Almost done: are science and faith compatible?

July 2, 2009 • 3:40 pm

The data say they aren’t, but Chris Mooney tweaks them a bit to claim the opposite.    See here, hereherehere, here, and here (in order). (NOTE:  By “tweaking” here I meant “interpret”; I am not of course saying that Mooney fiddles with the data.  Apologies to anyone who construed it that way.)
Here are the relevant facts (my emphasis):

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin’s theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

42 thoughts on “Almost done: are science and faith compatible?

  1. I doubt that many of them would ever admit that their religion is incompatible with science, if we’re simply talking about perceptions. The anti-science DI, after all, want “to replace it [materialist science] with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

    That’s probably how most of the anti-science theists see it, that science is about truth, and so is religion, which means that they’re both good, except where scientists are simply wrong about science (presumably due to their “atheistic biases”).

    That science would “disprove” their religion at all is only an abstract hypothetical situation, then. It just wouldn’t do so, not as “genuine science,” but they’d stick with “higher truth” when such “false science” went against their religion.

    I don’t think this suggests any real compatibility between the two, indeed–more the opposite. Yet in the public’s mind, it seems, the sense that any “real science” is compatible with religion is rampant.

    Glen Davidson

    1. Science can say that there is no more support for “religion x” then there is for “religion or superstitious belief that conflicts with x”.

      The Genesis creation story is on par with the Hindu and Scientology creation stories.

      Science would need empirical evidence to distinguish the probability of one supernatural claim over another– something that distinguishes such a claim from a myth, delusion, parable, etc.

      I tell my students that there are a lot of creation stories, but only one truth, and so far science is the best method at finding that truth. It was science that taught us that our world his spherical and that our sun is a star in a vast universe filled with stars– it was science that taught us about dinosaurs and DNA and germs and genes.

  2. How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions?

    I think another factor is the old evolution = atheism bugbear, i.e., those scientists agree and I respect them, but I just can’t answer in a way that makes me sound like an atheist.

  3. …Evidence that at some point, science just can’t win. I am in a heavily religious part of the country with a lot of fundamentalists. The best I can hope to do is show them how *much* evidence they’re rejecting and how far to the wrong side of reality they fall… Oh, well.

    As an aside, I’m making my way through Ken Miller’s books. I tend more to agree with you on the “let’s be nice to religion” side of things, but he does a good job bridging the gap with the open-minded faithful.

  4. A little bit of selective perception and you can believe any thing you want, its pretty much like this example of being married.

  5. Jerry, this may be a tangential point, but do you think that perhaps we have been remiss in taking the state of mind of religious believers seriously? I’m thinking of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s point at Beyond Belief ’06, directed at Richard Dawkins, about a sensitivity towards the state of mind of the audience that is needed, together with facts, to create impact.

    Do you think there is a legitimate field there for us to plough that might at least take the edge off the confrontational character of exposure to the facts?

    1. I don’t think anybody, including the “new atheists”, objects selling science to religious, as long the sciene sold is true science.

      But why should every scientist be such a salesman?

      1. » Matti K said:
        But why should every scientist be such a salesman?

        Nobody said that. I was just saying that it might be more effective to take Tyson’s approach. At least I’d have thought that his ideas are worth discussing.

      2. Every instructor knows that for effective flow of information, one must tweak the message to fit the audience.

        However, I don’t think Dr. Coyne was arguing about pedagogy in the article above.

    2. I think there are more than enough people doing exactly that.

      I think we need more people willing to declare that the emperor is naked as far as science is concerned.

      1. » articulett:
        I think we need more people willing to declare that the emperor is naked as far as science is concerned.

        Well, you’ll get no argument from me on that. I just think that Tyson’s point can be helpfully combined with the truth-telling approach. I mean, Richard was kind of doing that in Chapter 1 of TGD (“A deeply religious non-believer”). I’m wondering if that particular part might not be strengthened to the benefit of overall strategy. I think that’s the point Tyson wanted to make.

  6. I’m sorry I’m replying to Mooney here rather than on his own blog, but I’m afraid my post will be completely lost in the low “signal-to-noise” ratio there…

    Money says:
    “Granted, this assumes that the “public understanding and appreciation of science” is your goal, rather than the inculcation of atheism.”

    The thing is, by your method, your goal is even *lower* than that! It says, when someone holds the view that religion and a specific scientific theory is incompatible, and prefers religion, then you solve the problem by telling him that it IS compatible.

    Regardless if the compatibility is even correct, this is a method that is doomed to failure and is pure “whack-a-mole”. Because the person *still* prefers his religion and ideology over science. He only accepts your science because you told him it is compatible with his religion – NOT because he respects the science!
    What happens next time there is an incompatibility? Like global warming? The whole problem with science is that it by necessity gives us results that we might not like, and we MUST accept those results! If you train a person to accept science only when they are compatible with his ideology, then he is not accepting science at all. And THAT, is, unscientific.

    1. More succinctly – By the poll results, people prefer fairy tales over reality. Our solution is to tell them to embrace reality. Your solution is to tell them that their fairy tales do not contradict reality.

  7. » Matti K:
    However, I don’t think Dr. Coyne was arguing about pedagogy in the article above.

    He was and is talking about explaining something to an audience. To that extent, there is no substantive difference between teaching and public communication. At least that’s my take on it as both an educator and a journalist.

    To put it another way, maybe the poll data can be interpreted in a way that all those people who, in the face of a conflict between their religious beliefs and science, will favour their religious beliefs do so mostly for the religious feelings that are involved. Science might just not seem to offer the amount of emotional attachment that people need. And Tyson says, ‘But all that emotion and “religiosity” is right there in the science—we just have to tell people about it more often.’

    Religious people (in the traditional sense of the word, not Dawkins’s) often talk about the need to connect to something that’s larger than themselves. And in his lecture, Tyson addresses exactly that point—because science can tell us that we actually are part of something greater. We are, indeed, made of that same stuff that makes up the greater whole. I think he’s absolutely right that that’s a narrative (curiously enough, Neil Postman has called that kind of thing a “god”) that might just be an acceptable alternative to a (traditional) religious narrative.

    1. “He [Coyne]was and is talking about explaining something to an audience.”

      Where? I can not find such “talk” in the article above.

  8. Science and religion are compatible. Even evolution and and religion are compatible. The reason they are compatible is that they answer different fundamental questions about the universe. For a good example of a religion that supports scientific discovery and makes sure thats its teaching are compatible with science (though is has not had to change any beliefs in over 350 years and really did not change any core beliefs then) check out Roman Catholicism, especially some of Pope Benedict’s comments and speeches.

  9. Tyson teaches astrophysics… he doesn’t have to deal with the vilification of the ID crowd. His scientific knowledge is not quite as threatening to them. However, he does wonder publicly how any scientist could believe in a personal god. He finds it ridiculous.

    I suspect Dawkins is as effective or more effective in teaching the glories of scientific thinking then those suggesting that he tone it down. I don’t think Dawkins should be told to tone in down any more than Tyson should be told to “amp it up”.

    I suspect that to Dawkins and others it’s like being told to quit saying the emperor is naked after being repeatedly maligned and called a liar for stating the obvious truth. It feels like you the accommodationists are asking people like Jerry to be obfuscatory and dishonest so that the truth is more palatable to those who believe that faith is a good way to know something.

    But does that work? Or does it just go on supporting this dangerous idea that “faith” is something worthy of respect? Where is the evidence that this approach is beneficial or that Dawkins approach is harmful. What exactly do people think this approach achieves that the “new atheist” approach doesn’t?

    To me it sounds like the acommodationists are asking Dawkins to accommodate his oppressors–those who spread hatred against him and science and reason. It’s like asking gay folks to be gentle with the Christians who judge them or asking Galileo not to make waves with the Catholic church.

    I think the accommodation ought not worry about other peoples’ approaches until they have evidence that their method works better for whatever it is they are trying to accomplish. Their criticism of those who speak the truth is off-putting to me. I think their criticism would be better aimed at those promoting faith as a means of “higher knowledge”.

    1. I’m not sure whether the chances to get a response are at all high over at your own blog, so I’ll just post my comment here as well. (If Jerry doesn’t mind that kind of thing.)

      * * *

      I have to confess I’m a little flattered. While that lasts, let me perhaps explain one or two points that were contained in a later post over at Jerry’s blog that add a little complexity and hopefully help to lift the debate out of the intellectual trenches it seems to have run itself into.

      Dawkins, in TGD, cites Einstein’s phrase of the “deeply religious non-believer”. This phrase seems to suggest that there is a class of feelings, which one should perhaps call religious* (note the *), that are shared at least by scientists and religious (without the *) people alike. This kind of religious* feeling contains the wonder and awe at the universe of a Carl Sagan, to cite just the most prominent example, that Dawkins refers to in Chapter 1 of TGD. But there’s a second thread to that kind of feeling, hinted at by Joan Roughgarden in the segment preceding Tyson’s ‘rebuke’ when she talked about how people “need an account that they can connect with”. Tyson himself gave such an account in a beautiful ’sermon’ that highlighted the connectedness of all things, as revealed by science.

      Neil Postman, in The End of Education, talked about our need for ‘gods’, and what he meant by that was just such a unifying narrative that gives meaning, e.g. by showing how all things are in fact intricately linked and part of the same history—and, indeed, story.

      My point, then, is to say that we’re perhaps focusing too much on the factual, ‘objective’, impersonal side about science that tends to be presented to the public and should put more effort into the creation of unifying, meaningful (and, of course, true) narratives. These can then serve (possibly a considerably larger proportion of the public) as the growth media, as it were, for an unabashed account of the facts of the world, which Richard and Jerry in particular have proven themselves to be so good at giving.

      Maybe, if Richard’s view of the memetic nature of religion and its resemblance in behaviour to a (biological) virus is further substantiated, faith and dogma will come to be viewed as a rather noxious module (here I seem to agree with Richard, or in fact the Enlightenment) highjacking, or perhaps commandeering is the more apt expression, another module that is shared by all people and serves to appreciate their connectedness to the world they live in. This latter module we might call religious*. And I’d just like to suggest that we see it as an opportunity for true compatibility and, indeed, as the basis for a common sense of humanity.

      1. Chris, you’ve assumed a conclusion that the “new atheists” are turning people off to science and then set about confirming that bias. An valid argument could be made that your enablement of “faith” is more to blame: but you refuse to even consider this possibility. Instead, you bad mouth the truth tellers as being “harmful to the cause” that you imagine yourself a spokesperson for.

  10. Oh dear, Chris, please give it a rest. You have not adduced a single piece of evidence, beyond your personal belief, that giving our honest opinion about the compatibility of science and faith is turning off people who would otherwise accept evolution, making them reject scientific facts or claims. You just assert this repeatedly, as if you somehow have magic insights into what will improve public science literacy and what will not. It’s beginning to sound not only repetitive, but condescending.

    Second, my comments about accommodationism have hardly been “strident.” You imply this repeatedly, as in your first note about Barbara Forrest’s talk, but have not singled out one thing that I’ve said that has been “uncivil” or “strident.” Sorry, but I don’t accept this claim.

    Since you say you are not telling me to shut up, what are you telling me? Am I supposed to stop discussing and criticising accommodationism? No, because that would be telling me to shut up. So am I supposed to tell people what I don’t believe, which is that science and faith are perfectly compatible? If you’re not telling me to shut up, you’re telling me to be a hypocrite.

    I think I’ll just continue to teach people evolution on the one hand, and sometimes criticize accommodationism on the other. Works for me, and, according to my anecdotal data, it works for others, too. I’ve had several religious people — people who know I’m an atheist — tell me that I’ve convinced them that evolution is true, but I’ve never had a single person tell me that they’d believe in evolution IF I’d just stop bashing the accommodationists. (And believe me, I’ve heard from plenty of people who don’t accept evolution!)

    1. I was actually making a different point from Chris’s. Insofar as any religion makes pronouncements on the real world, postulating supernatural creation, miracles, and the like, of course they are incompatible with science. And you’re absolutely right to say that Chris has never addressed the legitimate point you made in TNR that Miller and Giberson’s religion does appear to influence, and conflict with, their scientific thinking.

      I’m putting forward a different point, though. I’m suggesting that we look at religion as a composite phenomenon, in which religious* feelings (in the Einsteinian sense, hence the *) can be viewed as being highjacked by faith and dogma and made to serve them. And these neutral religious* feelings are definitely present in science and scientists as well, as Carls Sagan and Neil Tyson so beautifully described. And that’s where I propose we might look for pointers to increase our overall effectiveness. (See my post on Chris’s blog for a little more detail.)

      1. I think we all agree that the natural world is more super than the supernatural tales that people have come to believe in. I greatly respect those who share that wonder. But I think there is room for all sorts of approaches. I don’t like Chris Mooney telling other scientists they should be more like him or the scientists that he feels are the most effective. I admire these people, but in my view, the people that Mooney criticizes are better at conveying science BECAUSE OF their passion for the undiluted truth–their unwillingness to give lip service to the idea that the emperor might, in fact, be wearing magical clothes.

        From my perspective, Mooney’s energies would be better spent encouraging religious folks to keep their religious musings as private as they want conflicting religions to keep theirs. We have to topple the imaginary “other way of knowing” for people to understand just what a gift the scientific method is. Scientific awe is not a replacement for religious awe–it’s better than religious inspired awe because it’s true–whether you believe it or not! And we can all look at the data and prove it to ourselves. It’s true and we humans figured it out without any omniscient deities, revelations, or holy books! And the information isn’t divine–it’s free to everyone with an interest in understanding the facts–and what amazing facts they are!

        I have been in an audience with both Tyson and Dawkins, and I don’t see how anyone justifies suggesting that Dawkins or anyone “tone it down” to further the palatability of science. These men reach different people in different ways with different messages, but I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that Tyson’s way is preferable and that Dawkins method leads to “unscientific America”. Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, and PZ provoke discussion and thought in a way that their more accommodating pals do not. It might be a good thing for some people to have their faith challenged and their feelings hurt.

        Certainly an argument could be made that Chris’ approach has an insidious harmful effect that is far more detrimental to “the cause” then anything PZ, Jerry, or Dawkins are saying or doing. That’s why it’s smarmy for him to suggest that others change their approach without showing evidence that his approach is more effective.

        I don’t want Dawkins or Coyne to be more like Mooney or Tyson. I prefer honesty and passion for the truth to the “tsk tsk… you should be nicer like me” approach. Let Tyson be like Tyson. No one is telling him to be more like Dawkins… and yet Dawkins may well be far more responsible for spreading the public understanding of science than Tyson. Look how long he’s been around and how many languages his books are published in. Clearly, he’s doing something right.

      2. Don’t under estimate the power of Dawkins’ approach–,4021,n,n

        I think Mooney’s message marginalizes those who don’t give lip service to “belief in belief”. It spreads this silly “new atheist” stereotype that causes the “turning off of listeners” that it pretends to be guarding against. He vilifies the messenger and then claims it’s the delivery of the messenger that causes lack of receptivity and not his own poisoning of the well and subsequent confirmation of his own biases.

        Mooney is purposely pissing off outspoken atheists and then using that as proof that atheists are angry…and then extrapoloating that anger as the thing that’s causing “unscientific America”!

  11. Chris – please take in what Jerry said, and act accordingly – say something in response, or adapt your own claims, or something. Please don’t just keep repeating your original claims over and over again. I don’t think you realize how thoroughly you are alienating people who ought to be your colleagues or allies by this combination of stonewalling and repetition – not to mention the underlying hostility.

    Please note what Jerry said. “You have not adduced a single piece of evidence, beyond your personal belief, that giving our honest opinion about the compatibility of science and faith is turning off people who would otherwise accept evolution, making them reject scientific facts or claims. You just assert this repeatedly, as if you somehow have magic insights into what will improve public science literacy and what will not.”

    That’s the problem. You have the same problem in the book – you don’t offer any evidence for your repeated claims that atheism as such is a major cause of scientific illiteracy in the US. Your book is full of very broad claims with not a ghost of support. That doesn’t work.

  12. articulett, let me explain: I wasn’t talking about Mooney. I wasn’t talking about accomodationism or compatibility either. I’ve come down pretty firmly on Jerry’s side on both of those points.

    I was suggesting a sort of amendment. Let’s suppose that religion consists of two parts: religious* feeling (in the Einsteinian sense, hence the *) on the one hand and dogma and belief on the other. Then all the compatibility and accommodation debate is about the latter. And of course there’s a fundamental conflict.

    Now, the former aspect falls into two parts as well: the wonder and awe part; and the part that tells you that you are part of a unifying narrative that gives meaning and a sense of connectedness. The first part is wonderfully served by, among many others, Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins, too. I simply submit that we might have neglected the second part: the narrative part. (Very much influenced by Neil Postman’s treatment of it.)

    I’m certainly not saying this as any sort of indictment, since I can’t even be sure that I’m right, but simply as an item to be put up for discussion. As an educator myself, I’d just like to explore the implications, if any, of this idea. We’re all far from perfect, and hopefully this kind of discussion can make our efforts at communicating science effectively to a large and diverse public a little better.

    1. Okay, thanks for the clarification. I agree with you. I am also a teacher,and I use clips from Tyson, Sagan, Dawkins, James Randi and Adam Savage during various lessons. I like teaching bits and pieces of science with those who are passionate about whatever topic I’m approaching.

      I tell my students that when they want to understand something further, they ought to go to those who love the topic… who are experts in the topic.

      It bothers me when people seem to support scientists like Collins(whom they acknowledge are lying to themselves) while denigrating scientists like Dawkins who doesn’t mince words to state the facts.

      Yes, emphasizing the transcendent feelings that learning engenders an appreciation for science; it’s what Sagan did so well (I love his pale blue dot clip). Dawkins does this well too, but it gets hard when people like Collins what to give his invisible friend credit for the hard fought knowledge humans have obtained under some false humility. I can’t imagine my students finding anything compelling about Collins and his methods of explaining science. Miller is superb–but his god fuzziness doesn’t mesh with his science in any of sources I have.

      Astronomers aren’t really involved in the same struggle that evolutionary biologists are. They are not mischaracterized at every turn nor blamed for “unscientific America”… no matter how “strident” they are in their atheism.

  13. Dr Coyne,
    I guess I’ll give you another response, but I feel we’re talking past each other and I have already said many of the things you ask for. Sorry, I didn’t see your questions until just now. Stand by.

    1. “I have already said many of the things you ask for.”

      Well do quote them then, Chris. I’ve been looking for them for weeks now, and haven’t seen them.

      1. Yes please.

        Show us the evidence that new atheists are somehow responsible for “Unscientific America”, and while you’re at it, show us data as to how much more effective the accommodationist approach is. Tell us exactly what we are supposed to accommodate and how exactly, and which brands of magical thinking we can treat dismissively–the way astronomers treat astrology. Who is the “role model” for the way the rest of us are supposed to be so that we don’t contribute to “Unscientific America”?

        Oh, and do you have any evidence that accommodationists, such as yourself, are more effective at teaching science than those you criticize? Is the accomomdationist approach the one that scientifically literate societies are achieving their goals? Because,from my studies, scientific ignorance seems directly proportional to the influence of religion in a given society.

        This means that your implication that we kowtow to some brands of faith contributes MORE to the sense of entitlement the faithful (and the subsequent scientific ignorance that follows when people have an imaginary “answer”): this undeserved respect for faith may be at the heart of all scientific ignorance and be far more to blame for “Unscientific America” than the “new atheists” you malign.

      2. articulett, Mooney won’t answer you. He does not have those answers.

        I am now beginning to understand the title of the new book “Unscientific America”. It defines the process used by the authors.

        Now I get it!

    2. Mr. Mooney is preaching, not debating. But what’s wrong in using religious techniques when discussing the compatibility of religion and science? After all, Mr. Mooney’s scientic opponents rely solely on their own schtick, rational arguments. Since the religious dimension is obviously not reached with such methods, Mr. Mooney balances the discussion by expressing his ideas the way religious people do.

      I’m convinced that Mr. Mooney’s method is superior to his opponents in the quest of making science and religion compatible.

  14. Is this the same Neil deGrasse Tyson who, in Feb 2009, was at the University of Texas extracting the urine from religion in a most entertaining way?
    On YouTube at

    Eg he begins by showing a billboard:
    “Big Bang Theory, you’ve got to be kidding – God”.

    If so, is it an exemplar of “do as I say and not as I do” in his attempted admonishment of Richard Dawkins?
    Or has Richard convinced him?

  15. Uh huh. That was July 7. Chris Mooney has found time for posts since then the latest being a bizarro-world one about a comment on a post at Pharyngula (which he neglects to stipulate is in fact a comment, not a post) from which he deduces that…he is right and PZ is wrong. About everything.

  16. “Are Science and Faith Compatible?” – If science is the method of accurate observation and logically-consistent reasoning, it can certainly be said that “faith” in the general meaning, can be useful and even indispensible. If one trusts in one’s observational and reasoning abilities and trusts that one has proper understanding thus far, one needs a “leap of faith” to experiment further. So too, one’s pursuit of knowledge can become religious in nature. The question is, of course, are all forms of “faith” or trust warranted and are all religious beliefs and practices consistent with accurate observation and logically-consistent reasoning. The answer is an unwavering NO. In many instances good science is incompatible with “faith” as it is so commonly and narrowly used. Is there warranted “faith” in science? – Yes. Can science be conducted in a religious manner? – Yes. Are all brands of “faith” and religion equal to the value of accurate observation and logically-consistent reason, AKA “good science”? – No. Are most faiths or religions equal to the value of science? No. In fact, very few if any are. I’d go so far as to say the only “faith” or “religion” of genuine value to a human being is one with, in the very least, the values of good science. Very little good science can occur using unwarranted faith and irrational practice. Any religion using such is also of little to no genuine utility to a healthy human being. As for the unhealthy human being, unwarranted faith and irrational practice may be the best they can do or hope for, but it ought never be given equal status with good science.

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