Jeffrey Schloss is BioLogos Senior Scholar & T. B. Walker Chair of Biology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

By Jerry A. Coyne

Viking. 311 pp. $28.95

The current blood feud between religious science-deniers and New Atheist religion-bashers sells a lot of books. For many people, religious or not, the polarization brings to mind Mercutio’s “a plague o’ both your houses!” But Jerry A. Coyne’s new book, “Faith vs. Fact,” rejects accommodationist bipartisanship. He asserts that “science and religion are incompatible, and you must choose between them.”

He argues this for two reasons. The first is that the major attempts to support religion through science, or even merely to avoid conflict with science, just don’t work. The second and stronger claim is that they can’t work because the very ways in which science and faith seek to understand the world are intrinsically opposed.  

’Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible’ by Jerry A. Coyne (Viking)

Concerning the first claim, Coyne surveys a wide range of attempts to accommodate science and religion. He rightly points out weaknesses, taking on cult science such as the Israelite origin of Native Americans, opposition to vaccination, and denial of global warming. He lampoons accommodationist salve that masks rather than solves problems. He scorns, for example, biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala’s claim that evolution solves the problem of evil because evolution, not God, is responsible. And he has no patience with simplistic assurances that science and religion cannot ever conflict because their rightful domains don’t overlap at all.

After bagging this low-hanging fruit, Coynes evaluates more complex efforts to reconcile faith with science.

One argument is that our universe shows evidence of design in that the physical laws and constants that govern it precisely match what is required for life. Coyne quite fairly acknowledges that the universe does display such fine tuning for a number of constants. But he also rightly points out that we really don’t know how probable (or improbable) such a universe is. However, he speculates that even if the probability is very low, that doesn’t prove the believers’ case. If there are many universes (as some cosmologists hypothesize), a life-friendly universe might be likely. “If you deal a huge number of bridge hands,” he notes, “one that’s perfect, or close to it, becomes probable.”

Another argument claims that universal moral beliefs and radically sacrificial behaviors can’t be explained by natural processes and thus require God. In an excellent brief treatment of the underlying science, Coyne describes a range of current explanations of the natural origins of moral beliefs and behaviors. Life can work well when we do good. He also points out that although sacrificial altruism is a thorny evolutionary problem, there are provisional (though still debated) naturalistic proposals for how it can emerge.

Not only are Coyne’s critiques of these two arguments worth taking seriously, but it is important to note that their most able advocates have made the very same points. Indeed, many defend only the more modest claim that apparent fine tuning of our universe and the existence of altruism are deeply consonant with, but by no means a proof of, God’s existence. This consonance is not altogether trivial. It contrasts with claims of a generation or so ago that the world contains no genuine altruism or evidence of fine tuning.

But is there any merit even to the modest claim that science is compatible with religious belief? In the most scientifically substantial part of the book, Coyne assesses the important question of whether evolution can be seen as consistent with belief in a Creator. He zeroes in on the expectation that if God used evolution as a means of creation, the evolutionary process should exhibit progressive directionality, and this directionality should inevitably culminate in human or human-like creatures.

Coyne acknowledges that there are indeed directional trends in evolution, including the increasing average complexity of creatures across the history of life. But he also correctly points out that higher complexity is not always favored in evolution and that, in any case, when you start with minimally complex creatures, the only possible direction of change is toward greater complexity.

This is true but somewhat under-stated. Across a series of recently described major evolutionary transitions, it is not only complexity that increases, but also the functional capacities that it enables: the ability to sense the environment, to control internal conditions, to self-propel, to provide parental care, to recognize and bond with individuals in social groups, to represent the world cognitively, and to solve problems with flexible behaviors. The lavish potencies of life itself increase progressively over the course of evolution.

In reflecting on the elaboration of life’s diversity and complexity, Darwin mused that “there is a grandeur to this view of life.” Anti-evolutionists argue that there is no way for this drama to unfold via natural processes. But the drama is there. And providing a lawful explanation does not reduce its grandeur. Moreover, suggesting that there is no way to go but up does not make the grandeur any less concordant with belief in a Creator.

At this point, Coyne raises a key question: whether the drama inevitably culminates in humans (or something like humans) who are capable of acknowledging the playwright. In what may be the most crucial and stringent assertion of the book, he contends that “if we can’t show that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses.”

In a fair-minded treatment of the science, he critiques naive rejections of inevitability. He rejects, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s famous claim that the extinction of dinosaurs after an asteroid strike — a cataclysm that allowed for the rise of mammals — was so unlikely an event that we would never get a similar outcome if there were a replay of earth’s history. But Coyne points out that a major asteroid strike is by no means undetermined. He acknowledges that “it is likely, then, that the course of evolution is determined by the laws of physics.”

So does this mean that humans are the inexorable outcome of law-governed evolution? Coyne concludes that they are not. Given the uncertainties of quantum mechanics and the fact that humans were just a one-time event, he argues that it’s improbable that a replay of evolution would give rise to anything like us. And this, he says, poses a big problem for religious belief.

However, this assertion of conflict is problematic for several reasons. First, Coyne claims that those who advocate evolutionary inevitability do so “for one reason only: their religion demands it.” Even if true, this attribution of motives would be irrelevant, but more important, it is false. Christianity does not require that certain outcomes be inevitable given the laws of nature. In fact, many Christians and their critics have long recognized determinism of this kind as a challenge to theism. What some (and not even all) faith traditions require is not demonstrable inevitability but that God knows the outcome, regardless of how probable it is.

Second, there is an internal inconsistency here. Recall that Coyne claimed earlier that fine-tuning arguments don’t support belief in God because the precision of life-friendly laws in not improbable; in fact, it is virtually inevitable. Now he argues that evolution is inconsistent with theism because the outcome is not inevitable but highly improbable. Well, which is it? Does the attainment of a desired end need to be improbable or inevitable to point to God?

Third, it turns out by Coyne’s own reasoning that the emergence of humans is not improbable as he claims. Recall that in order to defuse the case for fine-tuning, he invoked multiple universes: A huge number of tries can transform the seemingly unlikely into the probable. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If myriad (yet completely undetected) universes make fine tuning probable rather than improbable, then they also make the emergence of human-like creatures virtually inevitable in some universe. Indeed, in an infinite number of universes, it’s arguably inevitable that one of them contains a Jerry Coyne who is a jubilant theist.

In any case, the big three issues Coyne evaluates resist polarized conclusions. The one universe we can observe displays laws and conditions that appear fine-tuned for life, along with the progressive elaboration of living complexity and the emergence (however probable or improbable) of creatures capable of moral awareness and altruistic love. These properties do not require God as an explanation. But they are hardly incompatible with belief in God. Indeed, they are suggestive but not demonstrative, and acknowledging this ambiguity has been persistent across many traditions of Christian and other faiths.

So then why would anyone believe something in the face of such ambiguity? This brings us to Coyne’s second major point. It’s not just that arguments for God are wanting, but that science and religion are intractable competitors, with “contradictory ways [to] support their claims about reality.” Ultimately, he declares that religion’s methods “are useless for understanding reality.”

Science and religion (and for that matter morality and even mathematics) make different kinds of claims about reality, and the justifications for these claims differ. But just how different are the claims and rules for judging them? And to what extent are these differences mutually enriching, compatible but often independent, or completely irreconcilable? These are complex epistemological issues that require a more extensive treatment and wider engagement with scholarship than Coyne provides.

One problem is his characterization of science and its relationship to knowledge. The preface begins with a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” But this is simply wrong. Facts are true whether or not one believes in them. Science is an impressively reliable but fallible means for ascertaining facts. Indeed, facts are true whether or not science itself believes in them.

Later on, Coyne does acknowledge the incomplete nature of scientific knowledge. But he founders on what it means to know something. Claiming to “avoid the murky waters of epistemology,” he begins by quoting the Oxford English Dictionary that knowing is “the apprehension of fact or truth with the mind.” Certainly, religious believers and scientists can happily live with that minimalist characterization. However, he later interprets this to mean that knowledge is “simply the public acceptance of facts” which depends on “verification and consensus.”

The relationship between knowledge and “public acceptance” is by no means “simple,” and it’s not clear whether Coyne is avoiding the murky waters of epistemology or drowning in them. But having jumped into this current, he is swept merely by definition to the conclusion that religion does not contribute to knowledge. On this view, morality is not a way of knowing either. And what’s more: “Art cannot ascertain truth or knowledge of the universe.”

For many, including some non-religious philosophers, these claims are highly questionable and call for a more nuanced conception of knowledge than Coyne provides. Even if we grant him his definition of knowledge, he leaves one modest option under-explored: whether there are modes of artistic, moral and religious insight that entail genuine perceptions of truth which may contribute to shared knowledge when verified by observation and reason. For example, the perceived connection between forgiveness and human flourishing may arise from a moral intuition, verified downstream by game theory, social psychology and neuroscience.

Finally, a complementary problem is Coyne’s representation of faith and its relationship to knowledge. He takes aim at postmodern dismissals of science as just another form of faith. Having faith in the efficacy of antibiotics is not the same as having faith that accepting Christ leads to heaven. In pointing out that popular references to faith range from science-based “confidence based on evidence” to religious “unevidenced” belief, he is right that these ought not be conflated. But it’s not obvious that they involve altogether irreconcilable modes of coming to believe something and that the suggestion of any overlap at all is “just a word trick used to buttress religion.”

For one thing, although some beliefs are truly non-evidential, religious faith is not necessarily of this nature. Many believers link it to various kinds of provisional evidences, like arguments for God’s existence, personal experiences of divine presence or others’ eyewitness testimony of miracles that Coyne dismisses but does not fully rebut. For another thing, we do accept some non-evidential beliefs — such as the belief that we are awake and not dreaming — as reliable even though we have no strict empirical evidence to confirm or disconfirm them. And this is true of beliefs underlying science as well. The predictions of science are indeed based on experience. But the belief that past experience is a reliable predictor of the future — the faith that the world will behave the next moment as it has in the past — is not a confidence based on experience. As David Hume made plain, it’s an assumption necessary for that confidence. And it is worth noting that appealing to past experience to justify such claims just begs the question.

If all this is murky epistemology, Coyne provides a take-home example that’s easy to relate to. He often hears a particular objection to his contention that only science generates knowledge: A person claims that “I know my wife loves me” by faith, not by the deliverances of science. Understandably, he replies that this is not analogous to religious faith, but is a conclusion based on “scientific method: observation of behavior.”

There is important truth to this. We have a word for a dangerously irrational person who believes you love him or her in the absence of any confirmatory experience: “stalker.” But when it comes to love, things aren’t quite so simple as rationally evaluating the behavioral data. As anyone who’s played “she loves me, she loves me not” knows — and as Soren Kierkegaard points out in “Works of Love” — no amount of evidence is fully adequate to confirm love. It is always fakeable. There is always ambiguity. Yet love requires complete commitment in the face of incomplete evidence.

Norman Maclean muses in “A River Runs Through it” that “we may love completely without complete understanding.” Indeed, we not only may but we must: Those who refuse to yield to some element of faith will never experience love at all. For faith is actually an initial condition for knowing the love of another and for creating the conditions in which love flourishes. Ironically — and often painfully — it is also necessary for the kind of investment that allows discovering love to be false. Even with respect to science, Darwin’s advocate T.H. Huxley commented, “Those who refuse to go beyond fact, rarely get as far as fact.”

Of course, there is a danger in pathological faith that is so averse to this pain that it is unreceptive to challenge by facts or to interaction with others having contrary views. In love, we might call this obsession. In religion, we call it fanaticism. In science, we recognize entrenched paradigms or falsification-resistant core beliefs. The wonderful thing about science is that it entails a more straightforward (though still somewhat murky) procedure for rejecting false answers. But it achieves this, in part, by asking smaller questions. Present to varying degrees in all domains, faith itself is not a pathology. It is a means to both apprehend and experience reality, in commerce with other means.

And that’s a fact.