Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 3 of a Review

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 3 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 30, 2015

This is the 3rd in a series of blogs about Jerry Coyne’s new book Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. The last blog – Fact vs. Fiction: Part 2 of a Review – worried about fundamentalism. Has Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, succumbed to its charms?

faith vs factHere, we look a bit more at Coyne’s ideas about facts and faith – we will consider what atheist fundamentalism means in the near future. In the next blog, we examine a disturbing aspect of Coyne’s thought – his opposition to what he calls accommodationism.

Faith vs. Fact

Fact vs. Fiction bases most of its arguments on the distinction between fact – which Coyne equates with science, and faith – which he equates with religion. Here is how he puts it in his introduction:

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. …  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 … [By] relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.

You would expect – given these claims – that Coyne would have a clear understanding of what facts and faith are and how they relate to science and religion. Surprisingly, Coyne seems to lacks such an understanding – at least on the evidence of his introduction. Hopefully, he does better in the main text.


moses-old-testament-prophet-1152289Let’s look at Coyne’s treatment of faith. He and many others think of it as an important part of religion.

Now, it’s true that religion involves faith. But religion also involves facts. Suppose, for example, I say prayers to God asking that I become a person who is actively of service to others. And suppose that I have faith that my prayer is answered. My actions in response to my faith, then, have to be ones dealing with facts. I have to deal with the real world of people, dates, checking accounts, funds, arrival times, etc., i.e., all the facts of life. And, I have to study deeply and scientifically to prepare myself for service. I can´t solve the problems of the world by wishing them solved. I can’t levitate a sick person into the hospital. Faith is not magic nor is it superstition. Rather, faith is trust leading to action, and action requires facts.

Does science require faith? Obviously. Only a handful of people interested in, say, cosmology (the origins of the universe, the big bang, black holes, etc.) are going to have the mastery of mathematics and theoretical physics that is necessary to judge the technical correctness of the physics, so everybody else – that includes almost the whole of the scientific community – has to rely on their assessment of the findings. Faith in the scientific enterprise is integral to the process. And as I mentioned earlier, active scientists have to work on the basis of faith in the correctness of solidly based science – no one individual can reproduce the centuries-long scientific process to master all of its details. And, similar to the case I describe above, action on something like global warming doesn’t mean you wake up every morning and repeat the global warming calculations and experiments. Rather you act on the basis that your assessment is correct. You act on the basis of faith.

Does Coyne grasp this? I´m sure he does at some level because he has tremendous faith in science and an overwhelmingly powerful faith in evolution. But he appears unable or unwilling to come intellectually to grips with the fact of his own faith and how it sustains him. Something – an ideology, a dogma, a fixed belief that faith is automatically bad – is blocking him from thinking clearly.

Clearly, Coyne wants to characterize faith as blind faith. And yes, blind faith is a central and serious problem, in religion as in science or any other endeavor. Does Coyne understands the difference between blind faith and understanding-based faith?  Is he trying to equate all faith with blind faith? Is it possible, as I’m starting to think, that he doesn’t understand the difference?

In any cases, we have to ask the fundamentalist question – is his an approach based on ideology and dogma?  The evidence, increasingly, suggests strong components of both.


Or maybe not.

At least one of the things that is going on in both the academic world and in the broader world is competition for power and authority. Currently, science seems to be getting an edge in the fight for money and prestige in academia. The humanities (and things like anthropology, the social sciences, etc.) are being crowded out unless they become empirically oriented. E.O. Wilson and Stephen Pinker (see, for, example, Pinker´s brute-force piece on the topic in the New Republic a while back) are leaders in a ‟branding” game that holds that the only valid knowledge is scientific knowledge. So, making arguments of the faith vs. fact variety is also politics for heavy stakes in control of funding. Basically, you call your competition ignorant in as many ways as you can get away with (and avoid appearing ignorant oneself). It works well. It is more familiar to most of us as politics.

So Coyne may in fact be very naive in his own personal understanding of faith – and completely reluctant to look at faith logically and scientifically – but as an academic he is no stranger to a cynical game where calling people faith-oriented is hardball politics.

Addressing the Problem

Of course, blind faith is a very serious problem, although we knew this before Coyne stumbled across the idea.

The question one should ask in response to blind faith in religion is whether or not you are going to be rational, systematic, and scientific about addressing it, or whether you are going to try to eliminate it by marginalizing or eliminating religion. Coyne and the new Atheists take the latter approach: faith in religion is bad and evil, religion is bad and evil, so adopt a blind faith in science, so teach the blind faith that science teaches that religion is bad, work to marginalize or eliminate religion, and work to marginalize or eliminate the voices of all those who are religious or even think that the voices of religious people should be heard. And by all means, keep the people looking to you for guidance in the dark!

Now, of course, blind faith is not only found in religion, but it is also found in new Atheism, politics (Marxism, for example), scientism (think of the millions sacrificed in the name of scientific racism), nationalism, and so on. Try to stamp it out using crude and ignorant methods in attacking religion and the problem will either grow worse or simply migrate elsewhere (it’s a whack-a-mole game!).

10 commandmentsFacts and Science

Facts, as every scientists knows, are not science, although they are one of its essential components. You can do science that is heavily theoretical – string theory in physics comes to mind, or speculation about billions and billions of universes – without ever having strong empirical support, i.e., without having the facts to back you up. But more generally, science is all about explanation of facts and establishing correspondences between facts and systems of thought, mathematical models and the like so that you can predict – and, of course, manipulate – future facts. Coyne is playing a game when he suggests that science is all about facts.

In a very real and definite sense, science is based on faith. It is based on faith in the scientific method and a faith in the course of science, and it is faith that allows you to suspend judgment until analysis gives you the understanding that holds the facts together. It is faith and belief that the laws that you discover and the relationships you come to understand are consistent with the facts as shown by experiment or measurement as reported by others.

In ignoring this, Coyne – at least in his introduction – ignores the actual practices of sciences.  Without an understanding of the way that science develops theories, mathematical models, and does empirical comparisons with real world data, Coyne is basically telling us to operate blind.

Does this wholly unreliable picture of how facts are on and their relationship to religion and science provide evidence that Coyne has succumbed to fundamentalist fervor? Maybe, or maybe it could be something else. For example, he could be purposely dumbing down his message for his target audience, people who are uncomfortable with nuance and unsophisticated intellectually. It does suggest that any conclusions he draws about the compatibility of science and religion can’t be trusted, given that his premises are so unreliable.

So let’s look further in the next blogs.

The Next Blog

,Blog 4 looks at deeply disturbing view of Coyne’s about something his 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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3 thoughts on “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 3 of a Review

  1. Thanks Stephen, I’m enjoying this series. Also I read the Steven Pinker article that you mention above and I think it is really worth reading as well. I like Pinker’s books and he seems very open minded to me. However his adoption of the term Scientism as something to be defended from detractors seems a bit much.

    All the best,
    Randy Burns

    1. Randy, thanks!

      Pinker is one of the great celebrity scientists of the day, with a record of publishing very readable books starting with the “Language Instinct” in 1994 (which brought Noam Chomsky’s ideas about the biological basis of language to a wide audience). Along with other capable celebrity scientists like Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Jay Gould, and Stephen Weinberg (and Dawkin’s before he went off the rails), he has been a leader in educating us about the new science.

      With Pinker, though, its important to recognize that he is an uncritical proponent of evolutionary psychology – also known as sociobiology. Sociobiology is the modern form of what is often called Social Darwinism, an influential 19th and 20th century amalgam of evolution, racism, eugenics, capitalism, colonialism, and social engineering that privileged white northern-European males above everybody else on the planet. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t important aspects to what he says, only that you have to be wary and think for yourself about what he has to say.

      As the geneticist Steve Jones has pointed out, Pinker has an “inclination to overbiologize the human race.” He notes that in reading Pinker, keep in mind that “In its early days [psychology] was intrigued by the idea – ludicrous in retrospect-that human society arose from the unconscious desire of sons to sleep with their mothers … Now there is a more subtle temptation; that the mind works the way it does their great-grandmothers gathered berries.”

      A more balanced perspective such as the Baha’i Faith offers is that we need to be well aware of our animal nature – the instincts we share with the animal kingdom – but cognizant of the importance of our minds and their extraordinary capacity for intellectual and spiritual development. We don’t need to be captive to our evolutionary heritage, a point that tends to be crowded out when everything is simply thought to be biology.

      Yours, Stephen

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