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

by Brandon Robshaw

by Brandon Robshaw

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.

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