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Advance Book Review: Faith vs Fact March 29, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books.
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I was fortunate enough to win an advance copy of Jerry Coyne’s upcoming book, Faith vs Fact, from Goodreads.  Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, the author of the book Why Evolution is True, and blogs copiously at his wordpress blog, likewise named Why Evolution is True.

The full title of the book is Faith vs. Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.  Spoiler – Fact wins!  (Although, if you are familiar with Coyne’s writing at all, that’s not really a spoiler. Regular readers of Coyne’s blog will find no surprises here.)  This book is a clear and carefully constructed outline of the conflicts between science and religion, written from the point of view of a strong advocate for science.

The book is divided into several major chapters, with many subchapters in each:  The Problem, What’s Incompatible?, Why Accommodationism Fails, Faith Strikes Back, and Why Does it Matter?  Something that pleased me very much was the content of the chapter “What’s Incompatible?”  Before he launches into his analysis, he dissects the definitions of “Science”, “Religion”,and “Incompatibility” in quite some detail, and also discusses the various different areas where science and religion regularly come into conflict.  He’s made sure to be very clear about what he is talking about, before we get into actual arguments.  I very much appreciate this approach.

A topic he covers at some length is “accommodationism.”  For those unfamiliar with this term, it’s the idea that science and religion don’t actually need to conflict.  This view is held by many more liberal believers, including religious scientists.  It is also held by some members of the secular community, who hold that even though religion is not actually true, it nevertheless is good for society.  Coyne holds no truck with this notion, and spends quite a bit of the book arguing against the accommodationist position.

A major point Coyne makes in the accommodationism section of this book is the failure of NOMA to resolve the science vs. religion issue in any meaningful way.   For those new to this area of discussion, “NOMA” stands for “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” and is an idea originally put forth by biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould back in 1999.  Gould’s idea was that science would apply only to questions of empirical truth, and religion would apply only to questions of morals,  meaning and values.  As long as those two areas did not overlap, science and religion could exist side-by-side in harmony.  Coyne makes the point that this “non-overlapping” ideal does not accurately represent either science or religion.  Religion constantly makes empirical fact claims about the world, and science certainly can be applied to study morality, so the overlap is unavoidable.

The “Faith Strikes Back” section largely looks at believers’ attempts to deflect the conflict, either by apologetics that claim that science actually points to (their) religion, or by attempts to discredit science.  Coyne looks at (and rebuts) such apologetics as the argument from fine tuning, or the science does bad things trope.  He spends some time addressing the derogatory term “scientism”  where theists accuse science supporters of operating on faith just as much as theists do.  To level the playing field, he (yay!) coins a neologism, religionism.  He defines religionism as “The tendency of religion to overstep its boundaries by making unwarranted statements about the universe or by demanding unearned authority”.  I’m keeping that term, it’s a good one.

His concluding section Why Does it Matter?, looks at the harmful effects of faith mostly in examples relating to healthcare, and he does not confine this to only religious faith, but also looks at faith in medical quackery as another aspect of the same problem.  As he draws to a conclusion, he speaks out strongly against faith, in a style reminiscent of recent books by Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

As I read through this book, the one question I kept asking myself was “who is the intended audience for this book?”  Was it aimed at atheist accommodationists, liberal believers, religious scientists? I wasn’t entirely sure.  So I emailed Jerry to ask this question, and he sent me an answer that he had provided to just that same question from his publisher:

(Publisher) Who is the target audience for your book: those who stand with you on the side of science, those who wholeheartedly believe the word of their God, or those in the middle who think that science and religion are compatible?

(Jerry Coyne) The target audience for the book is diverse. First, it includes the many “accommodationists” who feel that science and religion are compatible.  A lot of these are religious believers, including those who are science-friendly but claim not only that science and religion are compatible, but that they actually help each other to find truth. Other accommodationists in the target audience argue that science and religion are compatible because they’re separate and non-overlapping areas of inquiry, with science giving us the facts and religion giving us our values, morals, and meanings.  Even some religious fundamentalists see science and religion as compatible because both are products of a mind given us by God.  Combine these people with the many nonbelievers who either haven’t thought much about the issue, or have a kneejerk view that there’s no conflict between science and faith, and you’ll get a sizeable portion of Americans. The other people I wrote for constitute the “choir”: those who find science and religion incompatible but are looking for a full discussion of the issue. In short, the target audience comprises those who have an interest in science and also some knowledge of religion.  That’s most of us!

So how well does this book succeed?  Writing for the “choir” I think this book does admirably well.  For those who are confronted with a barrage of theists arguing either that there’s no conflict, or that science is evil, or that science proves religion, this book can be a helpful resource.  Clear arguments and careful definitions make this a book to refer back to.

For the rest of his intended audience, I’m not as sure.  A strongly-worded book such as this may simply wind up invoking the backfire effect in many cases.  When people are confronted with material that directly contradicts their deepest convictions, their reaction is not usually to rethink their position, their normal reaction is to double down and become even more convinced of their own rightness.  So if someone who is completely convinced that religion and science can harmoniously co-exist read this book, I doubt it would change their minds, no matter how well-argued the book is.  A direct confrontation is not always the best approach; for many people a series of gentle nudges is more effective in influencing them into a new direction of thought.  While I agree with Coyne’s overall goals, this is just a question about strategy.  Although I am willing to be proved wrong on this!

However, for someone who is on the fence about this issue, this book might be what pushes them over onto the “faith is not a good thing” side.  For someone who has recently deconverted, this book may prove useful as they sort out which of their former attitudes about the world they should keep and which to discard.  And there is the occasional fundamentalist who just needs a swift kick in the dogma to start thinking more rationally. So overall I give this book a good recommendation for secular and science-oriented readers, as well as those who have not yet made up their minds on this issue.



1. cag - March 29, 2015

Hmm. Fact versus the anal excretion of a male bovine. Give me some time to ruminate on that, about 2,000 years should hopefully do.


2. Steve Morris - March 30, 2015

I agree with you about direct confrontation.


3. Ellen Hawley - April 10, 2015

As a writer, I’ve come to dread the question Who is the intended audience? It’s a perfectly legitimate question, but we always want to make the audience as wide as possible. I mean, what writer wants to say, Nope, sorry, it’s not for you? So sure, most of us lean heavily in the direction of saying, “Everyone.” My most honest answer is, “Anyone who’ll read it.” Which isn’t terribly helpful.

Liked by 1 person

4. wzingrone - April 10, 2015

as an unabashed scientismist myself, looking forward to Jerry’s book. Not surprised it is as well constructed as you describe. Also as a blogger and aspiring writer trying to land an agent…the intended audience question comes up. If you’re writing teen fiction or a cookbook or a combination of the two like 50 Shades, it is a good question with a specific answer. Jerry’s answer is like mine…everybody! Which is too broad for a publisher to take seriously, but Jerry’s answer just about says that. The choir of secularists of course for detailed arguments to add to their arsenal, and of course those on the fence and questioning (which describes a broad class of young and old, mostly young) and even believers who yes may be taken aback by direct attack of belief. Given the nature of the religion/science conflict, or all questioning of religion, all confrontation is taken as direct, no matter how soft pedaled…because in point of fact it is. I’ve witnessed too many secular-believer exchanges, panel discussions, impromptu questions, even arguments where no matter how gentle the person delivering, no matter how well-phrased the wording, it comes out “religion is wrong” “religion is bullshit” “religion is inferior” “religion is delusional” etc. because frankly it is. It is a direct confrontation no matter how in what terms you couch it because it is a direct confrontation of absurd, unfounded ideas. I think the backfire effect is overrated. The immediate emotional reaction is negative yes, but damn near always a seed is planted that may take years to take hold. Dawkins’ website is full of testimonials of believers changing their minds, and he and Hitch and Harris and others couldnt be more confrontational. Its allgood as long as it is not ad hominem, but only against religious thought and claims. You have to let believers catch on you truly do not think they are stupid, only hosed, and usually as children. Great review, thnx.



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