Article ID: JAR1386 | By: Paul A. Nelson

a book review of

Faith vs. Fact:

Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible 

by Jerry A. Coyne

(Viking, 2015)

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 38, number 6 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago who wants you to become an atheist—if you happen to believe in God now—and this book, Faith versus Fact (hereafter FvF), gives his argument why he thinks that is a rational move to make. Now, you might reply, “Well, maybe Professor Coyne should make the first move, and think seriously about giving up his atheism.” Perhaps surprisingly, Coyne says he would do just that, should the right evidence come along. But there’s a philosophical catch hidden in Coyne’s seeming open-mindedness to the power of evidence — a catch worth examining in detail. The catch represents the only interesting aspect of this otherwise tedious book.

Book reviewers are duty-bound to tell their readers what the book under consideration is about, so here’s a mercifully short summary of Coyne’s main argument in FvF. All theistic religions rest entirely on “faith,” which Coyne defines as believing in things that just aren’t so. Given that it’s irrational to believe anything without evidence, religious believers should recognize that science (where evidence matters above all) provides an immeasurably better path to knowledge and understanding than blind faith. Moreover, grounding our worldviews in science will set us free from crippling religious prejudices about sexual behavior, anthropogenic global warming, and assisted suicide—not to mention the illusion most humans have that they possess free will. The carnage of religiously motivated wars and terrorism, the obstacles set in the way of scientific discovery, the crushing weight of sexual guilt—all of these wretched offspring of theology, among many others, can be swept aside if we cease trying to “accommodate” science and religion, and instead encourage religious belief to disappear, as has (largely) happened in the most secularized parts of Europe, such as Sweden, Denmark, and France. A bright, religion-free future for humanity awaits us.

Of course, there is more to Coyne’s argument than this, but not a great deal more. Religion is bad, science is good: play enough variations on that tune to fill 311 pages, and call it a book.

Accommodationism Disallowed. To his credit, Coyne refuses to play what one might call the “standard accommodation game” with science and religious belief (although Coyne plays a more subtle game of his own devising, which I’ll describe below). The game of accommodationism—namely, reconciling science and revealed theology—can, in Coyne’s eyes, be played according to a variety of strategies, from mere logical compatibility to what Coyne calls “the NOMA gambit” (p. 106). NOMA is the acronym for the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” conception of how science and religion should interact. Under NOMA, no region of conflict can possibly exist, because science deals solely with the natural world, while religion addresses “meaning, purpose, and morals.” At first blush, this sounds like a reasonable good-fences-good-neighbors policy, until one realizes that nearly all religions make factual and historical claims about the world (e.g., God speaking to Moses, Jesus rising from the dead) that intrude unavoidably on the magisterium of science. Moreover, science as Coyne conceives it cannot help dissolving away the supposedly divinely revealed foundations of (for instance) morality into a wholly natural story of impersonal causes. The NOMA strategy won’t work because the two magisteria do overlap—significantly so, in fact. While good fences might make for good neighbors, the neighbors first must decide where the boundary lines are, and that issue has never been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Allowing a Divine Foot in the Door? Nor does Coyne have any sympathy for the widely promoted doctrine of methodological naturalism (MN) — and this is where his book takes on a smidgen of interest, rising above its otherwise predictable droning against the evils of religion. According to MN, science by its very nature is committed to explanation solely in terms of undirected physical or material causes; no appeals to a primary mind, or Mind, are allowed. Coyne, although certainly holding to philosophical naturalism himself (that is, he thinks no immaterial causes such as gods or souls exist), allows that the right evidence might implicate a nonphysical agent or intelligence. If such possibilities exist, MN cannot be a non-negotiable ground rule for science, because MN would rule out truths about the world that we could discover.

Taking issue with his own beloved Harvard mentor (the geneticist Richard Lewontin), who in 1997 famously said that science “cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door,” Coyne argues, 

Lewontin was mistaken. We can in principle allow a Divine Foot in the door; it’s just that we’ve never seen the Foot. If, for example, supernatural phenomena like healing through prayer, accurate religious prophecies, and recollection of past lives surfaced with regularity and credibility, we might be forced to abandon our adherence to purely natural explanations. (93, emphasis in original)

Sounds open-minded, right? Provide the right evidence, and Coyne would reconsider his atheism, especially as it finds practical expression in the conduct of scientific investigation. Coyne isn’t dogmatically committed to his naturalism, he contends; that’s simply the way the world turned out to be.

A Reasonable Candidate. But now comes the all-important catch in Coyne’s argument, which will be easiest to grasp if the reader places himself in Coyne’s frame of mind for a moment. Ask yourself—thinking as Coyne, now—exactly why (for example) healing through prayer would represent good evidence for supernatural causation.

Most people, theists included, don’t ask this Why question because the status of some possible event as a “miracle” seems self-evident. But an underlying chain of logic exists, which I have simplified as follows:

A remarkable event y has occurred.

Either a physical/material cause explains the event y, or y was caused by a nonphysical agent or intelligence.

No physical/material causes explain the event y.

Therefore, the best explanation for the event y is a non-physical agent.

The path to the conclusion (4) passes through a claim (3) about the explanatory insufficiency of material and physical causes. Coyne must assert that physical causes alone don’t work to explain event y, because only then can he reach (4), a supernatural agency.

Yet there is no relevant logical difference between the argument structure in this case and what biological design theorists say about the need for intelligence to explain the origin of life (or countless other events in the history of life on Earth). Substitute “the origin of the first cell” for “healing through prayer” as event y, and the chain of reasoning follows precisely; indeed, the logical form of the arguments in both cases is identical. In particular, no well-supported materialistic account exists for the origin of the information needed to specify a cell.

And Coyne acknowledges this. Early in FvF, describing the character of science, he writes, “There are some answers we might never know. One of these is how life originated” (37). But life is here, its presence on this planet requires an explanation, and we know that intelligence explains the origin of information.

So why isn’t the mystery of the origin of life a reasonable candidate for challenging the validity of naturalism or atheism? In the words of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), philosopher of the Scientific Revolution, God’s “ordinary works” (such as organisms) are more than enough “to convince [i.e., refute] atheism.”1 That bacterial cell under the microscope, loaded with molecular machinery of astonishing complexity, represents a world of evidence for design—all the evidence anyone should ever need.

Coyne, however, leaves himself a convenient escape hatch. Although he admits that the mystery of the origin of life is unsolved, and may never be solved, he denies that the existence of life itself could possibly represent evidence for intelligent design. Coyne argues that, confronted with an unsolved problem, science under materialism or naturalism can only press forward, searching for the unknown pathways or mechanisms to produce the effect in question—because to infer design would commit a “God-of-the-gaps” blunder. What is “more likely,” he asks, “that these are puzzles only because we refuse to see God as an answer, or simply because science hasn’t yet provided a naturalistic answer?…Given the remarkable ability of science to solve problems once considered intractable, and the number of scientific phenomena that weren’t even known a hundred years ago, it’s probably more judicious to admit ignorance than to tout divinity” (156–57).

OK, Professor Coyne—but then don’t pretend that you’re open to considering evidence for God’s existence. You’re not. By your own standards, the right evidence could never come along. Or, to put the same point another way, the right evidence will always lie somewhere beyond the horizon—a horizon kept a safe distance away, a constantly moving point never within our actual view.

If Coyne wants good evidence for God’s design, it already exists and surrounds him every day in his University of Chicago genetics laboratory, where the exquisite precision engineering of Coyne’s research subjects, tiny fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, will take away the breath of anyone who looks at them with open eyes.

But in FvF, Coyne (who frequently mocks me on his blog, reminds one of the rich man in the parable of Luke 16:19–31. Here’s a paraphrase of that same parable for 2015:

Coyne: “If you exist, God, show me evidence in an undeniable miracle!”

God: “Look at the fruit flies in your lab, Jerry. Or a single bacterial cell.”

Coyne: “No, I’ve already decided to credit all of that to ultimate randomness.”

God: “Hmm. Well, then I think you’re out of luck. Pun intended.”

Never set the bar of evidence where you can’t possibly reach it. That’s not looking for evidence; that’s fooling oneself. — Paul A. Nelson

Paul A. Nelson, PhD, is an adjunct professor in the master’s program in science and religion at Biola University, and a fellow of the Center for Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute.


  1.  Essays Civil and Moral, XVI “Of Atheism.”