Are science and religion compatible? Stephen Jay Gould famously wrote that they were separate ideas, calling them “non-overlapping magisteria.”
The problem with that characterization is that religion, all too often, makes claims that are easily rejected by science: Miracles, resurrection, Young Earth Creationism, etc. These two worlds cross paths all the time — and science is always the winner.
Jerry Coyne‘s new book offers an expanded rejection of Gould’s theory. It’s called Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Viking, 2015).
In the excerpt below, Coyne lays out the major differences between the “magisteria”:
The different methods that science and religion use to ascertain their “truths” couldn’t be clearer. Science comprises an exquisitely refined set of tools designed to find out what is real and to prevent confirmation bias. Science prizes doubt and iconoclasm, rejects absolute authority, and relies on testing one’s ideas with experiments and observations of nature. Its sine qua non is evidence — evidence that can be inspected and adjudicated by any trained and rational observer. And it depends largely on falsification. Nearly every scientific truth comes with an implicit rider: “Evidence X would show this to be wrong.”
Religion begins with beliefs based not on observation, but on revelation, authority (often that of scripture), and dogma. Most people acquire their faith when young via indoctrination by parents, teachers, or peers, so that religious “truths” depend heavily on who spawned you and where you grew up. Beliefs instilled in this way are then undergirded with defenses that make them resistant to falsification. While some religious people do struggle with their beliefs, doubt is not an inherent part of belief, not is it especially prized. No honors accrue to the Southern Baptist who points out that while there is plenty of evidence for evolution, there is none for the creation story of Genesis.
Some religious claims are untestable because they involve knowing about the irrevocable past. There is almost no way to show, for instance, that Jesus was the son of God, that Allah dictated the Quran to Muhammad, or that the souls of Buddhists are reincarnated in other humans or animals. (There could, however be at least some evidence for such claims, such as concordant eyewitness accounts of the miracles that supposedly accompanied Jesus’s Crucifixion, including the darkness at noon, the rending of the Temple’s curtain, the earthquakes, and the rising of saints from their graves. Unfortunately, the many historians of the time have failed to report these phenomena.) What science can do is point out the absence of evidence for such claims, taking them off the table until some hint of evidence arrives. When scientists don’t know something, like the nature of the mysterious “dark matter” that fills the universe, we don’t pretend to understand it based on “other ways of knowing” that don’t involve science. There is tantalizing evidence for dark matter, but we won’t claim to know what it is until we have hard evidence. That is precisely the opposite of how the faithful approach their own claims of truth.
In the end, religious investigations of “truth,” unlike those of science, are deeply dependent on confirmation bias. You start with what you were taught to believe, or what you want to believe, and then accept only those facts that support your prejudices. This is the basis for the theological practice of “apologetics,” designed to defend religion against counterarguments and disconfirming evidence. The fact of evolution, for instance, was once seen by many as strong evidence against God. As we’ll see, apologists have now decided that it is exactly what we’d expect from a good creator, who would, of course, allow life to blossom gradually instead of producing a boring and static creation ex nihilo. In contrast, science has no apologetics, for we test our conclusions by trying to find counterevidence.
The difference in methodology between science and faith involves several opposing practices and attitudes.
It’s a fantastic book. I had the chance to read it a few weeks ago and it’s easy to understand even if you’re not a science expert or philosophy buff. No doubt it’ll raise some hell in religious circles.
Faith Versus Fact is available in bookstores and online beginning today.
From Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible by Jerry A. Coyne published on May 19, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Jerry A. Coyne, 2015.