Jerry Coyne on the Incompatibility of Science and Religion: Part 3

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Having looked at Jerry Coyne’s attempts to show that there is a conflict between science and religion, I now want to look briefly at what he has to say about Accommodationism, which he characterizes as “claiming that science and religion are not in conflict”. He considers this to be a form of cognitive dissonance because “people want to be seen as pro-science, but they also need the comfort of their faith”. However, if I’m right that Coyne’s arguments in favour of a conflict are unconvincing, then accommodationism, as Coyne defines it, is simply the right view to take and the problem vanishes.

Having said that, Coyne is right that certain ways of trying to reconcile science and religion are misguided. In particular, he is right to criticize the non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA) view of the late Stephen Jay Gould. According to NOMA, science and religion are completely separate, science dealing with factual matters and religion dealing with meaning, purpose and values. Coyne is quite right to point out that religions frequently make factual claims. In fact, throughout the book Coyne rightly criticizes those who embrace some sort of watered down Christianity that denies many or all of its central claims. Granted, he goes much too far when he seems to think that if you aren’t a complete literalist who accepts young earth creationism, you’re a complete liberal who denies the faith, but the general point that Christianity is based on factual claims is very important.

It also seems to me that Coyne is right when he criticizes the view that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. Again, I don’t think he goes about this in the right way since supernatural claims shouldn’t be evaluated as scientific claims (Coyne thinks, for example, that experimental studies have shown prayer to be ineffectual), but I do think scientific knowledge can be relevant to the discussion. More on this later.

In his discussion of miracles, Coyne draws on David Hume, whose approach to miracles, he thinks, promotes scientific reasoning. Interestingly, however, the philosopher of science John Earman, who is not a theist, argues in his book Hume’s Abject Failure that Hume gets a lot wrong in his essay about miracles – not least because of his flawed approach to evidential reasoning – that would be detrimental to science. In his very brief treatment of Jesus’s Resurrection, Coyne adopts the standard New Atheist approach of being able to reject it without having to consider the arguments in favour of it seriously (this is the kind of flawed approach in Hume that Earman is concerned about). We are told that there are “many alternative and nonmiraculous explanations” – a simple appeal to one based on “collaborative storytelling” is deemed sufficient – and he then appeals to the Jesus Seminar to assure us that there is no credible evidence for the empty tomb or Jesus’s post-mortem appearances. It’s interesting that Coyne draws on such an extreme group, whose views have been widely criticized in the academic literature, in order to deny two facts that are widely accepted by historical scholars, whether religious or not, on evidential grounds. Coyne accuses religious believers of confirmation bias, but his approach to the historical Jesus looks like a perfect example.

It is perhaps an acknowledgement that persuasive arguments for the existence of God have been proposed in recent decades that Coyne feels the need to include a chapter entitled ‘Faith Strikes Back’ in which the first section is ‘The New Natural Theology’. Coyne repeatedly claims that there are no good reasons or evidence for God. This is why he thinks religious belief is irrational and in conflict with science, but if these claims have anything to them it is incumbent on him to show where the arguments from natural theology go wrong. And here Coyne fails miserably. The idea in these arguments is that there are various features of reality that fit better, or make more sense from, the perspective of theism than do from the perspective of naturalism. Several general strategies can be detected in Coyne’s response. One is that the God hypothesis doesn’t provide scientific explanations. He writes, “does the God hypothesis provide independent and novel predictions or clarify things once seen as puzzling – as truly scientific hypotheses do?” But the new natural theology doesn’t claim that God is a scientific hypothesis! A philosophical hypothesis perhaps, but not a scientific one. It is simply attacking a straw man to criticize it for not being scientific.

His other general strategies are related to this. One is that the arguments of natural theology are god-of-the-gaps arguments, that is, they appeal to scientific ignorance, bringing in God to explain things just because no scientific explanation is available yet. The problem is that Coyne’s strategy is far too easy because he makes the god-of-the-gaps accusation no matter what feature of reality is being appealed to and the reason for this is because he thinks science is the only way to acquire knowledge. One other strategy is his overly optimistic view that science has explained, or is well on the way to explaining, the features of reality in question. “In physics”, he tells us, “we are starting to see how the universe could arise from ‘nothing’”. (You should always be wary when you see a scientifically minded atheist using the word ‘nothing’ with scare quotes like this.) He also claims that neuroscience is knocking on the door of the hard problem of consciousness, science is making progress on explaining fine-tuning of physical parameters, and science can explain morality. These are big topics that I don’t have time to go into here, but suffice it to say that these are incredibly controversial claims.

Coyne also seems to think that the fact that natural theology doesn’t tell us which God exists or doesn’t answer the question ‘where did God come from?’ constitute serious problems. Further alleged problems are the fact that most of the universe is inhospitable to life, that it took so long for humans to come on the scene (why didn’t God create everything instantly?) and that the universe is so big. These are very weak points indeed, so why does Coyne think any of them constitutes even the slightest problem for belief in God? It isn’t clear except that he seems to think humans are the sole goal of God’s creation, but that’s not what Christians believe. Furthermore, taking the last point from the list, it may well be that the vastness of the universe is required for our existence. As Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, puts it in his book Just Six Numbers:

“The very hugeness of our universe, which seems at first to signify how unimportant we are in the cosmic scheme, is actually entailed by our existence! This is not to say that there couldn’t have been a smaller universe, only that we could not have existed in it.”

Overall, Coyne’s treatment of the new natural theology is far from convincing.

The rest of chapter four is devoted to scientism, the view that science is the only way to acquire knowledge. Most atheists, including new atheists, want to reject the charge of scientism, but not Coyne. As pointed out in chapter two, he construes science in a broad sense as being concerned with reason, logic and empirical observation. Understood in this way, economics, history, sociology and other disciplines all use the methods of science and so can constitute ‘valid ways of knowing’. In fact, he defines science so broadly that he even says plumbers and electricians do science. Defining science as broadly as this makes it almost meaningless and also has the consequence that there’s no good reason to exclude religious belief from science. Natural theology uses a lot of reason and logic and is based on empirical observations about the universe, so it’s hard to see why it should be excluded if plumbing gets in.

Coyne’s scientism runs into fairly obvious problems. Surely when I say “I know my wife loves me” this is a legitimate example of knowledge that is not acquired by science. No, not according to Coyne. Like the plumber and electrician, whenever I acquire this knowledge I too am apparently doing science since it is based on observation of behaviour. What about morality? When I say “I know murder is wrong” is this knowledge acquired by science too? Here Coyne takes a different approach. It isn’t knowledge acquired by science because it isn’t knowledge at all! According to Coyne, there are no objective moral truths and so “morality isn’t a way of knowing”. Morality is based on preferences, not truth. But surely we do know that murder is wrong just as surely as we know many scientific facts. So Coyne’s scientism faces insurmountable problems. First, he breaks the definition of science well beyond breaking point to accommodate much of our ordinary, everyday knowledge – what we might call Coyne’s own brand of accommodationism. And second, even then he still has to deny aspects of our knowledge because they don’t fit in with his scientism.


In the final chapter, Coyne targets those who agree with him that there’s a conflict, but aren’t too worried about it. He thinks that such tolerance of religion is damaging and he addresses such topics as children being denied medical treatment on religious grounds, the dangers of alternative medicine, suppression of stem cell research and vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), opposition to assisted dying, and denial of global warming. A lot could be said in response, but one of these topics looks particularly out of place since alternative medicine is generally not based on religious belief. But Coyne’s point is that it is nevertheless faith-based because it is not based on evidence. (Apparently, the evils of Maoism and Stalinism cannot be blamed on atheism, but can be attributed to faith as well.) As I pointed out in my second article, Coyne is simply incorrect in his view of Christian faith, but here we see the significance of this mistake since he thinks that the harm of religion “comes not from the existence of religion itself, but from its reliance and glorification of faith”. However, given the problems with his view of faith, much of his argument in chapter five collapses. For example, in terms of the denial of medical treatment to children, a lot of his focus is on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Science religions, but of course orthodox Christians reject both these religions and do not deny medical treatment to children. For Coyne there’s no need to distinguish between these groups because all practice faith. This really isn’t good enough.


We can certainly agree with Coyne about the dangers of some religious groups who reject medical treatment. He draws attention to a study that identified 172 children who died between 1975 to 1995 after being denied medical care on religious grounds. Clearly, there is no justification for this and Coyne is quite to draw attention to the “mothers and fetuses [who] have died after refusing to have doctors or midwives present at childbirth”. Yet later in the same chapter Coyne inconsistently criticizes the Catholic Church for its opposition to abortion. More generally, while certain practices of some religious groups can and should be criticized, we also need to bear in mind that all religions are not the same and that Coyne’s naturalism fails to provide an adequate foundation for morality, particularly when we recall that he thinks there are no moral truths.


In conclusion, it is worth stating Coyne’s aim in writing his book: “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 would encourage Coyne’s readers to apply this standard to his own beliefs as presented in his book. If they do, they will demand much better reasons and evidence for the naturalism he espouses.




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