The War Rages On

Conflict between science and religion continues, with effects on health, politics, and the environment.

By Jerry A. Coyne | July 1, 2015

VIKING, MAY 2015The battle between science and religion is regularly declared over, ended with an amicable truce. Accommodationists on both sides assure us that the disparate pursuits occupy nonoverlapping spheres of inquiry (science deals with the natural world; religion with meaning, morals, and values). After all, there are many religious scientists (two notables are evangelical Christian Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, an observant Catholic), so how can there be possibly be a conflict?

But despite these claims, the dust hasn’t settled. Why do 55 percent of Americans aver that “science and religion are often in conflict”? Why are less than 10 percent of all Americans agnostics or atheists, yet that proportion rises to 62 percent of all scientists at “elite” universities, and to 93 percent among members of the National Academy of Sciences? I consider these questions and more in my latest book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.

My conclusion: the conflict between science and religion is deep, endemic, and unlikely to be resolved. For this conflict is one between faith and fact—a battle in the long-fought war between rationality and superstition.

The friction exists because science and religion are both in the business of determining what is true in the universe—although religion has other concerns as well. Science’s ambit is well known, but it’s important to realize that religion also depends heavily on claims about what is true: claims about the existence, number, and nature of gods, what behavior one’s god commands, the occurrence of miracles, and whether there are eternal souls, untrammeled free will, and afterlives.

But while science and religion both claim to discern what’s true, only science has a system for weeding out what’s false. In the end, that is the irreconcilable conflict between them. Science is not just a career or a body of facts, but, more important, a set of cognitive and practical tools designed to understand brute reality while overcoming the human desire to believe what we like or find emotionally satisfying. The tools include observing nature, peer review, independent replication of results, and above all, the hegemony of doubt and criticality. The best characterization of science I know came from physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.”

In contrast, religion has no way to adjudicate its truth claims, which rest on ancient scripture, revelation, dogma, and above all, faith: belief without strong evidence. The problem, of course, is that faith is no way to decide what’s true. It is, à la Feynman, an institutionalized way of fooling yourself. The toolkit of science is—and will remain—the only way to discover what’s real. Religion can offer communality and can buttress morality, but has no purchase on truth.

But even if science and religion are incompatible, what’s the harm? Most of the damage comes from something inherent in many faiths: proselytizing. If you have a faith-based code of conduct attached to beliefs in absolute truths and eternal rewards and punishments, you’re tempted to impose those truths on others. The most obvious subjects are children, who are usually indoctrinated with their parents’ brand of faith. That can cause real physical harm: 43 of 50 US states, for instance, have codified legal protections for parents who harm their sick children by rejecting science-based medicine in favor of faith healing. Forty-eight of our 50 states allow religious exemptions from vaccination. The results are predictable: children needlessly become sick, and some die. And we in America are familiar with religious incursion into the public sphere, such as the persistence of creationism in schools.

In the end, in both science and everyday life, it’s always good policy to hold your beliefs with a tenacity proportional to the evidence supporting them. That is the foundation of science and the opposite of religion. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman noted, “Belief without evidence is not a virtue, but opens the floodgates to every form of superstition, prejudice, and madness.” 

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. His 2009 best-seller, Why Evolution Is True, was one of Newsweek’s “50 Books for Our Time.” Read an excerpt of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

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Avatar of: Raoul Rubinstein

Raoul Rubinstein

Posts: 15

July 2, 2015

Gerald: You start with a false premise and quickly form a false dichotomy. Not bad for someone with a history of voluminous gainsaying. It seems to me that your methods of logic only serve to show that atheism and evolution are also faith concepts. Why else pursue a jihad/crusade against them if they're not the hated other? Learn to live and let live my friend. Enjoy the diversity around you and stop scaring your students.

Avatar of: PeterUetz


Posts: 10

July 2, 2015

Most of the damage religion does doesn't comes from just proselytizing - but rather from making people stop thinking and investigating.

Just imagine you submit a paper to a journal saying "well, I don't have any evidence, but I am convinced X is Y, in fact, I FEEL in my heart X IS Y". The appropriate response is: rejection without review.

As scientists, first of all, we need to be critical, not just to ourselves but also with regard to others. That doesn't mean being hostile, as Raoul indicated. Sure, let's enjoy diversity, but let's question each other's arguments.

The worst religions are those that not even allow questions - that's hostility! For instance, Islam never managed to develop a culture of historical-critical analysis because questioning the Quran is not even allowed.

Avatar of: Raoul Rubinstein

Raoul Rubinstein

Posts: 15

July 3, 2015

Thank you Peter, but I think my point was missed. Jerry should be tolerant, not just to demonstrate civility, and certainly not to show magnanimity from a superior vantage point. Intolerance and idiocracy extend across all belief systems, including the atheism/evolution faith system, which has so many aspiring high priests. Rather than being honest and saying the fossil record is inconclusive, scientists point crooked fingers at religious arguments, using them as straw men. At some point, we should admit that we do not know. Our current interpretations on origins of the universe and life contain basic flaws. It does not matter which one seems more right at the moment, when they’re all basically wrong. Interestingly, an adamant, true-believer colleague, once overwhelmed with reasoning against the transmutation of life, ended the argument by declaring that he was sticking with the “evolution doctrine” (read: Catholic, Baptist, Shiite, Hindu, etc.) as long as there was nothing better. Is there something wrong in admitting uncertainty? I am sure that many of Jerry’s students would feel better if he could lay off the rhetoric; probably their parents too. In the end, the greater wrong is going to war over yours or someone else’s religion.

Avatar of: Sofia Blazevic

Sofia Blazevic

Posts: 1

July 6, 2015

This whole section is a bit of propaganda, authors comment their own book. Seems strange. 

It is also a pity that the tone is so dismissive, sounds like: "I know the truth and the rest are just dummies". The Scientist should be aware that their readership comes from all kinds of backgrounds (religious too).

This kind of books and assertions do not help enlighten many, and fuel the war. Dialogue is always more fruitful in the long run, but all parts should be willing and I am not sure Mr. Coyne is.

Avatar of: JimM


Posts: 6

August 17, 2015

He talks about the definition faith as believing something without proof. He himself believes in atheism as if there is proof that it is true. I must ask, is theism scientific, is atheism? The answer is simple, they are both metaphisical viewpoints.

You can make emotional arguments for both sides which Coyne is prone to do in his attacks against religion. I could retort with some pretty strong aguments that are just as high on the emotional scale against believers in nothing from nothing.

Stop and consider that they literally have invented the Multiverse for which there is no evidence nor ever could be since we only have this one Universe to study just to prevent there from being a begining, therefore a Beginner. Also the idea of a Quantum Vacuum producing the Universe from nothing is supposed to be scientific. The Quantum vacuum is not nothing it is something and it exists in this universe. Just because atomic particles appear out of seemingly nowhere when stimulated by a physicist using a cyclotron doesn't prove that they actually did come from nowhere. The Heisenburg Uncertainty is enough to show that they are making a huge leap of faith to keep their atheism alive. How can an electron move from point A to point B without any time having gone by or how can the same electron be in two places at once?I'm going to have to go along with Einstein and simply say we do not know.

I certainly wouldn't put my faith in atheism based on somebody's assertions that atheism is scientific. The incompatibility isn't between science and religion it is between the reductionist materialist view versus the religious view.


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