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Lord of the Flies

Seamus O’Mahony

Faith vs FACT: why Science and Religion are Incompatible, by Jerry A Coyne, Viking, 310 pp, £20, ISBN 978-0670026531

When Christopher Hitchens died in 2012, a vacancy arose at the top table of celebrity atheist public intellectuals. Faith vs FACT is Jerry Coyne’s application for this position. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist, based at the University of Chicago. Having toiled away for decades on the genetics of drosophila (the fruit fly), he emerged from relative academic obscurity a few years ago with his blog “Why Evolution Is True”.

The internet has given a public platform to academics whose outbursts were previously confined to the common room; Coyne’s postings are marked by a sort of hysterical, Tourette’s-like invective. Although he rehashes all the usual atheist arguments, his main target is “accommodationism”, a term coined by the American philosopher Austin Dacey. Accommodationists believe that science and religion need not be in conflict: they are, in the famous phrase of the late Stephen Jay Gould (the palaeontologist and science writer) “non-overlapping magisteria, or “NOMA”. In his 1999 book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould argued for tolerance and understanding, and his position was strengthened by his own avowed atheism:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.

Coyne is having none of this tolerance and understanding:

Unfortunately, Gould’s attempt fails on two accounts: it requires the homeopathic dilution of religion into a humanistic philosophy devoid of supernatural claims, and it gives to religion sole authority over moral and philosophical issues that have nevertheless had a long secular history.

Gould – a far better writer than Coyne – once observed that the primary rule of intellectual life was: “it never hurts to read the primary documents”. With that in mind, I read Gould’s 1997 essay “Nonoverlapping Magisteria”, published in the journal Natural History, where he first used the “NOMA” phrase. Gould recalled a conversation in 1984, while staying at the Vatican, with a group of French and Italian Jesuits, all of whom were also professional scientists. Gould was surprised when these priests told him that there was no doctrinal dispute between evolution and Catholic faith. He thought no more of it until 1996, when he read the New York Times headline: “Pope Bolsters Church’s Support for Scientific View of Evolution”. Pope John Paul II had addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and argued that evolution was consistent with Catholic teaching. Puzzled, Gould read the primary documents, the first of which was Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. In a long-winded and roundabout manner, Pius XII grudgingly conceded that Catholics could accept evolution:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in so far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

Gould wrote: “Pius generally accepts the NOMA principle of non-overlapping magisteria in permitting Catholics to entertain the hypothesis of evolution for the human body as long as they accept the divine infusion of the soul.” John Paul’s 1996 statement reaffirmed the NOMA principle, while also adding that scientific advances in the intervening fifty years had confirmed the legitimacy of evolution:

... new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of the theory.

Gould’s rather astonishing conclusion is that the concept of NOMA was first elaborated by a famously conservative and traditionalist pope (Pius XII), and explicitly supported by his equally conservative successor John Paul II. Gould described himself as an agnostic Jew, but admitted that

I have enormous respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me ... I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria – the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

So, neither of Coyne’s charges against Gould – that NOMA requires “the homeopathic dilution of religion” and that “it gives to religion sole authority over moral and philosophical issues” – holds up. Coyne writes: “Gould apparently construed ‘religion’ as the pronouncements of liberal Western theologians, many of them agnostics in all but name.” Pius XII and John Paul II would, I imagine, have been surprised to see themselves described in these terms.

Coyne describes accommodationism – a word which he uses with the same contempt that others use “collaborationism” – as a solution to cognitive dissonance, that is the psychological discomfort of holding two conflicting beliefs. He has coined a new term of abuse, “faitheists”, for people who don’t believe in religion but regard it as good for society. (I wondered about the “e” in “faitheism”: presumably Coyne wanted to sound a bit like “atheism”). Coyne is clear that his argument is with theism, that is the belief in a traditional, Abrahamic interventionist god, rather than with the more nebulous post-Enlightenment deism, which admitted the existence of God but rejected any notions of this entity being concerned with human affairs. He dismisses the examples of devoutly religious scientists such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, JJ Thomson, and James Clerk Maxwell with the observation that “in the early days of science everyone was religious ...” Yet Maxwell (1831-1879) was hardly working in the early days of science; JJ Thomson died in 1940.

Coyne deploys the traditional (and spectacularly arrogant) atheistic argument that really clever people (like Jerry Coyne) don’t believe in religion. This bizarre snobbery is not new: during the Enlightenment, atheism was regarded as “aristocratic”. Dawkins, too, is a great believer in clever people (like Richard Dawkins) being almost universally atheist – he calls them “brights”. Coyne boasts that compared with the general public, scientists in the US are far more likely to be atheist. And the more important and prestigious the scientist, the more likely he or she is to be atheist, with a rising percentage of non-believers as we go up the food-chain from jobbing scientists, to those working at elite research universities, and finally to members of the National Academy of Sciences, 93 per cent of whose members are atheists or agnostics. “This,” observes Coyne approvingly, is almost the exact opposite of the data for ‘average’ Americans ... All of this suggests that lack of religious belief is a side effect of doing science.” There are many other side effects of doing science – poor dress sense and a lot of facial hair being the most conspicuous; but the fact that scientists tend to be atheist, hairy and badly dressed is neither here nor there and proves precisely nothing.

By common consent, the three greatest scientists in history were Newton, Darwin and Einstein: what do their lives tell us about the relationship between science and religion? Darwin lost his Christian faith, due to a combination of the death of his daughter and his own theory of evolution. Einstein had a complex, highly personal religious sensibility:

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.

Coyne dismisses Einstein’s “religion” as a typical intellectual’s deism (“clearly not a paean to the Abrahamic God”), and quotes Einstein’s reply to a New York Orthodox rabbi who asked the great man whether he believed in God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.” Einstein’s famous remark that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” is dismissed with the unchallengeable assertion that the quote “is torn from its context”. Of the three, Newton had the most unusual religious beliefs. Coyne skips past him, claiming him as a kindred spirit on the grounds that he was a secret Unitarian, who denied the divinity of Jesus. This is true, but Newton’s beliefs were far more complex: he was a Puritan, obsessed with sin; he was deeply preoccupied with alchemy, and left a vast pile of manuscripts on the subject; he was euhemeristic, that is he believed that the classical gods were actual people who had been deified and that the myths of Greece and Rome represented real events in human history. John Maynard Keynes gained possession of a huge collection of Newton’s private papers on these matters, and wrote in his essay “Newton the Man”:

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that anyone who has pored over the contents of that box which he picked up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partially dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.

Newton’s biographer JWN Sullivan estimated that he devoted only about a third of his time and attention to physics and mathematics: “He was a genius of the first order at something he did not consider to be of the first importance.” So: Darwin was a reluctant atheist; Einstein had a highly evolved personal brand of deism; Newton, by contemporary standards, would be classed as a religious maniac. All we can conclude is that the religious beliefs of the three greatest scientists who ever lived were irrelevant to their scientific work.

Newton was not the only scientist inspired by myth. I was particularly struck by Coyne’s remark that “All the revelations in all the world’s scriptures have never told us that a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms arranged in a ring, or that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.” Struck, because benzene is a very peculiar example to choose: as every chemistry student knows, the unravelling of the molecular structure of benzene actually was due to a moment of what might properly be called revelation. In 1855, the German chemist August Kekulé was travelling on a horse-drawn omnibus in London and had an experience which he later described as a “vision of dancing atoms and molecules”, inspired by the ancient symbol of the ouroboros – the snake eating its own tail.

Coyne even has his own variation on the contemporary “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual” trope: “If emotion, awe, wonder, and yearning are considered ‘spirituality’, then call me spiritual, for I often feel the same ‘frisson in the breast’ described by Richard Dawkins, a die-hard atheist, as his own form of spirituality.” (Why, I wonder, in an atheist polemic, does the author need to refer to Richard Dawkins as a “die-hard atheist”?) It has always struck me as rather odd that atheists report sudden, almost damascene-like episodes when they lost their faith. For Jerry Coyne, this happened at the age of seventeen, listening to the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Many other listeners to that album reported transcendental, quasi-religious emotions. Coyne, while admitting to being moved to tears by some works of art, puts art in its rightful subsidiary place to science: “I have asked literature professors and critics to give me examples of truths actually revealed for the first time by literature, rather than affirmed by it, and haven’t received a single convincing answer.” If there is a single sentence in this tedious and repetitive book that encapsulates Coyne’s philistinism and lack of imagination, it is surely this. He misconstrues art as badly as religion.

Coyne lists the following as manifestations of the evils of religion: (1) Withholding of medical treatment of children because of parental religious beliefs; (2) Opposition to vaccination; (3) Opposition to assisted dying; (4) Global-warming denialism. He notches up some easy points with his accounts of American children dying of curable diseases because of the beliefs of their parents (generally Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists). From a European perspective, it is decidedly shocking to learn that “forty-three of the fifty states confer some type of civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds”.

And this is the major flaw of this book: much of Coyne’s anger is really directed, not at religion, but at his fellow countrymen. In European countries, including Ireland, the law simply does not permit the withholding of medical treatment of children on religious grounds. Opposition to vaccination is usually driven, not by religious belief, but by cynical media-driven scare stories, as witnessed by the MMR scandal in Britain. Dr Andrew Wakefield is not known to be motivated by religious fervour. Jenny McCarthy, the American “autism campaigner” has done more harm to vaccination programs than any religiously motivated group. Neither is opposition to assisted dying a strictly religious issue. The ongoing debate in Britain has shown that the issue is far more complicated: true, religious leaders united to argue against it, but so did many agnostic and atheist doctors. Coyne seems to view opposition to assisted dying as being led by the Catholic Church, “[w]ith its cult of suffering”. Anti-Catholicism is one of the few remaining acceptable religious prejudices; can you imagine the uproar if a Catholic-born commentator wrote in the same disobliging vein about Judaism? Or Islam?

Coyne cites the example of the “Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming” by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation – a conservative Christian think tank ‑ as evidence for religious influence on global-warming denialism, but concedes that “[b]ecause Americans with conservative attitudes tend to be religious ... it’s often difficult to separate views on climate based on religion from those resting on a secular faith-based rejection of science.” If you follow this line of argument, one could just as easily blame climate-change denialism on golf, to which conservative Americans are equally devoted. Most climate change deniers come from the political right – who often, at least in America, happen to be religious – but again, Coyne confuses association with causation. Since the publication of Faith vs FACT, Pope Francis has addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, where he begged world leaders to tackle climate change.

Much of this book is devoted to attacking creationism and its bastard offspring, intelligent design, but as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, America is the only developed nation where creationism is taken seriously. Gould noted that creationism

... is a home-grown phenomenon of American sociocultural history – a splinter movement of Protestant fundamentalists ... Creationism is a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among the few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as an inerrant document, literally true in every jot and tittle.

This book could only be taken seriously by an American readership. Stephen Jay Gould’s subtle Jesuit scientists would be amused by the influence of creationists in American education. The US is now the only developed western democracy where a politician aspiring to high office must make a public avowal of being “a person of faith”. (Am I alone in being unconvinced by Barack Obama’s displays of religious observance?)

I am with Coyne in defending science from accusations of “scientism” and other postmodern jiggery-pokery. Science works. And science, as he correctly points out, is morally neutral, but many others, most notably Karl Popper, had pointed this out long before Coyne. Does it truly matter if a physicist goes to Mass every Sunday, or if a molecular biologist goes to Synagogue on a Saturday? Does it matter that Isaac Newton believed in alchemy? Although Coyne thunders: “It is no more compatible to be a scientist in the lab and a believer in church than it is for someone to be a science-based physician who practices homeopathic medicine in her spare time”, he sheepishly concedes that “the practice of science itself isn’t seriously harmed by accommodationism”. Religion is not a threat to science. Harry Collins’s Are We all Scientific Experts Now? identified science’s real enemies: the popular media, postmodernist humanities academics, rogue researchers like Andrew Wakefield and opportunist politicians, such as Thabo Mbeki, whose AIDS denialism led to many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

The book closes with the question: “Can there be a dialogue between science and faith?” Coyne does not believe in all that accommodationist nonsense: “My response is that anything useful will come from a monologue – one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening.” (I would hazard a guess that Coyne has used this phrase many times on his students: just substitute “I” for ‘science’ and “you” for “religion”.) He makes a minor concession, however: “Yes, there are some sophisticated believers and theologians who see religion as independent of facts, but they are in the minority, and by and large their ‘religion’ – often more a philosophy – does little harm to either science or society.”

Coyne presents us with arguments that have been advanced many times by better writers, such as Hitchens and Dawkins: do we need another book proclaiming there is no God? Had he trimmed all of this, this might have been a short book about his beef with accommodationism and the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould is no longer around to defend himself, but his essays and books are. Hitchens too, is gone; some years before he died, Gore Vidal – in a typically imperious gesture – announced that Hitch was his natural intellectual heir – his “dauphin”. Later – inevitably – they fell out and Hitch was disinherited. Sadly, the Grand Old Man’s peevish gesture was wasted: he outlived his protégé by six months. Hitch did not name an heir. A few sharp-elbowed contenders, including Coyne, have emerged. Another is Coyne’s buddy, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, who wrote a glowing review of Faith vs FACT for the prestigious science journal Cell (where Coyne has published several papers on the fruit fly). In the same week, Pinker published another piece in The Boston Globe called “The moral imperative for bioethics”. In this short piece, he argued that bioethics, with its religious-sounding concerns about “dignity”, “sacredness” and “social justice” was impeding the vital work of biomedical research: “.... the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence. Get out of the way.” This short, self-regarding and spectacularly arrogant piece summarizes neatly both the intolerance and dwarfish aridity of the new atheism, and the astonishing pomposity and hubris of the biomedical scientific establishment.

This shouty, intolerant and crude book is aimed squarely at an American readership. Coyne holds up what he calls “Northern Europe” as a good argument for the societal advantages of secularism. We in Northern Europe can only read this polemic with puzzlement. Our accommodationist instincts, in the wake of the Paris atrocity, have been tested, and not found wanting. So, is Coyne ready for promotion to the atheist premier league? Christopher Hitchens may now forever be ghettoised with Dawkins, Dennett and Harris as one of “The Four Horsemen of the non-Apocalypse”, but he was much more than that. Coyne and the other pretenders lack his wit, his cheek and his humanity. Stick to the fruit flies, Jerry.


Seamus O’Mahony is a consultant physician and a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books. His book The Way We Die Now will be published by Head of Zeus in May 2016