Over at Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau has a much more thorough critique of Coyne’s Evolution article than I had time to write. Rosenau’s got a major family event in progress, so it wasn’t trivial for him to find the time. Rosenau mostly addresses Coyne’s statistical arguments, which are, well, strained.
Some major points:
Coyne’s attempt to blame religion-in-general for creationism (instead of, say, fundamentalism) using correlations between economics, religion, and creationism, misses a huge and obvious alternative hypothesis, which is that the real explanatory variable in changing minds to accept evolution is level of education.
Science education is too important to hold it hostage to some absolutist goal of eradicating religion (which is probably impossible on any foreseeable timeframe anyway, and which IMHO has no guarantee of solving more problems than it causes). Rosenau’s summary is apt:
At the end of the day, I agree with Coyne that so long as the dominant form of American religion is anti-evolution, we’ll have problems with creationism in schools. Which suggests two possible solutions. One, which Coyne advocates exclusively, involves eradicating religion. He likes to toss that idea around, and it works OK as a slogan, but doesn’t suggest any obvious platform of actions that would actually eradicate religion (“Europe did it!” is not a platform). The other solution, which Coyne rejects for reasons that have less to do with evidence than personal aversion, involves changing the dominant form of religion. Doing that would involve outreach by scientists to religious leaders and religious communities, encouraging those who are already pro-evolution to speak out more, those who are on the fence to come out for evolution, and those that are anti-evolution to at least more fully confront the current state of evolutionary science, as well as the full range of theological approaches to evolution.
I think that latter strategy has a lot of potential. Scientific studies show that telling audiences that it is possible to be religious and to accept evolution is one of the most effective way to change their mind about evolution, and those studies are backed by years of experience by activists on the ground. A growing number of evangelical scientists are voicing their support for evolution, and opening up internal discussions within evangelical churches that will at least soften opposition to evolution, and may well be turning people around. Mainline Protestant churches are issuing more and stronger statements in support of evolution and evolution education, and leaders in many religious traditions are taking the opportunity of Evolution Weekend to urge churchgoers not to reject evolution.
The second strategy doesn’t require a complete revolution in our social system. We should, of course, work towards a more equitable economy, and my record on that point is, I dare say, stronger than Coyne’s. But doing so will not happen quickly, nor will any consequent change in society’s religious makeup. I don’t want science education to wait on a back burner for the conclusion of these social revolutions. I think there’s a deep need to uproot the social legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, of gender discrimination, of union-busting, of kleptocratic traditions and rules in Washington and our state capitols, of legacy college admissions, and a host of other tools of oppression and economic division. We don’t, however, need to treat those big, complicated fights as a necessary prerequisite of fixing science literacy. Fixing those inequities in American society could take centuries more, and I don’t think science literacy can wait.