The Problem With Jerry Coyne

In case you missed this August’s issue of the biology journal Evolution, it’s worth taking a look for a grim, late-summer illustration of the state of science-religion dialogue in the United States. Biologist Jerry Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago and a New Atheist firebrand, offers a paper entitled “Science, Evolution, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America.”

The bulk of Coyne’s thesis is this: “Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America.” It’s a claim as bold as it is vague. Equally cogent theses would include, “Because crime is a symptom of urban environments, people should stop living so close together,” or, “Because the antics on ‘Jersey Shore’ are symptoms of drunkenness, people should stop making fermented beverages.”

Coyne’s argument rests on two premises: creationism is a bad thing; and creationism is correlated with religious observance. Therefore, he concludes, it would be a good thing if religious observance were to decline. In his defense, Coyne cites a handful of social science surveys that correlate religious observance with scientific illiteracy. Mistaking correlation for causation, he cites a few more studies, this time linking religious observance to social dysfunction. Having opened the paper with extraordinary generalizations, he concludes it with extraordinary blandness:

“But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.”

It is rare that a scientist expends so much energy in order to state something so obvious. It is rarer still when he gets published. Scholars have spent almost two centuries defining religion in its many flavors. Coyne spends an entire sentence to circumvent that great project. Why is American creationism so persistent, he wonders? “The answer seems pretty clear: religion.” Just to translate the inanity of this remark into a language that the editors of Evolution can understand, this would be like writing a paper about problems in zebra biomechanics and including the remark, “The answer to the puzzle of zebra locomotion seems pretty clear: physics.”

I can’t speak for zebras, but when it comes to creationism the problem, more accurately, is fundamentalist religion—and even that’s an oversimplification. But Coyne makes no clear distinction between fundamentalist religious movements and religions at large. Instead, astutely, Coyne points out that some creationists aren’t technically fundamentalists at all. He then goes back to his all-lumped-together notion of religion.

As a liberal Jew, accustomed to services in which half the congregation are atheists, and to discussions in which practice matters far more than belief, I find Coyne’s view of religion unfamiliar. I suspect people from other backgrounds would have a like-minded confusion. Religion is far more varied than the extremist, belief-driven, pseudo-intellectual strains with which Coyne takes offense. And the sociological reality of American fundamentalism has more depth than can be captured in a couple of studies correlating vague survey responses with indices of social dysfunction.

The problem—and there’s really no other way to put it—is that Coyne writes like a creationist. He has wildly oversimplified his enemy, plucked a handful of studies out of a field larger than he imagines, and then dismissed a whole world of human investigation and experience. No top-flight journal of social science or humanities would publish this article. So why does Evolution? The article’s inclusion in such a prestigious journal does not so much demonstrate the gap between scientists and right-wing religious populism as it does the divide between scientists and their neighbors in religious studies and sociology. The University of Chicago has the one of the world’s finest academic programs in religion. It may be time for Coyne to take a little walk.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina.