Religion in a test tube
By MAREN MEINHARDT
Talking to a roomful of humanists about the superiority of science over religion is an activity apt to bring the words “preaching” and “converted” to mind – although preaching, of course, doesn’t really come into it.
The occasion was this year's Darwin Day Lecture – established by the British Humanist Association in 2003, after which it has been given, traditionally, on the Saturday nearest to Darwin’s birthday – the 2016 event fell squarely on the date itself, February 12. This year’s speaker was Professor Jerry Coyne, who has made significant contributions to our understanding of speciation, and whose review of Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything appears in the current issue of the TLS. (His own book, Faith vs. Fact, was reviewed in the TLS of January 22, 2016.) The “room” in question was Logan Hall, a lecture theatre at the Institute of Education which holds almost 1,000 people, and the event had been sold out for weeks in advance.
Proving the superiority of science over religion may not seem, at first, so pressing an undertaking to a British audience, who have witnessed steadily declining church attendance over the years, and encounter churches, as often as anywhere else, on the property pages, where, increasingly redundant, they are advertised for sale.
Most people in Britain are aware that the situation in America is different, but the extent of the headway made by young earth creationism and “intelligent design” seems not to be fully appreciated. The Logan Hall audience, at least, seemed startled when confronted with the numbers. In the United States, Coyne reported, 40 per cent of people profess not to “believe” in evolution. On top of that, 55 per cent of them think that evolution, “intelligent design” and creationism should be allocated equal space in science lessons in school. The background to this is political, Coyne pointed out: in America, it is problematic to state that science and religion might be incompatible, he said, and academic funding can be conditional on adopting this position. Therefore, he explained, a popular strategy is to declare religion a separate entity, autonomous from other endeavours, and express sentiments of the “you can’t put religion in a test tube” variety. Coyne, predictably, had little truck with this: religious tenets can be subjected to scientific scrutiny, and should the efficacy of intercessory prayer be scientifically investigated, he'd be reasonably confident of the outcome.
Whether people believe in evolution is beside the point, Coyne said: belief is not something science has the need to resort to. While religion, he said, adduced facts, but lacked proof to support them, evolution, by contrast, was able to call on the support of many diverse fields of knowledge. Most of these (the fossil record; molecular biology; embryology) are abundantly familiar. But Professor Coyne was able to add to our understanding of vestigial organs – features of the body that are obsolete in a species but have been retained – by expertly wiggling his ears, using three muscles behind the ear whose use now is not entirely lost, but these days restricted mostly to illustrative purposes in support of evolutionary theory.
To those proposing a more conciliatory position, that religion and science should enter mutually constructive dialogue, Coyne had little to say that was of comfort: science and religion are indeed related, but not in a happy way. He had figures to show it. One graph plotted the negative correlation between religious belief and acceptance of evolution. Another demonstrated that belief in God was highly correlated with social dysfunction (defined by social markers such as teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, rates of incarceration, and the availability of health care). Of the countries included in the graph, the US, he pointed out, was represented by the dot on the far right on the x-axis: the most religious, the least socially successful.
For Coyne, the road to improving the understanding of science – and incidentally, to weakening religious belief, something he made no pretence of feeling sorry about – is pragmatic and straightforward: we need to promote social change, improve income equality and seek to establish universal healthcare.
“My quarrel”, said Coyne in answer to a question from the audience about new-age spirituality, “is not with people believing crazy stuff, but with things that hurt humanity.”