Faith vs. Fact
It’s increasingly popular to view science and religion as complementary ways of knowing about ourselves and the universe. But that idea doesn’t have a prayer of being true, argues evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne in Faith vs. Fact.
Coyne, a veteran of battles with creationists, says science generates evidence-based knowledge while religious faith consists of unverifiable, supernatural convictions. His book joins those of Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists,” who regard religious faith as delusional and religious believers as dangerously intolerant toward nonbelievers and inconvenient scientific findings.
Some scientists believe in God, but Coyne dismisses them by contending that people are good at holding conflicting attitudes and explaining away the inconsistencies. He describes research that has shot down key religious convictions, such as the belief that all people are descended from one man and one woman, Adam and Eve, and other creation myths. Some believers assert that God guided the evolutionary process to produce humans. Coyne responds that rerunning the history of the universe would not result in Earth as we know it and rerunning evolution — with its random genetic hijinks — would not inevitably lead to humans. So neither God nor anything else produces predetermined outcomes via evolution.
Religious criticisms of science get tackled in their own chapter. Scientists may at times be wrong, deceitful, arrogant and even evil, Coyne acknowledges. But such problems bedevil all people, not just those with Ph.D.s. Built-in methods of self-correction ensure that scientists eventually weed out hoaxes and hooey. In contrast, religious beliefs can be neither proven nor disproven, Coyne asserts.
He ends by arguing for a worldwide turn to secular, European-style social democracies. In these nonreligious societies forged from a wide range of cultures and political systems, Coyne predicts, opposition would recede to evolutionary theory, scientific reports of human-caused global warming, childhood vaccinations and assisted dying. People would be happier without God, he says. But his scenario rides more on faith than fact.
Coyne makes debatable points about both science and religion. While science contains powerful accepted knowledge, he underplays the importance of discoveries that increase uncertainty about what’s known. Coyne portrays religion as a byproduct of an evolved human tendency to mistake inanimate objects for living things. But researchers who study small-scale societies suspect that religion has flourished throughout human evolution partly because it deepens individuals’ commitment to their communities.
Religion doesn’t churn out science-worthy evidence, as Coyne argues. But the author doesn’t come to grips with faith’s deep evolutionary roots. If religion is irrational, it should have been eradicated through natural selection among Stone Age folk. Coyne’s book will irk religious friends and foes of science alike. And that’s a fact.