Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 2 of a Review

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 2 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 20, 2015

faith vs factThis is the second in a series of blogs about Jerry Coyne’s new book Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. The first of the blogs – Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Part 1 of a Review – introduced new-Atheism as an important but failed enterprise. My views about new-Atheism are not positive, although I believe that a critical look at religion that it attempts is important. Instead of a principled and informed analysis of the failures of religion, I see new-Atheism an exercise in blanket condemnation constructed from scientism, pseudoscience, anti-clericalism and anti-religion. I would prefer to see a scientific approach, one that isn’t about demolition.  And I see it as fundamentalism, thinking that ideology about theology is not exempted from the term.

By fundamentalism, I mean an approach that relies on slogans, ideology, and a dogmatic adherence to certain core – i.e, fundamental – principles. It avoids both the empiricism, the systematic investigation, and the objectivity of science and the open-mindedness and sympathetic approach of the humanities. Fundamentalism can occur when an arena of religious or ideological certainty is threatened or under assault. Leaders, often new leaders, develop ideological positions – fundamental principles – that they view as essential and unassailable as a bulwark in defense. Departing from the fundamentals brings on censure and opprobrium, both internally and externally.

In the modern age, fundamentalism in religion has proved a winning formula, leading to greatly enhanced authority for leaders who enforce it. Fundamentalism in atheism – i.e., new-Atheism – is the anti-religious version of fundamentalism and is a reaction to the improved fortunes of religious fundamentalism as well as the return to respectability of religion and theology in academic and scholarly circles, as well as a response to the polarization of all aspect of our social life. It also is an expression of the virulent anti-Islamism of Christian and European culture. If the book sales and sheer volume of words published or printed on new-Atheism are any indicator, atheistic fundamentalism has been a winning formula for its authors.

Questions for Coyne

coyneIs Coyne’s new book a new-Atheist fundamentalist tract – i.e., one that repeats and amplifies the claims of previous new-Atheist approaches – or is it one that addresses and tries to improve on their deficiencies and weaknesses?  Does it comes to grips with need to be scientific in the approach that it takes to its subject matter, especially given that it makes strong claims for the superiority of that approach? Does it offer realistic solutions to the problems it addresses, something which would elevate it above fundamentalism?  Or does it consider religion and those who hold to it – the overwhelming majority of people in the world – as a kind of class-enemy to be eliminated?

Some other questions I ask of his argument are the following::

1. Does he bring new arguments – arguments with intellectual and scientific rigor – to his approach?

2. Does he endorse the scientism, anti-clericalism, pseudoscience, popular psychology, and invective that typify new-Atheism books? Or does he try to put new-Atheism on firmer ground?  What about anti-Islamism?

3. Does he examine, consider, and critique new-Atheist dogmas?

4. Does he engage constructively with critiques of new-Atheism?

5. Does he endorse – or does he modify – the new-Atheist fundamental that religion is inherently evil, a forbidden fruit?  Does he offer an a reasoned explanation of that fundamental?

6. Does he address questions about the meaning and purpose of life with which religion is engaged?

FACT7. Does he engage with the problem of the mind – and its relationship to belief in God?

8. Does he try to recognize how his own evolutionary-driven impulses drive new-Atheists beliefs? His own beliefs?

I also have some historical questions to ask:

9. Does he consider the savageness and extraordinary injustice – not to mention the conflict with modern democratic impulses – of past secular attempts to eradicate religion – by Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and the rest of the usual suspects?

10. Does he give any thought to the human price of aggressive secularism and materialism over the last two centuries?

One thing you won’t find me asking is about the importance of science or evolution. Science, in fact, is an essential part of any successful approach to reality – actual science, not pseudoscience – and evolution is an extraordinarily well-verified actual science. But I will not avoid asking about the use of science as fodder for scientism and pseudoscience – nor will I avoid the “social Darwinism” question, i.e., are you using evolution as a substitute for creationism? This is an area where atheism and new-Atheism confuse science with theology.

Coyne’s Introduction to Fact vs. Fiction:

leipzig-DW-Kultur-LeipzigCoyne, in his introduction, describes his book as contrasting fact and faith. Here is his claim:

This book … 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.

In Coyne’s belief system, faith is not a good thing. He describes a debate he had with a young Lutheran theologian on the compatibility of science and religion:

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 precis, but I clearly recall the theologian’s words: “We must always remember that faith is a gift.”  … [I] 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.”

vaucanson_enteRed Flags – Two Fundamentalisms

These first few paragraphs of Coyne’s introduction to his book raise several red flags.

According to Coyne, religion competes with science to explain reality. To most people, including me, this statement doesn’t make much sense. I don’t look to religion to explain the working of my iPhone, nor does anybody else. It follows by similar example that most people don’t look to religion to explain material things. So, his claim is not true for material reality.

Some people believe that all of reality is material and that everything is based on that material reality – a view known as materialism. But only the most stubborn and diehard materialists – those who are adverse to what modern emergence tells us – hold that science can explain absolutely all of this reality and that there is no room for the humanities, or for psychology, literature, art, or religion. Either Coyne hasn’t thought very much about what he is saying – and what he is saying is from the French positivist school of Comte from the early 19th century – or he is a diehard reductionist (in that case, why is he a biologist?), or he is making a statement based on a fundamentalism (or, of course, all three). New-Atheism does indeed makes statements, suggesting that we are already edging into fundamentalist territory.

Coyne also has an understanding of faith very similar to that of new-Atheism. And he seems not to recognize the nature of faith or the critical role it plays in science as in religion. Indeed, he simultaneously is asking us to accept his arguments on the basis of faith in his authority as a scientist while naysaying faith in religion.

Industrialisierung_1868-580Does science require faith? Of course it requires faith. It requires faith that there are laws of nature that are regular and can be discovered. It requires faith that thinking processes, empirical investigations, and the analytical method that science deploys – and the details in its textbooks – are correct and logical. No one individual pursuing scientific fact can repeat all the experiments – and do all the analysis – that leads to the detailed catalog of scientific facts, theories, and truths at our disposal that is our scientific heritage. So those truths are taken on faith by all except those repeating fundamental experiments.

A view of science that is blind to these imperatives of faith – that is blind to the nature of belief – portrays a profound lack of knowledge, be it scientific or otherwise, about an important aspect of human reality. Few people are scientists and the claim that scientific facts are the only trustworthy source of knowledge ignores the reality that trust is always a matter of faith. And it sets up science as something you learn from by blindly following science writers – a kind of modern replacement for priests – and not thinking about why you should have faith in what they say.

Already in the first few paragraphs of the introduction, we are in very risky waters steered by someone who appears not to recognize the risks. I don’t know which is scarier – Coyne’s questionable claims about science, religion and faith – or that he refuses to acknowledge that his claims are questionable.

Kilroy 062909

Next Blog

The next blog looks further at the introduction to Coyne’s Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. It discovers another fundamentalism – an even scarier one – something Coyne calls accommodationism.


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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8 thoughts on “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 2 of a Review

  1. Hi Stephen. I like how you are approaching this review and am looking forward to more entries. References to reason, faith and belief in religion and science often come up in the reviews and articles by several authors on this site. I think a focused exploration of the meaning and significance of these terms would be valuable in itself. What I am getting at is that there are not universally agreed upon definitions of these terms among those involved in discussions of religion and science, so for one person “faith” means a naive belief without evidence (e.g. that fairies influence the material world, or that vaccines cause autism) while for another “faith” may mean a strong conviction about something that has not, or perhaps cannot, be absolutely proven scientifically (e.g. “that there are laws of nature that are regular and can be discovered”) but which reason and experience support. Same word, but very different meanings. This lack of common definitions in itself can result in fundamental disagreement about the degree that faith enters into science or the role of reason in religion and can stop any discussion before it even gets started!.

    1. Hi John. Interesting that you call the belief that fairies influence the material world, naive, just because you believe it has no evidence. Maybe somebody in the past saw a fairy influencing some part of the material world, can you disprove it?
      And if we define fairies more broadly, as supernatural beings who are not omnipotent, then one can suppose that angels can meet the definition. And there are people who swear they were helped by some angel from some accident or something, by affecting something in the material world. Now we can’t prove they are right, but can we prove they are wrong, and that this belief is naive? I would say we can’t.
      So while I remain an agnostic, I am not only agnostic on God, but also on fairies, angels etc. influencing the material world.

  2. Hi John. I agree that there are many ways that faith is defined, and believe that surveys of the uses of the term are needed. There most be some articles out there that would provide a good overview if someone could do a search.

    In writings these pieces, I’m biased because of my science background – I’m very aware of the great importance of being objective. Because scientists are trained to be objective, I find it very hard to take when I see scientists caught in the jaws of unreasoning faith – which is how I look at the new-Atheists and their supporters. Scientist who are new-Atheists should know better – they are trained to know better.

    Unfortunately, many scientists have bought into a belief system – I suppose we could call it materialism but I would love a better name – that essentially is a plug and play substitute for religion. This belief system, in fact, is a legacy of the 19th century radical embrace of science and the ebbing away of Christianity, but that doesn’t make it any less a belief system, or logically warranted by the science invoked on its behalf. And being a belief system that has been cannibalized, so to speak from its father, it inherits a substantial legacy of prejudice, denigration, priestly arrogation, etc. – from the failed or failing beliefs and practices what it views itself as replacing. In other words, instead of making a new start, it continues the old system, but with a new administration and a new theology.

    So, yes, facts. We need to examine “facts” to understand their implications, not to just blindly believe in the spin that some dude puts on them in support of his own theological system.

    Aaargh, I say. Aaargh!


  3. Hi Stephen, I have 2 points to make about the part 2 of your review of Coyne’s new book, even though I mostly agree with what you wrote there.
    1. About Hitler. I don’t intend to defend Hitler, he was a horrible man who killed millions. Still, he did not intend to eradicate religion, only some religions, like Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even, I think, the Baha’i Faith. But there were some churches that he tolerated and regulated, like the Catholic church, and the largest Protestant church in Germany. In fact he never left the Catholic church, publicly he claimed he is Catholic, even though secretly he was scornful of Christianity.
    So unlike Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, he did not actually try to eradicate all religion, only some types of religion.

    2. About iPhones and religion. If your iPhone does not work any more, Christian Science, also known as the Church of Christ, Scientist, would try to explain why it does not work. Their explanation would be that the iPhone is still perfect, and in fact it is immortal, because it is an idea of God, it is not made of matter, since matter does not exist. So if you think it does not work, you should pray to God about it, and maybe with the help of a Christian Science practitioner, come to realize that you were wrong, that it was just animal magnetism misleading you, and that in reality your iPhone is actually working perfectly. I read for example an article in a Christian Science religious magazine, where somebody was worrying about his computer being broken, that the computer did not work any more, so he prayed about it, and realized the computer is perfect, and then checked the computer, and the computer was working just fine again. Of course Christian Science is famous in having the same approach to human illnesses. And of course they have the same approach to animal illnesses etc. Amazing religion. And in fact some former members are very bitter about having been in this religion, quite understandably. Like about relatives not getting needed medical care, etc.

    1. Hi Tom: Yes, I agree with your point that Hitler was willing to co-opt – not overly antagonize – the Catholic church. Fortunately for him, the Pope was then a Germanophile and hated communism, and seems to have in large played along. But yes, he seemed to despise Judaism and was willing to act on it.

      I didn’t know that about Christian Science! That’s incredible.

      1. He chose an interesting way of not antagonizing the Catholic Church. According to one Jewish scholar (Max Dimont), Hitler killed more Catholics than he did Jews—his numbers are 1.5 Catholics for every Jew slaughtered. This was the way he chose to control the Catholic Church and to effectively keep it out of his way.

        I have a sneaking suspicion that if a Hitler-esque character were to arise in the world now, the current Pope would fail to be intimidated by him.

        1. Maya, Hitler did not kill a lot of Catholics in Germany, nor in Austria. He killed lots of Catholics in countries like Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovenia, Czech Republic, France etc., not because they were Catholic, but because they were Polish, Ukrainian, etc.

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