Faith vs Fact

Jerry Coyne, Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago, has written a new book, “Faith vs Fact” (Viking, 2015). He explains his reason for writing by noting that, despite copious evidence for evolution, large numbers of people, even when familiar with the evidence; refuse to accept it, essentially for religious reasons. He begins by noting that there is a widespread perception of a conflict between religion and science, citing 1) the avalanche of books claiming, in contradictory ways, that the two are compatible; 2) the high proportion of scientists who are atheists, especially among members of the National Academies; 3) laws privileging faith over science such as in the medical treatment of children; and 4) pervasive belief in creationism.

He is very careful to specify what he means by “religion” and “incompatibility”, relying on dictionary definitions of these terms, but explicitly excluding some specific religions that make few or no claims about reality. He takes religion to mean those belief systems, as practiced by the majority of their adherents, that depend on faith and that make claims about the world; and by incompatibility he means essentially discordance, an inability to work together toward a common result in a routine way.

In this work Coyne shows that he belongs in the company of such modern authors as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, but he also cites earlier writers such as Robert Ingersoll, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Bertrand Russell. He points out that what distinguishes those modern writers from earlier writers is the observation that religion routinely makes pronouncements about reality that are testable. Not surprisingly, in every case, the tests find the predictive capability of religion lacking. The most famous examples are controlled double-blind studies showing no effect of prayer on healing the sick.

He cites Carl Sagan’s example of the dragon in the garage (published in Varieties of Scientific Experience, 2006) to show that in science when evidence that should exist on the basis of an hypothesis is not found, the hypothesis is abandoned until further data can be obtained: Suppose somebody tells you there is a dragon in his garage. You ask to see the dragon’s footprints but he explains there are none because the dragon floats; likewise you cannot feel the fire of the dragon’s breath because it is a cold fire. You conclude that there really is no dragon. Religion is like the story of the dragon in the garage.

Coyne remarks on the fact that no amount of evidence will force believers to abandon certain tenets of their faith. And if they do abandon some element of their faith they find a way to save the authority of religion on the point, such as the idea that evolution was just God’s way of creating life. This inherent difference in method has profound consequences according to Coyne. It is incontestable that science works to produce amazing results, and he cites numerous examples, such as the doubling of human life expectancy since 1800. Mainstream religion, however, has made no advances. The ancient texts on which it relies do not show any knowledge of reality apart from what was known to the ancient world, religious or not. This is not to say that the religious domain is static. The examples of Scientology and Mormonism show how weak evidence in the hands of a charlatan can produce a new religion that can attract significant numbers of believers, even today. The suggestion is that mainstream religions might have gotten started in similar fashion. The extent to which mainstream religions have changed for the better is largely attributable to their grudging and belated acceptance of progress in the secular world, due for the most part to science. Most importantly, religion has made no progress on the main problem: the existence of gods. Religion has not produced better information on this than the ancients possessed. Science on the other hand has done extremely well without invocation of gods in explaining phenomena that it wants to study, and has consistently produced novel and useful results.

Coyne writes that faith, whether based on religion or some other premise, is harmful, and we should stop admiring people noted for their faith. He distinguishes faith as the acceptance of propositions despite the lack of evidence, as opposed to confidence in science, which is based on the results of verifiable experience, observation and analysis. One of the most telling examples comes close to the end of the book, where he describes the case of a girl named Ashley King who was discovered by concerned neighbors to have a large tumor on her leg. Her parents were Christian Scientists and refused to seek or permit medical treatment for her. The girl died in agony. Her chances of surviving would have been about 50 or 60% if she had gotten prompt medical help. Her parents were later convicted of reckless endangerment but exhibited no remorse and received only the mildest of punishments. Coyne points out that in many states in the USA, laws minimize consequences for many crimes if they are committed for religious reasons.

A world without faith might scare some people, but Jerry Coyne is not among them. He points out the example of Northern Europe, where most people are non-believers, and the societies are functioning quite well, by many measures better than the United States.

Coyne’s tone is anecdotal, sometimes quite personal. He describes the “aha” moment when he realized that presentation of evidence on evolution was woefully inadequate to the task of convincing the average American. After he had given a lecture at a businessmen’s luncheon in a wealthy Chicago suburb, one of the audience shook his hand and said he found the evidence convincing but because of his religion he still did not believe in evolution. It was then that Coyne realized that religious faith was a formidable obstacle to acceptance of evolution. Another example: he admits not having had a very extensive training in religion, but still describes the moment when he realized that he did not believe what little he had received while he was listening to the Beatles’ recording “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The one quibble I have relates to his repeated resort to a rhetorical device in lieu of a citation. For example he described religionists’ claims that certain scientific tests that prove the inefficacy of prayer are themselves invalid, (“God cannot be tested”). He says then that if the results had been to show an effect it would have been fine with them. He sometimes gives an example after such remarks, but often does not. It is not that he is necessarily mistaken in assuming the likelihood of such a reaction, but in a work of persuasion, assumptions are not good evidence.

This book is a rational and scholarly work, rich with insight into one of the thorniest problems in our public life. I recommend  this book to anyone who is willing to look at the issue with an open mind. Believers might find it rough going, because religion as a “way of knowing” comes off poorly here.

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