When lecturing on their incompatibility, I always mention that although science has progressed enormously in the past few hundred years, theology has not. That is, we know no more about the nature or existence of God than we did in, say, 800 C.E. Hell, theologians aren’t sure whether there’s one god or many gods (as Hindus believe), or a red-horned devil, not to mention more trivial issues like whether the wine and crackers at communion are wholly Jesus’s blood and body (“transubstantiation”) or only partly Jesus’s blood and body (“consubstantiation”). The only “progress” theology has made has been forced upon it by science, which made it abandon time-honored tenets of belief like Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, and the Exodus. Theology is like postmodern lit-crit: it wobbles from pole to pole but never arrives anywhere…
One need consider only this: if theology has arrived at “some truth concerning the world,” then that “truth” is flatly denied by adherents of other faiths. There is in fact no unanimity among religions about how many Gods there are, what God is like, what God’s commands are, whether there’s a hell or an after life of any sort, how you get saved, whether you’re reincarnated, and so on. There are, for example, more than 34,000 denominations of Christianity alone, and that doesn’t include all those other religions. And all of them differ not only in claims about the nature of God and how one is saved, but about things like divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control…
There is, of course, no schism like this in science, which would be pretty much a straight line. There is no Hindu science, no Muslim science, no Catholic science — there’s just science, which does apprehend real truths (albeit, of course, provisional ones), and ones agreed on by scientists of all stripes, faiths, and ethnicities.
First, Coyne is making an apples-and-oranges comparison here. Certain rules of exclusion apply within the scientific community: to borrow one of Coyne’s examples, if you question the scientific truth that the chemical formula for benzene is C6H6, you will be treated as a crank or an ignoramus, and shunned by any self-respecting scientist. The term “theology,” by contrast, is used by Coyne to include religions of all stripes. No-one can get kicked out of Coyne’s “theology” – except by becoming an atheist! So it is hardly surprising that absurd and bizarre opinions continue to proliferate within the field of “theology,” as defined by Coyne.
Second, it would have been fairer of Coyne to compare the scientific enterprise with a religion that possesses (and sometimes wields) the power to excommunicate people whose views are deemed unacceptable – because that is, after all, what the scientific establishment does. Within any given religion, one usually finds that over time, teachings do progress. To see what I mean, try comparing what the Nicene Creed defined about God in 325 A.D. with what the Fourth Lateran Council decreed in 1215 A.D., or for that matter, what the Westminster Confession declared in 1647. Within Judaism, Moses Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were drawn up in the 12th century, are now widely accepted by Jews today as a fundamental statement of Jewish belief. One thousand years ago, there was no such common statement.
Third, if one looks at the world’s major religious groups, one finds that the about two-thirds of the 85% of the world’s people belong to one of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another 15% or so of the world’s religious adherents are Hindus, most of whom believe in one ultimate Divinity, Brahman. (Coyne’s claim that Hindus are polytheists is sheer nonsense.) So if one looks at the consensus view of the majority of the world’s religious adherents, once can discern major shifts in religious opinions over the course of time.
As an example of progress in theology, I’d like to list the following propositions, which are currently accepted by a solid majority of the world’s religious adherents, but which were accepted only by a tiny minority 2,000 years ago, and by almost nobody 3,000 years ago. I invite readers to add to the list as they see fit.
1. There is one God.
2. God does not have a body or bodily passions. God is a spirit.
3. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipresent. That is, God can do anything within reason; God knows everything in the past, present and future; God is compassionate and all-merciful; and God’s power extends throughout the cosmos.
4. God is infinite.
5. God is immutable. God does not change.
6. God is not capricious.
7. God is the sole Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Everything in the cosmos is upheld by God’s command.
8. God is not a blind force, but a personal Deity. God has a personal relationship with each and every individual.
9. God is just. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked.
10. God is merciful. God is always ready to pardon a repentant sinner.
11. God is impartial. Distinctions of rank, race, sex, color or creed mean nothing to God. All individuals are equal in God’s sight.
12. God disapproves of the deliberate killing of innocent people.
13. God disapproves of infanticide.
14. God disapproves of killing girls.
15. God disapproves of euthanasia. In particular, God disapproves of killing the sick and elderly.
16. God disapproves of suicide.
17. God disapproves of ritual human sacrifices.
18. God disapproves of slavery.
19. God disapproves of domestic violence.
20. God disapproves of child abuse.
21. God disapproves of cruelty to animals.
22. God disapproves of compulsion in matters of religion.
23. God expects us to treat others as we would like them to treat us.
24. God expects us to bury our dead, instead of leaving their corpses lying in the street to be eaten by animals.
25. God expects us to not only be faithful to our spouses, but to love them as well.
26. God expects us to educate our children, both boys and girls.
27. God expects us to be honest and truthful in our dealings with friend and foe alike.
28. God expects us to be kind to strangers.
29. God expects us to help the poor, sick and needy.
30. God expects us to donate money to charity.
31. People who die in a state of friendship with God will enjoy happiness in Heaven with God for all eternity.
32. There will be a future resurrection of the dead and judgment will be pronounced on every human being.
33. God has at various times spoken to the human race through various prophets. God has communicated messages to these prophets, not only about God’s nature, but also about our duties to others.
Most of the world’s religious people living today believe in the above propositions. The proportion of people who believed in these propositions 3,000, 2,000 or even 1,000 years ago was much smaller than it is now. I’d call that progress. Wouldn’t you?
And now, four questions for Professor Coyne.
First, can you name even ONE scientist who was instrumental in getting large numbers of people to accept any of the ethical propositions listed above?
Second, do scientists have an agreed position on things like “divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control,” to quote from your own list?
Third, is there a scientific method for reaching agreement on ethical matters?
Fourth, are there any ethical facts? (If I understand Coyne correctly, his answer to the last question is negative.)