Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong on Science and Religion

In a USA Today editorial from two days ago, Professor Jerry Coyne attempts to argue that science and religion are irreconcilable foes.  The editorial is frustrating, in that it’s a series of assertions which never really rise to the level of a developed argument: he simply makes a series of arguably-true and patently-false claims, one after another, which don’t build off of each other in any apparent way.  His thesis is that:

Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.

His attempts to “prove” this thesis are laughably. He imagines that religious people will point to the example of Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes for Health, and an Evangelical.  He rejects this as a proof, noting that “the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn’t prove that the two areas are compatible.”  Yet his own “proof” is largely that some 64% of modern scientists are non-believers, while turning a blind eye to the centuries of scientific giants who were devout believers.  So the existence of religious scientists doesn’t prove science and religion are compatible, but the existence of non-religious scientists proves they’re not?  What logical thread turns this into a rational argument? 

Of course, the opposite is closer to the truth.  Theists claim simply that the two are compatible, not that they always go hand-and-hand, so the presence of atheist scientists or scientifically-ignorant theists is not particular troubilng.  On the other hand, Coyne is claiming that they’re fundamentally incompatible, and even (if you take his analogy to reason seriously) opposites. Here, the presence of numerous people affirming both simultaneously at least throws that conclusion into serious question.  But quite frankly, neither is particularly strong evidence for or against the truth-claims of religion.
His other claims are just as bad.  For example, he says,

“We now know that the universe did not require a creator.”

That’s it. No supporting evidence, not even a supporting argument: just an eleven word assertion of something which happens to be false.  The truth of this claim is absolutely vital.  If Coyne is wrong, religion is by definition right, in that it searches after the identity of the Creator.  Here, science would be proving the fundamental claim of religion: all the things we see and experience originate from Something or Someone.  Since Coyne quotes Hawkings later, it’s worth noting that Hawkings presented this as an actual argument:

“As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Hawkings was wrong, though.  Even if he’s right about the science, his own argument is self-refuting, since you can’t have both “nothing” and “the laws of gravity and quantum theory.”  Mike Flynn debunks the claim at length here, but the critical part is this:

In any case, to say that a space-time manifold came from “nothing” is a stretch. The “no-universe state” is not nothing. It is a particular quantum state in “an intricate rule-governed system” and has “specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.” IOW, there is a whole pre-existing system of quantum physics from which it comes. And this is why Hawking can talk about physical laws before there is anything physical to obey them. See item 2, above. IOW, he has not conceived of Nothing. There is always Something pre-existing.

Barr draws an analogy to the banking system budding off savings accounts. There is a difference between an account with no balance and no account at all. And even when there is no account, there is an “intricate rule-governed system” of banking laws that allows an account to come into existence. That isn’t nothing.

Flynn notes that Hawkins is really asserting that Law produces the Universe, a claim that Catholics are quite comfortable with.  After all, we believe, based upon John 1, that everything came in to being through Christ, the Logos of God, a.k.a the Divine Logic.  So Hawking’s is a particularly bad proof for atheism, since it doesn’t explain (and literally cannot explain) the origin of “the laws of gravity and quantum theory” which he starts from, and actually gives creedence to the Catholic view of the creation of the universe.

Coyne next argues that:

Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study.  But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.

That it’s rude to demand evidence is going to be news to the Vatican, which painstakingly labors to corroborate scientific evidence supporting or refuting claims to miracles when investigating whether a deceased individual is interceding.  In fact, the Vatican has a mountain of medical evidence supporting specific miraculous healings, in which doctors testify that healings occurred where the best science says that they’re impossible.

There’s a large, yawning problem with all of this, more fundamentally.  Catholics believe in the supernatural.  As the very name implies, it’s an event which occurs contrary to (or beyond) what would occur in the unaided natural world.  A hurricane is a natural phenomenon.  Parting the Red Sea is a supernatural phenomenon, and people have long understood that these were different things.  Coyne isn’t one of these people, however.  He’s laughably attempting to disprove miracles by showing that they violate the laws of nature… which is, of course, the very thing that makes miracles noteworthy.  Coyne’s hardly alone in this error: scientists, by definition, can only study natural phenomena.  If they come to assume that everything (from relationships to history to God) operates the way the hard sciences do, it’s easy to come to a lot of false conclusions.  For one, if you reject, a priori, the existence of anything but the natural world, you can’t believe in the supernatural world.  But science doesn’t make this demand: unreflective scientists do.  And apparently, this type make up 64% of today’s scientists.
This actually dovetails nicely into what I think is the critical problem with Coyne’s argument: he ignorantly lumps all religions, from Quakerism to Wahabi Islam, as if they’re a single thing, and then writes the lumped thing off as irrational and dangerous.  I might argue that eating is stupid and dangerous, if I grouped cement, poisonous mushrooms, and apples into the same category of “things people have tried to eat.”  But that’s an asinine argument.  Catholicism promotes reason, arguing that all truth leads to God.  There’s a reason that, historically, Catholics were responsible for perhaps the majority of scientific advances in the last two thousand years, with Catholic priests and monks founding entire fields of study from genetics to Big Bang cosmology.  Catholicism simply doesn’t demand of Her adherents what Coyne claims all religions demand of their adherents.

A few paragraphs before mocking all religion as “venerable superstition,” Coyne complained that religious writers were “demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident.”  But his article does little to improve this image: he’s a biology professor with no apparent background in theology or formal logic, making painfully-bad arguments that he’s just convinced are right because:

Without science, we’d all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. As Stephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.

Nevermind that once again, he’s demonstrably wrong that without science, we’d all be miserable. Happiness studies show that those without the most modern amenities are frequently some of the happiest people on Earth, while those with the most modern amenities frequently aren’t.  Had he consulted any of the available evidence, whether modern studies on comparative rates of happiness and depression, or historical examinations into how happy people were before the Scientific Revolution, or any other actual inquiry, he’d realize that his claim had no basis.  But no, he’d rather just take it by faith, even in the face of reason. As Mark Shea cleverly wrote of the New Atheists, they worship the Intellect, rather than using it.


  1. Joe,
    I can’t thank you enough for writing this article that refutes Coyne. It helped me tremendously. I wish your rebuttal appeared the next day in USA Today. Unfortunately I’m afraid many people read and believed his asertions.

  2. This was extremely encouraging. I’m a senior in college and my history professor has assigned us to read a 13 page excerpt from Coyne’s “The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name”. His arrogant and demeaning comments against faith are, frustrating. I’m just imagining some of the students in my class who are or have read this now and see it as irrevocable truth, which is so disheartening. As a Christian who’s father is a devout biologist and agnostic, I’ve read many books, most prominently, “The Case for Faith” seeking SCIENTIFIC evidence to back Christianity and somehow reach my father through reason. Coyne’s statements are ignorant, one-sided and theologically vacant. Even I seek and hear both sides of the story, faith and reason, and I’m a mere college student. I’m sick that I have to read this for class. I immediately sought out this man’s credibility and here I am, so as a follower of Christ and an intellectual getting a college degree, I absolutely support this response. Thank you!

    A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.
    C. S. Lewis

  3. Bre, thank you so much! If you ever have any questions which “stump” you, feel free to leave a comment on this site, and I’ll respond to you as soon as I can. I know how ridiculous college can be when it comes to attacking Christianity, and I’m more than happy to help you out in any way that I can.

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