Book review: Faith vs Fact by Jerry A Coyne: a perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens

No doubt this book will attract the spiteful ire that defenders of faith have already directed at atheists

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People of goodwill on both sides of the divide like to maintain that faith and science are compatible, despite past clashes. The biologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “NOMA” – non-overlapping magisteria – to describe the happily co-existing territories of science and religion.

However, the American evolutionary scientist, Jerry Coyne, has no truck with such accommodationism. He argues that there is a direct and unavoidable conflict between faith and science. Both make truth claims about the Universe. But only science has the means to test, refute or refine its claims. Faith (which Coyne defines as belief without evidence, including not just religion but pseudo-science and authoritarian ideologies) not only can’t test its claims, but makes a virtue of not doing so. That’s why there have been no advances in religious “knowledge” since the foundational scriptures were written. Science, on the other hand, which thrives on doubt, has been increasing human knowledge for the past 500 years.

Coyne argues that faith is not a virtue. It generates certainty but not knowledge, and  that can be a dangerous thing. People kill each other over religious certainties. Those in the grip of faith may oppose the teaching of evolution in schools, deny global warming, refuse vital medical treatments for their children, oppose stem cell research and persecute homosexuals – all in the name of beliefs which are fundamentally immune to evidence.

In an entertaining chapter, “Faith Fights Back”, Coyne reviews the arguments commonly trotted out against new atheists, and a pretty spavined bunch of arguments they are.

Science does bad things too. Well, no. People do bad things. Science can provide the means to do them, but not the motivation. Faith, on the other hand, with its “combination of certainty, morality and universal punishment”, thrusts motivations upon the faithful, with results that are all too familiar.

Or there’s: How do you know God doesn’t exist? You can’t prove a negative. As Coyne points out, yes you can prove a negative, if we’re talking about normal standards of proof: “Can you prove that I don’t have two hearts? Of course you can: just do a CAT scan.”

Another favourite is: Science relies on faith. This is based on an equivocation over the word “faith”. If it means that scientists (like the rest of us) have “confidence based on experience” in their theories, well, fine, but that’s not the same thing as faith in the sense of unevidenced belief.

Another oft-repeated criticism of new atheists is that they haven’t read any theology. Coyne has made a point of doing so, and totally dismantles Alvin Plantinga’s sophisticated version of the God of the Gaps argument.

No doubt this book will attract the spiteful ire that defenders of faith have already directed at atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. But the ad hominem nature of that ire suggests a certain insecurity.

Jerry Coyne is the perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens as the fourth Horseman of the New Atheist Apocalypse.