Guest post by Leslie Rosenblood
On Wednesday, June 10, I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry Coyne in Toronto to hear him speak about his new book, Faith vs. Fact, at an event organized by the Centre for Inquiry Canada.
I have been a reader of Coyne’s website, whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com, for several years, and appreciate his clear, unadorned prose, especially when describing complex concepts. His style in person is quite similar: his speech was organized; his arguments buttressed with research, polls, and quotations, as appropriate; and his slides effectively supplemented his lecture, not replacing his oration with too many words nor distracting from it with too many graphics. (I took notes throughout but did not record his speech; quotations below are as accurate as I can reconstruct them.)
Coyne started by defining science as a methodology for finding what’s real, and not as a body of facts. This echoes Henri Poincaré’s claim that “a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” Thus, many jobs can be considered scientific professions in addition to chemists, physicists, biologists: plumbers, mechanics, and all other occupations that use inquiry, hypothesis testing, and falsification to determine what is and isn’t working and what should be done about it.
This led to the main thesis of his speech: that science and religion are incompatible (also the subtitle of his book). He demonstrated this on several levels, and also addressed several common attempts, often from prestigious scientific organizations, to reconcile the two.
What’s odd, according to Coyne, is that most people act very much like scientists in their day to day lives; religion fades into the background (or to invisibility) with mundane affairs. “When you lose your keys, you don’t pray for a revelation to find them,” said Coyne. “You retrace your steps.”
One of the most common tactics used to demonstrate that science and religion are compatible is showing that many scientists are also deeply religious. “But this ignores the difference between compatibility and compartmentalism,” argued Coyne. “People are quite capable of shedding scientific rigour when attending church on Sunday mornings.”
Coyne then showed compelling research indicating a strong correlation between scientific achievement and lack of religious belief – to the point that very few elite scientists (using membership in the US National Academy of Sciences as a proxy) profess any religious belief. He hypothesized that becoming expert in the tools, techniques, and methodologies of scientific endeavours, and learning more about the way the universe functions, leads inexorably to becoming an atheist.
“Accommodationists” (those arguing in favour of the compatibility of science and religion) often take the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) approach favoured by Stephen Jay Gould. Science and religion, in this view, are in entirely separate domains: science holds sway in the realm of facts, while religion informs our values. According to NOMA, we should let scientific inquiry determine what is, and allow religion to inspire us to determine what we ought to do with this knowledge.
Unfortunately, Coyne argued, NOMA simply doesn’t work, because it is rejected by both scientists and theologians. Whenever a religious text made a truth claim about the universe (such as how the world was created), scientists have (almost without fail) shown it to be false. Theologians reject the stricture that limits them to “meanings, morals, and values.” (In fact, Coyne argued, when it comes to ethics, “secular philosophers do it better.”) Thus, despite the separation implied by NOMA, neither party has been willing to agree to its boundaries.
More fundamentally, religion and science are incompatible on three levels:
- Methodological: “In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue.” This blatant contradiction on the value of faith points directly to the incompatibility of science and religion.
- Philosophical: Here Coyne quoted Laplace, regarding God: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” The scientific method attempts to minimize its assumptions; most religions assume the existence of an omnipotent Deity as its starting point.
- Outcomes: If one considers evolution vs. creationism, the historical accuracy of the Flood, or whether humanity descended from Adam and Eve (they didn’t – Coyne stated that the smallest population bottleneck humanity (or human-like apes) ever experienced was approximately twelve thousand individuals), it is self-evident that science and religion conflict.
On many fronts, major religions disagree with each other. (How many gods are there? Is homosexuality wrong? Which of the at least 41,000 Christian denominations in the world is accurate, if any? Is the Christian God one or three?) Ultimately, said Coyne, religion can’t say why something is wrong – or why they’re right.
Jerry Coyne left us with this bon mot towards the end of his speech: “Falsified claims in science are discarded. Falsified claims in religion… become metaphors.”
There was a question and answer session after his speech, which clearly demonstrated that the Centre for Inquiry attracts those on the fact side of the fact vs. faith conflict. When given the microphone, I asked, “While I generally agree with your list of harms that stem from religion, in my view most of the risks to our global civilization stem from secular considerations. Climate change from our ever increasing carbon emissions; agronomy and animal husbandry practices that are almost perfectly designed to one day evolve a super bug; human activity driving species extinctions at an enormous rate; and massive pollution of land and water leading to (among other detrimental effects) huge dead zones in our oceans. None of these threats to our sustained survival have religious motivations at their core; on the contrary, they are exacerbated by the rational application of our current technology and scientific knowledge. Given this, do you maintain that religion is the worst form of irrationality and the greatest threat to our modern way of life?”
Coyne responded by acknowledging that while some scientists are venal, selfish, and corrupt, it isn’t intrinsic to the scientific enterprise. In any case, however, one can’t hold scientists as a whole responsible for how their discoveries are applied. I agreed and reiterated that the thrust of my question was about how people rationally apply technology in their self-interest but at a collective cost. Coyne’s response was to introduce a thought experiment: if you could go back 200 years and eliminate either religion or scientific advances, which would you pick? Of course we agreed on the answer, and Coyne extended that idea to the present day by quoting Sam Harris, “No society ever went extinct due to a surfeit of rational thought.”
Coyne, I felt, hedged and dodged in his reply. I am not a fan of any form of unfounded, irrational, or contradictory belief system, but am not convinced that religion is the greatest threat our society faces. Coyne did not address this directly. But aside from this minor disappointment, I enjoyed his presentation greatly and look forward to reading my (autographed!) copy of Faith vs. Fact.