Book review: Faith vs Fact by Jerry A Coyne: a perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens

Jul 7, 2015

by Brandon Robshaw

People of goodwill on both sides of the divide like to maintain that faith and science are compatible, despite past clashes. The biologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “NOMA” – non-overlapping magisteria – to describe the happily co-existing territories of science and religion.

However, the American evolutionary scientist, Jerry Coyne, has no truck with such accommodationism. He argues that there is a direct and unavoidable conflict between faith and science. Both make truth claims about the Universe. But only science has the means to test, refute or refine its claims. Faith (which Coyne defines as belief without evidence, including not just religion but pseudo-science and authoritarian ideologies) not only can’t test its claims, but makes a virtue of not doing so. That’s why there have been no advances in religious “knowledge” since the foundational scriptures were written. Science, on the other hand, which thrives on doubt, has been increasing human knowledge for the past 500 years.

Coyne argues that faith is not a virtue. It generates certainty but not knowledge, and  that can be a dangerous thing. People kill each other over religious certainties. Those in the grip of faith may oppose the teaching of evolution in schools, deny global warming, refuse vital medical treatments for their children, oppose stem cell research and persecute homosexuals – all in the name of beliefs which are fundamentally immune to evidence.

In an entertaining chapter, “Faith Fights Back”, Coyne reviews the arguments commonly trotted out against new atheists, and a pretty spavined bunch of arguments they are.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

25 comments on “Book review: Faith vs Fact by Jerry A Coyne: a perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens

  • I must admit to liking what I’ve seen of Jerry Coyne. His book Why Evolution Is True is excellent for the likes of me and many others. I suppose if the US Christians hadn’t been so forward in being so backwards, the need to defend evolution from their ludicrous attacks, would not have been as pressing so as to bring biologists / authors like Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Meyers, and our own Richard, into the fray.

    As the review points out, the expected criticism is likely to concentrate on style, tone, personality, indeed anything but the content !



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  • Coyne is good, but nobody can “replace” Hitchens, and there does not seem to be any fair reason to. A rather absurd subtitle and I’m at a loss as to why it was even used.



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  • Or there’s: How do you know God doesn’t exist? You can’t prove a negative. As Coyne points out, yes you can prove a negative, if we’re talking about normal standards of proof: “Can you prove that I don’t have two hearts? Of course you can: just do a CAT scan.”

    You can prove a negative only if the field of investigation is narrowly defined and capable of thorough examination. I can prove there are no unicorns in the box on my desk by looking into it. I can’t prove that unicorns don’t exist anywhere because I can’t look everywhere. I can similarly not prove that a specific god does not exist to a 100% certainty. However I can cite the total absence of verifiable evidence for such a god despite the billions of people who have searched for proof of it for thousands of years. That at least gives us a very high degree of probability that said god does not exist but does not give us complete absence of possibility.



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  • Ah probability ! What were the chances of that cloud being in that part of the sky, just as a piece of paper blew across the road, a bird warned others off its patch, and the 41 bus pulled into the bus stop at Crouch End, letting at least 5 passengers off and 7 passengers on. I could go into more detail about the direction the wind was blowing, the suspected ethnicity of the passengers, and like Dembski, describe the whole situation as being so improbable, that it couldn’t have happened without a god to guide the process. But I won’t go that way. It happened, and all of it by natural processes. True it will never happen exactly the same way ever again, but many billions of similar events happen all the time. The universe is both very big and very old. We only know about some of the strange things that happen, but we’re progressing in our knowledge, no deities required, thanks.



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  • Jerry Coyne is the perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens as the fourth Horseman of the New Atheist Apocalypse.

    I don’t think so. Christopher Hitchens was about “inimitable style.” No man or woman ever made could match his wit, his intellectual acuity or his ability to think on his feet during debate. Though not a scientist, he had a command of the English language over what mattered to him that was incisive, original and delightfully informed with illuminating -sometimes quirky- genius.

    On the main topic, perhaps the New Atheists have focused too exclusively on fundamentalist Christians and Muslims in framing their critique. The excesses of the inquisition then or of the creationists now have left too much of what Henry James called The Varieties of Religious Experience out of the picture. After picking off the fat targets like Jesus rising from the tomb or Mohammed galloping on his airborne horse to Jerusalem, there remains the more elusive claims of mystics to have experienced “other ways of knowing” through intimations of a transcendent spiritual force beyond physical reality. Perhaps rejecting the untenable narratives of scripture and the hypocrisy, corruptions and crimes of institutionalized religion, the current wave of spiritual-but-not-religious have turned inward for supernatural enlightenment.



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  • Sounds like a great book, and I have just ordered a copy!

    Pity, though, that the main audience will likely be the non-religious (“preaching to the choir,” as it were). Which is to say that it probably won’t end up convincing anybody to abandon, or even question, their deeply-held–yet often wholly unexamined–beliefs.

    Still, I’m hopeful that it will at least convince a few non-believers that there’s really no need to keep playing the NOMA game and that it’s perfectly all right to condemn religious dogma for the anti-science rhetoric that it is at heart.



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  • Melvin
    Jul 7, 2015 at 5:44 pm
    Christopher Hitchens was about “inimitable style.” No man or woman ever made could match his wit, his intellectual acuity or his ability to think on his feet during debate. Though not a scientist, he had a command of the English language over what mattered to him that was incisive, original and delightfully informed with illuminating -sometimes quirky- genius.

    I was trying to compose something in writing about religion last night and getting frustrated at my lack of knowledge on points I kept having to google and it came to me that Chris would have known all this off the top of his head. And then it all hit me quite forcibly that he’ll never be with us again and I found myself bawling like a bloody baby at the sheer loss to humanity of his passing.

    Maybe I’d had too much to drink. Maybe I was in the mood to be maudlin anyway. But I wept for the loss of his intellect and his insight. We have not so much need of him here in the UK but when I see those feckless, witless buffoons like Huckabee, Rick Perry, Palin, Jeb Bush trumpeting their religiosity and ignorance in the USA I despair for the future of humanity. The evolution and global warming deniers. Those who rant about the non-existent war on christianity and Xmas. Fox News. The poor little rich white men who call themselves marginalised because 20% of the population don’t believe their bullshit anymore. I could compose ten thousand words and not find the clarity or piercing wit he’d put into a single sentence. I miss him. I mourn him. We are all so much poorer for his passing.



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  • Just bought this book at it is placed in the next read position so I will be into it soon.

    ” a perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens ”

    I wouldn’t make too much of this journalistic hyperbole.



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  • 10
    Cairsley says:

    Centauri: “… A rather absurd subtitle and I’m at a loss as to why it was even used.”

    First, I assume that the “absurd subtitle” you refer to is: “Why science and religion are incompatible.” My own take on this was that this subtitle simply states what Jerry Coyne aims to show in his book on the opposition of religious faith and factual knowledge. I have not yet read the book, but I am sure that in it is made clear that ‘faith’ is used in the sense of “belief without evidence”, as it is in the article above. Faith, in the context of revelatory religion, is indeed belief in a set of assertions unsupported by any evidence, the very reason for their acceptance being the supposed authority of a supernatural source of instruction. Could anything be more opposed than this to factual knowledge painstakingly acquired by means of the scientific method? The subtitle, then, seems quite apt. More interesting would have been some indication in your comment of your reasons for considering the subtitle absurd and for being “at a loss as to why it was even used.”



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  • Akrid Sandwich, away down the pub with you and order a double Johnny Walker Black Label. From where I am, London, it seems reality is gaining a grip on the religious, stateside, at last.



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  • As an evangelical Christian with a background in science but who is neither a practicing scientist nor a saint, I think that it’s phrasing the issue in the wrong way to talk about the compatibility of science and religion. Given that science can only deal with the physical world and that its “truths” can always be refined or even discarded given new evidence and facts, you always have a moving target when it comes to what science is. For example, the clockwork version of the universe was “science” for a long time until newer observations and Einstein’s work gave us a better understanding. Anyone who had tried to reconcile religion with the clockwork universe was just wasting their time. I think that Galileo had it right when he talked about how religion tells you how to go to heaven but not how the heavens go.



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  • Ok, another book to be added to my wishlist.
    Moreover, haven’t yet read anything by Hitchens a great conflict of ‘desire’ is now within me. Which one will I read first?



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  • david.graf.589
    Jul 8, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    As an evangelical Christian with a background in science but who is neither a practicing scientist nor a saint, I think that it’s phrasing the issue in the wrong way to talk about the compatibility of science and religion.

    There is no compatibility of science and most religions – certainly not Christianity. Perhaps there is some compatibility in the study, analysis, and explanations of religion, by neurophysiology.

    Given that science can only deal with the physical world

    Every form of matter, and energy, planet, organism, and brain, IS the physical world! Even religious fantasies and delusions, are properties of physical brains.

    and that its “truths” can always be refined or even discarded given new evidence and facts, you always have a moving target when it comes to what science is.

    Theories can up-dated or refuted, but factual observations are solid evidence to high levels of probability – as are some aspects of some theories.

    For example, the clockwork version of the universe was “science” for a long time until newer observations and Einstein’s work gave us a better understanding.

    For subsonic objects on Earth, Newtonian physics is within about 5 decimal places of Einstein’s relativity.

    Anyone who had tried to reconcile religion with the clockwork universe was just wasting their time.

    As is anyone who tries to reconcile (most) religions with any physical science, or with the clockwork universe including its relativistic adjustments.

    I think that Galileo had it right when he talked about how religion tells you how to go to heaven but not how the heavens go.

    He was right!
    Religions have no reliable information to tell us about the physical universe.
    They only offer their various conflicting imaginary stories, about the mythical “heaven” which have morphed and branched as the folk-law has been passed down and embellished by numerous generations, where they have been used to manipulate and motivate much abused populations.



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  • 17
    Pinball1970 says:

    Mr D’arcy 7/7@3.19 “His book Why Evolution Is True is excellent for the likes of me.”

    Yes a good book. A Few science writers/scientists getting in on the act now on explaining why religion is not factual, logical, morally and philosophically corrupt and scientifically inaccurate.

    Sam Harris, Steve Jones and Laurence Krauss have dedicated books or at least parts of chapters to the topic.

    I need not reference RD.

    Keep them coming please.

    It would be nice to see one from Steven Hawking or Brian Cox, two popular figures in British science.

    “Why Religion isn’t true,” sounds punchy as does, “Unweaving the bullshit.”

    Publishers, go get em!



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  • 18
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Which one will I read first?

    I say go with Hitchens first. “God is not Great” is an absolute must read. Not only is it a breeze but also a pure delight due to Hitchen’s exquisite style of writing and his amazing knowledge of history, politics, litterature and poetry.

    His worship for litterature was so deep that he refused to write fiction deeming himself not a good enough writer for the task. He was far more concerned with the possibility of defiling litterature than promoting his own selfish goals. That’s not something that can be said about very many writers nowadays…

    “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

    Christopher Hitchens (who absolutely hated being addressed or refered to as Chris BTW) 1949-2011



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  • 19
    mombird says:

    I agree, Hitch is a MUST read! I have read God Is Not Great at least 5 times. It is liberating. Christopher has changed my life for the better. Thank you Hitch!



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  • “People of goodwill on both sides of the divide like to maintain that faith and science are compatible, despite past clashes. The biologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “NOMA” – non-overlapping magisteria – to describe the happily co-existing territories of science and religion.”

    To think that science and religion is compatible is totally ridiculous. Gould was a brilliant professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, a well liked instructor, and an excellent author. But he also was arrogant in his idea about NOMA. He said essentially that everyone who is intelligent and knowledgable obviously accepts the idea of NOMA. Gould stated in his book “Rocks of Ages” that:

    I should also reiterate that NOMA represents a long standing consensus
    among the great majority of scientific and religious leaders…

    I disagree with the assertion Gould has made about scientists and religious leaders. The great majority of scientists do not accept NOMA and never will. After all, if God is a delusion according to Dawkins, then how can religion even claim to be a “magisterium.” One “magisterium” (science) cannot overlap with a nothing.



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  • I might also add that the great majority of religious leaders would not agree with that either.
    It would be more accurate to say that NOMA is a relatively recent consensus reached between a small minority of scientific and religious leaders.



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  • MadEnglishman
    Jul 10, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    I should also reiterate that NOMA represents a long standing consensus among the great majority of scientific and religious leaders…

    It would be more accurate to say that NOMA is a relatively recent consensus reached between a small minority of scientific and religious leaders.

    NOMA is accepted in the sense that science deals with material reality, while spiritual beliefs are vague and very variable fantasies, which do not exist in the real material universe.

    This is not of course, what religious leaders mean by it, or what their small number of promoted “star” compartmentalised stooges with reputations in SOME limited areas of science, mean. They pretend that there are areas of reality which are beyond the investigations of science – but this is simply gapology 1.01.

    Those scientists who are trying to promote science education, sometimes skirt around the religious conflicts, to avoid having the audience they are trying to educate, operating their mind-closing woo-defense-button, and switching off on them!

    I think the real overlap, is where neuro-psychologists investigate the effects of woo-indoctrination on brain mechanisms and mental decision making. This is the interface between the non-existent fantasy world, and physical reality.

    Th assertion that significant numbers of scientists accept NOMA, is just theological wish-thinking!



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  • “Why Science and Religion are Incompatible” – Perhaps there is also a compelling historical argument. Religion was science before there was science. Humans invented and developed religion as a pseudo-method, a just-so narrative, for “explaining” nature, the universe , the cosmos, living creatures, and the human condition itself. In the absence of effective means for investigating and measuring the way natural phenomena work, prescience age humans cannot be faulted for adopting a supernatural spirit theory of cause and effect. Situated in a howling wilderness, our forbears intuitively concluded that forces greater than themselves were running the show. It was plausible from their perspective to see ineffable and terrifying spirits causing volcanic eruptions, torrential rains and flooding, animals and flocks of birds to appear and disappear. The sun seemed to arch across the heavens reflecting a God to be worshiped and feared. Humans pictured themselves on the geocentric disk at the center of the anthropocentric universe with the stars as ornaments, spirits themselves, blinking in the dome of the celestial realm above the egocentric nucleus of creation. Life itself, animals and especially human beings, seemed animated by a spiritual life force. When they died the body became cold as the warm spirit fled to an invisible realm. It seemed not only reasonable but imperative to worship these spirits, to appease and please them to manipulate them through ritual and sacrifice to confer favors and ward off misfortune or enemies. Religion in all its diversity was born of intuitions that seemed to have compelling explanatory power and vital practical value.

    Over the last several millennia and centuries, drawing on accumulated empirical data of observation and mathematical measurement, Science emerged around 1400 at an accelerating pace to dispel intuitive supernatural explanations of phenomena and took these pseudo-theories in the opposite direction to the dumpster of history. The abundant, overwhelming evidence of multiplying penetrating scientific discoveries, covering even the origins of the universe and life itself, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the cosmos contained nothing but physical matter and energy (including dark matter and dark energy). Science has gone a long way in destroying religion, or more precisely, in displacing the role of religion to explain the cosmos or serve human needs and purposes. Obviously strong vestigial manifestations of religious institutions and practices remain, but there is trending evidence that suggests a rapid generational erosion of the power of religion over the human imagination even in the most entrenched regions of current piety.



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