Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 4 of a Review

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 4 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

September 12, 2015

faith vs factThis is the 4th 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 3 of a Review – looked at role of faith and facts in science and religion.

In this blog, I explore a disturbing side of Coyne’s work, one which he shares with the new Atheists.

The problem is that the new Atheists, because of their disdain for all things religious, show an extreme intolerance for religionists of all stripes and colors. And – as is the case for religious fanatics – this intolerance manifests itself as contempt for those who think or believe differently than they do. Now, you might think that someone who was a scientist and aware of the need for objectivity, openness, and a fact-oriented attitude would know better than to succumb to a highly destructive prejudice that is one of the major flaws of modern religion. But, surprisingly, no. The new Atheists enthusiastically embrace the same thoroughgoing intolerance they find so distasteful elsewhere.

scientific methodOne way that Coyne shows this intolerance is through his enthusiastic antagonism towards accommodationism. Accomodationism – i.e., believing that both science and religion can (or should) agree – is a great sin, according to Coyne. (The sin – of course – is even worse if it raises difficult points you can’t refute. Then the accommodationist should be cast into eternal hellfire.) Coyne’s antagonism towards accommodationism raises some very disturbing questions.

Let’s look his views. But first, let’s consider the nature of accommodationism.

The Evils of Accommodation

Accommodationism is a term that was introduced into modern debates about science and religion by Austin Dacey, an interesting thinker whose views are creative and provocative in areas where Coyne´s are proscriptive and ideological. Wikipedia tells us that Dacey invented the word to characterize people “who either recognize no conflicts between religion and science, or who recognize such conflicts but are disinclined to discuss them publicly.”

Austin DaceyIn the blogosphere, where vituperative attacks concerning science and religion are the norm, the term accommodationism has evolved to have very negative connotations. According to the more militant bloggers, an accommodationist is a bad, maybe even evil, person. Coyne has been one the more militant bloggers.

Coyne’s List of the Bad Guys

Some of the bad guys – according to Coyne- have been leading American biologists like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins, people who are much more distinguished than Coyne. Ken Miller has an fascinating description of Coyne´s peculiar ramblings about scientists who support religion in Thoughts of an “Ardent Theist,” or Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong

In one piece he compared religious scientists who might defend evolution to “adulterers.” In another he argued that making a case for compatibility of science and faith was akin to peddling cancer by lying about the ill effects of tobacco.

220px-Dr_Kenneth_MillerTo Coyne, the pro-evolution arguments of religious scientists such as Francis Collins, George Coyne, or Karl Giberson are not only unwelcome, but downright dishonest. In his words, this is because “when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers.”

Incredible stuff! And there are institutional bad guys as well, Coyne argues. They include such noted institutions as the National Academy of Science (the most important scientific body in the country) and the National Center for Science Education (the leader in the fight to against creationism in America’s schools). Miller continues:

Coyne’s criticisms are significant because they apply to institutions, not just individuals, involved in the struggle to defend science. In particular, he attacks both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education for what he calls “accomodationism.”

In Coyne’s lexicon, this is the misguided attempt to “show that it [evolution] is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.” Accomodationism is a “self-defeating tactic” because it “compromises the very science” these organizations seek to defend.

Apparently, NAS and the NCSE ought to change their ways, come out of the intellectual closet, and admit that only one position is consistent with evolution — a philosophical naturalism that requires doctrinaire atheism on all questions of faith.

Read more if you want – you can’t make this kind of stuff up!

My Concerns

ErnstHere are some of my concerns. Science has to take into accounts the facts of life, including the fact that religionists often do agree with evolution. Coyne may want to try to avoid the implications, he may want to argue it away, pretend it doesn´t exist, or say nasty things about it, but it is a fact that he ignores at his peril.

It also worries me that some of Coyne’s language – not quoted here – is very crude and quite rude. Intelligent and informed scientists with an objective mindset usually don’t use gutter language or disparaging attacks against those with whom they disagree. If they do, it invariably means they haven’t thought the issue through, or are defensive, or are afraid of being intellectually challenged.

My biggest concern, though, is that Coyne is making an “impurity” argument. This is a variation of the argument widely used in pre-war Germany against the Jews, of the Marxist arguments about the corrupting influence of “bourgeois thinking” that led to purges of class enemies by Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin, and tellingly, of the eugenics arguments based on evolutionary models of society prevalent in the United States and northern Europe in the early half of the 20th century.

But, lets see what Coyne says in Fact vs. Fiction about the evils of accommodationism. We look first at what he says in his introduction and consider Chapter 3 – Why Accommodationism Fails – in a later blog.

Fact vs. Fiction on Accommodationism

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, Coyne wants to see science and religion as at war:

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.

battleshipIt’s so interesting that so many people opposed to religion use war imagery – it is as if they believe, like 19th century Victorians, that manly behavior requires conquering someone or something. Coyne – cutely – wants to conquer religion.

Accommodationism, according to Coyne, weakens reason:

The true harm of accommodationism is the weakening of our organs of reason by promoting useless methods of finding truth, especially that of faith.

His proof? Sam Harris (a man not known for his reasoned approach to issues of science and religion.) Here is what Sam Harris says:

The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good … The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.

And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith.

Look carefully at what Coyne – and Harris – are saying. Its not pretty.

A Very Blunt Instrument – Coyne’s Impurity Arguments

What Coyne and Harris are saying is – to put it bluntly – that if you believe in God, your ability to reason is damaged.  In other words, religion is a cause of mental impurity.

You have heard a similar argument in eugenics – in the United States we heard that if we allow our pure Nordic stock to be diluted by that of inferior races, our country will lose its dominance and supremacy.

inquisitionlYou heard it in Spain 500 years ago – if we allow Jewish and Muslim blood to dilute the stock of our pure Christian blood, we will lose our grandeur and our glory as a nation.

And you heard in the Ukraine in the 1930s when Stalin castigated the successful farmers and peasants for their bourgeois thinking. He starved several million of them to death for their insufficiently scientific thoughts.

Please note carefully – we have heard about the danger of impurity – be it of blood, of belief, or of thought – many, many times before. And now we are hearing it from Coyne and the new Atheists.

In making these impurity arguments, they are mixing their own interpretations of a commonly held truth – the reasonable view that reason and science are good things – with their own brand of scientism. Their idea seems to be that only their interpretation of reason, one based on their interpretation of science, qualifies as the truth of science. Unfortunately, their interpretations are mainly slight updates of old atheistic ideologies from 18th and 19th century France, England, and Germany. These interpretations draws on materialistic philosophical assumptions, not the actual results of science. They are in imitation of science- i.e., they are pseudoscience. (The prefix pseudo means “something that superficially appears to be (or behaves like) one thing, but actually is another.”)

The reason that Coyne has a problem with accommodationism, perhaps, is that it challenges these materialistic philosophical assumptions and denies their authority.

Of course, if you look at the vast numbers of outstanding scientists who have been religious, ranging from all the figures in the scientific revolution to many of the Noble prize winners alive today, it suggests that religion has not corroded scientific thinking processes at all. If anything, it says just the opposite.

I find Coyne’s argument against accommodationism very disturbing and think everybody else should too.

The Next Blog

The next blog looks at fundamentalism and the new Atheism. Many argue that the new Atheism, despite appearances, isn’t theological or religious and therefore can’t be fundamentalist. Others argue that ideologies can grow rigid in the same way as is the case for theological interpretations and that new Atheism represents on such “hardening of the arteries” as appears to be the case for fundamentalism in religion.


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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4 thoughts on “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 4 of a Review

  1. I agree with your article. People like Coyne and other militant atheists are creating divisions among ourselves. We, atheists, agnostics, monotheists and polytheists, who believe in accepting such scientific advances as the proof for biological evolution, and the fact that our earth is billions of years old, and the fact of global warming, we need to be united against those who for whatever reason deny scientific progress, and even portray scientists as plotting against America and trying to impose atheism. They are the danger and not some of us, so we should not be attacking each other. We need to persuade these atheists to stop being so hostile to religion. Some religious people are on our side.
    I was born in a country that was hostile to religion, and the result was many tragedies. And in fact a country being hostile to religion, did not mean that it did not promote any pseudo-scientific views. Of course Marxist-Leninist science was pseudo-science in itself. And an interpretation of Marxist-Leninist science even led for decades to the pseudo-science of Lysenko’s theory of evolution, resulting in persecution of any biologists who disagreed, who agreed more with Darwin than Lysenko. Horrible.

  2. Hi Stephen!
    I was in one of your Wilmette Institute’s online classes a couple of years ago. I have one comment and one question. The comment has to do with precision of language. In the Baha’I Writings there are references to the “harmony of science and religion” as a principle and the fact that they are part of one reality. The emphasis does not seem to be on “compatibility.” To me, a principle is something that you strive to bring your decisions and actions in alignment with in order to reach a goal. It is perhaps a sub-principle to the larger principle of the oneness of humanity. At the same these principles are part of one reality. At the lowest level of our physical existence, obviously, both science and religion exist. However, in present day society there are incompatibilities between the scientific evidence and specific beliefs in some sects of some religions (e.g. the age of the earth, evolution, etc.) I agree that some of the vocal new atheists are quite vituperative in their speech and sometimes their responses are not well-reasoned but they are addressing some of the superstitions that Abdu’l-Baha addressed in a much kinder manner.

    Here is my question. I need a philosopher to weigh in on this one. I’m working on another workshop that addresses science and religion that looks at discoveries in evolutionary biology as it relates to Abdu’l-Baha’s statements about evolution. He uses the analogy of a seed that has hidden potentialities that gradually grows into the tree as an analogy for the idea that man is a distinct species based on the concept that “nothing can exceed its own potentialities.” (Secondary Source is One Reality compiled by Bonnie J. Taylor p.163). Is there a basis for this statement from the discipline of philosophy? I am not familiar with philosophy.

    1. Hi Laura:

      Good to hear from you and I love your very important questions, which I paraphrase as the following:

      (1). What does the Baha’i principle of the harmony of science and religion imply about the compatibility of the two with each other? and

      (2). What do the concepts of potentiality mean in the Baha’i writings with respect to evolutionary thinking?

      About (1). Only in the fullness of time will we understand what the Baha’i principle of the harmony of science and religion means, but I don’t think that their compatibility is in doubt, despite the fact that many hold to interpretations and ideologies based on one-sided interpretations (that are often nonsensical in light of reason or shuttered to the light of the spiritual side of our existence.)

      `Abdu’l-Baha, for example, says the following in one of his Paris talks: “It is impossible for religion to be contrary to science, even though some intellects are too weak or too immature to understand truth.” And then he says: “Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 145). So views that hold that the world was created 6,000 years ago or statements that claim that the facts of biology prove there is no purpose to life, are not compatible with science and religion and should not be taken very seriously.

      In a statement that strikes me as astonishingly clear, `Abdu’l-Baha says “God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 145). To me, this is very much a statement to the effect that science and religion are compatible.

      So, while I agree with your other comments, I think the principle is not just a subprinciple, but a basic principle.

      About (2), the concept of potentiality has been omnipresent in western philosophy – and in western science – since Aristotle. And it is part of our ordinary everyday use as well. Consider how we talk about encouraging a child to achieve its full potential in our discussions of education, or with concepts like energy in physics. But, the term is downplayed in much of modern philosophy, perhaps due to a strong emphasis on logic and meaning.

      The idea that human’s are distinct species, to my knowledge, is not based on the concept that ‘nothing can exceed it own potentialities’ in the Baha’i writings. Rather, its based on the idea that humankind – defined as having intellectual capacity and the power of spiritual advancement – is built into the very nature of the universe and creation. So, while our terrestrial globe was once upon a time without human life, the potential for life was there and that potential was realized through geological, atmospherical, oceanic, and biological/evolutionary processes which the sciences study. And we know this for our world because of the fact that we exist. So, before we existed, we were potentially here.

      Don’t know if this is useful or not. But the questions are fantastic.


  3. Forgot to mention a great book I just read titled The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson. He is an scientist who advocates for looking at the value of both science and the humanities including religion. He has a beautiful example in this book illustrating how scientists can get caught up in the dogma of their own beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The example has to do with research studies on one of the driving forces of evolution. Wilson with a group of scientists finally gathered enough evidence to show that the theory was incorrect.

    Also just read Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall. I didn’t know this but she is a deeply religious scientist and this book describes her work with chimpanzees as well as other life events with reflections on her own spiritual evolution. It is basically an autobiography, very easy and fascinating to read. I really did feel more hopeful after reading it.

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