Faith versus Fact by Jerry Coyn

It was in 1980 that I first plunged into the ‘science versus religion’ debate. The standard text of the day was still Ian G. Barbour’s 1966 book ‘Issues in Science and Religion’. Interest in the subject area has shown no sign of abating since that time.

A recent contribution is Faith versus Fact (2015) by University of Chicago evolutionary geneticist Jerry A. Coyne ( Coyne nails his colours to the mast in the subtitle, which is ‘Why science and religion are incompatible’. He writes in the recent tradition of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The backlash against these ‘New Atheists’ has given rise to a new consensus among believers. The New Atheists are too shrill and militant, they say, and just as extreme as the fundamentalists they criticize. They are preaching to the converted, and only driving moderates into the arms of religion. People will never be disabused of their religious beliefs, and perhaps they should not be, because societies need unifying creeds to promote altruism and social cohesion.

According to this new consensus, science, too, relies on faith, namely its commitment to the empirical method and its assumption that the universe is lawful. Confined to the observable and the verifiable, science is, in this view, incapable of proving or disproving the existence of a supernatural being. Most importantly, science is unable to discover all truths, particularly those concerned with meaning, purpose, and morality. If science and religion just stayed on their own sides of the bed — their ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, as Stephen Jay Gould put it — we could all just get along fine. This family of reactions has been called ‘I’m-an-atheist-but’, ‘belief-in-belief’, ‘accommodationism’, and, most recently, ‘faitheism’.

Coyne’s book is not intended to pile on the arguments for atheism but to advance the debate into its next round. He disposes of the common argument that science itself is based on faith. He reiterates the point made by many philosophers that we don’t, in fact, ‘believe’ in reason; we use reason — as does, necessarily, anyone who raises the question of the validity of reason in the first place.

Reason is non-negotiable; the same cannot be said of standard matters of faith, such as the divinity of Jesus or the existence of an afterlife. But Coyne’s own philosophy is more pragmatic than foundational: science works. It makes valid predictions, from hominid fossils to the cosmic background radiation, and it allows us to change the world, from curing urinary tract infections to putting a man on the moon. This success provides strong — albeit not certain — grounds for accepting that its methods and assumptions are secure. After all, the universe could have been like a chaotic dream, in which any bizarre sequence of events is possible. Taking note of its overwhelming regularity is not at all like accepting claims about miracles and deities on faith. Even the deepest religious proposition of all — the existence of God — is, according to Coyne, an empirical question. Here, he differs from many of his comrades in the anti-creationist movement who (at least for tactical reasons) impose a condition of ‘methodological naturalism’ on science which renders it incapable of evaluating the claims of religion, carving out a safe space in which believers can protect their beliefs while remaining sympathetic to science.

Coyne quotes several historical and recent writers, particularly Carl Sagan and the philosophers Yonatan Fishman and Maarten Boudry, while adding some examples of his own, to show how the existence of the God of scripture is a testable empirical hypothesis. The Bible’s historical accounts could have been corroborated by archaeology, genetics and philology. It could have contained uncannily prescient truths such as “thou shalt not travel faster than light” or “two strands entwined is the secret of life.” A bright light might appear in the heavens one day and a man clad in white robe and sandals, supported by winged angels, could descend from the sky, give sight to the blind, and resurrect the dead. We might discover that intercessory prayer can restore hearing or re-grow amputated limbs, or that anyone who speaks the Prophet Mohammed’s name in vain is immediately struck down by lightning, while those who pray to Allah five times a day are free from disease and misfortune.

Ancillary beliefs, such as the existence of an immaterial soul or a realm of fate beyond matter and energy, are just as falsifiable. We might discover a severed head that can speak. The data might show that bad things happen only to bad people. A prophet could predict earthquakes, epidemics, and terrorist attacks. My late aunt Marjory could beam a message from the great beyond telling us under which floorboard she hid her jewelry. The fact that these events evaporate under scrutiny weakens the hypothesis that a God of scripture, who presides over immaterial souls, exists. There are, of course, diluted versions of religious belief which survive such tests: allegorical interpretations of scripture, deistic gods who create the universe and then step back and watch what happens, erudite theological systems built on abstruse argumentation, and various liberal, humanistic, Spinozist, and East Asian philosophies which equate ‘God’ with the laws of the universe or barely mention him at all. The New Atheists have come under sustained attack by defenders of religion for focusing on literalist and fundamentalist brands of folk theism, which, they claim, are held by a minority of believers instead of these more abstract and sophisticated systems.

Coyne accepts the challenge. He cites polling data showing that a large majority of religious people do, in fact, believe in the miracle-working, soul-supervising, prayer-answering God of the Bible, rather than recondite abstractions of theologians. Nor, for that matter, are most theologians content with God as a mere metaphor or euphemism, or as a bystander who is impotent when it comes to accomplishing anything that matters. (Not for the first time, a two-state solution is rejected by both sides.) Coyne educated himself in the works of the most ‘sophisticated’ theologians, and pays them the respect of evaluating their arguments by the ordinary standards of intellectual discourse. He finds these arguments to be either patently false (such as that humans are endowed with an innate faculty for sensing the truth about God) or transparent ploys to defend the undefendable, such as the suggestion that the Resurrection was too cosmically important for God to have allowed it to be empirically verified.

Coyne’s final chapter is called ‘Why Does it Matter?’. The ultimate appeal of belief in belief is that religion is needed (at least by other people) as a bulwark against selfishness, shallowness, and immorality. Coyne replies that agreed-upon moral precepts, such as telling the truth and not harming others, are rules for living together that any intelligent gregarious beings would put into their social contracts. He doesn’t dwell on obvious historical disasters, such as religious wars and persecutions, but he devotes a section apiece to some of the more insidious harms fostered by faith today: the withholding of medical care to sick children, the suppression of heretical biomedical research and public-health policies, the opposition to assisted dying, and the denial that there is man made climate change. In several sections, he plays the ultimate empiricist trump card: data from Greg Paul showing that the godless democracies of northern and western Europe are thriving, while the religious ones — most pointedly the United States — have far higher rates of societal dysfunction, such as violent crime, preventable disease, and mediocre education.

Coyne’s arguments are clear and striking, and can be read profitably by anyone interested in the tension between science and religion. By meeting the claims of the ‘faitheists’ and ‘accommodationists’ head-on, he shows that the two sides are not preaching to their own converted or talking past each other, and that there really is no truth between the two world views.


To immerse yourself into the background of this debate start with Ian Barbour’s 2000 book When  Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers or Partners?   (

If pressed for time pick up the tidy little Science  and Religion: A Very Short Introduction by Thomas Dixon (2008,  As Dixon shows in this balanced and thought-provoking introduction, many have seen harmony rather than conflict between faith and science. He explores not  only the key philosophical questions that underlie the debate, but also the  social, political, and ethical contexts that have made ‘science and religion’ such a fraught and interesting topic in the modern world, offering perspectives  from non-Christian religions and examples from across the physical, biological,  and social sciences. Along the way, he examines landmark historical episodes  such as the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633, and the famous debate  between ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce in Oxford in  1860. The Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in Tennessee in 1925 and the Dover Area School  Board case of 2005 are explained with reference to the interaction between  religion, law, and education in modern America.

For some further stimulation go to Brooke, John Hedley., Science  And Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, New York: Cambridge  University Press, 1991, (

For a more in depth approach reach for Harrison, Peter, The  Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge, 2010).(

Listen to the excellent discussion on the R4 ‘In Our  Time’ episode (45 mins) from the link   With Stephen Jay Gould, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of  Geology, Harvard University; John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy, University  of St. Andrews and Stanton Lecturer in Divinity, Cambridge University; Hilary  Rose, sociologist and Visiting Professor of Social Policy, Bradford  University.

For a lifetime immersion in issues of science and religion follow the  bibliographies at

Enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic details.

200 pages in Penguin

First published 25 June 2015

ISBN 978-0670026531

Image result for jerry coyne

Jerry A. Coyne

Scroll to Top