Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

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9780670026531: Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

The New York Times bestselling author explains why any attempt to make religion compatible with science is doomed to fail.
What we read in the news today is full of subjectivity, half-truths, and blatant falsehoods; and thus it is more necessary now than ever to safeguard the truth with facts. In his provocative new book, evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne aims to do exactly that in the arena of religion. In clear, dispassionate detail he explains why the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions.
Coyne is responding to a national climate in which over half of Americans don’t believe in evolution (and congressmen deny global warming), and warns that religious prejudices and strictures in politics, education, medicine, and social policy are on the rise. Extending the bestselling works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, he demolishes the claims of religion to provide verifiable “truth” by subjecting those claims to the same tests we use to establish truth in science.
Coyne irrefutably demonstrates the grave harm—to individuals and to our planet—in mistaking faith for fact in making the most important decisions about the world we live in.

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About the Author:

Jerry A. Coyne is professor emeritus at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, where he specialized in evolutionary genetics. His New York Times bestseller, Why Evolution Is True, was one of Newsweek’s “50 Books for Our Times” in 2010.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


The Genesis of This Book

—Neil deGrasse Tyson

In February 2013, I debated a young Lutheran theologian on a hot-button topic: “Are science and religion compatible?” The site was the historic Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the oldest churches in the American South. After both of us gave our twenty-minute spiels (she argued “yes,” while I said “no”), we were asked to sum up our views in a single sentence. I can’t remember my own précis, but I clearly recall the theologian’s words: “We must always remember that faith is a gift.”

This was one of those l’esprit d’escalier, or “wit of the staircase,” moments, when you come up with the perfect response—but only well after the opportunity has passed. For shortly after the debate was over, I not only remembered that Gift is the German word for “poison,” but saw clearly that the theologian’s parting words undercut her very thesis that science and religion are compatible. Whatever I actually said, what I should have said was this: “Faith may be a gift in religion, but in science it’s poison, for faith is no way to find truth.”

This book gives me a chance to say that now. It is about the different ways that science and religion regard faith, ways that make them incompatible for discovering what’s true about our universe. My thesis is that religion and science compete in many ways to describe reality—they both make “existence claims” about what is real—but use different tools to meet this goal. And I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.

I maintain, then—and here I diverge from the many “accommodationists” who see religion and science, if not harmonious or complementary, at least as not in conflict—that religion and science are engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.

Although this book deals with the conflict between religion and science, I see this as only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition. Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition. And science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others), but it is a highly developed form, and the only one capable of describing and understanding reality. All superstitions that purport to give truths are actually forms of pseudoscience, and all use similar tactics to immunize themselves against disproof. As we’ll see, advocates of pseudosciences like homeopathy or ESP often support their beliefs using the same arguments employed by theologians to defend their faith.

While the science-versus-religion debate is one battle in the war between rationality and irrationality, I concentrate on it for several reasons. First, the controversy has become more widespread and visible, most likely because of a new element in the criticism of religion. The most novel aspect of “New Atheism”—the form of disbelief that distinguishes the views of writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins from the “old” atheism of people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell—is the observation that most religions are grounded in claims that can be regarded as scientific. That is, God, and the tenets of many religions, are hypotheses that can, at least in principle, be examined by science and reason. If religious claims can’t be substantiated with reliable evidence, the argument goes, they should, like dubious scientific claims, be rejected until more data arrive. This argument is buttressed by new developments in science, in areas like cosmology, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology. Discoveries in those fields have undermined religious claims that phenomena like the origin of the universe and the existence of human morality and consciousness defy scientific explanation and are therefore evidence for God. Seeing their bailiwick shrinking, the faithful have become more insistent that religion is actually a way of understanding nature that complements science. But the most important reason to concentrate on religion rather than other forms of irrationality is not to document a historical conflict, but because, among all forms of superstition, religion has by far the most potential for public harm. Few are damaged by belief in astrology; but, as we’ll see in the final chapter, many have been harmed by belief in a particular god or by the idea that faith is a virtue.

I have both a personal and a professional interest in this argument, for I’ve spent my adult life teaching and studying evolutionary biology, the brand of science most vilified and rejected by religion. And a bit more biography is in order: I was raised as a secular Jew, an upbringing that, as most people know, is but a hairsbreadth from atheism. But my vague beliefs in a God were abandoned almost instantly when, at seventeen, I was listening to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album and suddenly realized that there was simply no evidence for the religious claims I had been taught—or for anybody else’s, either. From the beginning, then, my unbelief rested on an absence of evidence for anything divine. Compared with that of many believers, my rejection of God was brief and painless. But after that I didn’t think much about religion until I became a professional scientist.

There’s no surer route to immersion in the conflict between science and religion than becoming an evolutionary biologist. Nearly half of Americans reject evolution completely, espousing a biblical literalism in which every living species, or at least our own, was suddenly created from nothing less than ten thousand years ago by a divine being. And most of the rest believe that God guided evolution one way or another—a position that flatly rejects the naturalistic view accepted by evolutionary biologists: that evolution, like all phenomena in the universe, is a consequence of the laws of physics, without supernatural involvement. In fact, only about one in five Americans accepts evolution in the purely naturalistic way scientists see it.

When I taught my first course in evolution at the University of Maryland, I could hear the opposition directly, for in the plaza right below my classroom a preacher would often hold forth loudly about how evolution was a tool of Satan. And many of my own students, while dutifully learning about evolution, made it clear that they didn’t believe a word of it. Curious about how such opposition could exist despite the copious evidence for evolution, I began reading about creationism. It was immediately evident that virtually all opposition to evolution comes from religion. In fact, among the dozens of prominent creationists I’ve encountered, I’ve known of only one—the philosopher David Berlinski—whose view isn’t motivated by religion.

Finally, after twenty-five years of teaching, facing pushback all the way, I decided to address the problem of creationism in the only way I knew: by writing a popular book laying out the evidence for evolution. And there were mountains of evidence, drawn from the fossil record, embryology, molecular biology, the geography of plants and animals, the development and construction of animal bodies, and so on. Curiously, nobody had written such a book. Practical people, I figured—or even skeptical ones—would surely come around to accepting the scientific view of evolution once they’d seen the evidence laid out in black and white.

I was wrong. Although my book, Why Evolution Is True, did well (even nosing briefly onto the New York Times bestseller list), and although I received quite a few letters from religious readers telling me I’d “converted” them to evolution, the proportion of creationists in America didn’t budge: for thirty-two years it’s hovered between 40 and 46 percent.

It didn’t take long to realize the futility of using evidence to sell evolution to Americans, for faith led them to discount and reject the facts right before their noses. In my earlier book I recounted the “aha” moment when I realized this. A group of businessmen in a ritzy suburb of Chicago, wanting to learn some science as a respite from shoptalk, invited me to talk to them about evolution at their weekly luncheon. I gave them a lavishly illustrated lecture about the evidence for evolution, complete with photos of transitional fossils, vestigial organs, and developmental anomalies like the vanishing leg buds of embryonic dolphins. They seemed to appreciate my efforts. But after the talk, one of the attendees approached me, shook my hand, and said, “Dr. Coyne, I found your evidence for evolution very convincing—but I still don’t believe it.”

I was flabbergasted. How could it be that someone found evidence convincing but was still not convinced? The answer, of course, was that his religion had immunized him against my evidence.

As a scientist brought up without much religious indoctrination, I couldn’t understand how anything could blinker people against hard data and strong evidence. Why couldn’t people be religious and still accept evolution? That question led me to the extensive literature on the relationship between science and religion, and the discovery that much of it is indeed what I call “accommodationist”: seeing the two areas as compatible, mutually supportive, or at least not in conflict. But as I dug deeper, and began to read theology as well, I realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion, ones glossed over or avoided in the accommodationist literature.

Further, I began to see that theology itself, or at least the truth claims religion makes about the universe, turns it into a kind of science, but a science using weak evidence to make strong statements about what is true. As a scientist, I saw deep parallels between theology’s empirical and reason-based justifications for belief and the kind of tactics used by pseudoscientists to defend their turf. One of these is an a priori commitment to defend and justify one’s preferred claims, something that stands in strong contrast to science’s practice of constantly testing whether its claims might be wrong. Yet religious people were staking their very lives and futures on evidence that wouldn’t come close to, say, the kind of data the U.S. government requires before approving a new drug for depression. In the end I saw that the claims for the compatibility of science and religion were weak, resting on assertions about the nature of religion that few believers really accept, and that religion could never be made compatible with science without diluting it so seriously that it was no longer religion but a humanist philosophy.

And so I learned what other opponents of creationism could have told me: that persuading Americans to accept the truth of evolution involved not just an education in facts, but a de-education in faith—the form of belief that replaces the need for evidence with simple emotional commitment. I will try to convince you that religion, as practiced by most believers, is severely at odds with science, and that this conflict is damaging to science itself, to how the public conceives of science, and to what the public thinks science can and cannot not tell us. I’ll also argue that the claim that religion and science are complementary “ways of knowing” gives unwarranted credibility to faith, a credibility that, at its extremes, is responsible for many human deaths and might ultimately contribute to the demise of our own species and much other life on Earth.

Science and religion, then, are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discerning “truth” are useless. These areas are incompatible in precisely the same way, and in the same sense, that rationality is incompatible with irrationality.

Let me hasten, though, to add a few caveats.

First, some “religions,” like Jainism and the more meditation-oriented versions of Buddhism, make few or no claims about what exists in the universe. (I’ll shortly give a definition of “religion” so that my thesis becomes clear.) Adherents to other faiths, like Quakers and Unitarian Universalists, are heterogeneous, with some “believers” being indistinguishable from agnostics or atheists who practice a nebulous but godless spirituality. As the beliefs of such people are often not theistic (that is, they don’t involve a deity that interacts with the world), there is less chance that they will conflict with science. This book deals largely with theistic faiths. They’re not the totality of religions, but they constitute by far the largest number of religions—and believers—on Earth.

For several reasons I concentrate on the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Those are the religions I know most about, and, more important, are the ones—particularly Christianity—most concerned with reconciling their beliefs with science. While I discuss other faiths in passing, it is mostly the various brands of Christianity that occupy this book. Likewise, I will talk mostly about science and religion in the United States, for here is where their conflict is most visible. The problem is less pressing in Europe because the proportion of theists, particularly in northern Europe, is much lower than in America. In the Middle East, on the other hand, where Islam is truly and deeply in conflict with science, such discussions are often seen as heretical.

Finally, there are some versions of even the Abrahamic religions whose tenets are so vague that it’s simply unclear whether they conflict with science. Apophatic, or “negative,” theology, for instance, is reluctant to make claims about the nature or even the existence of a god. Some liberal Christians speak of God as a “ground of being” rather than as an entity with humanlike feelings and properties that behaves in specified ways. While some theologians claim that these are the “strongest” notions of God, they have that status only because they make the fewest claims and are thus the least susceptible to refutation—or even discussion. For anyone having the least familiarity with religion, it goes without saying that such watered-down versions of faith are not held by most people, who accept instead a personal god who intervenes in the world.

This brings us to the common claim that critics of religion accept a “straw man” fallacy, seeing all believers as fundamentalists or scriptural literalists, and that we neglect the “strong and sophisticated” versions of faith held by liberal theologians. A true discussion of faith/science compatibility, this argument runs, demands that we deal only with these sophisticated forms of belief. For if we construe “religion” as simply “the beliefs of the average believer,” then arguing that those bel...

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