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Faith vs Fact

Jerry Coyne

Do we really need another book telling us how awful religion is? Biologist Jerry Coyne apparently thinks so. In Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, he berates not only religious believers but even 'accomodationists,' non-believers who think science and faith can find common ground.

Coyne contends that religion 'is severely at odds with science, and that this conflict is damaging to science itself, to how the public conceives of science, and to what the public thinks science can and cannot tell us.' This is a defensible position, but Coyne poses it in such an extreme form that he discredits his cause.

I read Coyne's book because The Wall Street Journal asked me to review it. The review, titled 'Preaching to the Converted,' is behind a pay wall, but here's a lightly edited excerpt:

Coyne's defenses of science and denunciations of religion are so relentlessly one-sided that they aroused my antipathy toward the former and sympathy toward the latter. He overlooks any positive consequences of religion, such as its role in anti-slavery, civil-rights and anti-war movements. He inflates religion's contribution to public resistance toward vaccines, genetically modified food and human-induced global warming.

Conversely, he absolves science of responsibility for any adverse consequences, such as weapons and ideologies of mass destruction. 'The compelling force that produced nuclear weapons, gunpowder, and eugenics was not science but people.' Right. Science doesn't kill people; people kill people.

Naive readers of Mr. Coyne might conclude that science is rapidly filling in the remaining gaps in our understanding of reality and solving ancient philosophical conundrums. He claims that free will, the notion that 'we can choose to behave in different ways,' is being contradicted by research in genetics and neuroscience and 'looks increasingly dubious.'

As evidence, he cites scientific revelations that our choices are often influenced by factors of which we are unaware. Yes, Freud told us as much, and Sophocles for that matter. But it is absurd to conclude that all our conscious deliberations are therefore inconsequential.

Mr. Coyne's critique of free will, far from being based on scientific 'fact,' betrays how his hostility toward religion distorts his judgment. Evidence against free will, he says, 'kicks the props out from under much theology, including the doctrine of salvation.' Mr. Coyne thinks that if religious people believe in free will, it must be an illusion.

Mr. Coyne's loathing of creationism, similarly, leads him to exaggerate what science can tell us about our cosmic origins. Mr. Coyne asserts that 'we are starting to see how the universe could arise from 'nothing,' and that our own universe might be only one of many universes that differ in their physical laws.' Actually, cosmologists are more baffled than ever at why there is something rather than nothing. And multiverse theories are about as testable as religious beliefs.

Mr. Coyne repeatedly reminds us that science, unlike religion, promotes self-criticism, but he is remarkably lacking in this virtue himself. He rejects complaints that some modern scientists are guilty of 'scientism,' which I would define as excessive trust - faith! - in science. Calling scientism 'a grab bag of disparate accusations that are mostly inaccurate or overblown,' Mr. Coyne insists that the term 'be dropped.'

Actually, Faith vs. Fact serves as a splendid specimen of scientism. Mr. Coyne disparages not only religion but also other human ways of engaging with reality. The arts, he argues, 'cannot ascertain truth or knowledge,' and the humanities do so only to the extent that they emulate the sciences. This sort of arrogance and certitude is the essence of scientism.

And so on. Last winter, I participated in a public debate at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, on this question: 'Can Faith and Science Coexist?' Afterwards, I wrote a blog post spelling out why I'm not religious. Here are my main points:

-My main objection to Christianity and other monotheistic faiths is the problem of evil. If God is all-powerful, just and loving, why then is existence so painful and unfair for so many people? Why do kids get cancer? Why do earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters kill so many people? I have never encountered a satisfying solution to the problem of evil.

-Our belief in a personal God stems from our innate narcissism and anthropomorphism. In spite of all the blows dealt to our egos by science - beginning with the demonstration that the Sun and not the Earth is the center of the Solar System - many of us remain convinced that this universe was created for us, and that our destiny is unfolding according to a pre-ordained divine plan. Perhaps because our theory-of-mind modules are so powerful, we are also prone to projecting human qualities, emotions and intentions onto nature.

-Belief in an afterlife and supernatural moral order - in a God who created us and wants the best for us - may be consoling, but it is also infantilizing. Accepting that we are on our own, with no God to save us, can be scary, but it is also exhilarating. And it forces us to take complete responsibility for making this world less painful and more just.

-Each religion insists that there is one supreme meaning to existence, which the religion represents. Unfortunately, different religions present different meanings, so adherents fight over which religion is right. Human history would have been much less violent if we had figured out long ago that there is no universal meaning of life. Unlike scientific truth, which is objective and universal, meaning is personal and subjective, like taste in music or literature or food. Each person should discover his or her own meaning and not insist that others embrace it.

In spite of these objections to religion, I'm not an atheist. In fact, I think that science and religion converge in one important way. The more scientists investigate our origins, the more improbable our existence seems. If you define a miracle as an infinitely improbable event, then you could call our existence a miracle. Even Steven Weinberg, a physicist and adamant atheist, once conceded that 'sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.' My sense of life's miraculousness keeps me from ruling out the possibility of supernatural creation.

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