Jerry Coyne: ‘Odd couple’ science, religion can’t cohabit

Professor Jerry Coyne accepted FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award with this speech Oct. 8, 2011, in Hartford, Conn. It has been edited for print.

By Jerry Coyne

Thanks very much to Dan and Annie Laurie for inviting me. It’s sort of ironic that I get a statue of a naked emperor when I’ve taken such great pains to be sartorially splendid today. My friends will tell you they never see me wear a suit except at a wedding or a funeral, but I knew Steve Pinker was going to be here. I know he wears tailored Italian suits and I couldn’t let him outdo me. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the hair.

I’m not really going to talk about the evidence for evolution today as Dan might have implied because that’s in my book which you can buy for a pittance outside. I’ll be glad to sign it.

I want to talk mostly about the compatibility of science and religion. I started off as an evolutionary biologist fighting creationism, because that’s the main opponent you face if you try to teach evolution to kids. Over years and years of doing this and writing a book and newspaper and magazine articles, I realized things weren’t budging very much in America and that the rate of acceptance of evolution was pretty much stuck at 40%.

It’s not because people aren’t aware of the facts. We have people like myself and Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Steve Gould that have been promulgating evolution for years and years. Nevertheless, nothing’s happened. It’s 40% and it’s been that way for 30 years.

There’s only one reason for that, and that’s religion. Religion prevents people from accepting evolution, the great religion destroyer. As the years went on, I gradually transmogrified from being an evolutionary biologist to an evolutionary biologist atheist. Now I’m more of an atheist than an evolutionary biologist, and I realize that creationism, the opposition to evolution, is the least of our worries, compared to someone throwing acid in the face of a schoolgirl in Afghanistan for religious reasons.

Kids learning that the Genesis story is true is trivial. My opposition to religion goes far beyond its effects on teaching evolution, but I want to concentrate today on its effects on science in general and in particular on a topic that’s been of great interest lately: The so-called harmony of religion and science.

I titled my talk “The Odd Couple: Why Science and Religion Can’t Cohabit,” because it’s an attack on the view that science and religion are not only compatible but can be buddies, that both have ways of finding out stuff in this world. That’s complete hogwash. Today I want to tell you why, as a scientist who has studied religion painfully.

I could give this talk with one quote from Christopher Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” That’s all you need to show that science and religion are incompatible, because we have the evidence and they don’t. I think I have to say something more though to earn my statue, so I will go into a little more detail.

Bogus buddies

The problem I call “accommodationism” is increasingly widespread in the U.S. It’s the view that science and religion are buddies. They answer different kinds of questions but in different spheres but they can be harmonious, and maybe they can help each other or mutually reinforce each other. I think that’s completely bogus.

The problem is pervasive, it’s everywhere. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health is the most famous scientist in America. He’s an evangelical Christian who founded the group called the Biologos Forum, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is totally devoted to reconciling evangelical Christianity to evolution.

The Templeton Foundation itself is one of the greatest miscreants in this whole mess. Its mission is to basically blur the boundaries between science and religion. It does that by posing religious questions that are not only poorly framed but unanswerable. Nevertheless, it dispenses $70 million a year in grants to scientists and theologians to try to blur these boundaries.

Scientific organizations themselves, to their great discredit, frequently issue statements saying science and faith are compatible. Here’s the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions about the world.” (A) That’s not true and (B) even if it were, only one of those areas actually provides answers to the questions.

The most elite body of scientists in the United States is the National Academy Of Science. (It’s so elite that I’m not even a member.) They issued a statement saying science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways.

These organizations are always putting out statements saying, “Science and religion are different. They don’t have to conflict with each other. They address different aspects of human experience.” But despite this profusion of warm, fuzzy-minded accommodationism, there’s still evidence in our society of a profound conflict between science and religion.

Why is there widespread opposition to evolution? We don’t have widespread opposition to black holes or gravity or antibiotics. It’s because evolution hits you in the solar plexus if you’re religious. It attacks the most powerful argument for god that ever existed, which is the design argument.

This is why only 40% of Americans accept evolution, and most of those accept the god-driven version of evolution, which isn’t the way we scientists conceive of it.

If you survey Americans themselves, they believe science and religion are incompatible. Indeed, many believe that their own religion and science are incompatible. We have this high rate of atheism among scientists, which to me can only mean there’s something about being a scientist that makes you discard religion.

About 16% of Americans are atheists or agnostics. If you look at scientists at “elite” universities — a survey done by Elaine Eckland recently showed 72% of them described themselves as agnostics or atheists. If you look at members of the elite National Academy of Sciences, 93% of them are agnostics or atheists. Only 7% say they believe in a personal god. This is prima facie evidence to me of incompatibility.

You get a violent reaction when you claim otherwise. I wrote an article for USA Today last year, “Science and Religion Aren’t Friends.” It got a huge number of comments, so many in fact, that although USA Today is not the most liberal publication, they want to let me keep writing for them because they know it stirs up controversy.

Two days ago, [conservative political commentator] Andrew Sullivan got really angry at me when I said the Garden of Eden is clearly wrong, and the Adam and Eve story has been disproven by genetics. Sullivan said we all knew this all along. That it’s a metaphor and that nobody ever believed this story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is true. Which of course speaks to a complete ignorance of the history of Sullivan’s own Catholicism.

“Are science and religion in conflict?” About 55% of Americans say yes, they are. If you ask them whether science conflicts with their beliefs, 36% say yes.

So, despite the ministrations of Francis Collins, the scientific academies, etc., we still have this pervasive belief amongst Americans that their faith conflicts with science. And it does! For the rest of this lecture, I’ll show you why.

Angels but not Darwin

A very astounding statistic I found in Time magazine was from a 2006 poll that asked, “If science found a fact that contravened one of the dictates of your faith, what would you do?” Would you give up your faith or that tenet of your faith? Would you give up the fact or what?

What percentage of Americans do you think would reject a well-established scientific fact to keep the tenets of their faith? Maybe 20% to 30%? It’s 64%. If anything demonstrates the incompatibility of science and religion, it’s that statistic.

There are lots of other conflicts. Look at what Americans believe about the literal truth of the bible. I’ll concentrate mostly on the Abrahamic faiths. What percentage believes in the literal existence of angels? It’s 78%, so 8 out of 10 of your neighbors, and maybe you’ve met some of them. The women who used to take care of my cat thought angels were real.

A survey of 32 European countries about how religious they are versus how much they accept evolution shows that the countries that are the most religious have the least acceptance of Darwin. Where do we fall? It’s shameful. U.S. acceptance: 40%. The only lower point is Turkey, which is a fundamentalist Muslim country.

This could mean maybe if you learn Darwinism you’ll reject religion with this negative correlation. I think it’s more likely an explanation that if you’re religious to begin with as a kid, you don’t accept Darwinism. So this is a conflict between the subject dear to my heart which is evolution and religious belief.

So we have the assertion that science and religion are compatible. We have the palpable evidence that people believe they’re not compatible, and we have all this brouhaha in the press. The question is why is this happening right now? It’s a sociological question.

The ‘faitheists’

There’s a view which is very widespread amongst what I call “faitheists,” who are the atheists who are religion friendly. You’ll never make religious people accept science unless you tell them that science and religion are compatible. You have to tell them this message in order to get them to come out for evolution and everything else.

There’s not a shred of evidence this is true, in fact. Most evangelicals who have been converted to science have been converted by people like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.

This is very common. People don’t want to be seen as miscreants or militants or polemicists. A lot of religious people want to keep their faith but don’t want to be seen as backward. You want to accept science but keep that view in your brain that maybe you’re going somewhere after you die. So you have to say, in order to maintain this cognitive dissonance, that science and religion are compatible with one another.

Religious people are antsy because they see their sphere of influence shrinking. They also see, which is true, that there’s no purpose or meaning in the universe or anything like that, a statement made famous by Steven Weinberg. Most theologians can’t put up with this purposelessness.

When I use an example of a theologian in this talk, I’m going to use John Haught because I’m going to debate him in about five days in Kentucky. This is sort of a long version of that talk. He can stand in for any theologian. The same kind of “only good” god issues from him as from any other of these so called “sophisticated theologians.”

John Haught, by the way, is the prime accommodationist among modern American theologians. He’s written gazillions of books showing Darwinism and evolution are friends and compatible. We can’t abide the conviction the universe and life are pointless — pointless from a celestial standpoint rather than our own standpoint.

Why does this matter? Why am I lecturing to you, and why do I write editorials for USA Today? First of all, the pollution of science by superstition. I’m a pure scientist. I like my science unsullied by people like Francis Collins, who maintains morality itself is evidence for god. Or why Ken Miller says “Evolution may work, but god’s there pushing it from behind or pulling it toward some ultimate point,” which of course is us.

The false idea that other ways of knowing are valid as science ­— this is the non-overlapping magisteria argument Rebecca Newberger Goldstein talked about last night. These accommodationists make unfair and untenable criticisms of science. The false idea is that religion can produce knowledge. Religion doesn’t increase any kind of knowledge. Science does. If you’re religious and think you have a handle on the truth, you’ll act in certain ways that are, in general, inimical for society. If you think you have a handle on the truth and that that truth comes from “God” and religion is a way of really knowing that truth, then you’ll do stuff in society that is not very good.

What science is

Science is a sophisticated form of common sense. It’s an exquisitely tuned, exquisitely baroque way of finding out stuff about the universe, the same way a mechanic, plumber or engineer finds out stuff. It’s just codified by the pervasiveness of doubt, by the use of replication of experiments by different people, by the tenet that any scientific theory you can make has to be falsifiable in some way before it’ll be generally accepted.

Scientific knowledge grows by testing hypotheses against what we see in nature — interrogating nature. The best characterization of science I know of was uttered by Richard Feynman who is the originator of many bons mots: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you’re the easiest person to fool.” You have to be very careful about that.

Science is an elaborate construction of rules and practices designed to keep you from fooling yourself, to keep you from believing what you really want to believe. The worst thing that can happen to a scientist is to try to show what’s true is what you want to be true. That’s a real sin. Of course in religion, that’s completely the opposite. That’s the purpose of religion. 

Science is summarized in this quote by a researcher at CERN, which is a European nuclear facility in Switzerland, when they found neutrinos might have gone faster than the speed of light. That’s really a revolutionary scientific finding, and immediately one of the people at CERN said, “The correct attitude is to ask what went wrong.” Immediate doubt about something — that’s so revolutionary.

Imagine this applied to religion. Jesus rose from the dead after three days. We have to ask ourselves, “What went wrong? That can’t be right!” [Laughter] Religion operates differently. You know how it operates, particularly those like Dan who used to be religious. It’s based on dogma, authority and revelation and not empirical observation in nature.

Religious people will deny this to their death, but it’s true. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That’s the way religious people “know” stuff. They just find it in their heads through intuition. Or they’re taught it by their parents.

Religious ideas don’t change by finding out more stuff about nature. Religion does not progress in its understanding of the divine, if there were a divine. Theology or religion changes because of two things: Science shows it’s wrong, which is what happened with evolution and Adam and Eve and the flood stories. Or secular morality forces religion to change because they just can’t stand up against secular ways of morality, which is what Steve Pinker was talking about last night. Things like gay rights and rights of women have been pushed on churches by changes in secular views, not by religious people themselves.

In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, there are ways of knowing that you’re wrong. I could give you a list of evidence that would convince me that evolution was wrong: fossils in the wrong place, adaptations in one species that are only useful for another species, a whole list of them. None has ever been found.

People say religion and science have to be compatible because there are scientists, good scientists, who are religious. And lots of religious people accept science, so obviously they’re compatible. My answer to that is, if you’re going believe that, you have to believe Catholicism and pedophilia are compatible because a great number of Catholics are pedophiles. [Applause]

This doesn’t show compatibility in anything more than a trivial sense. What it shows is that as humans we have an amazing ability to hold two different contradictory concepts in our mind. Walt Whitman said, “I contradict myself. Very well then, I contradict myself.” That’s what these guys are doing. It shows cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t show compatibility.

Religious ‘truths’

The incompatibility rests then on three things. First is the methodology. In science we are wedded to nondivine explanations for a natural phenomenon. We don’t sit there and pray for an answer. We go into our labs or out in the field and look for stuff. And that works! We actually find things out, like antibiotics and how to fly to the moon. We can make predictions.

Think of all the advances due to quantum mechanics. That’s all due to assuming that god doesn’t interrupt our experiments with erratic interpositions from time to time. This methodological naturalism has brought forth a philosophical form of naturalism which theologians really hate. It’s the view that since assuming there’s nothing supernatural has helped us make so much progress, then there must not be anything supernatural, because assuming there is a supernatural hasn’t helped us one iota in understanding anything about the universe. So we have methodological and philosophical incompatibility and incompatibility in conclusions reached about the universe. When science and religion interrogate nature, you get different results.

Some examples of things that are religious truths are the creation myth, the great flood, the efficacy of prayer, the afterlife, etc. Science doesn’t support the existence of these things. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been that scientific research found there was a great flood, that everything was created instantaneously, that Adam and Eve were real people. Genetics could have told us that, and that there was virgin birth and resurrection. At least some people could have been parthenogenic and women could give birth to males without being inseminated.

There’s an incompatibility of results as well, so it’s threefold; methodology, philosophy and results. It could be scripture did give us an accurate scientific understanding of the world, but it didn’t. If it’s inspired by god, then you have to ask yourself “why not?”

The answer from theologians to what I just said is invariably this: But the bible isn’t a textbook of science; it’s not meant to tell scientific truth.

When you hear that, you have to reinterpret it as this: The bible is not true. That’s what they mean when they say it’s not a textbook of science.

When you ask them further, you find out maybe it is a textbook of science in some ways. Some things are clearly metaphors. Those are things that science has disproven like the flood and evolution. The biblical science tells us there was a son of God named Jesus who was resurrected after three days, born of a virgin and he’s going to come back some day and send us all up, or down.

Fooling themselves

The people who said the bible isn’t true aren’t being true to themselves. They think some parts are true. They are never going to say this to you. Just ask them that. And the rest is just metaphor.

There is another palpable difference between science and religion. What do you do when you make an assertion about the world that you know turns out to be false? In science it goes into the dustbin of discarded results like cold fusion or any number of falsified theories.

When a religious claim is falsified like creation or Adam and Eve, it simply turns into a metaphor. “We didn’t really mean it, folks. It wasn’t meant that way. It means something else completely.”

Nevertheless, religious people do claim that they do find truth. Here’s John Haught again: “Religion is about the deepest of all realities. Anyone who takes it seriously, it’s about what is most real. Indeed, it’s about absolute reality.”

I looked up the word reality after I read that. It’s “real existence.” What’s real rather than imagined or desired? In that sense, religion doesn’t tell us anything about reality. It tells us what’s imagined or desired, not what is out there.

Does religion produce truth? No. I’ve interrogated readers on my website about this for three years by asking them “Give me one example about the truth of the universe that religion has produced.” I should start offering a prize for that. There’s never been an answer, at least one that makes sense.

Religious inquiry doesn’t produce the truth about the universe. Theological knowledge doesn’t expand. It just changes from one form to another, sort of like literary criticism.

Religion answers the big questions that science can’t handle. This is what John Haught said. It’s the main business of religion to answer the really big questions. We scientists only have to answer the tiny little questions like “Where did the universe come from” or “Where did we come from?” But the really big questions like “What is our purpose” or “Where do we go after we die?” — that’s the job of religion.

They really do think they provide answers to questions, and of course they don’t. None of these questions have been answered by religions. Or if they have been, different religions give you different answers. If you’re a Muslim and you believe Jesus is the savior, you’re doomed. If you’re a Christian and you believe Muhammad is the savior, you’re doomed as well.

If you press a theologian, they’ll actually admit they don’t have these answers. Haught again: “We really can’t say what the point of everything is because it’s all so fuzzy.”

When you look at it hard enough, modern sophisticated theology is functionally indistinguishable from atheism, because they’ll just waffle and waffle.

Theologians fooling you

I want to finish with some ways I’ve discerned theologians behave unscientifically when dealing with the problems of science. You should be aware of the maneuvers they make.

First of all, they say the bible doesn’t mean what it seems to say, that it’s a metaphor in many ways.

Secondly, they say theology is different from science because its purpose is to confirm what you already believe rather than to test what you already believe.

Third, when you’re pressed into a corner like Adam and Eve, you make stuff up. You have to comport new observations with god’s plan. That’s different from science. When you find a new and unusual observation, we may have to overturn the existing paradigm. In theology, you have to use that to support the existing paradigm.

Finally, there are unfounded claims to understand the nature and intention of god. Any faiths not agreeing with theologians’ claims are deemed incorrect faiths.

Here’s a prime example of the bible not saying what it seems to say. Up until about 100 years ago, everyone thought the Adam and Eve story was true, that all of us came from two progenitors. The bible says this very clearly. In the last couple of weeks, genetics has shown this is all bunk, as if we didn’t know that already. The numbers of ancestors of modern humanity was, at a minimum, 1,200 to 12,000 about 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. So what do theologians do? They make stuff up.

They say, “Well, there were lots of people, but only two of them were the designated beneficiaries of god like Adam and Eve.” You wouldn’t believe the stories theologians have made up to try to get around this intellectual fact of genetics.

If you find something like that is false, and you look at a book and all the stories turn out to be false scientifically, what you should do is be more skeptical of that book. That, of course, isn’t what happened. If Adam and Eve turns into a metaphor, the reaction you should give to a Christian is, “Well, then Jesus died for a metaphor.” And theologians aren’t down with that view.

Here’s another case of what theologians do when faced with a case of stuff that doesn’t exist: The afterlife. John Haught really admits there isn’t any evidence for an afterlife.

He does this with his usual verbal obfuscation: “If I were to try to illicit scientific evidence of immortality, I would just be capitulating to the narrow empiricism that underlies the natural belief.” That translation: We don’t have any evidence, folks.

Nevertheless, it’s still there, and why is it there? Because you have hope. You have hope, and that hope is what makes it true. That’s completely the opposite of what science does. It’s the assurance of things hoped for. John Haught is making stuff up.

We know when we look around us, there’s not much evidence for god in the world today. We don’t see miracles. We see suffering, we see death. We see tsunamis and earthquakes. Where’s god? John says that “the ultimate reality is beyond our grasp. We can’t see god because if we could grasp it, it would not be ultimate.”

This is, first of all, a profound tautology. Secondly, it rests on our misunderstanding of the word “ultimate,” because ultimate things can be graspable. But this is the kind of verbal prestidigitation that theologians engage in. And when you see there’s no evidence for god, it’s far more parsimonious to come up with this hypothesis: “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.” [Laughter]

Another thing theologians do that scientists don’t is to rationalize everything you find or will find as being part of god’s plan. Evolution used to be a god killer. Now we know that actually that’s what god wanted.

Why do we see suffering in the world? Why do little kids get cancer? Why do tsunamis wipe out hundreds of thousands of people? It’s because god likes that kind of drama, according to John Haught.

He set the world so it would be just like this magnificent play in which all these things unfold, new species arise, and it’s just a magnificent drama and everything’s being pulled toward this huge future in which we’re all unfolded into the bosom of Jesus.

The Earl of Gloucester in “King Lear” says, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.” I’ve rewritten this according to the view that many theologians hold: As actors are to an audience, are we to the gods, they watch us for their sport.

Every possible observation can be comported with religion. Anytime you find something new, you don’t overturn your paradigm. You save it by some judicious circumlocution. Evolution used to be a god killer. It’s the most profound argument against the existence of god that science has ever come up with. What do the theologians do? Do they reject god? No friggin’ way. They say, “It’s really a tribute to god that the world isn’t just passive putty in his hands but instead is inherently active and a self-creative process, one that can evolve and produce new life.”

If you’re the Church Lady, if you remember “Saturday Night Live,” you’d look at this and say, “Well, isn’t that special.” [Laughter]

When you see stuff like this rationalization of evolution, we should have known that god really meant it all along. If that’s so, why isn’t it in scripture? When you see that kind of rationalization, I think of theologies as a kind of sausage grinder where you feed in scientific necessities like evolution and our human ancestry at one end, and theologians turn them into religious virtues at the other. This is “the way god really wanted it, and isn’t it wonderful that he wanted it that way?”

Accusing science

Finally, unfounded claims to understand the nature and intention of god. According to Haught, God has this extravagant divine generosity that’s produced all these wonderful species. The question is how does he know that? If you look around the world, you can equally say god was mischievous or apathetic or even a bit malicious. John is not only making up stuff, but he’s claiming to know something about the nature of god, which he has no right to know.

Religious people, because they’re backed into a corner by science, start counter-accusing science as being bad: “Science is a faith like religion.” “Science can’t prove that god doesn’t exist,” which is wrong because you can prove the nonexistence of something. You can prove for example that I do not own a Maserati. Just look at my garage. Look at my bank account, etc. “Science fosters scientism.” That’s the view that science is the only reliable guide to truth. That’s a common accusation. In my view, science is the only reliable guide to truth if you construe science broadly as rationality combined with empiricism.

“Science gives us no moral grounding.” Maybe it does if it’s evolved. And so what? That doesn’t prove that Jesus gives us moral grounding. And finally, “science has been misused.” Well, fine. There have been scientists that have misused stuff as have religious people.

So in the end, when you ask yourself if science and religion are compatible, can there be a constructive dialogue between them — and many people may maintain this like the National Academy — the answer is NO. There can be no constructive dialogue between science and religion. There can be a monologue between science and religion but it’s not a constructive one. It’s a destructive one. It’s because science can contribute to faith by showing their assertions about the world are wrong.

Why does it really matter that science and religion are incompatible? Who cares if there are some religious scientists out there? It’s a matter of not only how you possess the truth and how you come to it, but what you do with the truth.

Science is a methodology about finding out objective information about the world. That’s all it is. If you have antibiotics or an atom bomb, what you do with an antibiotic or an atom bomb depends on considerations like ethics and morality and other things that don’t come from science.

Religion is different because religion starts with ideas about ethics and morality and beliefs and then confirms them in these sort of roundabout ways that I mentioned before. That’s dangerous.

We’re constantly accused of being arrogant, and the religious people say they’re humble. We’re actually the humble ones because we always admit our truths are tentative, whereas religious people think they have the handle on truth.

If you think you have the handle on truth that comes from above, then you’re going to act on it and will act on it in a much less tentative and much more malicious way than people who have come to the truth through reason and empiricism.

Here’s one example: Some think of the Catholic Church as a warm, fuzzy faith. Here are some of the tenets of Catholicism that have come from their belief in the errancy of scripture: Opposition to birth control, opposition to birth control to prevent AIDS in Africa and opposition to abortion.

That all comes from scripture and the belief we know what’s true and that humans have souls. More scripture: God made marriage indissoluble. Opposition to homosexuality to control people’s sex lives. Making women second-class citizens. Installation of fear and guilt in children. Children being terrorized into adulthood by Catholic teachings. Protection of priests who abuse children, which now in my view has gone so far up in the Vatican that it’s official policy.

This all comes from people thinking they know that they have a handle on the truth, that their revelation is a way to find out what truth is. That they have to act on the basis of that truth because (A) it comes from god and (B) truth comes with a package of beliefs and morality that was there in the first place.

Real truth comes only from empirical investigation and analysis. I am an advocate of scientism in that respect, science properly construed.

When religion comes up against science, the outcome is inevitable, as Stephen Hawking said last year: “Science will win because it works.”

Thanks very much.

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and author of the 2009 book Why Evolution is True.

Freedom From Religion Foundation