I was asked to provide a response to Jerry Coyne’s essay “A sophisticated theologian explains why theology doesn’t progress.” In the essay Coyne focuses on mocking J.P. Moreland for a book he wrote back in 1989 on the reconciliation of theology and science. Coyne is not a charitable reader. Indeed, he is one who wears his philosophical ignorance on his sleeve as a perverse badge of honor. Consider this passage:
“When you open the book and see all the symbolic logic and equations, you know you’re in for a grueling and unrewarding read, for symbolic logic is what religious accommodationists use when they’ve run out of arguments.”
Yeah, and dollar shop rhetoric is what materialists use when they don’t understand symbolic logic and equations. But I digress.
“When lecturing on their incompatibility [of science and theology], 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.”
Here’s the problem with this smarmy comment: it assumes that theism is false. Obviously if theism is false then we haven’t learned anything about God. But things look very different if there is a God. For instance, anybody well read in contemporary perfect being theology will know the bar on the compossiblity of divine attributes has been raised significantly and represents a level of conceptual clarity on the concept of God that was simply unavailable to earlier theists.
So what do you think Coyne will reply? Perhaps he’d say something like this: “Yes, but there is no way to tell whether one account of God is any truer than any other.” There are two problems with that reply. First, it is simply false. To see why we need to begin by identifying the data set for the (Christian) theologian. And that data set will typically include deference to philosophical intuitions and argument (under the rubric of general revelation perhaps) as well as special revelation in scripture. So theologians justify their constructions or theories relative to their respective data sets just like any other specialists pursuing their modes of investigation relative to a particular data set.
Second, anybody who understands the history and nature of science knows that the likelihood of every scientific theory currently on offer being overturned or significantly qualified in the coming decades and centuries is high. Science is always a work in progress and in that respect science is no closer to achieving a final word on the topics of its study than any other knowledge discourse. Any scientist foolish enough to attack non-scientific knowledge discourses because they cannot ensure when they’ve achieved the final word on their object of enquiry effectively sinks his own boat.
Later in the essay Coyne then claims that the difference between theology and science is that theology consists of multiple competing faiths but science is a unified discourse marked by agreement:
” 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. The speed of light, or the molecular formula of benzene, is the same to a Catholic or Jewish or atheist physicist or chemist.”
This is laughable for its brazen disconnect from reality. Religions are in significant respects properly understood to be metaphysical theories, theories concerned with the nature of ultimate reality and our relationship to it. And there is diversity in the field of religion in terms of these competing theories of the metaphysically ultimate. But this parallels exactly the field of science in which one likewise finds a dizzying numbers of competing theories, conjectures, hypotheses, claims and so on, all of which are aiming to understand non-ultimate reality. So if the diversity of competing theories, conjectures and hypotheses is not a problem in science, why would it be a problem in theology?