Coyne on the war between science and faith


And I’ll define religion [as does philosopher Daniel Dennett: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

I’d point out that, under that definition, Taoism is not a religion. Odd. :face_with_raised_eyebrow:

@Michelle I read your response to me on the James Tour thread. I’m curious what you think of what Coyne says here.

Coyne sounds like he’s trying to resurrect/recycle the generally discredited-among-historians White-Draper Conflict Thesis.

According to Coyne:

And I’ll define religion (as does philosopher Daniel Dennet): “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

Yes. Indeed.

I was thinking of posting a list of Asian religious traditions which fail Daniel Dennett’s lamentable definition of religion but Tim’s Taoism example should suffice. In Taoism, deities and “supernatural agents” are not only ignored, they become immediately irrelevant once one grasps the meaning of Tao.

Just as I’m unlikely to embrace Ken Ham’s definition of evolution, I have no reason to adopt Dennett’s amateurish attempt at a definition of religion.

Of course, even Coyne himself recognizes that Dennett’s definition of religion is woefully wrong:

Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.

So apparently even an incorrect definition is worthwhile if it fits Coyne’s polemical agenda.

As to the White-Draper Conflict Thesis, I’m losing interest in fielding PRATTs when the peer-reviewed scholarship of historians has produced sufficient FAQs to address the topic.

Do some religious people face (and even force) a personal conflict in their own thinking? Certainly. Yet that shouldn’t be generalized into an inherent conflict between science and religion. I don’t doubt that Coyne prefers to attribute the stance of someone like Francis Collins to “compartmentalization, not compatibility” but that’s Coyne insisting that he knows what goes on in the thinking of another mind.

There will always be questions which empiricism cannot address. So to assume that a religious person must be experiencing conflict (at some level) with science risks confusing the definition of science just as much as it risks confusing the definition of religion. Some things do involve different compartments—and denigrating terms like compartmentalization can have inaccurate connotations.


But is Coyne’s argument a recapitulation of the W-D thesis? My impression (reinforced by multiple sources) is that the W-D thesis was a historiographical argument. Coyne’s argument appears to be based on the present. It is possible for two different arguments to reach the same conclusion without being the same argument.

That is not to say that I fully agree with Coyne’s thesis. I believe he may be overstating his case. I do not however fully disagree with his argument either.

There would appear to be sufficient difference, in both axioms and methodology, between science and theology, that some degree of friction should not be unexpected. (This is perhaps part of the reason that the current dominant thesis is termed, somewhat ambivalently, the “complexity thesis”, not something more warm and fuzzy like the ‘harmony thesis’.)

I can remember being dragged into a very similar argument with a theologian who attends my mother’s church, as a result of flippant comment I made to my mother. Like Coyne, I attributed the existence of religious scientists to compartmentalisation – the theologian argued that this was evidence that science and theology are “commensurable” – a somewhat slippery word, that I later found out to mean “in wider sense, measurable by the same standard or scale of values” (OED) – which seemed more than a little inapt when applied to science and theology.

Compartmentalization (psychology):

Compartmentalization is a subconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person's having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

I would note 34 hits for the word on this forum, prior to this thread – most in the psychological sense of the word. So it appears to have a reasonable degree of prominence in this sense.

1 Like

I think it’s hard to accuse Christian scientists on this forum, for example, of compartmentalization when a considerable amount of our time is spent actually devoted to examining how science and theology interact, dealing with contradictions and tensions, and answering objections from non-Christians.

Now, one might judge that our attempts to integrate science and theology completely fail, but mere disagreement is not enough to accuse another person of “compartmentalization”. It is rather insulting. Is it really so hard to accept that some people with a different personal, social, cultural background may just come to different conclusions about certain issues such as religion, and they are no more or less “compartmentalized” than anybody else? That does not mean that you have to agree with us.

But it’s OK. I think the accusation of some militant atheists that Christian scientists are all compartmentalizing, is itself a form of compartmentalization. It explains how Jerry Coyne keeps saying the same simplistic, PRATT things about religion despite having written for decades on the subject. It explains how Richard Dawkins publishes an atheist book for teenagers containing factual errors so basic that a quick search on Wikipedia could correct them.


I do not believe that either Coyne or myself were making that, rather specific, accusation about “Christian scientists on this forum”.

That specific accusation appears to have been made by @John_Harshman to you here.

I think we must each have to answer for ourselves (hampered as we each are, by our own individual biases and preconceptions) whether such examinations have yielded satisfactory results.

However, if you think that there are any, particularly cogent, threads that I might have overlooked, and that might give me a more positive understanding of such ‘interactions’, then please point them out.

More particularly, I think many of the issues that I might raise with you on the topic of how apt or applicable the term “compartmentalization” is have already been raised with you by others on this thread. I therefore do not see much purpose to rehashing such issues with you here.

Yes, Dawkins isn’t a historian, so probably should have the wisdom to STFU about the subject of history (or even to hire an actual historian to ghost-write the historical bits of his book). But the same thing could be said for the very many militant Christians, many of them proudly taking the title ‘Christian apologist’, who make equally ill-advised statements about things like science, and ‘what atheists really think’. I do not however think that either Dawkins or these Christian apologists are particularly on-topic for this thread.

Are “militant atheists” compartmentalising when they ‘accuse’ Christian scientists of “all compartmentalizing”? It’s possible. But given that no detail has been given of what they (or maybe it is “we”) are accused of compartmentalising between, it is less than clear that this accusation should be taken seriously.

Should the original “accusation” be taken any more seriously, beyond the mere fact that it actually specifies what is being compartmentalised between? I don’t know. It seems a reasonable explanation to me – but I have my own biases. On the other hand, I do not see much in the way of substantiation for the rival ‘commensurability’ and ‘integration’ theories, at least not as yet, either.


Thanks for asking my opinion, Valerie,
My initial response is that Coyne’s thesis is not scientific. :slight_smile:
So I stand by the statements I made in my other post.

There are more ways of knowing other than just science, and scientists of faith accept the multiple ways of knowing. John Lennox makes this case very nicely in his book, Can Science Explain Everything?

Since you like watching videos, here’s one in which it looks like he outlines the arguments he makes in his book:
Lennox is not compartmentalizing, he is using all his ways of knowing to understand the universe at the deepest level. Eschewing faith does not help science it only narrows our understanding.

Coyne’ quotes

Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of “non-overlapping magisteria.” Religion and science, he argued, don’t conflict because: “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”<

Coyne says this argument fails. I disagree. Science does fit with my faith. Science would not fit with any and all faiths, but it is fully possible to adhere to methodological naturalism in the laboratory with samples of blood (as Coyne mentions, and as I have done in the laboratory myself) AND also believe that God revealed himself to us by using miracles such as the resurrection of Christ. We understand those events to be miracles precisely because they fall outside of the laws of nature that God created. God used that discrepancy between natural laws and miracles to speak to humanity. Thus, it is fully acceptable for me, as a scientist, to believe that Jesus spilt his blood to save us from our sins (Note that Coyne’s argument against me accepting communion is not a problem for my faith. I am Protestant, so I do not personally believe the communion wine is actually Jesus’ blood)

Coyne’s anti-religion stance seems to be fueled by creationist YEC and ID arguments, because YEC and ID views are objectively not true. Coyne states,

Others argue that in the past religion promoted science and inspired questions about the universe. But in the past every Westerner was religious, and it’s debatable whether, in the long run, the progress of science has been promoted by religion. Certainly evolutionary biology, my own field, has been held back strongly by creationism, which arises solely from religion>

I personally find YEC views to be particularly untenable, because YEC views require one to discard scientific evidence from virtually every field of science.

Thus creationist views are the ones that are causing Coyne to dig in his heals and reject all forms of religion, Christianity included. This is the grave danger of YEC and ID arguments: such YEC and ID views push many people, including scientists, away from the faith. And to what end? Salvation does not require one to adhere to any particular view of creation versus evolution. Salvation requires an understanding of the depth of human sin and salvation requires faith that Christs’ death and resurrection free us from our sin. So YECs and IDists are fighting the wrong battle, creating greater challenges for the faith. Many people raised in YEC churches leave the faith because they wrongly believe their faith requires them to reject mainstream science. In response to hard-lined YEC pastors, I’d quote Matthew 18: 6 ““If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”


Am I missing something here? I, like most creationists I know, love science. It’s one reason we prefer the creation model. For some, it’s the reason they became creationists. At the same time, we highly value the advancement of science in terms of technology and medicine.

I find it odd therefore to be ‘accused of compartmentalization’. We know very well how to do that.

So when Coyne asks the following in his article:
“for how can you reject the divine in your laboratory but accept that the wine you sip on Sunday is the blood of Jesus?”

The answer is “Pretty easy”

The fact that he took time to write that article tells me he’s basically annoyed with creationism, and nothing more. Others may differ, but that’s how we creationists view articles like that.

1 Like

You didn’t make a specific accusation. You did, however, refer to a generalization about religious scientists which you believed at some point, namely:

(Emphases mine.)

I felt a need to speak up against that generalization you stated or referred to there. Since “Christian scientists on the PS forum” is a subset of “religious scientists who exist”, I used the former as a counterexample against the generalization. I don’t know if today you still believe what you said to your mother regarding religious scientists, but in any case I didn’t accuse you of accusing Christian scientists on this forum specifically either - I just said,

The above statement does not contain any reference to you or Coyne or anyone else.

It should be taken as seriously as the accusation that all religious scientists are compartmentalizing.

Here, my take is that for some militant atheists, atheism is the inescapable, obvious conclusion that follows from using reason and the scientific method correctly. This (simplistic) belief is bolstered by the existence of many religious people who clearly do not understand much about science. However, it is disconfirmed by the existence of religious scientists who are knowledgeable and accomplished in science, yet still remain religious. How can these people not realize that science implies atheism?

The choice is either to abandon this simplistic belief about science and atheism, or resolve the dilemma by convincing oneself that these religious scientists must be compartmentalizing - not seriously thinking about what the relation between what they believe in the lab and in the church. Many more thoughtful atheists, being honest with the empirical evidence that thoughtful religious scientists exist, choose the former. Others, however, want to keep on clinging to their belief that atheism is obviously the only rational position there is, so they choose the latter. That is where the “compartmentalization” occurs: to shield one from cognitive dissonance from evidence that disconfirms one’s belief.


You say that science fits with your faith. Yet science doesn’t accept that miracles happen, but your faith requires miracles to have happened. How do you square this up?

That’s an interesting contention. Unfortunately, you seem unwilling to discuss the science you love or what about it causes anyone to become a creationist. I think we’d all like to know more, since it seems highly counter-intuitive.


Ultimately, people reject God because of their own sin.

You missed that he links to his own paper where he explains it’s not just “fundamentalism”:

But it is not just religious fundamentalists who oppose evolution in America. As I mentioned above, 40% of Americans see God as having created humans directly, but a recent Gallup Poll (2011c) shows that only 31% of us see the Bible as literally true. And although some religious denominations have no official opposition to evolution, many of their adherents still reject it. The Catholic Church, for example, accepts a form of theistic evolution, mostly natural but still guided by God when it comes to the evolution of humans and their supposed souls (John Paul II, 1996). Nevertheless, 27% of American Catholics think that modern species were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since, while 8% do not know or refuse to answer (Masci 2009). Statistics for mainline, nonevangelical Protestants are virtually identical. Even “liberal” believers, then, show religiously based opposition to evolution.

You also didn’t address this:

What is not disputable is that today science is practiced as an atheistic discipline – and largely by atheists. There’s a huge disparity in religiosity between American scientists and Americans as a whole: 64 percent of our elite scientists are atheists or agnostics, compared to only 6 percent of the general population – more than a tenfold difference. Whether this reflects differential attraction of nonbelievers to science or science eroding belief – I suspect both factors operate – the figures are prima facie evidence for a science-religion conflict.

Do you believe that evolutionary science could erode belief? If there is a creative process that leads to “myself” that requires no direct act of creation by God, and morality can be explained by human cooperation and evolutionary psychology, why would scientists continue to believe in God if they did, or believe in God if they didn’t?

I don’t know if you listened to the entire video with Tour, but he explains that because he shows the state of the science in regards to OoL, many people email him that they come BACK to faith because evolutionary science and the narrative they were told made them lose their faith, not the other way around.

This passage is about children - they grow up thinking creation or design is true (i’ve cited some research on this forum). Doesn’t this better describe someone like Coyne who says there is no compatibility between evolutionary science and religion?

Patrick, I might help you out here.
Perhaps you’re picture scientists working on new cell-phone technology, and imagine the following:
Creationist scientist: “It’s not powering up”
Non-creationist scientist: “Is the power source properly connected?”
Creationist scientist: “No, I figure the Holy Spirit would power it up”

Yeah, I see your point. Man, just how exactly do creationists manage to “square this up”??

It’s actually not very difficult for us. Seriously. And when we see evolutionists ask us questions like this, it makes us wonder: Do these people really not get creationism? Or are they just deliberately making these comments? Honestly, I never know, but I generally lean towards the later.

Yep. I’m unwilling at this point.

I would like to eventually. But as I’ve said before, I’m the newbie around here. I still believe it’s best for newbies in new communities to engage less at first, and spend a little more time listening first. Plus I’m spending some time going back through old posts in order to better get caught up with this ‘culture’.


Might I suggest that you stop mentioning things you’re unwilling to discuss? It’s a sure conversation-killer.


I’ve never seen a science textbook say “Miracles can’t happen.” Science collects data on what is observed and seeks explanations for that data.

Indeed, whether or not a miracle (something which cannot be explained by natural processes) is possible is not something which can be empirically tested. Science can report “There is presently no trusted empirical evidence reported in the peer-reviewed literature of X occurring” (where X is some given “miracle” )—but can it determine what isn’t possible?

Communication across a vacuum via invisible radio waves would have been considered a “miracle” prior to Heinrich Hertz. Could scientists prior to Hertz confidently declare, “Science doesn’t accept that the miracle of communication across a vacuum by some invisible means happens or can happen”?


@Thoughtful quoted from Coyne:

But it is not just religious fundamentalists who oppose evolution in America.

Indeed. Moreover, a Pew Study indicated that 5% of American atheists reject evolution due to a personal belief and intuition that humans have always existed in their present form. ( )

I suspect people of all sorts reject evolution—and have a general skepticism towards science—for a variety of reasons. I don’t have the statistics at hand but I’ve read some interesting reports on the significant percentage of American atheists who reject the science behind vaccinations, climate change, and even the germ theory of disease. (I think we have a tendency to stereotype the “American atheist archetype” as either one of the celebrity antitheists or that outspoken atheist philosophy major who lived on our dorm floor in college. But not all atheists are fans of science or even higher education, for that matter. Perhaps atheists are just as subject to stereotyping as are the “religious people” Coyne likes to describe and lament.)

This is just my observation and comment about the complexities of human opinions—and a generalization about the potential pitfalls of generalizations (such as Coyne’s.)


This is easily “squared up”. You are mistaken about science. Creationism says that science does not happen without miracles. Science is from God alone. You would not know science without God’s prior existence to science. Creationism requires miracles as does science, since science is part and parcel of God’s Creation. That makes your claim that “science does not require miracles”, empty.

What about people who reject God AND the entire concept of sin?