Jerry Coyne on the Irreconcilable Differences Between Religion and Science

There’s been a lot of debate over what is and isn’t a “New Atheist”, whether the term makes any sense, etc. As far as I can tell, the main difference between the “new” atheists and the “old” atheists is the former put an emphasis on the claim that religion and science are incompatible. This claim is, in fact, what seems to piss of critics of “new” atheists more than anything else (especially among atheist critics of “new” atheism).

In an October op-ed for USA Today, Jerry Coyne outlines the case against the idea that science and religion can somehow be “reconciled”, which usually seems to mean patting the believes on the head like children and assuring them everything will be okay and science doesn’t require changing their world views at all,

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.

In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.

Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith’s certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.

One interesting thing that Coyne does not address is that even some atheists who disagree with him seem persuaded by his argument but nevertheless resort to a utilitarian argument against Coyne’s claims — namely that acceptance of science by the public will be undermined if non-atheists believe that science is incompatible with their beliefs.

Chris Mooney and PZ Meyers had a flame war over just this point, and it is useful to revisit how silly the secular critics of “new” atheism are. For example, here’s Mooney in his book Unscientific America trying to draw a line beyond which the “new” atheists shouldn’t cross,

It is one thing to say that scientific norms and practices preclude ascribing any explanatory force to God in, say, the movement of atoms, or the function of DNA. It’s quite another to say they entirely preclude God’s existence. In rejecting God or any other supernatural entity, Dawkins is taking a philosophical position.

Got that? So in the mind of at least some of the critics of “new” atheism’s emphasis on the irreconcilability of religion and science, it is okay to go ahead and tell believers, sorry science says there are no miracles, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, faith healing is bullshit, Mohammed never received a message from God, and the universe is entirely explainable by naturalistic causes without any need for intervention by a supernatural force. But once you take the next step and say “Oh, and this means there’s almost certainly no God”, you’ve crossed a line that will drive the believers into the hands of the anti-science fundamentalists.

I’m just not buying that. Most of the people I meet who are religious do not think of their god or gods in some detached philosophical deist method — they believe in a god or gods who not only affects the universe, but often intervenes directly in their lives and the lives of others around them. That support for science can be preserved by conceding some deistic version of god is absurd.

Does Chris Mooney Even Know What Is In ‘Unscientific America’?

For the past few days, PZ Myers and Chris Mooney have been going at it on their respective blogs over Mooney’s new book Unscientific America. I haven’t read Mooney’s book, but apparently it includes a chapter that is uncharitable toward Myers and other so-called “New Atheists.” Myers argues that Mooney’s book is “useless”, while Mooney has decried Myers’ alleged distortions of his claims in Unscientific America.

So far the debate has been marked by Myers raising substantive objections to Unscientific America followed by Mooney either changing the subject or urging interested parties to go read the book. However, there was a telling exchange between Myers and Mooney over at Daily Kos which cast Mooney in an extremely unfavorable light.

In the comments section of a review of UA, a commenter accuses Mooney of distorting the views of Richard Dawkins. The commenter quotes Myers’ critique of UA,

Following this, he proceeds to damn the “New Atheists” for “collapsing the distinction” between methodological and philosophical naturalism, and argues that Dawkins is taking a philosophical position and misusing science to claim it “entirely precludes God’s existence.”

This would be a misrepresentation of Dawkins’ views. Dawkins has written that he thinks the existence of God is a scientific question, and while Dawkins thinks the existence of God is highly improbable, absolute certainty on the question is impossible. Not to worry, though, Mooney replies that this is just another one of those distortions of UA from Myers,

we use that phrase

although it is not attributed to dawkins.

i’ve read dawkins book in some detail, and our objection is to his making god’s existence a scientific question. i realize he does not ascribe full certainty to his atheistic conclusion–but he claims he can reason scientifically about god’s existence. we’re saying that a lot of theologians, philosophers, etc, would say that’s a category error.

i really have to ask that you read our book, rather than its misrepresentation in skewed reviews.

by Chris Mooney on Sun July 12, 2009 at 07:05:48 AM PDT

Well that sucks — you’d hope Myers and the New Atheists wouldn’t go around distorting Mooney’s views. Except, well, they’re not as Myers notes in reply to Mooney,

Yes, you did (13+ / 0-)

Tsk, tsk, Chris. Here’s the quote in context.

But much like the anti-evolutionists do, the New Atheists often seek to collapse the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism. In The God Delusion, for instance, Richard Dawkins makes the dubious claim that the existence of God is, as he puts it, “unequivocally a scientific question.” Quite a lot of philosophers — and scientists — would disagree. It is one thing to say that scientific norms and practices preclude ascribing any explanatory force to God in, say, the movement of atoms, or the function of DNA. It’s quite another to say they entirely preclude God’s existence. In rejecting God or any other supernatural entity, Dawkins is taking a philosophical position.

You unequivocally assign that view to Dawkins. He’s the only person you mention, twice, in that paragraph, and you are using him as your sole example of the attitude you are trying to illustrate.

Your comment is remarkable in that not only do you claim it is others that are misrepresenting your views, but right here you are misrepresenting what you actually said. My paragraph is a very accurate summation of what you wrote.

by pzmyers on Sun July 12, 2009 at 11:15:05 AM PDT

Mooney then concedes the point,

I’ve looked at the passage again (should have been a lot more careful before), and you are right–and I made an error. It does clearly ascribe this view to Dawkins.

Now that I’ve read your criticism on your blog, I think “entirely preclude” states too strongly Dawkins’ position, and we should have been more nuanced here. However he does still try to claim that God’s existence is a scientific question.

Thanks for catching this.

by ChrisMooney on Sun July 12, 2009 at 01:35:59 PM PDT

Wow. What a dunderhead.

And leaving aside Mooney’s confusion about his own damn book, for a book about scientific illiteracy to suggest that part of the solution is to simply wall off this or that particular problem as beyond scientific investigation is insane.

Enzymes and Quantum Tunneling

In April, Seed Magazine published a fascinating article about a group of researchers who discovered a bit more about how enzymes use quantum tunneling to speed up chemical reactions.

Researcher David Leys told Seed,

Our present understanding of the physical basis of enzyme catalysis is still unable to explain the many orders of magnitude by which a reaction is “speeded up” by enzymes, nor why attempts to create artificial enzymes have so far been disappointing. Our work reveals that not only active site structure, but also motions are an essential part of the enzyme’s repertoire.

Apparently, it had been previously believed that the enzyme used a more long-range motion to perform the quantum tunneling, but the new research found that instead the enzymes used very subtle, shorter-range actions to perform the quantum tunneling.

According to Seed,

This new discovery, announced in the April 14 issue of Science could have serious implications for medicine, as it may allow scientists to develop drugs that can target or mimic enzymes.


Researchers explain how enzymes use quantum tunneling to speed up reactions. Maggie Wittlin, Seed, April 18, 2006.