Yesterday evening, I attended, Jerry Coyne’s talk, Faith Vs Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Auditorium in Toronto. This speaking engagement addresses, at a higher level, the content of Jerry’s latest book of the same name. The talk was very well attended with the auditorium full of approximately 140 people, all who seemed to arrive early! I will provide a brief synopsis of the talk below.
After defining “science”, “religion” and “compatible”, Jerry dispels the claim that science and religion deal with different subjects. Although many embraced Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) when he introduced it in his book, Rock of Ages, his claim that religion addresses “meanings and values” and science the “factual character of the natural world” is demonstrably false, for the field of secular ethics has addressed “meanings and values” since Ancient Greece and by the admission of theologians themselves, religions make truth claims about the natural world: Christ rose from the dead, we go to heaven or hell after death, there is an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent force that looks over us, and wine and bread turn into the body and blood of Christ every Sunday during Catholic mass.
Of course, religion’s toolkit of revelation, faith and dogma is outdated and inferior to science’s toolkit of the scientific method of testability, predictability, falsifiability (i.e.: the scientific method) as evidenced by the success of our modern world where our lifespans have doubled in a short period of time, thanks to science.
What stood out most for me in Jerry’s talk were the statistics:
- 72% of Americans believe in miracles while only 64% believe in life after death (yes, 64% is high for the general population but it surprised me that more would believe in miracles than the afterlife given that the afterlife is a big part of Christian theology)
- 64% of Americans would reject a scientific fact that contravened their faith (I was more cynical and thought the percentage would be closer to 100%)
- 68% of Americans believe in angels
The talk was interesting and positive but there was one sad part in the form of the Awake cover from 1994 that depicted all the Jehovah Witness children who died for refusing blood transfusions. Jerry presented this as a striking reminder of the damage religion does.
Questions from the audience were good ones:
- A young woman asked if science is atheistic or agnostic. Jerry sees science as weakly atheistic since agnosticism seems to suggest that there is a 50/50 possibility of something being true when that is rarely the case.
- A brave fellow from Bangladesh recounted all his colleagues murdered by Islamic extremists and asked if it was worth fighting the good fight for secularism in Bangladesh. Jerry thought that putting yourself in danger would not serve secularism very well and he would be better off helping the secular cause from in a safer country (I agree!).
- A CFI member asked Jerry to debunk “irreducible complexity” for a Christian friend (I won’t go into Jerry’s very good answer here but you can read about it on Jerry’s site, WEIT.
- One of the final questions was What would be the big scientific breakthrough that would convince religious people to abandon their faith? Jerry wasn’t too optimistic that anything would break the religious spell (see statistics above for those who prefer to reject a scientific fact if it contravened their faith) since evolution hadn’t done so. He suggested that finding life no other planets might change a few minds but most likely people would simply adjust their religion to accommodate the scientific fact as they’ve always done.
Overall, it was a fun evening with an informed audience (happily devoid of any religious proselytizers posing as question askers).