Jerry Coyne: Science and religion aren't friends

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Jerry Coyne: Science and religion aren't friends

Check out this awesome opinion piece by Jerry Coyne (blog) in which he makes a Galvanized, Non-violent, Unapologetic (GNU) Atheist rebuttal to accommodationism -- in mainstream USA Today, no less.

Jerry Coyne wrote:

Science and religion aren't friends

By Jerry A. Coyne Religion in America is on the defensive.

Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. And, although to be an atheist in America is still to be an outcast, America's fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief.

But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a "New Atheist," there are many others attacking the "movement" and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident. The biggest area of religious push-back involves science. Rather than being enemies, or even competitors, the argument goes, science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mutually improving dialogue.

As a scientist and a former believer, I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it's not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.

Irreconcilable

"But surely," you might argue, "science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious." One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn't prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.

Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed "true" — a notion that's always provisional — unless it's repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, "How can I find out whether I'm wrong?" I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn't happen.

Physicist Richard Feynman observed that the methods of science help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

Science can, of course, be wrong. Continental drift, for example, was laughed off for years. But in the end the method is justified by its success. Without science, we'd all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. As Stephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.

Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe? Hardly. Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.

And this leads to the biggest problem with religious "truth": There's no way of knowing whether it's true. I've never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can't rationalize as consistent with a loving God. It's the ultimate way of fooling yourself. But how can you be sure you're right if you can't tell whether you're wrong?

The religious approach to understanding inevitably results in different faiths holding incompatible "truths" about the world. Many Christians believe that if you don't accept Jesus as savior, you'll burn in hell for eternity. Muslims hold the exact opposite: Those who see Jesus as God's son are the ones who will roast. Jews see Jesus as a prophet, but not the messiah. Which belief, if any, is right? Because there's no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity's miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.

In contrast, scientists don't kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it's a vice.

But don't just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it's amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%, according to Rice professor Elaine Howard Ecklund's book, Science vs. Religion. Further proof: Among countries of the world, there is a strong negative relationship between their religiosity and their acceptance of evolution. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, with low belief in God, have high acceptance of evolution, while religious countries are evolution-intolerant. Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We're No. 33, with only Turkey below us. Finally, in a 2006 Time poll a staggering 64% of Americans declared that if science disproved one of their religious beliefs, they'd reject that science in favor of their faith.

'Venerable superstition'

In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don't talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it's the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.

Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith's certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.

And any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we're not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won't magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. His latest book is Why Evolution is True, and his website is www.whyevolutionistrue.com.

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Nice post, Natural.

 

Thanks for that. And in USA Today! I really liked Coyne's Why Evolution is True. It's written just like this piece with good momentum and like this, it's completely unapologetic.

I think a lot of us here have very similar views to those he holds.

 

 

 

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Jerry Coyne wrote:Does

Jerry Coyne wrote:

Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe? Hardly. Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.

.

.

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The religious approach to understanding inevitably results in different faiths holding incompatible "truths" about the world. Many Christians believe that if you don't accept Jesus as savior, you'll burn in hell for eternity. Muslims hold the exact opposite: Those who see Jesus as God's son are the ones who will roast. Jews see Jesus as a prophet, but not the messiah. Which belief, if any, is right? Because there's no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity's miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.

In contrast, scientists don't kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it's a vice.

I think he's making a big, fat category mistake. He's crossing categories by pitting religious (more generally ideological) "truth" with scientific "truth". I do think Gould had a point about nonoverlapping magisteria to some extent. If I can compare ideological truth with scientific truth, then what you get is a mess. What can the communisim, capitalism, pragmatism, existentialism, Republicanism, Democratism, fascism, statism, or imperialism, or tell me a about the universe? It's simply nonsensical...

I'm not saying there is no rub. The rub is I think is that there is some overlapping areas (cosmology, biology, etc under certain interpretations) where truth claims are being made by both religion and science. Scientists that attempt to harmonize religious and scientific truth are attempting to be rational about their beliefs rather than fideistic or dogmatic, and he's rather dismissive of such attempts as if they were dogmatic. I think he makes the point that he claims to refute in that the quote, "New Atheists" are ignorant of theology in doing so.

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Are there educated believers

Are there educated believers who have knowledge of science? Yes. But as the title of this thread correctly states, science and religion are not friends.

The believers reading this post are falsely going to get images of unemotional clinical fascism,  because of that correct statement.

We are not, as atheists, saying that because we hate those outside our label. Nor are most atheists impractical in wanting a utopia that does not exist. We say that because it is merely the pragmatic statement of saying that you cannot fit a square peg in a round hole.

Once you know the earth is not flat, it is willful ignorance to continue pretend it is. When your friend tells you Santa isn't real, they are not being mean, they are merely facing you with reality.

 

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Brian37 wrote:Are there

Brian37 wrote:

Are there educated believers who have knowledge of science? Yes. But as the title of this thread correctly states, science and religion are not friends.

I was suggesting that comparing religious "truth" scientific "truth" is a categorical mistake. It seems to me to the same as comparing political "truth" or economic "truth" with scientific truth...to me the whole premise is nonsense. When there is overlap, that's where the problem come in, but it's not the whole of one or the other....

 

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ubuntuAnyone wrote: I was

ubuntuAnyone wrote:

 


I was suggesting that comparing religious "truth" scientific "truth" is a categorical mistake. It seems to me to the same as comparing political "truth" or economic "truth" with scientific truth...to me the whole premise is nonsense. When there is overlap, that's where the problem come in, but it's not the whole of one or the other....

 

  At least political, economic, and scientific truth are void of any supernatural claims and can therefore be thoroughly examined and tested.  How does one test the the religious truth claim regarding the existence of the soul ?


 

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ubuntuAnyone wrote:I think

ubuntuAnyone wrote:

I think he's making a big, fat category mistake. He's crossing categories by pitting religious (more generally ideological) "truth" with scientific "truth".

What is this religious 'truth', and where can I find it? And how do I know it's really true and not just bullshit?

If religious 'truth' means something that's not really true, then why call it 'truth', and usually with a capital T? The word 'truth' is a perfectly decent word, and we shouldn't let religion hijack it. At the end of the day, everybody knows what truth means, even if it's not so easy to describe it in words. I wrote something a while back to describe this universally utilized, pragmatic and predictive meaning of truth.

What 'truths' religion actually does have, are not the sole domain of religion, and are actually just pragmatic truths. What 'truths' are the sole domain of religion, are not actually true.

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Many have attempted to pose

Quote:

  At least political, economic, and scientific truth are void of any supernatural claims and can therefore be thoroughly examined and tested.  How does one test the the religious truth claim regarding the existence of the soul ?

Many have attempted to pose testable methods to religious truths and examine such things as natural phenomenon--this Dennetts' approach in "Breaking the Spell". Similar approaches are applied to economics and politics in that the approaches construct testable models of ideals. The values of such economic and political models are largely contingent on the one's constructing them, which seems to be the problem with economic and political models. Christians believe that the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection shows that his truth claims are indeed true, the test being an evidential test and its inference about the divine.  In any case, if one rejects the model, the system fails before the test is executed. Scientific models at least attempt to grapple with something not based on subjective systems and desired results (but not always ). It's harder to reject something that maps onto a natural reality rather than an artificial one like politics, economics, etc. I think this distinction is necessary to avoid making the same mistakes the OP did...

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natural wrote:What is this

natural wrote:

What is this religious 'truth', and where can I find it? And how do I know it's really true and not just bullshit?

I'm not suggesting this is religious truth, but there are an abundance of religious truth claims. If you want pragmatic approaches to such things, start meandering in a Pascalian fashion...

natural wrote:

everybody knows what truth means, even if it's not so easy to describe it in words. I wrote something a while back to describe this universally utilized, pragmatic and predictive meaning of truth.

I hold to a correspondence understanding of truth--that which is true is that which maps onto reality. This is loaded, of course, because it postulates I know what reality is.

As a secondary mode, I would adhere to pragmatism such that it undergirds the primary mode I hold to. I'm not the sort that thinks that just because something "just works" or has utility that it's "true"

natural wrote:

What 'truths' religion actually does have, are not the sole domain of religion, and are actually just pragmatic truths. What 'truths' are the sole domain of religion, are not actually true.

The truth claims of a particular religion would be the domain of religion.... This does not mean that other domains can't touch them, but insofar as religious truth are concerned that do not overlap with scientific domains, it would be an abuse of science to use science to attempt to debunk such things....

 

 

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ubuntuAnyone wrote:natural

ubuntuAnyone wrote:

natural wrote:

What is this religious 'truth', and where can I find it? And how do I know it's really true and not just bullshit?

I'm not suggesting this is religious truth, but there are an abundance of religious truth claims. If you want pragmatic approaches to such things, start meandering in a Pascalian fashion...

Can you just answer the questions? What, exactly, do you mean by 'religious truth'?

Quote:
I hold to a correspondence understanding of truth--that which is true is that which maps onto reality.

And how do you know what maps onto reality? Hint: pragmatism.

Quote:
As a secondary mode, I would adhere to pragmatism such that it undergirds the primary mode I hold to.

You've got it backwards. Pragmatism is your primary mode, and correspondence depends entirely on it, and so is secondary.

Quote:
I'm not the sort that thinks that just because something "just works" or has utility that it's "true"

I addressed that red-herring in my essay. There are gradations of truth in terms of their predictive powers. Clearly, if you've found a better truth, you don't cling to the weaker truths, except perhaps as simple approximations within a certain set of prior assumptions. Consider Newtonian motion vs. Einsteinian motion. The reason we consider the Einsteinian model more representative of reality is because it makes better predictions, and we only use the Newtonian model under the prior assumptions of velocities much less than the speed of light, c. Newton's theory 'just works', but Einstein's theory 'just works better'. Pragmatism is about searching for the better and better truths, not just settling for the first crappy theory we find.

Quote:
natural wrote:

What 'truths' religion actually does have, are not the sole domain of religion, and are actually just pragmatic truths. What 'truths' are the sole domain of religion, are not actually true.

The truth claims of a particular religion would be the domain of religion.... This does not mean that other domains can't touch them

Which is why I said 'sole domain', not just 'domain'.

Quote:
but insofar as religious truth are concerned that do not overlap with scientific domains, it would be an abuse of science to use science to attempt to debunk such things....

You're missing the point that it's an even bigger abuse of the word 'truth' to call these religious claims 'true'. Until you (or anyone) can demonstrate that 'religious truths' are *actually* true, then I (and others) are going to continue to challenge these claims as not being actually (pragmatically, predictively) true. Such 'truths' do not deserve the mantle of the word 'true'.

Can you demonstrate, illustrate, explicate, or otherwise communicate what a 'religious truth' actually is, other than fantasy? I've got no problem with fantasy. The Greek myths are one of my favourite sets of stories. I have a problem when fantasy is promulgated as 'true', and especially when they use a capital-T.

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natural wrote:Can you just

natural wrote:

Can you just answer the questions? What, exactly, do you mean by 'religious truth'?

"Religious truth" would be truth claims that are made by religions that are actually true. Sort of self-explanatory, I suppose....

natural wrote:

Quote:
I hold to a correspondence understanding of truth--that which is true is that which maps onto reality.

And how do you know what maps onto reality? Hint: pragmatism.

You've got it backwards. Pragmatism is your primary mode, and correspondence depends entirely on it, and so is secondary.

I think you're equivocating the means if justification with the mode of justification. That's not at all what I think.

natural wrote:

I addressed that red-herring in my essay. There are gradations of truth in terms of their predictive powers. Clearly, if you've found a better truth, you don't cling to the weaker truths, except perhaps as simple approximations within a certain set of prior assumptions. Consider Newtonian motion vs. Einsteinian motion. The reason we consider the Einsteinian model more representative of reality is because it makes better predictions, and we only use the Newtonian model under the prior assumptions of velocities much less than the speed of light, c. Newton's theory 'just works', but Einstein's theory 'just works better'. Pragmatism is about searching for the better and better truths, not just settling for the first crappy theory we find.

I think you're idea about prediction show that you are equivocating between the means and the mode of justification...I'm not sure what the difference is according to you essay. You talk about goals and means of achieving goals, but goals and the means of a achieving these goals are not necessarily some sort of truth. Likewise, I think this falls prey still to the "just works" problem of pragmatism in that there does not seem a to be a truth-maker either with the goal or in the means. If I was a pragmatist, I could suggest that being a Christian is the easiest way to get to heaven because it does not require me to do anything other than believe in Jesus. The goal is heaven and the means is faith. Nothing about this suggests that it is actually true. It therefore requires some sort of grounding in reality (which you seem to want to do), but pragmatism in a strict sense does not offer. If you want to offer it, then the truth-maker of your pragmatism is not pragmatic, but correspondence. I see truth as something about reality that is actual, (independent of what you and I think about it) and secondary modes such as pragmatism make one more sure of such truths.

Whether or not something works better is still a rather subjective proposition. Even when comparing Newtonian and Einsteinian physics, I think which works "better" is subjective. Consider for a moment if I drop a pencil from a height of 1 meter to the floor. Newtonian physics provides an accurate account for this state of affairs, so I do not need to drag in relativistic physics to account for it. This should be the preferred way of accounting for it because it is simpler according to pragmatic arguments such as Occam's razor. But in the case of large bodies moving quickly in relation to other large bodies such that gravitation is strong enough to noticeably effect space-time (i.e. the precession of Mercury) one needs to invoke Einsteinian physics. But in either case, these both of these are description of a state of affairs about reality, and are thereby grounded in reality. I do not think the "truth" of either one of these is contingent on how well the work, but how how well they correspond to reality.

natural wrote:

You're missing the point that it's an even bigger abuse of the word 'truth' to call these religious claims 'true'. Until you (or anyone) can demonstrate that 'religious truths' are *actually* true, then I (and others) are going to continue to challenge these claims as not being actually (pragmatically, predictively) true. Such 'truths' do not deserve the mantle of the word 'true'.

Theists have suggested rubrics for understanding such things...these were the models to which I was referring. But many reject the models outright without even using them....

natural wrote:

Can you demonstrate, illustrate, explicate, or otherwise communicate what a 'religious truth' actually is, other than fantasy? I've got no problem with fantasy. The Greek myths are one of my favourite sets of stories. I have a problem when fantasy is promulgated as 'true', and especially when they use a capital-T.

Can I? I'm not trying to as I'm not an apologist or theologian. They have suggested ways of demonstrating such things.

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LOL...No surprise here.  It

LOL...No surprise here.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you can't test religion scientifically.

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Religious or idealogical

Religious or idealogical propositions that are not, in principle, empirically demonstrable are not things which can have the word 'true' meaningfully applied to them.

They are, at best, speculations, opinions.

Statements such as "communism will lead to a better society" are, in principle, scientifically testable, although maybe not in practice.

The existence of God is an empty, untestable proposition, assuming we are restricting consideration of versions defined so as to not include the more common contradictory attributes.

Many such propositions are statements or assumptions about human psychology, or sociology.

What is a specific example of one of these alternative 'truths'? Even an example of a proposition they make which would be in this hypothetical category, in the other 'magisteria'. I liked Gould on evolution and nature, but I think he was way off when he got into this stuff.

Quote:

"Religious truth" would be truth claims that are made by religions that are actually true. Sort of self-explanatory, I suppose....

is a totally inadequate response.

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