Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible

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Penguin, 2015 - Religion - 311 pages
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The New York Times bestselling author explains why any attempt to make religion compatible with science is doomed to fail.

What we read in the news today is full of subjectivity, half-truths, and blatant falsehoods; and thus it is more necessary now than ever to safeguard the truth with facts. In his provocative new book, evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne aims to do exactly that in the arena of religion. In clear, dispassionate detail he explains why the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion--including faith, dogma, and revelation--leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions.

Coyne is responding to a national climate in which over half of Americans don't believe in evolution (and congressmen deny global warming), and warns that religious prejudices and strictures in politics, education, medicine, and social policy are on the rise. Extending the bestselling works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, he demolishes the claims of religion to provide verifiable "truth" by subjecting those claims to the same tests we use to establish truth in science.

Coyne irrefutably demonstrates the grave harm--to individuals and to our planet--in mistaking faith for fact in making the most important decisions about the world we live in.


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User Review  - Razinha - LibraryThing

In the beginning of his book, I wasn't sure if Coyne would make his case, but he did, and in spades. I doubt he'll change many minds (he examines the incredulous ability for people to cling to faith ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - nbmars - LibraryThing

Jerry A. Coyne is an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Chicago. He is also a fairly militant atheist. His latest book, Faith vs. Fact, argues that religion and science are completely ... Read full review


Preface The Genesis of This Book
cHApte R 2
Faith Strikes Back
Why Does It Matter?

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About the author (2015)


The Genesis of This Book

--Neil deGrasse Tyson

In February 2013, I debated a young Lutheran theologian on a hot-button topic: "Are science and religion compatible?" The site was the historic Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the oldest churches in the American South. 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 précis, but I clearly recall the theologian''s words: "We must always remember that faith is a gift."

This was one of those l''esprit d''escalier, or "wit of the staircase," moments, when you come up with the perfect response--but only well after the opportunity has passed. For shortly after the debate was over, I not only remembered that Gift is the German word for "poison," but 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."

This book gives me a chance to say that now. It 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.

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.

Although this book deals with the conflict between religion and science, I see this as only one battle in a wider war--a war between rationality and superstition. Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition. And science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others), but it is a highly developed form, and the only one capable of describing and understanding reality. All superstitions that purport to give truths are actually forms of pseudoscience, and all use similar tactics to immunize themselves against disproof. As we''ll see, advocates of pseudosciences like homeopathy or ESP often support their beliefs using the same arguments employed by theologians to defend their faith.

While the science-versus-religion debate is one battle in the war between rationality and irrationality, I concentrate on it for several reasons. First, the controversy has become more widespread and visible, most likely because of a new element in the criticism of religion. The most novel aspect of "New Atheism"--the form of disbelief that distinguishes the views of writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins from the "old" atheism of people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell--is the observation that most religions are grounded in claims that can be regarded as scientific. That is, God, and the tenets of many religions, are hypotheses that can, at least in principle, be examined by science and reason. If religious claims can''t be substantiated with reliable evidence, the argument goes, they should, like dubious scientific claims, be rejected until more data arrive. This argument is buttressed by new developments in science, in areas like cosmology, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology. Discoveries in those fields have undermined religious claims that phenomena like the origin of the universe and the existence of human morality and consciousness defy scientific explanation and are therefore evidence for God. Seeing their bailiwick shrinking, the faithful have become more insistent that religion is actually a way of understanding nature that complements science. But the most important reason to concentrate on religion rather than other forms of irrationality is not to document a historical conflict, but because, among all forms of superstition, religion has by far the most potential for public harm. Few are damaged by belief in astrology; but, as we''ll see in the final chapter, many have been harmed by belief in a particular god or by the idea that faith is a virtue.

I have both a personal and a professional interest in this argument, for I''ve spent my adult life teaching and studying evolutionary biology, the brand of science most vilified and rejected by religion. And a bit more biography is in order: I was raised as a secular Jew, an upbringing that, as most people know, is but a hairsbreadth from atheism. But my vague beliefs in a God were abandoned almost instantly when, at seventeen, I was listening to the Beatles'' Sergeant Pepper album and suddenly realized that there was simply no evidence for the religious claims I had been taught--or for anybody else''s, either. From the beginning, then, my unbelief rested on an absence of evidence for anything divine. Compared with that of many believers, my rejection of God was brief and painless. But after that I didn''t think much about religion until I became a professional scientist.

There''s no surer route to immersion in the conflict between science and religion than becoming an evolutionary biologist. Nearly half of Americans reject evolution completely, espousing a biblical literalism in which every living species, or at least our own, was suddenly created from nothing less than ten thousand years ago by a divine being. And most of the rest believe that God guided evolution one way or another--a position that flatly rejects the naturalistic view accepted by evolutionary biologists: that evolution, like all phenomena in the universe, is a consequence of the laws of physics, without supernatural involvement. In fact, only about one in five Americans accepts evolution in the purely naturalistic way scientists see it.

When I taught my first course in evolution at the University of Maryland, I could hear the opposition directly, for in the plaza right below my classroom a preacher would often hold forth loudly about how evolution was a tool of Satan. And many of my own students, while dutifully learning about evolution, made it clear that they didn''t believe a word of it. Curious about how such opposition could exist despite the copious evidence for evolution, I began reading about creationism. It was immediately evident that virtually all opposition to evolution comes from religion. In fact, among the dozens of prominent creationists I''ve encountered, I''ve known of only one--the philosopher David Berlinski--whose view isn''t motivated by religion.

Finally, after twenty-five years of teaching, facing pushback all the way, I decided to address the problem of creationism in the only way I knew: by writing a popular book laying out the evidence for evolution. And there were mountains of evidence, drawn from the fossil record, embryology, molecular biology, the geography of plants and animals, the development and construction of animal bodies, and so on. Curiously, nobody had written such a book. Practical people, I figured--or even skeptical ones--would surely come around to accepting the scientific view of evolution once they''d seen the evidence laid out in black and white.

I was wrong. Although my book, Why Evolution Is True, did well (even nosing briefly onto the New York Times bestseller list), and although I received quite a few letters from religious readers telling me I''d "converted" them to evolution, the proportion of creationists in America didn''t budge: for thirty-two years it''s hovered between 40 and 46 percent.

It didn''t take long to realize the futility of using evidence to sell evolution to Americans, for faith led them to discount and reject the facts right before their noses. In my earlier book I recounted the "aha" moment when I realized this. A group of businessmen in a ritzy suburb of Chicago, wanting to learn some science as a respite from shoptalk, invited me to talk to them about evolution at their weekly luncheon. I gave them a lavishly illustrated lecture about the evidence for evolution, complete with photos of transitional fossils, vestigial organs, and developmental anomalies like the vanishing leg buds of embryonic dolphins. They seemed to appreciate my efforts. But after the talk, one of the attendees approached me, shook my hand, and said, "Dr. Coyne, I found your evidence for evolution very convincing--but I still don''t believe it."

I was flabbergasted. How could it be that someone found evidence convincing but was still not convinced? The answer, of course, was that his religion had immunized him against my evidence.

As a scientist brought up without much religious indoctrination, I couldn''t understand how anything could blinker people against hard data and strong evidence. Why couldn''t people be religious and still accept evolution? That question led me to the extensive literature on the relationship between science and religion, and the discovery that much of it is indeed what I call "accommodationist": seeing the two areas as compatible, mutually supportive, or at least not in conflict. But as I dug deeper, and began t

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