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Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

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by Jerry A. Coyne

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The New York Times bestselling author explains why any attempt to make religion compatible with science is doomed to fail
In his provocative new book, evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne lays out in clear, dispassionate detail why the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including


The New York Times bestselling author explains why any attempt to make religion compatible with science is doomed to fail
In his provocative new book, evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne lays out in clear, dispassionate detail why the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions.
Coyne is responding to a national climate in which over half of Americans don’t believe in evolution (and congressmen deny global warming), and warns that religious prejudices and strictures in politics, education, medicine, and social policy are on the rise. Extending the bestselling works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, he demolishes the claims of religion to provide verifiable “truth” by subjecting those claims to the same tests we use to establish truth in science.
Coyne irrefutably demonstrates the grave harm—to individuals and to our planet—in mistaking faith for fact in making the most important decisions about the world we live in.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Coyne (Why Evolution Is True), an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, defines his position perfectly clearly: “Religion is but a single brand of superstition..., but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition.” From this starting point, he describes the nature of scientific investigation, focusing on its reliance on evidence and the tentativeness of its conclusions, and contrasts it with religion’s reliance on faith. Religions, Coyne argues, “make explicit claims about reality,” which “must, like all claims about reality, be defended with a combination of evidence and reason.” He builds a strong case that no such evidence exists for the claims he describes, discussing ways in which religious doctrines have negatively affected public policy and scientific advances in areas such as vaccinations and stem cell research. Though interesting, Coyne’s overarching conclusion—that science and religion must be incompatible—is not persuasively articulated on a number of grounds, and he suffers from the same kinds of poor sociological thinking as his “New Atheist” peers, mistaking problems of politics for those of religious belief. By equating virtually all religious believers with fundamentalists, Coyne draws far too narrow a picture of religion, demonstrating science’s incompatibility with one part of the religious spectrum but not across all of it. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
A scientist assails superstition and irrationality.After evolutionary biologist Coyne (Ecology and Evolution/Univ. of Chicago; Why Evolution Is True, 2009, etc.) published a widely read book presenting evidence for evolution, he was astonished to find that "the proportion of creationists in America didn't budge," hovering between 40 and 46 percent. Faith, he concluded, "led them to discount and reject the facts right before their noses." In his latest book, the author takes on the problem of faith directly, arguing that "understanding reality…is best achieved using the tools of science, and is never achieved using the methods of faith." Although he makes a clear and cogent argument, he may find that, once again, he is preaching to his own choir. Coyne defines science "as a collection of methods" yielding knowledge that can be rejected or confirmed through testing. Religion derives its authority from belief in "a god, gods, or similar superhuman power." Coyne focuses on religions "that make empirical claims about the existence of a deity, the nature of that deity, and how it interacts with the world," in particular Judaism, Islam, and especially Christianity. Discounting the efforts of accommodationists, who strive to find common ground between science and religion, Coyne asserts that the two are incompatible "because they have different methods of getting knowledge about reality, different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe." He notes that evolutionary biology is a special focus of incredulity or outright attack by the faithful, but he sees that other areas as well—e.g., stem cell research, vaccination, euthanasia, homosexuality, and global warming—have been undermined by religious claims. Coyne celebrates a world without faith, claiming that there would be no loss of compassion and morality, only of pseudoscientific thought that can "do real damage to our species and our planet." Deeply religious readers may not even pick it up, but this is an important book that deserves an open-minded readership.
From the Publisher
"[T]his is an important book that deserves an open-minded readership." ---Kirkus

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Read an Excerpt


The Genesis of This Book

—Neil deGrasse Tyson

In February 2013, I debated a young Lutheran theologian on a hot-button topic: “Are science and religion compatible?” The site was the historic Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the oldest churches in the American South. After both of us gave our twenty-minute spiels (she argued “yes,” while I said “no”), we were asked to sum up our views in a single sentence. I can’t remember my own précis, but I clearly recall the theologian’s words: “We must always remember that faith is a gift.”

This was one of those l’esprit d’escalier, or “wit of the staircase,” moments, when you come up with the perfect response—but only well after the opportunity has passed. For shortly after the debate was over, I not only remembered that Gift is the German word for “poison,” but saw clearly that the theologian’s parting words undercut her very thesis that science and religion are compatible. Whatever I actually said, what I should have said was this: “Faith may be a gift in religion, but in science it’s poison, for faith is no way to find truth.”

This book gives me a chance to say that now. It is about the different ways that science and religion regard faith, ways that make them incompatible for discovering what’s true about our universe. My thesis is that religion and science compete in many ways to describe reality—they both make “existence claims” about what is real—but use different tools to meet this goal. And I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion—including faith, dogma, and revelation—is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.

I maintain, then—and here I diverge from the many “accommodationists” who see religion and science, if not harmonious or complementary, at least as not in conflict—that religion and science are engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.

Although this book deals with the conflict between religion and science, I see this as only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition. Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition. And science is but one form of rationality (philosophy and mathematics are others), but it is a highly developed form, and the only one capable of describing and understanding reality. All superstitions that purport to give truths are actually forms of pseudoscience, and all use similar tactics to immunize themselves against disproof. As we’ll see, advocates of pseudosciences like homeopathy or ESP often support their beliefs using the same arguments employed by theologians to defend their faith.

While the science-versus-religion debate is one battle in the war between rationality and irrationality, I concentrate on it for several reasons. First, the controversy has become more widespread and visible, most likely because of a new element in the criticism of religion. The most novel aspect of “New Atheism”—the form of disbelief that distinguishes the views of writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins from the “old” atheism of people like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell—is the observation that most religions are grounded in claims that can be regarded as scientific. That is, God, and the tenets of many religions, are hypotheses that can, at least in principle, be examined by science and reason. If religious claims can’t be substantiated with reliable evidence, the argument goes, they should, like dubious scientific claims, be rejected until more data arrive. This argument is buttressed by new developments in science, in areas like cosmology, neurobiology, and evolutionary biology. Discoveries in those fields have undermined religious claims that phenomena like the origin of the universe and the existence of human morality and consciousness defy scientific explanation and are therefore evidence for God. Seeing their bailiwick shrinking, the faithful have become more insistent that religion is actually a way of understanding nature that complements science. But the most important reason to concentrate on religion rather than other forms of irrationality is not to document a historical conflict, but because, among all forms of superstition, religion has by far the most potential for public harm. Few are damaged by belief in astrology; but, as we’ll see in the final chapter, many have been harmed by belief in a particular god or by the idea that faith is a virtue.

I have both a personal and a professional interest in this argument, for I’ve spent my adult life teaching and studying evolutionary biology, the brand of science most vilified and rejected by religion. And a bit more biography is in order: I was raised as a secular Jew, an upbringing that, as most people know, is but a hairsbreadth from atheism. But my vague beliefs in a God were abandoned almost instantly when, at seventeen, I was listening to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album and suddenly realized that there was simply no evidence for the religious claims I had been taught—or for anybody else’s, either. From the beginning, then, my unbelief rested on an absence of evidence for anything divine. Compared with that of many believers, my rejection of God was brief and painless. But after that I didn’t think much about religion until I became a professional scientist.

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.

When I taught my first course in evolution at the University of Maryland, I could hear the opposition directly, for in the plaza right below my classroom a preacher would often hold forth loudly about how evolution was a tool of Satan. And many of my own students, while dutifully learning about evolution, made it clear that they didn’t believe a word of it. Curious about how such opposition could exist despite the copious evidence for evolution, I began reading about creationism. It was immediately evident that virtually all opposition to evolution comes from religion. In fact, among the dozens of prominent creationists I’ve encountered, I’ve known of only one—the philosopher David Berlinski—whose view isn’t motivated by religion.

Finally, after twenty-five years of teaching, facing pushback all the way, I decided to address the problem of creationism in the only way I knew: by writing a popular book laying out the evidence for evolution. And there were mountains of evidence, drawn from the fossil record, embryology, molecular biology, the geography of plants and animals, the development and construction of animal bodies, and so on. Curiously, nobody had written such a book. Practical people, I figured—or even skeptical ones—would surely come around to accepting the scientific view of evolution once they’d seen the evidence laid out in black and white.

I was wrong. Although my book, Why Evolution Is True, did well (even nosing briefly onto the New York Times bestseller list), and although I received quite a few letters from religious readers telling me I’d “converted” them to evolution, the proportion of creationists in America didn’t budge: for thirty-two years it’s hovered between 40 and 46 percent.

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.

Let me hasten, though, to add a few caveats.

First, some “religions,” like Jainism and the more meditation-oriented versions of Buddhism, make few or no claims about what exists in the universe. (I’ll shortly give a definition of “religion” so that my thesis becomes clear.) Adherents to other faiths, like Quakers and Unitarian Universalists, are heterogeneous, with some “believers” being indistinguishable from agnostics or atheists who practice a nebulous but godless spirituality. As the beliefs of such people are often not theistic (that is, they don’t involve a deity that interacts with the world), there is less chance that they will conflict with science. This book deals largely with theistic faiths. They’re not the totality of religions, but they constitute by far the largest number of religions—and believers—on Earth.

For several reasons I concentrate on the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Those are the religions I know most about, and, more important, are the ones—particularly Christianity—most concerned with reconciling their beliefs with science. While I discuss other faiths in passing, it is mostly the various brands of Christianity that occupy this book. Likewise, I will talk mostly about science and religion in the United States, for here is where their conflict is most visible. The problem is less pressing in Europe because the proportion of theists, particularly in northern Europe, is much lower than in America. In the Middle East, on the other hand, where Islam is truly and deeply in conflict with science, such discussions are often seen as heretical.

Finally, there are some versions of even the Abrahamic religions whose tenets are so vague that it’s simply unclear whether they conflict with science. Apophatic, or “negative,” theology, for instance, is reluctant to make claims about the nature or even the existence of a god. Some liberal Christians speak of God as a “ground of being” rather than as an entity with humanlike feelings and properties that behaves in specified ways. While some theologians claim that these are the “strongest” notions of God, they have that status only because they make the fewest claims and are thus the least susceptible to refutation—or even discussion. For anyone having the least familiarity with religion, it goes without saying that such watered-down versions of faith are not held by most people, who accept instead a personal god who intervenes in the world.

This brings us to the common claim that critics of religion accept a “straw man” fallacy, seeing all believers as fundamentalists or scriptural literalists, and that we neglect the “strong and sophisticated” versions of faith held by liberal theologians. A true discussion of faith/science compatibility, this argument runs, demands that we deal only with these sophisticated forms of belief. For if we construe “religion” as simply “the beliefs of the average believer,” then arguing that those beliefs are incompatible with science is just as nonsensical as construing “science” as the rudimentary and often incorrect understanding of science held by the average citizen.

But this parallel is wrong in several ways. First, while many laypeople hold erroneous views of science, they neither practice science nor are considered part of the scientific community. In contrast, the average believer not only practices religion but may also belong to a religious community that may try to spread its beliefs to the wider society. Further, while theologians may know more about the history of religion—or the work of other theologians—than do regular believers, they have no special expertise in discerning the nature of God, what he wants, or how he interacts with the world. In understanding the claims of their faith, “regular” religious believers are far closer to theologians than are science-friendly laypeople to the physicists and biologists they admire. Throughout this book I’ll consider the claims both of garden-variety believers and of theologians, for while the problem of faith versus science is most serious for the regular believer, it is the theologians who use academic arguments to convince believers that their faith is compatible with science.

I emphasize that my claim that science and religion are incompatible does not mean that most religious people reject science. Even evolution, the science most scorned by believers, is accepted by many Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and liberal Muslims. And, of course, most believers have no problem with the idea of supernovas, photosynthesis, or gravity. The conflict plays out in only a few specific areas of science, but also in the validation of faith in general. My argument for incompatibility deals not with people’s perceptions, but with the contradictory ways that science and religion support their claims about reality.

I begin by showing evidence that the conflict between religion and science is substantial and widespread. This evidence includes the incessant production of books and official statements by both scientists and theologians assuring us that there really is compatibility, but using different and sometimes contradictory arguments. The sheer number and diversity of these assurances suggest that there’s a problem that hasn’t been resolved. Further evidence for conflict includes the high proportion of scientists in both the United States and the United Kingdom who are atheists, a proportion of nonbelievers roughly ten times higher than that in the general public. Also, in America and other countries, there are laws that privilege faith by giving it precedence over science, as in the medical treatment of one’s children. Finally, the existence of pervasive creationism, as well as widespread belief in religious and spiritual healing, shows an obvious conflict between science and religion—or between science and faith.

The second chapter lays out the terms of engagement: the ways I construe science and religion, and what I mean by “incompatibility.” I’ll argue that the incompatibility operates at three levels: methodology, outcomes, and philosophy—what “truths” are uncovered by science versus faith.

Chapter 3 takes on accommodationism, analyzing a sample of the arguments used by both religious people and scientific organizations to argue for a harmony between science and faith. The two most common arguments are the existence of religious scientists, and Stephen Jay Gould’s prominent idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), in which science encompasses the domain of facts about the universe while religion occupies the orthogonal realm of meaning, morals, and values. In the end, all accommodationist strategies fail because they don’t resolve the huge disparity between discerning “truths” using reason versus faith. I’ll describe three examples of the problems that arise when scientific advances flatly contradict religious dogma: theistic (God-guided) evolution, claims about the existence of Adam and Eve, and Mormon beliefs about the origin of Native Americans.

The fourth chapter, “Faith Strikes Back,” tackles not only the ways that religion is said to contribute to science, but also the way the faithful denigrate science as a way of defending their own turf. The arguments are diverse, and include claims that science actually supports the idea of God by supplying answers to questions supposedly beyond the ken of science. I call these endeavors the “new natural theology”—a modern version of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century arguments that purported to show the hand of God in nature. The updated arguments deal with the purported “fine-tuning” of the universe—the claimed improbability that the laws of physics would permit the appearance of life—as well as with the claimed inevitability of human evolution, and the details of human morality that, it’s argued, resist scientific but not religious explanations. I also take up the notion of “other ways of knowing”: the contention that science isn’t the only way of ferreting out nature’s truths. I’ll argue that in fact science is the only way to find such truths—if you construe “science” broadly. Finally, I deal with believers’ tu quoque accusations that science is either derived from religion or afflicted with the same problems as religion. These accusations are also diverse: science is actually a product of Christianity; science involves untestable assumptions, and is therefore based on faith; science is fallible; science promotes “scientism,” the view that nonscientific questions are uninteresting; and—the ultimate redoubt of believers—the assertion that while religion has sometimes been harmful, so has science, which has given us things like eugenics and nuclear weapons.

Why should we care whether science and religion are compatible? The last chapter answers this question, showing why reliance on faith, when reason and evidence are available, has created immense harms, including many deaths. The clearest examples involve religiously based healing, which, protected by American law, has killed many, including children who have no choice in their treatment. Likewise, opposition to stem cell research and vaccination, as well as denial of global warming, is sometimes based on religious grounds. I argue that in a world where people must support their opinions with evidence and reason rather than faith, we would experience less conflict over issues like assisted suicide, gay rights, birth control, and sexual morality. Finally, I discuss whether it’s ever useful to have faith. Are there times when it’s all right to hold strong beliefs that are supported by little or no evidence? Even if we can’t prove the claims of faith, isn’t religion useful as a form of social glue and a wellspring of public morality? Is it possible for science and religion to have a constructive dialogue about these things?

I am aware that criticizing religion is a touchy endeavor (a classic dinner-table no-no), invoking strong reactions even from those who aren’t believers but see faith as a societal good. Beyond summarizing what this book is, then, I should also explain what it is not.

Although I deal largely with religion, my purpose is not to show that religion has, on balance, been a malign influence on society. While I do believe this, and in the last chapter emphasize some of the problems of faith, it would be foolish to deny that religion has motivated many acts of goodness and charity. It has also been a solace for the inevitable sorrows of human life, and an impetus for helping others. In the end, it’s impossible to perform the “good versus bad” calculus of religion by integrating over history.

My main thesis is narrower and, I think, more defensible: understanding reality, in the sense of being able to use what we know to predict what we don’t, is best achieved using the tools of science, and is never achieved using the methods of faith. That is attested by the acknowledged success of science in telling us about everything from the smallest bits of matter to the origin of the universe itself—compared with the abject failure of religion to tell us anything about gods, including whether they exist. While scientific investigations converge on solutions, religious investigations diverge, producing innumerable sects with conflicting and irresolvable claims. Using the predictions of science, we can now land space probes not only on distant planets, but also on distant comets. We can produce “designer drugs” to target a specific individual’s cancer, decide which flu vaccines are most likely to be effective in the coming season, and figure out how to finally wipe scourges like smallpox and polio from our planet. Religion, in contrast, can’t even tell us if there’s an afterlife, much less anything about its nature.

The true harm of accommodationism is the weakening of our organs of reason by promoting useless methods of finding truth, especially that of faith. As Sam Harris notes:

The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good (though I think this can be argued, and the balance seems to me to be swinging further toward harm each day). The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith.

In arguing that science is the only way we can really learn things about our universe, I am not calling for a society completely dominated by science, which most people see as a robotic world lacking emotion, empty of art and literature, and devoid of the human need to feel part of something larger than oneself—a need that draws many to religion. Such a world would indeed be sterile and joyless. Rather, I’d claim that adopting a more broadly scientific viewpoint not only helps us make better decisions, both for ourselves and for society as a whole, but also brings alive the many wonders of science barred to those who see it as something distant and forbidding (it’s not). What could be more entrancing than understanding at last where we (and all other species) came from, a subject that I’ve studied all my life? Most important, there would be no devaluating of the emotional needs of humans. I live my life according to the principles I recommend in this book, but if you met me at a party you’d never guess I was a scientist. I am at least as emotional, and enamored of the arts, as the next person, am easily brought to tears by a good movie or book, and do my best to help the less fortunate. All I lack is faith. One can meet all the emotional requisites of a human—except for the assurance that you’ll find a life after death—without the superstitions of religion.

Nevertheless, I won’t discuss how to replace religion when—as I believe will inevitably happen—it largely disappears from our world. Solutions inevitably depend on the emotional needs of individual personalities, and those interested in such solutions should consult Philip Kitcher’s excellent book Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism.

Finally, I don’t discuss the historical, evolutionary, and psychological origins of religion. There are dozens of hypotheses for how religious belief got started and why it persists. Some invoke direct evolutionary adaptations, others by-products of evolved features like our tendency to attribute events to conscious agents, and still others the usefulness of faith as a societal glue or a way to control others. Definitive answers aren’t obvious, and in fact may never be forthcoming. To explore the many secular theories of religion, one should begin with Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

I will have achieved my aim if, by the end of this book, you demand that people produce good reasons for what they believe—not only in religion, but in any area in which evidence can be brought to bear. I’ll have achieved my aim when people devote as much effort to choosing a system of belief as they do to choosing their doctor. I’ll have achieved my aim if the public stops awarding special authority about the universe and the human condition to preachers, imams, and clerics simply because they are religious figures. And above all, I’ll have achieved my aim if, when you hear someone described as a “person of faith,” you see it as criticism rather than praise.


The Problem

For we often talked of my daughter, who died of the fever at fall.

And I thought ’twere the will of the Lord, but Miss Annie she said it was drains.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

There are no heated discussions about reconciling sport and religion, literature and religion, or business and religion; the important issue in today’s world is the harmony between science and religion. But why, of all human endeavors that we could compare with religion, are we so concerned with its harmony with science?

The answer, to me at least, seems obvious. Science and religion—unlike, say, business and religion—are competitors at discovering truths about nature. And science is the only field that has the ability to disprove the truth claims of religion, and has done so repeatedly (the creation stories of Genesis and other faiths, the Noachian flood, and the fictitious Exodus of the Jews from Egypt come to mind). Religion, on the other hand, has no ability to overturn the truths found by science. It is this competition, and the ability of science to erode the hegemony of faith—but not vice versa—that has produced the copious discussion of how the two areas relate to each other, and how to find harmony between them.

One can in fact argue that science and religion have been at odds ever since science began to exist as a formal discipline in sixteenth-century Europe. Scientific advances, of course, began well before that—in ancient Greece, China, India, and the Middle East—but could conflict with religion in a public way only when religion assumed both the power and the dogma to control society. That had to wait until the rise of Christianity and Islam, and then until science produced results that called their claims into question.

And so in the last five hundred years there have been conflicts between science and faith—not continuous conflict, but occasional and famous moments of public hostility. The two most notable ones are Galileo’s squabble with the church and his sentence to lifetime house arrest in 1632 over his claim of a Sun-centered solar system, and the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” involving a titanic clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan over whether a Tennessee high-school teacher could tell his students that humans had evolved (the jury ruled no). Although both of these incidents have been recast by accommodationist theologians and historians as not involving genuine conflict between science and religion—it’s always construed as “politics,” “power,” or “personal animosity”—the religious roots of these disputes are clear. But even setting these episodes aside, there are many times when churches decried or even slowed scientific advances, episodes recounted in the two books I’ll describe shortly. (Of course, churches sometimes promoted scientific advances as well: during the advent of smallpox vaccination, churches were on both sides of the issue, with some arguing that it was a social good, others that it was short-circuiting God’s power over life and death.)

But these episodes of conflict didn’t give rise to public discussion about the relationship of science and religion. That had to wait until the nineteenth century, and was probably ignited by Charles Darwin’s 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. The greatest scripture-killer ever penned, the book demolished (not deliberately) an entire series of biblical claims by demonstrating that purely naturalistic processes—evolution and natural selection—could explain patterns in nature previously explainable only by invoking a Great Designer.

And so the modern discussion that science and religion are at odds, with science having the stronger weapons, began with two books published in the late nineteenth century. Historians of science see them as having launched the “conflict thesis”: the idea that religion and science are not only at war, but have been perpetually at war, with religious authorities opposing or suppressing science at every turn, and science struggling to free itself from the grip of faith. After recounting what they saw as historical clashes between the church and scientists, the authors of both books declared science the victor.

The pugnacity of these works, unusual for their time, was fully expressed in the first: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1875) by the American polymath John William Draper:

Then has it in truth come to this, that Roman Christianity and Science are recognized by their respective adherents as being absolutely incompatible; they cannot exist together; one must yield to the other; mankind must make its choice—it cannot have both.

As the quote implies, Draper saw Catholicism, rather than religion as a whole, as the main enemy of science. This was because of that religion’s predominance, the elaborate nature of its dogma, and its attempt to enforce that dogma by civil power. Further, in the late eighteenth century, anti-Catholicism was a dominant strain among the American gentry.

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896, was longer, more scholarly, and more complex in both origin and intent. Its author, Andrew Dickson White, was another polymath—a historian, a diplomat, and an educator. He was also the first president of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. When White and his benefactor, Ezra Cornell, organized the university in 1865, the state bill describing its mission required that the board of trustees not be dominated by members of any one religious sect, and that “persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination, shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments.” Such secularism was almost unique for that era.

White, a believer, argued that this plurality was actually intended to promote Christianity: “So far from wishing to injure Christianity, we [he and Cornell, who was a Quaker] both hoped to promote it; but we saw in the sectarian character of American colleges and universities, as a whole, a reason for the poverty of the advanced instruction then given in so many of them.” This was an explicit attempt to set up an American university on the European model, fostering free inquiry by eliminating religious dogma.

This plan backfired. The secular intent of White and Cornell angered many believers, who accused White of pushing Darwinism and atheism and promoting a curriculum too heavy on science. And they even allowed atheists on the faculty! (Some observers felt that every professor should be a pastor.) White’s attempt to try “sweet reasonableness” failed, and ultimately he came to view his struggle for university secularism—which he won—as one battle in a wider war between science and theology:

Then it was that there was borne in upon me a sense of the real difficulty—the antagonism between the theological and scientific view of the universe and of education in relation to it.

This led to thirty years of research culminating in his two-volume work, which was thorough (going far beyond the researches of his predecessor Draper), divisive, and a bestseller. It remains in print today. Despite its catalog of religious opposition to linguistic research, biblical scholarship, medical issues like vaccination and anesthesia, improvements in public health, evolution, and even lightning rods, White insisted that his aim was not to show conflict between science and religion, but only between science and “dogmatic theology.” In the end, he hoped—in vain—that his book would actually strengthen religion by calling out its unwarranted incursions into social and natural sciences. In this way it foreshadowed Stephen Jay Gould’s accommodationist arguments for the “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion, a thesis we’ll encounter later.

What White’s and Draper’s books did accomplish was to provide a nucleus for discussing the conflict between science and faith, which in turn raised the ire of theologians and historians of science, who proceeded to argue that the “conflict thesis” was simply wrong. Some historians of science claimed that White’s and Draper’s scholarship was poor (yes, they did make some errors and omit some countervailing observations, but not nearly enough to invalidate the books’ theses), and also that a true reading of the relationship between religion and science showed that they often were in harmony. The rejections of Darwin’s and Galileo’s theories were, said these historians, exceptions in a genial history of church-science relations, and at any rate those skirmishes were motivated not by religion but by politics or personal quarrels. Indeed, many scientific advances were said to be promoted by religious belief, and science itself was touted as a product of the Christianity that permeated medieval Europe.

The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, because not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.

But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that it can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.

So what is the evidence that not all is well on the science-and-religion front? For one thing, if the two areas have been found compatible, discussion about their harmony should have ended long ago. But in fact it’s growing.

Let’s start with a few telling statistics. WorldCat, founded in 1971, is the world’s largest compilation of published items, cataloging more than two billion of them in more than seventy thousand libraries worldwide. If you trawl that catalog for books published in English on “science and religion,” you’ll find a steady increase over the last forty years, from 514 in the decade ending in 1983, to 2,574 in the decade ending in 2013. This doesn’t simply reflect the total number of books published, as we can see by normalizing this number by the total number of published books whose subject was “religion.” If you do that, the proportion of books on religion that also deal with science has jumped from about 1.1 percent in the former decade to 2.3 percent in the latter. While the number of books on religion nearly doubled between the two decades, the number of books on science and religion increased fourfold. And while not all of the “science and religion” books deal with their relationship, these data support the impression that interest in the topic is growing.

Along with the growth of publications comes a growth in academic courses and programs dealing with science and religion. As Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham noted in 1997, “By one report, U.S. higher education now boasts 1,000 courses for credit on science and faith, whereas a student in the sixties would have long dug in hardscrabble to find even one.” Think tanks and academic institutes entirely devoted to science and religion have sprouted; these include the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University (founded 2006), the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion at Oxford University (founded 1985), and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, founded in 1982 and now boasting of “building bridges between science and theology for 30 years.” New academic journals dealing with science and religion have also burgeoned (like Science, Religion and Culture, founded in 2014), and, as we’ll see below, established scientific organizations have begun to incorporate programs dealing with religion, as well as to issue statements assuring the public that their activities don’t conflict with faith.

To a scientist, the clearest sign of disharmony is the existence of such programs and statements—for their goal is to try to convince the public that although science and religion might appear to be in conflict, they’re really not. Why do scientists try to do this? One reason is simply what I call the “nice guy syndrome”: a lot more people will like you if you say good things about religion than if you are critical of it. Asserting that your science doesn’t step on religion’s toes is one way to stay in the good graces of the American public, and everyone else’s.

Further, there are those who simply don’t like conflict—the “people of good will,” as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called them. For this group, accommodationism seems a reasonable way to avoid conflict, like prohibiting talk about religion and politics at the dinner table. Harmonizing religion and science makes you seem like an open-minded and reasonable person, while asserting their incompatibility makes enemies and brands you as “militant.” The reason is clear: religion occupies a privileged place in our society. Attacking it is off-limits, although going after other supernatural or paranormal beliefs like ESP, homeopathy, or political worldviews is not. Accommodationism is not meant to defend science, which can stand on its own, but to show that in some way religion can still make credible claims about the world.

But the real reasons why scientists promote accommodationism are more self-serving. To a large extent, American scientists depend for their support on the American public, which is largely religious, and on the U.S. Congress, which is equally religious. (It’s a given that it’s nearly impossible for an open atheist to be elected to Congress, and at election time candidates vie with one another to parade their religious belief.) Most researchers are supported by federal grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, whose budgets are set annually by Congress. To a working scientist, such grants are a lifeline, for research is expensive, and if you don’t do it you could lose tenure, promotions, or raises. Any claim that science is somehow in conflict with religion might lead to cuts in the science budget, or so scientists believe, thus endangering their professional welfare.

These concerns affect all scientists, but evolutionary biologists have an extra worry. Many of our allies in the battle against creationism are liberal religious believers who themselves proclaim that evolution doesn’t violate their faith. In court cases brought against public schools that teach creationism, there is no witness more convincing than a believer who will testify that evolution is consonant with his own religion and that creationism is not science. Were scientists to say what many of us feel—that religious belief is truly at odds with science—we would alienate these allies and, as many warn us, impede the acceptance of evolution by a public already dubious about Darwin. But there’s no hard evidence for either this view or the claim that scientists endanger their livelihood by criticizing faith.

Nevertheless, steeped in a religious culture, many scientific associations prefer to play it safe, proclaiming that science can coexist happily with religion. One example is the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program, devoted to “[facilitating] communication between scientific and religious communities.” The “communication” promoted by this largest of America’s scientific organizations is always positive; there are no dialogues pointing out any conflicts between science and faith. Likewise, the World Science Festival, a yearly multimedia expo in New York City, always includes a panel or lecture on the compatibility of science and religion. Francis Collins, once head of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health—and a born-again evangelical Christian—founded BioLogos, an organization devoted to helping antievolution evangelicals retain their faith in Jesus while accepting evolution at the same time. Unfortunately, its success has been limited. It’s no coincidence that all three of these programs were funded by grants from the John Templeton Foundation, a wealthy organization founded by a mutual-fund billionaire whose dream was to show that science could give evidence for God. As we’ll learn shortly, the Templeton Foundation and its huge financial resources are the impetus for many programs promoting accommodationism.

Like BioLogos, the Clergy Letter Project aims to convince believers that evolution does not violate their faith. In this case, religious leaders and theologians have written letters and manifestos affirming that evolution is not heretical. The National Center for Science Education, the nation’s most important organization for fighting the spread of creationism, has a “Science and Religion” program with aims identical to those of the Clergy Letter Project. But all of this activity raises a question: if science comports so easily with evolution, why do we need incessant public proclamations of harmony?

Yet the proclamations keep coming. Here are two. The first is from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

The sponsors of many of these state and local proposals [to limit or eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools] seem to believe that evolution and religion conflict. This is unfortunate. They need not be incompatible. Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions about the world. Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view.

Note that this statement, although issued by a group of scientists, is essentially about theology, implying that “true” religions need not conflict with science. But because many Americans believe otherwise—including the 42 percent of the populace that accepts young-Earth creationism—this is in effect telling nearly half the American public that they misunderstand their faith. Groups of scientists clearly have no business declaring what is and is not a “proper” religion.

Here’s a declaration from the National Center for Science Education:

The science of evolution does not make claims about God’s existence or non-existence, any more than do other scientific theories such as gravitation, atomic structure, or plate tectonics. Just like gravity, the theory of evolution is compatible with theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Can someone accept evolution as the most compelling explanation for biological diversity, and also accept the idea that God works through evolution? Many religious people do.

But many—perhaps most—religious people don’t. After all, nearly half of Americans agree with the statement that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so.” Because nearly 20 percent of Americans are either agnostics or atheists, or say their religion is “nothing in particular,” it’s a good bet that most religious Americans reject the notion of evolution even in a form guided by God.

The irony in the above statements is that a substantial fraction of scientists, and a large majority of accomplished ones, are atheists. Although they have rejected God themselves, presumably because supernatural beings conflict with their evidence-based worldview, many do see religious belief as a social good, but one they don’t need themselves. In moments of candor, some scientists admit that these accommodationist statements are really motivated by the personal and political issues I mentioned above.

Similar statements issue from the other side of the aisle. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, states that it’s impossible for faith to conflict with fact because both human reason and human faith are vouchsafed by God:

Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.

Note the privileging of faith above reason, a bizarre statement that exemplifies the very conflict the church denies. If the two systems must align, what reason would there be to put one above the other? Further, as we’ll see, the Catholic Church is by and large friendly to evolution, yet many American Catholics are young-Earth creationists, explicitly rejecting the church’s view. What else is that but a discrepancy between faith and reason?

The priority of faith over reason isn’t just Catholic policy: it’s the view of many adhering to other religions. A statistic that would frighten any scientist came from a poll of Americans taken in 2006 by Time magazine and the Roper Center. When asked what they would do if science showed that one of their religious beliefs was wrong, nearly two-thirds of the respondents—64 percent—said that they’d reject the findings of science in favor of their faith. Only 23 percent would consider changing their belief. Because the pollsters didn’t specify exactly which religious belief would conflict with science, this suggests that the potential conflict between science and religion is not limited to evolution, but could in principle involve any scientific finding that conflicts with faith. (A prominent one, which we’ll discuss later, is the series of recent scientific discoveries disproving the claim that Adam and Eve were the two ancestors of all humanity.) A related poll also underscored the secondary role of scientific evidence for believers: among Americans who rejected the fact of evolution, the main reasons involved religious belief, not lack of evidence.

These figures alone cast doubt on statements from religious and scientific organizations that science and religion are compatible. If nearly two-thirds of Americans will accept a scientific fact only if it’s not in clear conflict with their faith, then their worldview is not fully open to the advances of science.

Indeed, polls of Americans belonging to various religions, or no religion, show that the perception of a conflict between science and faith is widespread. A 2009 Pew poll showed, for instance, that 55 percent of the U.S. public answered “yes” to the question “Are science and religion often in conflict?” (Tellingly, only 36 percent thought that science was at odds with their own religious belief.) And, as expected, the perception of general conflict was markedly higher among people who weren’t affiliated with a church.

One reason why some churches are eager to embrace science is because they’re losing adherents, particularly young ones who feel that Christianity isn’t friendly to science. A study by the Barna Group, a market research firm that studies religious issues, found that this is one of six reasons why young folk are abandoning Christianity:

Reason #3—Churches come across as antagonistic to science. One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

If the incompatibility of science and religion is an illusion, it’s one that’s powerful enough to make these young Christians vote with their feet. They may not abandon religion, but they certainly break ties with their church.

While some liberal churches deal with the conflict by simply accepting the science and modifying their theology where required, more conservative ones put up a fight. One of the more remarkable demonstrations of this resistance occurred in September 2013, when a group of parents, with the help of a conservative legal institute, filed suit against the Kansas State Board of Education. Their goal was to overturn the entire set of state science standards from kindergarten through twelfth grade, arguing that those standards gave students a “materialistic atheistic” worldview that was inimical to their religion. Just as this book went to press, the lawsuit was dismissed.

Finally, if religion and science get along so well, why are so many scientists nonbelievers? The difference in religiosity between the American public and American scientists is profound, persistent, and well documented. Further, the more accomplished the scientist, the greater the likelihood that he or she is a nonbeliever. Surveying American scientists as a whole, Pew Research showed that 33 percent admitted belief in God, while 41 percent were atheists (the rest either didn’t answer, didn’t know, or believed in a “universal spirit or higher power”). In contrast, belief in God among the general public ran at 83 percent and atheism at only 4 percent. In other words, scientists are ten times more likely to be atheists than are other Americans. This disparity has persisted for over eighty years of polling.

When one moves to scientists working at a group of “elite” research universities, the difference is even more dramatic, with just over 62 percent being either atheist or agnostic, and only 23 percent believing in God—a degree of nonbelief more than fifteenfold higher than among the general public.

Sitting at the top tier of American science are the members of the National Academy of Sciences, an honorary organization that elects only the most accomplished researchers in the United States. And here nonbelief is the rule: 93 percent of the members are atheists or agnostics, with only 7 percent believing in a personal god. This is almost the exact opposite of the data for “average” Americans.

Why do so many scientists reject religion compared with the general public? Any answer must also explain the observation that the better the scientist, the greater the likelihood of atheism. Three explanations come to mind. One has nothing to do with science per se: scientists are simply more educated than the average American, and religiosity simply declines with education.

While that is indeed the case, we can rule it out as the only explanation from a 2006 survey of religious belief of university professors in different fields. As with scientists, American university professors were more atheistic or agnostic than the general populace (23 percent versus 7 percent nonbelievers, respectively). But when professors from different areas were polled, it became clear that scientists were the least religious. While only 6 percent of “health” professors were atheists or agnostics, this figure was 29 percent for humanities, 33 percent for computer science and engineering, 39 percent for social sciences, and a whopping 52 percent for physical and biological scientists together. When disciplines were divided more finely, biologists and psychologists tied as the least religious: 61 percent of each group were agnostics or atheists. So, among academics with roughly equal amounts of higher education, scientists still reject God more often. The tentative conclusion is that the atheism of scientists doesn’t simply reflect their higher education, but is somehow inherent in their discipline.

That leaves two explanations for the atheism of scientists, both connected with science itself. Either nonbelievers are drawn to become scientists, or doing science promotes the rejection of religion. (Both, of course, can be true.) Accommodationists prefer the first explanation because the latter implies that science itself produces atheism—a view that liberal believers abhor. Yet there are two lines of evidence that practicing science does erode belief. The first is that elite scientists were raised in religious homes nearly as often as nonscientists, yet the former still wind up being far less religious. But this may mean only that religious homes can produce nonbelievers, who then are preferentially drawn to science.

But there’s further evidence. If you survey American scientists of different ages, you find that the older ones are significantly less religious than the younger. While this suggests that the erosion of faith is proportional to one’s tenure as a scientist, there’s an alternative explanation: a “cohort effect.” Perhaps older scientists were simply born in an era when religious belief was less pervasive, and have retained their youthful unbelief. But that seems unlikely, for the trend is actually in the opposite direction: the religiosity of Americans has declined over the last sixty years. The “cohort hypothesis” predicts that older scientists would be more religious, and they’re not.

All of this suggests that lack of religious belief is a side effect of doing science. And as repugnant as that is to many, it’s really no surprise. For some people, at least, science’s habit of requiring evidence for belief, combined with its culture of pervasive doubt and questioning, must often carry over to other aspects of one’s life—including the possibility of religious faith.

In chapter 3 I’ll argue that the existence of religious scientists does not constitute strong evidence for the compatibility of science and faith. Isn’t it then hypocritical to argue that the existence of atheistic scientists is evidence for an incompatibility between science and faith? My response is that religious scientists are in some ways like the many smokers who don’t get lung cancer. Just as those cancer-free individuals don’t invalidate the statistical relationship between smoking and the disease, so the existence of religious scientists doesn’t refute an antagonistic relationship between science and faith. Scientists of faith happen to be the ones who can compartmentalize two incompatible worldviews in their heads.

On the whole, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion—based on the paucity of religious scientists, the incessant stream of books using contradictory arguments to promote accommodationism, the constant reassurance by scientific organizations that believers can accept science without violating their faith, and the pervasiveness of creationism in many countries—that there is a problem in harmonizing science and religion, one that worries both sides (but mostly the religious).

After a period of relative quiescence since the books of Draper and White, why has the issue of science versus religion been revived? I see three reasons: recent advances in science that have pushed back the claims of religion, the rise of the Templeton Foundation as a major funder of accommodationist ventures, and, finally, the appearance of New Atheism and its explicit connection with science, especially evolution.

The deadliest blow ever struck by science against faith was Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. But that was in 1859. The conflict between religion and evolution didn’t really get going until religious fundamentalism arose in early-twentieth-century America. An organized push for creationism began around 1960, and then, after a series of court cases prohibiting its teaching in public schools, creationism assumed the guise of science itself—first as the oxymoronic “scientific creationism,” pretending that the Bible supported the very facts of science. When that failed, creationism turned into “intelligent design” (ID), whose teaching was also struck down by the courts in 2005. With the failure of ID, which is about as watered down as creationism can get, those who reject evolution have become more defensive and vociferous, eager to find other ways to go after science. Ironically, as the credibility of creationists grows smaller, their voices get louder.

In contrast, evolution goes from strength to strength, as new data from the fossil record, molecular biology, and biogeography continue to affirm its hegemony as the central organizing principle of biology. Creationists waiting for the decisive evidence against evolution, evidence that ID promised to deliver, have been disappointed. As I said in my previous book, “Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That is as close as we can get to a scientific truth.” And now the new field of evolutionary psychology, by studying the evolutionary roots of human behavior, gradually erodes the uniqueness of many human traits, like morality, once imputed to God. As I’ll discuss in chapter 4, we see in our evolutionary relatives behaviors that look very much like rudimentary morality. This suggests that many of our “moral” feelings could be the result of evolution, while the rest could result from purely secular considerations.

Recent advances in neuroscience, physics, cosmology, and psychology have also replaced supernatural explanations with naturalistic ones. Although our knowledge of the brain is still scanty, we’re beginning to learn that “consciousness,” once attributed to God, is a product of diffuse brain activity and not some metaphysical “I” sitting inside our skulls. It can be manipulated and altered with surgery and chemicals, making it a phenomenon that is surely a product of brain activity. The notion of “free will”—a linchpin of many faiths—now looks increasingly dubious as scientists not only untangle the influence of our genes and environments on our behavior, but also show that some “decisions” can be predicted from brain scans several seconds before people are conscious of having made them. In other words, the notion of pure “free will,” the idea that in any situation we can choose to behave in different ways, is vanishing. Most scientists and philosophers are now physical “determinists” who see our genetic makeup and environmental history as the only factors that, acting through the laws of physics, determine which decisions we make. That, of course, kicks the props out from under much theology, including the doctrine of salvation through freely choosing a savior, and the argument that human-caused evil is the undesirable but inevitable by-product of the free will vouchsafed us by God.

In physics, 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. Far from making us the special objects of God’s attention, such a cosmology sees us simply as holders of a winning lottery ticket—the inhabitants of a universe that had the right physical laws to allow evolution.

Bit by bit, the list of phenomena that once demanded an explanatory God is being whittled down to nothing. Religion’s response has been to either reject the science (the tactic of fundamentalists) or bend their theology to accommodate it. But theology can be bent only so far before, by rejecting theological nonnegotiables like the divinity of Jesus, it snaps, turning into nonreligious secular humanism.

That gives another clue to the rise in accommodationism, at least in America: the recent decline in formal religious affiliation. The percentage of Americans who either are nonbelievers or claim no religious affiliation—the so-called nones—is rising rapidly. The proportion of atheists, agnostics, and those who are spiritual but not religious stood at 20 percent in 2012, up 5 percent from 2005. This makes “nones” the fastest-growing category of “believers” in America. This trend is well known and recognized by the churches, and, as we’ve seen, partly reflects how young people are turned off by religion’s perceived antagonism to science.

How can religion stem this attrition? For those who want to keep the comforts of their faith but not appear backward or uneducated, there is no choice but to find some rapport between religion and science. Besides trying to retain adherents, churches have a further reason to embrace science: liberal theology prides itself on modernism, and there is no better way to profess modernity than to embellish your theology with science. Finally, everyone, including believers, recognizes the remarkable improvements in our quality of life over the past few centuries, not to mention remarkable technical achievements like sending space probes to distant planets. And everyone knows that those achievements come from science, its ability to find the truth and then to use those findings to promote not only further understanding but improvements in technology and human well-being. If you see your religion as also making salubrious claims about the truth, then you must recognize that it is in some ways competing with science—and not too successfully. After all, what new insights has religion produced in the last century? This disparity in outcome might well cause some cognitive dissonance, a mental discomfort that can be resolved—though not very well—by arguing that there’s no conflict between science and religion.

Much of the recent spurt of accommodationism has been fueled by the funds of a single organization—the John Templeton Foundation. Templeton (1912–2008) was a billionaire mutual-fund magnate knighted by Queen Elizabeth after he moved to the Bahamas as a tax exile. Although a Presbyterian, he was convinced that other religions also held clues to “spiritual” realities and that, indeed, science and religion could be partners in solving the “big questions” of purpose, meaning, and values. To that end he bequeathed his fortune—the endowment is now $1.5 billion—to his eponymous foundation, set up in 1987. Its philanthropic mission reflects Templeton’s push for accommodationism:

Sir John believed that continued scientific progress was essential, not only to provide material benefits to humanity but also to reveal and illuminate God’s divine plan for the universe, of which we are a part.

The foundation’s main philanthropic goal is funding work on what it calls “the Big Questions”: areas that clearly mix science with religion. As the foundation states:

Sir John’s own eclectic list featured a range of fundamental scientific notions, including complexity, emergence, evolution, infinity, and time. In the moral and spiritual sphere, his interests extended to such basic phenomena as altruism, creativity, free will, generosity, gratitude, intellect, love, prayer, and purpose. These diverse, far-reaching topics define the boundaries of the ambitious agenda that we call the Big Questions. Sir John was confident that, over time, the serious investigation of these subjects would lead humankind ever closer to truths that transcend the particulars of nation, ethnicity, creed, and circumstance.

. . . For Sir John, the overarching goal of asking the Big Questions was to discover what he called “new spiritual information.” This term, to his mind, encompassed progress not only in our conception of religious truths but also in our understanding of the deepest realities of human nature and the physical world. As he wrote in the Foundation’s charter, he wanted to encourage every sort of opinion leader—from scientists and journalists to clergy and theologians—to become more open-minded about the possible character of ultimate reality and the divine.

The Templeton Foundation distributes $70 million yearly in grants and fellowships. To put that in perspective, that’s five times the amount dispensed annually by the U.S. National Science Foundation for research in evolutionary biology, one of Templeton’s areas of focus. Given Templeton’s deep pockets and not overly stringent criteria for dispensing money, it’s no wonder that, in a time of reduced financial support, scientists line up for Templeton grants.

And from that support flows a constant stream of conferences, books, papers, and magazine articles, many arguing for harmony between faith and science. You may have encountered the foundation through its full-page ads in the New York Times, with noted scholars (many already supported by Templeton) discussing questions like “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” and “Does the universe have a purpose?”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Praise for Why Evolution is True
“Outstandingly good . . . Coyne’s knowledge of evolutionary biology is prodigious, his deployment of it as masterful as his touch is light.”
—Richard Dawkins, The Times Literary Supplement

“Coyne is as graceful a stylist and as clear a scientific explainer as Darwin himself (no mean feat) . . . one of the best single-volume introductions to evolutionary theory ever.”

“The joy Coyne takes in his work is evident on every page, whether he’s offering a bone-by-bone analysis of how dinosaurs evolved into birds or describing how docile Japanese honeybees have come up with their particularly incendiary defense against marauding giant hornets.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“[Coyne] makes an unassailable case.”
New York Times

“In nine crisp chapters . . . the respected evolutionary biologist lays out an airtight case that Earth is unspeakably old and that new species evolve from previous ones.”
Boston Globe

“Coyne’s book is the best general explication of evolution that I know of and deserves its success as a best seller.”
—R.C. Lewontin, New York Review of Books

“I recommend that Mr. Coyne’s insightful and withering assessment of evolutionary studies of human psychology and behavior be taped to the bathroom mirrors of all those (perhaps especially journalists) inclined to be swept into excited announcements of What Evolution Shows About Us.”
—Philip Kitcher, The Wall Street Journal

“With logic and clarity, Coyne presents the vast trove of scientific evidence that supports Darwin's theory.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

“It’s always a pleasure to tell people about a wonderful book, especially when the subject of the book is of universal and critical importance. Evolutionary geneticist Jerry A. Coyne has given us such a book. . . . A book that may change the way you look at things—if you dare.”
The Huffington Post

“In this 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth, Why Evolution is True ranks among the best new titles flooding bookstores.”
Christian Science Monitor

Why Evolution is True is the book I was hoping would be written someday: an engaging and accessible account of one of the most important ideas ever conceived by mankind. The book is a stunning achievement, written by one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists. Coyne has produced a classic—whether you are an expert or novice in science, a friend or foe of evolutionary biology, reading Why Evolution is True is bound to be an enlightening experience.”
—Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

“Jerry Coyne has long been one of the world's most skillful defenders of evolutionary science in the face of religious obscurantism. In Why Evolution is True, he has produced an indispensable book: the single, accessible volume that makes the case for evolution. But Coyne has delivered much more than the latest volley in our "culture war"; he has given us an utterly fascinating, lucid, and beautifully written account of our place in the natural world. If you want to better understand your kinship with the rest of life, this book is the place to start.”
—Sam Harris, founder of the Reason Project and author of the New York Times best sellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

“Scientists don't use the word 'true' lightly, but in this lively and engrossing book, Jerry Coyne shows why biologists are happy to use it when it comes to evolution. Evolution is 'true' not because the experts say it is, nor because some worldview demands it, but because the evidence overwhelmingly supports it. There are many superb books on evolution, but this one is superb in a new way — it explains out the latest evidence for evolution lucidly, thoroughly, and with devastating effectiveness.”
—Steven Pinker, Harvard University, and author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

“For anyone who wishes a clear, well-written explanation of evolution by one of the foremost scientists working on the subject, Why Evolution is True should be your choice.”
—E. O. Wilson, author of The Social Conquest of Earth and Letters to a Young Scientist

“I once wrote that anybody who didn't believe in evolution must be stupid, insane, or ignorant, and I was then careful to add that ignorance is no crime. I should now update my statement. Anybody who doesn't believe in evolution is stupid, insane, or hasn't read Jerry Coyne. I defy any reasonable person to read this marvellous book and still take seriously the "breathtaking inanity" that is intelligent design "theory" or its country cousin, young earth creationism.”
— Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion



Meet the Author

Jerry A. Coyne is the New York Times author of many articles and books, including Why Evolution is True and Speciation with H. Allen Orr. He is a professor at the University of Chicago. He is a contributor to numerous publications. Jerry lives in Chicago.

Joe Barrett has been a working stage, screen, and recording booth actor since 1974 and an award-winning and eight-time Audie Award-nominated audiobook narrator since 1999. He also practiced law for five years-but don't hold that against him. Joe is married to actress Andrea Wright, and together they have four children.

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Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Mitton More than 1 year ago
It's already happening. Coyne's Faith vs Fact is being panned as biased, curmudgeonly, and ignorant. It is none of these. Neither is it an atheist book. It is a book about knowing - epistemology - and how we can confidently and reliably know what is real. Coyne argues that reason and the scientific method are the only methods we have to investigate, understand, and describe the world around us. These tools are based on observation, repeatability, and refinement. Faith offers something different. Faith-based reality is built on ancient texts, clerical and personal ideas, and feelings. Coyne points out the importance of how the two worldviews tackle errors. In science, we re-evaluate. We check against new knowledge. We ask for expert insight. We change our minds. Piltdown Man might be the greatest hoax ever foisted on science but we admit to being fooled. The textbooks have been changed. Not so with faith. Faith begins with answers and looks for evidence. When the evidence doesn't fit it is changed. Maybe a 'day' means a billion years? Maybe radioactive decay constants aren't constants after all? Coyne writes at length about what he calls accomodationism or an agreeable nod between the two worlds. This is the philosophical home for most people. Terminal cancer kills unless god intervenes. A few fish would never feed a crowd unless Jesus blesses them. Coyne argues that faith has nothing to offer fact. Must it be all or nothing? Coyne says yes. Are there 'better' or more informed religions? Coyne says no - they are all dueling fantasies. Certainly there are learned and urbane theists but their contribution to science is the same as the blood-letting shaman. Coyne doesn't dismiss faith out of hand. He invites theists of all ilk to present their case. He only asks that we slice and dice their claims in the same way that we look at any other assertion. So far their are few serious takers. Doesn't religion make the world better? More loving? Certainly not for young girls in Afghanistan. But that's not real religion? You've just tripped over your own snare. How can one decide between competing inventions? The most interesting chapters confront those of us who shrug their shoulders and wonder So What? I was shocked to learn that only a handful of American states have made it illegal for parents to withhold life-saving medicine from their children based on faith. In all but two states it is legal to withhold vaccinations because of religion. And how much money and public angst has been spent defending against the views of one small but vocal Christian sect who tries to insert its medieval views into the science classroom? I wonder if Coyne is writing for the proverbial choir. Studies and polls show time and again that feeling will triumph over fact almost every time. But for anyone interested this is a well written, well argued, and well presented case for the primacy of reason. Five stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't think the above reviewer even read the book. This book has no biases, Dr. Coyne states his opinion using evidence, the scientific method and logic. Very informative and the author has a great style of writing. Try reading the book instead of just judging it by it's cover
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, that is, of course, unless the author/publisher uses typeface to make clear his biases in the title of the work.