Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 1 of a Review

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 1 of a Review

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

August 11, 2015

New Atheism isn’t what it used to be.

savonarolaOnce upon a time – about ten years ago – the new-Atheists, i.e., Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, were seen as bold, provocative, argumentative, gleefully entertaining, and at the intellectual cutting edge. They were atheists with the vim and vigor of evangelical preachers speaking hard truths. Yes, they were unconcerned with logic, fact, or scientific rigor (except Daniel Dennett, who manfully tried to invest the enterprise with a modicum of thought), but that didn’t seem to matter. They stormed unto the scene like John Wayne and the US  cavalry or Savonarola taking over Florence and denouncing church corruption.

wayne3They were bound to fail. At first entertaining and highly provocative, they came to be seen as repetitive and boring – your average dogmatic white European male ideologue denouncing Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and religionists of all stripes, carrying on like radical Protestants and renegade Trotskyites, and misogynistic to boot. Obviously, they had their eye on the bottom line, making a financial killing with brisk book sales. Their views, fresh in 18th century enlightenment France, reminiscent of the glory days of 19th century European social Darwinism, and evocative of the excesses of the first half of the 20th century, quickly became stale. Other writers tried to join their ranks – A.C.Grayling and Victor Stenger, for example – but they lacked the true grit of the fabulous four. Inevitably, establishment thinkers (and mainstream atheists!) declared new-Atheism a corpse, often describing it as fundamentalism in scientific guise.

Now, Jerry Coyne, a capable scientist from a Jewish background and a true blooded new-Atheist believer and activist, has weighed in. His new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, carries on the good fight.

faith vs factDoes he resurrect the corpse? Does he extend new-Atheism’s shelf life?

New-Atheism is crying for arguments with intellectual and scientific rigor. Can Coyne bring weight, logic, and oomph to the current hodgepodge of anti-clericalism, pseudoscience, popular psychology, and invective that is new-Atheism’s stock-in-trade?

Why New-Atheism is Important

Why is new-Atheism important?

New-Atheism is important because religion can lead people to do bad things.There are reasons why religion can be bad, and there are exploitative religious movements that can do evil. Religion can be hijacked by extremists or politicians and the power hungry and used for debased ends. It is like dysfunctional government or communism – you want to find out what goes wrong and correct the problem. And yes, science is one of the most powerful correctives.

And, clearly, there can be very serious flaws in religious institutions – arbitrary exercise of power, authoritarian tendencies, lack of transparency, misogyny, sometimes pure opportunism, political manipulation, etc. So discussions of the foibles and failures of religion that allow these outmoded power structures and their excesses are very important. And it may take folks with a strongly dogmatic and ideological mindset to make those discussions have an impact, and new-Atheism has played that role. (Its too bad that it uses a shotgun approach, trying to discredit everything even faintly connected with religion, but that’s extremism for you!!)

coyneBut, as in everything, there must be growth and development. New-Atheism needs to grow, new points of view need to be considered, old dogmas discarded. There should be constructive engagement with opposing and differing views. One of the problems is that the dogmas of new-Atheism – and there are a lot of them – are often of ancient vintage, artifacts of the past. They should be examined, considered, and updated where necessary. (And why not drop the shotgun approach and the extremism??)

Problems with New-Atheism

One serious problem is that many atheists and new-Atheists are good at creating outrage about the problems they see in religion, but are failures at remedying those problems. And because of their proselytizing – and the aggressive attacks carried out by organizations subscribing to their creeds – they often make the problems worse. (Sometimes, they make them much worse. One need only consider the campaigns against religion conducted by communist governments or the campaigns against Jews conducted by secular organizations to get the idea. Or consider reactionary movements like ISIS in the Middle East.These movements are, by informed accounts, due in large part to a reaction to the failures, persecutions, and corruptions of secular and socialist movements that misgoverned the region so long, often in service to western powers.)

640px-forbidden_fruitAccording to folks like Dawkins, Harris, or Coyne, religion is intrinsically the problem – religion is the forbidden fruit. The idea that there is a higher reality – something akin to what we recognize in people’s minds – is an anathema to them. But our belief in a higher reality continues to exist – it apparently is hard-wired into us – and not easily discarded because some angry white guy tells us to do so.

A similar situation holds with the issues that religion raises and answers – the purpose of life, what we should do with our lives, what happens when we die, what is the good, how can we best live meaningful lives, how do we build better families, better communities, better governments, and a better world. These are fundamental questions and they will never go away, despite angry demands from new-Atheists. When minds are educated they ask these questions. When minds are uneducated, they ask these questions. For somebody like Dawkins, these questions are either meaningless or best left to experts – scientists or science writers like himself.

Arguments that hold that the mind, intelligence, creativity, compassion and other virtues particular to humans are real, important, and a fundamental part of the cosmos – not just flotsam cast up by the waves of evolution – are many. They can’t be just waived away on ideological grounds or on the basis of some vague belief system that holds that God doesn’t exist. (These arguments are strengthened, not weakened, by the powerful capabilities of our sciences. The effectiveness of science shows that our mental powers – powers that we look to to understand divine agency – are very great and that they can transform the world and society.) New-Atheists don’t like to involve themselves in these arguments – except to jeer – probably because they don”t understand them or have not engaged with them seriously. But if they wish to be taken seriously, they should understand them and be able to explain their merits as well as their weaknesses.

So, an important question for Coyne is whether or not he has the sophistication to engage with these issues.

Evolutionary Religion

phrenologyThere is an aspect of the religious problem that the new-Atheists almost always ignore the effect of – at their peril and ours. And this is what can be called evolutionary religion, i.e., the hardwired impulses towards religion that are part of our evolutionary heritage. These religious urges seem to be innate – and they can be turned towards the good or towards the bad. When left untutored or mispurposed, they can lead to a wide array of problems, including fanaticism, blind belief, religious violence, and the like. They are likely built into everybody to one degree or another. They certainly seem to be built into the zealousness and the contempt directed towards religionists (and others who don’t belong to the new-Atheist “elect” group) that we see in Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens and which they encourage among their followers.

A big part of the problem, I think, is that if we don’t acknowledge and deal with the evolutionary religious impulse directly, openly, and honestly, it can become subversive and destructive. Evolutionary artifacts can run wild and create havoc. The new-Atheists, adverse to self-reflection and susceptible to the same evolutionary pulls that can subvert religion, seem almost completely unaware of the pull of these forces on their lives even as they denounce them in others.

Does Coyne recognize this inconvenient truth?

Scientism – or is it Pseudo-Science?

New-Atheists, admirably, are the ones who’ve put the discussion about the destructive aspects of religion back on the map.

But are they the ones that understand the problem of religious fundamentalism and its excesses? Certainly, the answer is no. They rather act as if infected by same destructive aspects of religion that they so eagerly spotlight.

Part of the problem is that they are, in effect, proclaiming an alternative type of religion. Their religion is a pseudo-science, or what some call scientism. They make pronouncements about religious question and issues, evoking the name of the higher authority of science, ignoring whether or not real science has any bearing on the issue, and inventing some made-up theological principle that sounds scientific and so is persuasive to those who don’t want to think.

And often, their supposed scientific answers are nonsensical and miss the point. Consider, for example, the question about why we were created. The new-Atheist answer? Because of the Big Bang. The creation narrative? Evolution. The purpose of life? None. Morals and ethics? TBD. Cosmology and the purpose of physical reality? Billions and billions of stars. I exaggerate, but only by a little.

Does Coyne understand the difference between science and pseudo-science as applied to the questions above?  What are the answers he gives to the central questions of life?  Or does he dismiss them as meaningless?

Rightist, Anarchists, and New-Atheists – The Solution is the Same

Consider the issues that are facing humanity – how do we best face the future, how do we build a better life, what do we do in face of the failures of modern western materialism, what about unbridled capitalism, still rampant racism and the still destructive ideologies of social Darwinisms? The solution that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens put forth is, at its core, more of the same – i.e, continue the status quo and maintain the ways of thinking of the past (Hitchens added his own twist – attack Iraq!).

anarchyIts like the American far-right and the government or the old fashioned anarchists of the 19th century. Their answer to all problems is to just get rid of government – or authority. Then – they say – everything will be OK.

The new-Atheists say the same thing, except with respect to religion. Just get rid of religion and everything will be OK.

Well, no.

The experiment has been done. The deaths, which include those from governments turning savagely on their own populations, have been in the tens of millions.

And by demeaning, undercutting, and undermining traditional spiritual traditions, aggressive attempts to eradicate religion have created the conditions that make militant Islam and fundamentalism not only possible but likely.

Continuing the Discussion

But these problems don´t mean that the discussion shouldn´t continue. Or that smarter people shouldn´t continue to engage on both sides. For example, the vague thoughts that erstwhile luminaries like Steven Weinberg unleash about the meaningless of everything about life need to be examined, engaged with, and analyzed.  What does it mean for a leading intellectual to talk about the purposelessness of reality in a public context as a kind of spokesperson – a deeply unreliable spokesperson – for modern American science?

So, in the following, we start to analyze Coyne´s text. What are the good points he makes? Where is he just spouting ideological nonsense? These kinds of things. And we will see if he brings any fresh views to the table.

Next Blog

The next blog looks at the introduction to Coyne’s Fact vs. Fiction:Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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