Extracts from Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne (1)

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.................... 


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 to read theology as well, I realized that there were intractable incompatibilities between science and religion, ones glossed over or avoided in the accommodationist literature. Further, I began to see that theology itself, or at least the truth claims religion makes about the universe, turns it into a kind of science, but a science using weak evidence to make strong statements about what is true. As a scientist, I saw deep parallels between theology’s empirical and reason-based justifications for belief and the kind of tactics used by pseudoscientists to defend their turf.

One of these is an a priori commitment to defend and justify one’s preferred claims, something that stands in strong contrast to science’s practice of constantly testing whether its claims might be wrong. Yet religious people were staking their very lives and futures on evidence that wouldn’t come close to, say, the kind of data the U.S. government requires before approving a new drug for depression. In the end I saw that the claims for the compatibility of science and religion were weak, resting on assertions about the nature of religion that few believers really accept, and that religion could never be made compatible with science without diluting it so seriously that it was no longer religion but a humanist philosophy.

And so I learned what other opponents of creationism could have told me: that persuading Americans to accept the truth of evolution involved not just an education in facts, but a de-education in faith— the form of belief that replaces the need for evidence with simple emotional commitment.

I will try to convince you that religion, as practiced by most believers, 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 not tell us. I’ll also argue that the claim that religion and science are complementary “ways of knowing” gives unwarranted credibility to faith, a credibility that, at its extremes, is responsible for many human deaths and might ultimately contribute to the demise of our own species and much other life on Earth.

Science and religion, then, are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discerning “truth” are useless. These areas are incompatible in precisely the same way, and in the same sense, that rationality is incompatible with irrationality.


Coyne, Jerry A. (2015-05-19). Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible . Penguin Publishing Group.

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