Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible
by jerry a. coyne
viking, 336 pages, $28.95

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aith versus Fact is some kind of achievement. Biologist Jerry Coyne has managed to write what might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre. True, the competition for that particular distinction is fierce. But among other volumes in this metastasizing literature, each has at least some small redeeming feature. For example, though Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing is bad as philosophy, it is middling as pop science. Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great was at least written by someone who could write like Christopher Hitchens. Though devoid of interest, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is brief. Even PZ Myers’s book The Happy Atheist has at least one advantage over Coyne’s book: It came out first.

The book flies off the rails before it reaches page one. In an unintentionally comic passage in his preface, Coyne explains what he has in mind by “religion.” First, he tells us that his main target isn’t religions that emphasize practice, such as “the more meditation-oriented versions of Buddhism.” Rather, it is religions that emphasize controversial truth claims about the world—in particular, “theistic faiths,” those that affirm the existence of a God or gods. But even more specifically, he says, he will “concentrate on the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.” Two sentences later we learn that in fact it is “mostly the various brands of Christianity that occupy this book.” But far from all the brands, since in the very next sentence he adds that, actually, he “will talk mostly about science and religion in the United States.”

By the following page he qualifies this even further, indicating that the views of “regular believers” interest him more than do the fancy arguments of theologians. Next it is conceded that it is “only a few specific areas of science,” such as Darwinism, that are rejected by religious believers. Yet, as Coyne admits, even “evolution . . . is accepted by many Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and liberal Muslims.” In short, when all the qualifications are in, it seems that Coyne’s paradigm of “religion” is Bible Belt creationism. Apparently, he was absent the day his college statistics class covered the notion of a representative sample.

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ut to be fair to Coyne: He doesn’t always use the term “religion” in this idiosyncratic way. And that’s the problem. He has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by “religion.” Forty pages later, he’ll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by “religion.” If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.

Coyne speaks repeatedly of “religion’s methods,” as if there were some common technique applied by scholastic logicians, Buddhist monks, and Appalachian snake handlers. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, Hindu nationalism, the cargo cults of Melanesia, Scientology—all of these and more are casually lumped together as examples of religion, as if the differences weren’t at least as significant as whatever similarities Coyne thinks he sees. This is like pulling random lines from a physics textbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and an episode of Star Trek and then putting them forward as equally typical illustrations of “science” and of “science’s methods.”

Coyne’s own method, then, is to characterize religion however he needs to in order to convict it of irrationality. Nor is “religion” the only term Coyne uses in a tendentious way. The question-begging definition is perhaps his favorite debating trick. He characterizes “faith” as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence” and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts. Naturally, he has no trouble showing that faith so understood is irrational. But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology. For example, for scholastic theologians, faith is assent to something that has been revealed by God. And how do we know that God exists and really has revealed it? Those are claims for which, the theologian agrees, evidence needs to be given.

Of course, Coyne will disagree about whether the evidence really shows what theologians say it does. The point, though, is that whether we should have evidence for what we believe is not what is in dispute. Coyne acknowledges that “theologians intensely dislike” the definition of faith he proposes. So, he not only attacks a straw man but implicitly admits that that is what he is doing. Indeed, you will find in Coyne’s book more straw men than you would at a casting call for The Wizard of Oz. Coyne mocks John Paul II’s claim that “truth cannot contradict truth,” insinuating that the pope sought merely to conform science to religious doctrine. In fact, the pope was no less concerned to emphasize that theology has to take seriously the findings of science.

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f Coyne can’t get his story straight about what he means by religion, neither does he offer a coherent account of science. In the preface, he tells us that “science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others).” That makes it sound like he rejects scientism, the view that science alone gives us genuine knowledge. Yet he immediately goes on to add that science is “the only [form of rationality] capable of describing and understanding reality.” And in chapter 2 he emphasizes that the strength of science is its falsifiability, adding that “any ‘knowledge’ incapable of being revised with advances in data and human thinking does not deserve the name of knowledge.” That makes it sound like he does endorse scientism. Except that two pages later he concedes that “absolute and unalterable truth is for mathematics and logic,” which he distinguishes from science. So, it seems that there is, after all, knowledge to be had—indeed, “absolute and unalterable” knowledge—outside science. And in chapter 4 he indicates that “the humanities, social science, art, music, literature, philosophy, and mathematics” can also be forms of knowledge distinct from science.

Except that he immediately goes on to say, in the same chapter, that if any of these fields do yield genuine knowledge, then they must be “science broadly construed”—never mind that he earlier characterized logic (which is a branch of philosophy) and mathematics as areas of knowledge distinct from science. So Coyne really does embrace scientism, right? Not necessarily, since a couple of pages later he acknowledges that philosophy constitutes a “kind of knowledge,” and indicates that it is distinct from science but can be “useful to scientists.” Furthermore, he dismisses the accusation of scientism as a mere “canard” ritualistically flung at New Atheists. And so his settled position—at long last, the reader thinks—would seem to be that scientism is false and that there is knowledge to be had outside the boundaries of science.

But not so fast, because a couple of pages after that he says that if scientism is the view that science is “the only reliable ‘way of knowing,’” then “most of my colleagues and I are indeed guilty of scientism” and “scientism is a virtue”—never mind that he has just dismissed the accusation of scientism as a “canard.” Reading Coyne trying to do something as simple as defining his terms is like watching him play tennis with himself. And losing.

Then there is the problem that to appeal to science alone in order to show that science is reliable is to argue in a circle. Coyne is aware of the problem, but answers, “I’ll pay attention to the circularity argument when someone comes up with a better way to understand nature.” Yet the only criteria of better and worse that Coyne will accept are scientific criteria. Hence his response to the charge that he has given a circular argument is to repeat the same circular argument.

Viking Press has apparently cornered the market on paper and printer’s ink and had some overstock it needed to get rid of in order to free up warehouse space. There seems to be no other explanation for how this book came to be published—unless the press is subtly aiming at the market for critical-thinking and logic textbooks. For considered as an omnibus of concrete examples of elementary logical fallacies, Faith versus Fact is invaluable. Given Coyne’s standards of scholarship, I fully expect to see the last half of that sentence used as a blurb for the paperback edition.

Edward Feser is associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College.

Articles by Edward Feser

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