Book Review: Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Author Jerry Coyne

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. As a scientist, his day job involves performing genetic analyses on fruit flies in order to better understand the evolutionary processes that lead to distinct species. Coyne has written more than one hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers and he is the coauthor, along with H. Allen Orr, of the scholarly book, Speciation. Dr. Coyne is also well known for popularizing scientific discoveries about the origins of species in his 2010 New York Times bestseller and eponymous website, Why Evolution Is True. His latest effort, out tomorrow, is Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

Faith vs. Fact begins with an anecdote that should resonate with nonbelievers: After presenting a lavishly illustrated lecture on evolution, the author was approached by a theist who was in attendance. While admitting that Coyne’s scientific evidence was “very convincing,” this individual nonetheless concluded, “but I still don’t believe it.”

“I was flabbergasted,” Coyne writes, reflecting on their encounter. “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?”

faithfactThe question prompted Coyne to pore over existing texts—both scientific and religious—regarding the relationship between the two fields. His conclusions are 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 tell us.” Ultimately, Coyne uses this book to expose and discredit the “accommodationist” view that regards religion as “compatible, mutually supportive, or at least not in conflict” with science.

To prove his theory, Coyne breaks down the central question—“Are science and religion compatible?”—into a series of progressive and easily digested sections. He begins with basic definitions: “What is science?” “What is religion?” “What is incompatible?” Next, he considers conflicts of method, outcome, and philosophy. He examines the varieties of accommodationism and explains why each of them fails. Finally, he demonstrates why the conflict between faith and facts matters, highlighting significant impacts of religiously sourced “knowledge”—from religiously motivated child abuse to the running controversy over human-caused climate change.

I loved this book. I loved Coyne’s premise, I loved his conclusions, and I loved the way he presented his case. Though I have previously encountered certain items of Coyne’s evidence, he makes even the familiar seem new, by arranging facts in unexpected ways, by teasing out unseen trends in the data, and by placing known answers against new sets of questions. He demonstrates a rare talent for presenting complex thoughts in a style that is fresh, approachable and entertaining. And while the book walks readers through a very thorough and well-researched series of arguments, the tone is consistently friendly and non-combative. Finally, Faith vs. Fact is chockfull of memorable zingers that should help amateur debaters keep Coyne’s arguments against religious accommodationism on tap.

I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in science, atheism, or humanism. It is also certain to be of value to activists, social workers, health care workers, teachers, lawyers, and, indeed, anyone who regularly encounters the undue influence of quasi-scientific religious thought.

  • “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.”

    In truth, the most potentially dangerous anti-science brouhahas involve ideas —that vaccination causes autism and that global warming is a hoax— that aren’t religious at all. Sure, right-wing politicians and corporate think tanks may couch their propaganda in vaguely religious language, but that’s just their way of pandering to their base here in the good old USA.

    If we’re wondering why the public resists the decrees of the science industry, then the scientific establishment, scientific academia, and pop-science celebrities have a lot to answer for too. Science writing used to involve authors like Gould and Eiseley examining the human and cultural aspects of empirical research; now it has degenerated into mere polemic, a slew of factoids for use in online debates. Writers like Dawkins and Krauss take every opportunity to remind us that we’re biochemical machines who are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, essentially removing the human perspective from relevance in scientific inquiry. They denigrate “subjective” experience as irrelevant and our emotions and intuition as sentimental “woo.” Do we need science that dehumanizes us?

    It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the corporate-sponsored purveyors of Science in the media and educational arena seem to delight in the same kind of anti-intellectualism that they criticize in their fundamentalist foes. Sure, they spout factoids about physics or genetics, but they deride philosophy and the humanities as mere window dressing next to the “real” matters of hard science. The fact that science, too, is a human endeavor (with all the cultural and personal bias that entails) is lost on the audience for Cosmos, TED talks, and the latest neurobabble best sellers.

    So maybe Ken Ham and his silly museum aren’t the reason there’s a lot of distrust about Science. The problem isn’t that science doesn’t pander to people’s religious beliefs. Maybe the problem is we have too much Science and not enough humanism.

    • Arjen Bootsma

      Reading your post, I have to presume that you have a religious view of science.

    • Bret McIntyre

      If I may be so bold, your point about right wing politics has the ring of truth, and your notion that Science needs to do better with P.R. is, to some degree, true; however, Dawkins and Krauss do NOT say we are insignificant, nor do they view human life as bleak and meaningless. It’s easy to confuse Hope with Faith — although both are Wishful, only one admits to the perversion of superstition.

      Best wishes.

      • Dawkins and Krauss do NOT say we are insignificant, nor do they view human life as bleak and meaningless.

        No? In the video for the Cosmic Origins of Science and Religion, Krauss says “We’re just an irrelevant by-product, and that’s wonderful!” It’s as if humanity’s own cosmic insignificance should somehow inspire us, simply because a celebrity physicist tells us to be impressed by it. I don’t call that humanism. Dawkins and Krauss explicitly reject the “postmodern” notion that science is a human endeavor; the New Atheists conceptualize science as the tool unworthy humanity uses to access the truth and reality that is eternal, unchanging, and independent of any personal or cultural influence. If there’s a more naïve and anti-human perspective toward empirical inquiry, I would probably throw things if I heard it described.

        • Roger Lambert

          You missed the boat, Shem.

        • Ant Allan

          Science *is*, of course, a human endeavour (nothing postmodern in that notion, as such), a human endeavour that provides a set of tools that allows us to determine, independent of any personal or cultural influence, the nature of the cosmos, by winnowing out bad ideas and explanations. The success of this endeavour is very evident in the world around us and, trivially, by the fact that we’re having this conversation by this medium.

          As for Dawkins viewing life as “bleak and meaningless,” the following quotation substantially rebuts that claim:

          “After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”

          /@ (humanist and new atheist)

          • Thanks for the response, Allan. I’m not sure many New Atheists would agree, unless they were feeling exceptionally magnanimous, that it’s relevant that science is a human endeavor. I’m skeptical of the hyper-idealized form of Science you describe, one that’s free from cultural or personal influence, that follows hard facts and evidence wherever they lead. The fact that science is a human activity means it takes place in the context where personal, political, and economic interests are more important than the Truth. I’m not denying that empirical inquiry has given us shiny gadgets; the downside to its success is the pollution and slaughter that accompany our useful technology.

            I never said Dawkins called life “bleak,” that was Bret’s interpretation of what I originally posted. Sure, I could find many pleasant-sounding affirmations in his writings. That doesn’t change the fact that he likes to characterize humans as gene machines and our brains as biochemical computing devices, and he expects people to find such rhetoric inspiring. The notion of meaning is unimportant to him; the fact that humans create their own meaning makes it something trivial, like buying a coffee table or liking a movie. He has spent a lot of time arguing that God doesn’t exist, handwaving away the more crucial question of what belief in God means to humans and cultures.
            In short, I don’t find his perspective very humanistic.

          • Ant Allan

            Let me correct your first misconception (unless you were being very formal): “Allan” is my surname.

            I don’t think my view is unusual among new atheists; I just don’t think you know us that well, and misunderstand Dawkins and Krauss.

            I did indicate that our shiny gadgets are a trivial example of the success of the science as a human endeavour.

            But the fact is that these shiny gadgets work, and work in the same way, whether the users are European, Asia, African, American, and so on; whether the users are Baptists or Catholics, Jews or Hindus, Moslems or atheists, pagans or agnostics. The workings of the cosmos that are revealed by science is exactly the same for everyone.

            And of course, scientific work can be subverted for personal, political or economic reasons. I really doubt Dawkins, Krauss, or any other scientifically literate new atheist would dispute that. And there are very well-known examples of that, such as Piltdown Man (personal) and Lysenkoism (political). But those subversions don’t prevail – and it is science that reveals them (it is for good reason that peer review and reproducibility are key elements of the scientific method).

            “In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” — Carl Sagan

            The notion of meaning is not unimportant to Dawkins. If doesn’t matter that we are “gene machines“ (or “gene hives”; see Brian W. Aldiss) – and we are – or that our brains are biochemical “computing devices” – and they are (of a sort; very messily complicated): We can nevertheless find intellectually, emotionally and psychologically satisfying meaning in our own lives.

            If you thing this makes every meaningful-to-humans human endeavour (including science!) as trivial as buying a coffee or liking a movie then I think the fault is with you, not Dawkins. Dismissing that quotation as a “pleasant-sounding affirmation” is disingenuous. Striving to understand the universe is of an enormously different magnitude to a trip to Starbucks!


          • First off, I apologize for referring to you by your surname, it wasn’t intended to be insulting.

            I understand that you don’t think it’s unusual among New Atheists to acknowledge the human context of scientific inquiry. However, your own words make it clear that you’re convinced that you can take Science out of that human context. Saying The workings of the cosmos that are revealed by science is exactly the same for everyone is just the sort of statement that supports the notion that Reality is objective, eternal, and unchanging, and Science is merely the tool through which we access this Reality: it’s completely apolitical and unsullied by personal and cultural bias. This is the vast difference between science writers of yore and the new batch. Stephen Jay Gould and Loren Eiseley talked about the human aspect of scientific inquiry, and conceptualized Science as a symbolic language with which we culturally construct something we call Reality. For them, the interesting things was acknowledging how inseparable the scientific endeavor is from the human perspective. Dawkins and the New Atheists refuse to acknowledge this, or the mystical overtones of conceptualizing Science as the medium through which Reality reveals itself to unworthy Man.

            That’s also the difference between the way we each see things like Piltdown and Lysenkoism. You prefer to see them as the regrettable misuse of Science by the unscrupulous, mere exceptions to the rule of noble scientists contributing responsibly to Progress. I, however, see these incidents as the way Science functions in society, as an institution of legitimation for the powerful. When the power dynamic changes, things will eventually be reassessed. But that doesn’t change the fact that what we refer to as Science is in the service of interests who fund and interpret research for their own benefit, not that of humanity or the Truth.

            Your blithe dismissal of my qualms about the way scientists refer to us as machines says a lot about how our approaches to humanism differ. I’m a nonbeliever too, and I don’t think that we need a God to make our lives meaningful. I agree that we’re the product of evolutionary processes, not the intentional agency of the Big G. But there’s something greedy about insisting that we’re nothing more than biochemical machines or gene-controlled robots. We should find this kind of rhetoric dehumanizing.

          • Ant Allan

            Oh, I didn’t take it as an insult: My name confuses most everyone outside the UK!

            I’m not sure we understand each other. I thought I’d been clear that science is a human endeavour, so I don’t know what you think it means to say that “you can take Science outside of that human context”. (I don’t see any reason to capitalise “science” btw.)

            I made no claims about “Reality” (capitalised or not). I think you keep interjecting your own philosophical preconceptions.

            Science is a tool with which we build partial models of the cosmos, and which enables us to improve those models over time (by winnowing out bad ideas and explanations). Thus Newton’s model of gravity (which is still a damn good model for quotidian purposes) gave way to Einstein’s, and so on.

            No scientifically literate new atheist pretends that these models *are* the cosmos, just that they provide a way of explaining what we observe and predicting how things behave. And for huge swaths of the cosmos, those predictions match to observations with phenomenal accuracy.

            I’m not sure what you gain by saying that the scientific endeavour is inseparable from the human perspective. Of course it is, since it’s carried out by humans. But that doesn’t mean that science cannot work to minimise the biases that come from that perspective. That capability is really one of the major elements of the toolkit of science (which Coyne explores in his book).

            Given Gould’s misstep regarding “NOMA”, I’m not sure that I’d but a lot of trust in his view of the philosophy of science. (Eiseley I’m not familiar with.)

            If your view of “Science” — “an institution of legitimation for the powerful” — were right, I’m not sure that there would be such a gulf between Congress and “science” (the consensus of climate scientists) regarding global warming!

            Sadly, as I acknowledged before, some scientific research does serve the interests of those who fund it. Much dietary research is subverted in this way. But it is science in the hands of independent scientists that shows that this is so! And I think you’ve be hard pressed to show that those governments that have funded CERN, Planck and so on have been rewarded in any material way by the knowledge gained about the Standard Model of physics or the Big Bang.

            So I think your view of “Science” is flat out wrong (as well as more than a little insulting towards what is probably the vast majority of working scientists).

            If we are the product of evolutionary processes, which act on matter (DNA, proteins, and so on) in ways that are fixed by physics, what are we if not biochemical machines? (Let’s leave “gene-controlled robots” aside for the moment; there’s a lot to unpack in that.)

            Why *should* we find this kind of “rhetoric” (it isn’t really; it’s a plain statement of fact) dehumanising?

            The human biochemical machine is wonderfully complex and gives rise to everything that it is to be human. And I think this is behind Dawkins and Krauss’s comments that you deprecate; given this, given how cold and indifferent the universe is, isn’t it marvellous that humanity exists and can apprehend that!

            My view of humanism is that we can act to give own lives meaning in a multitude of ways, from Dawkins’s goal to “work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it” to simply seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

            But if we deny our fundamental nature and place in the cosmos as science reveals it, then we are cheating ourselves, and cheating ourselves very badly.


          • Thanks for the response.

            I’m not sure we understand each other.

            I’m saying the same thing I’ve been saying all along. There’s no need to get rid of science, let’s just put it in perspective. Humans developed it as a symbolic language to try to make natural phenomena comprehensible to us. The way we understand things and the way we relate to our knowledge depends fully on our personal and cultural perspective. In my first response to the article about Coyne’s book, I argued that science has become a tool of powerful political and corporate interests, its agents issuing decrees in language that emphasizes people’s powerlessness and ignorance. People have every right to be suspicious of this process, and the way it has set itself up as a surrogate religion for the gullible.

            I’m not sure what you gain by saying that the scientific endeavour is inseparable from the human perspective. Of course it is, since it’s carried out by humans. But that doesn’t mean that science cannot work to minimise the biases that come from that perspective.

            And I question that it “works” to minimize bias at all. Since so much scientific research is done, by people of all cultures and philosophical backgrounds, and the products can be so lucrative, errors often come to light. But this is an example of the way science fits into the neoliberal agenda: competition is seen as contributing to progress, and we get to pretend there’s a meritocracy of ideas that will eventually bring us closer to truth.

            Given Gould’s misstep regarding “NOMA”, I’m not sure that I’d put a lot of trust in his view of the philosophy of science.

            That’s poisoning the well, but it’s following the New Atheist party line. Gould’s NOMA idea merely distinguished between data and meaning, and pointed out that science and religion feed different human needs. Science can’t offer solace, and religion can’t formulate testable predictions about natural phenomena.

            The reason both Dawkins and Dennett devoted space in their books to vindictive diatribes against Gould, though, was because (as I mentioned before) his concept of science wasn’t idealized enough for the New Atheists. They have a vested interest in promulgating the myth that science is objective and unsullied by political or cultural biases. If anyone points out that the notion of Scientific Man taming time and space, decoding the universe, and following the evidence wherever it leads constitutes secular mythology, they need to be branded a heretic.

            what are we if not biochemical machines?

            Why *should* we find this kind of “rhetoric” (it isn’t really; it’s a plain statement of fact) dehumanizing?

            This is a testament to how successful New Atheists and science writers have been at de-historicizing science and handwaving away any philosophical questions about the program of empirical inquiry. Nowadays, people consider themselves “freethinkers” if they parrot scientific factoids, and they consider themselves “humanists” even though they regurgitate dehumanizing rhetoric. For a start, your plain statement of fact is anything but; it’s the fallacy of composition to say that biochemical processes go on inside us, therefore we’re nothing but a biochemical machine. But it’s disturbing to think that these machine fantasies are supposed to ennoble us, when they’re intended to degrade us. That’s why pop science shows like Nova and Cosmos are sponsored by the Koch Brothers, FOX, Samsung and Chrysler. Our corporate overlords want us to think we’re nothing but devices, because that’s all they see us as.

    • Lucid

      “In truth, the most potentially dangerous anti-science brouhahas involve
      ideas —that vaccination causes autism and that global warming is a
      hoax— that aren’t religious at all.”

      Actually people shun the science of vaccines and AGW in large part due to their religious faith. Religious faith by nature breeds contempt for any fact that contradicts it (however seen by the believer e.g. God would not allow us to destroy the planet when he will destroy it in the rapture)

      • Actually people shun the science of vaccines and AGW in large part due to their religious faith.

        The ones I’ve heard speak about it are convinced they’re making a responsible assessment of the evidence. Don’t get me wrong, I think anti-vax is a hoax, and global warming denial is a corporate smokescreen. But I fail to see how any of this politically-motivated kookery derives from a core belief of religion.

        Not for nothing, but religious leaders are doing their part to raise awareness of global warming in the faithful. The Washington Post reported last month:

        [At the Vatican], the center of global Catholicism, church leaders joined with politicians, scientists and economists to draft a statement declaring not only that climate change is a “scientific reality” but also that there’s a moral and religious responsibility to do something about it. And an even more powerful statement is expected soon from Pope Francis himself, who is slated to release a major papal encyclical on the environment this summer…The effort to mobilize religious believers to worry about climate as part of a broader, biblically grounded “creation care” mandate has a long history

        As far as things that the Pope could be telling his flock, I can think of a lot worse. Do you object to this in any way? If so, why?

  • Arjen Bootsma

    A main difference between science and religion (or for that matter, any kind of believe) is that religion claims to have the answers, while science aims to ask the right question (or maybe any question at all, no matter how trivial or outrageous).

    • True “religion” does Not “claim to have the answers”; The !.2 Billion Catholic Church Began western Science in the 1400’s, searching for the Explanations/Reasons for Everything. Catholic Priests were the most highly educated people in Europe, and their Mission was to help everyone else, as today. The Church has in fact Found most ‘answers’, in how to avoid Psychological Issues of Guilt: The 1950 year old Confession to God through a Priest, and especially the powerful Forgiveness/Wiping away the Sin(s), Also by Christ himself.

      • Arjen Bootsma

        I am not denying that the Catholic Church has been a center for scholarship (which is NOT the same as science) for ages. The same way that you cannot deny that the Church vehemently opposed scientists whose writings challenged church doctrine, to the point of banning their writings and sentencing the scientists to death; two practices that go against any scientific or democratic standard for that matter.

        But if you want to make an argument, please be correct with your statements. I highly doubt that around the year 1400 the Catholic Church was 1.2 billion strong. That is probably the correct figure for today, but not for 1400. SOME Catholic priests were AMONG the most highly educated people. Their stated mission may have been to help everyone, but if one looks as the history of the Church as a whole, the interpretation that the mission was to accrue power and wealth seems to be supported by a lot more evidence.

        Please take of your rose-colored glasses when looking at the Church, or at religion. There simply is no “true religion”, only gradations in the severity of delusional thinking.

        • I hope I never said that the Catholic Church numbered 1.2 Billion in year 1400. It is the Current Number. (1) The Church did Not “vehemently oppose scientists whose writing opposed church “doctrine” ” Educational level was not high then for average people, and common sense was used to explain most things not yet understood. (2) The Western Catholic Church Priests Began western Science in the 1500’s, looking for confirmable answers to nature’s mysteries. Innumerable examples in all academic fields: Mendel’s genetic findings, etc., etc. etc. (3) The Chinese started the highest and most advanced Technology, Science, and Education for a very few ‘in’ people. (4) Precise opposite of “power and wealth” pursuit in the 1400’s/1500’s except by Some greedy/self-centered Priests which led to the quite justified Lutheran/Protestant revolution, as the Church Teaches.(5) Don’t know the definition of “doctrine”? Please look it up. Teachings is the correct word, by Some, not The Church. (6) Know Who presented the True/Proven ‘Big Bang’ beginning of Everything: evolution, laws of nature, gravity? Belgian Dr/Father Georges LaMaitre SJ in 1922, Respected by Einstein as a foremost Physicist And Jesuit Priest. Dr/Fr LaMaitre Developed the Mathematical solution to the Source of Everything from Zero Nothingness. (7)Catholic Seminaries began to allow some non-seminarians into their famed schools: Budapest/Prague/Paris and many more: The Proven Source of Higher Education in the Western World. Dr/Fr LaMaitre has been self-serving to Science Interests to Exclude, LaMaitre, citing Hubble, etc., etc. as the Source/discoverer. Am Unbiased facts only Science trained Jesuit College, and one of my PhD Professors: Fr. Eisle SJ, gave me an F First Semester because I was too lazy to Study, being so bright. Fr Eisle was 1950’s Media source for Locating the Direction of major Quakes, using common sense/Intelligence, without any Grant or assistance. Nuf said for Now. I have Clear and Unbiased Attitude, as based on my Catholic Ideal Education: No bias nor tilt as the Church always exhibits, teaches and Practices.

          • Science and Catholic Church teachings are totally different apples/oranges, but as Einstein suggested, can not ignore Either one, because they are Proven Complementary.

  • Sarah

    This book is terrible. No that’s not fair, it’s well meaning and well written, it’s just wrong, again, in all the ways that Massimo Pigliucci has been pointing out to him for years. He’s just philosophically incompetent, and working outside his area of expertise – Dawkin’s style but about 80% less stupid – and he just doesn’t know enough to know where he’s wrong.

    • I wonder how Jerry came up with the idea of comparing Science and Religion. When you think about it, they really are incompatible. Why didn’t anyone ever notice that before? That’s Jerry for you, a true original.

    • articulett

      So you don’t really have a coherent point and you didn’t actually read the book.

      • Sarah

        Does it surprise me that someone who likes the book fails to see a coherent point in the simple sentence “He’s just philosophically incompetent and working outside his area of expertise – he doesn’t know enough to know where he’s wrong”? No, not really. Apparently you’re working outside your area of expertise when you talk about ‘coherent points’. :p

        • I’ve read the book, have it next to me. Jerry Coyne is Incompetent about True religion, like us 1.2 Billion Catholics founded by Christ Himself. Why does Coyne Avoid the Big Issues: (1) The Big Bang origin of Everything in the universe, (2) From Mathematically Zero Nothingness? Mathematical Zero Nothingness. (3) Why does he avoid the Key Issue: Intelligence in everything in the Universe: Laws of Calculus, Electric Charges, Gravity, Evolution, Etc., and Everything else? This is only my Beginning, (Is he not aware of the Brilliant Scientist who presented The Big Bang in 1922: Dr/Father Georges LaMaitre: Belgian World class Scientist Who Albert Einstein had fill in for him in a 1947 Lecture)? Is he not aware of the Definition of God: The Almighty Power and Force?

  • IdPnSD

    At the outset I must admit that I did not read his book. But I would like to see if his definitions match with mine. I consider science as only math and physics, because they deal with real numbers, which are not objects of nature. Chemistry, medical surgery, cooking, cosmology, genetic modifications as engineering because they are dealing with objects of nature. Biology should be considered as religion, because it is dealing with living objects. My definitions will be debatable because I only know science and engineering and do not know genetics and biology.

    One more thing – data and evidences for objects of nature do not mean anything. For example, we had plenty of data and evidences to believe that earth was at the center of the universe. But only Galileo had shown that these data and evidences have different meaning. All evidences of biological objects are meaningless if you ignore the soul theory. Using soul theory all evidences can be proven to have different meaning. Take a look at the free book on soul theory at the blog site Thus science is wrong and religion is correct, because religions deal with soul theory.