it Continue?
Edited by Harold W Attridge
New Haven (CT): Yale University Press, 2009. 240 pages.
Reviewed by
David A Rintoul
"Theology made no provision for evolution."
— EO Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York:Alfred A Knopf, 1998), p 6.

The Religion and Science Debate is an attempt, by six authors, to "provide new insights into the contemporary dialogue as well as some ... suggestions for delineating the responsibilities of both the scientific and religious spheres." The authors (Keith Thomson, Ronald Numbers, Kenneth Miller, Lawrence Krauss, Alvin Plantinga, and Robert Wuthnow) represent a spectrum of disciplines, each with a different focus on the controversy. As is the case with all multi-authored texts, the success of each author in shining their particular light on the topic varies.

As one can imagine, the broad arena of the book's title is actually much overstated. There is little debate between much of science and most religious traditions. However, there is a fierce debate between evolutionary biology (and to a lesser extent geology) and a fundamentalist Christian tradition found almost exclusively in the United States. Other branches of science and other religious traditions are apparently quite compatible with each other. So it is somewhat jarring, throughout the book, to see the broad terms "science" and "religion" used as synonyms for "evolutionary biology" and "fundamentalist Christianity". Perhaps a more appropriate title for the book was rejected, but this usage only serves to inflate the importance of the religious arguments while ignoring the vast fields of science that are accepted by nearly everyone.

Thomson, a professor emeritus of natural history at Oxford University, gives a brief introduction to the controversy that sets the historical stage. He attempts to summarize and contrast the arguments of the other authors, and logically concludes that "the real enemy is ignorance". As part of an ongoing attempt to dispel that ignorance, then, the other authors weigh in.

Numbers lays out an excellent historical timeline, beginning with natural philosophy in the pre-Darwin era, and ending with Dembski's and Dawkins's scuffles over "intelligent design" (ID). This is a valuable preparation for the later chapters, because it clearly dispels the notion that the current "controversy" has been with us since Darwin. Even before Darwin, Christian theologians were attempting to reconcile the new discoveries of science with the old interpretations of Scripture. These attempts at "harmonization" continued in the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The post-Sputnik science education renaissance, with its flood of evolution-containing textbooks, triggered the controversy that continues in the US today, although there are still attempts at harmonization (including some of the chapters in this book).

Miller uses the next chapter to discuss the demise of ID in the Kitzmiller v Dover decision. He dismantles the icons of ID (irreducible complexity as epitomized by the bacterial flagella or the human immune system) just as thoroughly as he did during the trial itself. He shines a bright light on the creationist roots of ID as well, pointing out the well-documented mutations that morphed Of Pandas and People from a creationist text to an ID text overnight. Talk about your hopeful monsters! He ends with an analysis of why science is not the enemy of religion in any global sense, and shows how Christians, in particular, need to better understand evolutionary biology in order to accommodate scientific reality into their beliefs about their deity.

Plantinga, the sole ID advocate in this book, predictably sets up the usual strawmen and knocks them over. Methodological naturalism is a constraint on proper science? No, it is proper science. He attacks evolution and seems to assume that a successful attack would provide evidence for ID. The argument from incredulity is deployed multiple times, unconvincingly. Plantinga argues that the aspect of evolutionary biology that is most vexing to Christians is that it seems to be unguided, but his skepticism about this and his belief in a guided process are never buttressed with any evidence for a guided process. Most amusingly, on page 106, this philosopher of ID concedes that youngearth creationists are the recruits in the ID brigades, giving the lie to the oft-repeated complaints from the Discovery Institute that it is unfair to equate creationism and ID. In other words, there's not much new here.

Krauss starts his chapter with a quote from physicist Stephen Weinberg — "Science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to not believe in God." This epigram sums up the chapter quite well. He also makes the excellent point that the current US debate about evolution is a colossal waste of time;we should be spending our time and energy teaching science more effectively, rather than discussing old, tired, and unscientific notions. Regarding the Discovery Institute's latest ploy, "teach the controversy", he provides the best sound bite of the entire book when he writes, on page 142, "the purpose of education is not to validate ignorance, but to overcome it." He ends the chapter by reiterating what Thomson said in the introduction; neither science nor faith is the enemy; the enemy is ignorance. Education is the way out of this debate.

The final chapter, by Wuthnow (a sociologist) covers ground that is covered in more detail by other authors in a recent book (John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York's Critique of Intelligent Design, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). Sociologists have been relatively late to the discussion of this debate, but there is plenty of fertile ground for them here. The compartmentalization of science and faith into different spheres is difficult; the ragged boundary between them provides opportunities for conflict and commentary. Wuthnow ends with an interesting insight, asking why the conflict is not worse. The answer is, as noted above, that this conflict involves one branch of science and one sect of religionists, none of whom seem to see any conflict in benefitting from scientific advances in computer technology, medicine, or agriculture.

In summary, the book is a useful primer on this debate, giving historical and philosophical perspective as well as scientific evidence. It provides yet another small step toward a future when science education focuses on science, and miracles are not invoked as explanations.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.