My Five Books interview: recommendations for books dealing with the incompatibility of science and religion

May 22, 2015 • 8:18 am

When WEIT came out, I was interviewed by Sophie Roell of the “Five Books” section of The Browser.  Then was asked to choose five “popular” books about evolution that people could read if they wanted to learn about my branch of science. That interview (a transcription of a phone conversation, so the language is informal) is here.  It proved quite popular on the site, and I was pleased because Sophie is a terrific interviewer and asked good questions. (Unlike many interviewers, she actually read the books—all five of them—plus WEIT).

Now, six years on, Sophie interviewed me again on the occasion of the publication of FvF. This time I was asked to choose and discuss five books about the incompatibility of science and religion—books that could be useful to the average educated reader. I didn’t choose accommodationist books, for that wasn’t my brief.

This morning, our discussion, “Jerry Coyne on the incompatibility of religion and science was published on Five Books. I won’t list the books here, or reprise what I said about them, for you can read that at the site.

Although this is a done deal, if you think I omitted relevant books (remember, I was limited to five), do place a comment below. And remember, this is the transcription of a phone call, so it’s a conversation and not perfectly publishable prose. (Were I Steve Pinker, they’d be equivalent!)


82 thoughts on “My Five Books interview: recommendations for books dealing with the incompatibility of science and religion

  1. You know…I think the next time a theist insists that we mustn’t say anything about their gods until we’ve digested Aquinas, Plantinga, and Swinburne…I think we should simply retort that said theist is clearly unqualified to participate in the discussion as evidenced by ignorance of Herman Philipse.


  2. remember, this is the transcription of a phone call, so it’s a conversation and not perfectly publishable prose

    I think you did a great job representing your views. I didn’t see any gaffes or statements where your position was unclear. Someone reading that Five Books interview might not agree with everything you say, but they would understand where Jerry Coyne is coming from. In my mind, that’s success.

  3. When discussing our feelings about “agency” and “free will”, you say:

    The answer is that it doesn’t, because we cannot overcome our feeling that we’re agents. Even if you think about it, even if you truly, deeply realize it, you still go ahead and act like you act, because we’re programmed like that by evolution.

    Later, discussing the consequences of accepting determinism, you say:

    Our feelings of sorrow (I should have behaved this way!) will all vanish, as well as invidious social consequences like the theory that people are poor because they deserve it, …

    Personally I’d agree with the first one rather than the second. Even given determinism, we’d still feel sorrow about previous acts, even if the commentary changes slightly (we regret being like we were/are, rather than regretting a “libertarian choice”).

  4. More book recommendations, great! I already looked up the Carl Sagan book in my local library. I enjoyed Demon-Haunted World but had the same feeling as you, so it’s good to here there’s a succint version (if I may call it that) out there as well.

    1. A more succinct version of it gets my interest too, though I didn’t really think it was much of a slog at all to begin with. Then again, I read it many many years ago so I may just be remembering my likes and not my dislikes.

  5. That is the way an interview should be done. I would commend the interviewer, Sophie, almost as much as the ceiling cat.

    Many of the so-called interviewer now, or those who which to do interviewers should go to school on this one. Ask the good questions and then listen. Almost as good as reading the book.

    1. I was not all that impressed with the questions. I mean, c’mon, the old ‘Soviet Union’ ploy?

      1. I think Sophie was playing the devil’s advocate with some questions, asking the things that readers would want to know, or how they’d challenge me. After all, I was asked that question just yesterday after my talk downtown!

        1. And even though we might get sick of the same questions popping up over and over, it is the answer that makes the question worthwhile. This interviewer asked and then moved on.

        2. My favorite way to deal with the “Stalin was an atheist!” canard is to vigorously agree. Oh, but if only Stalin had abandoned his atheism and embraced the god Quetzalcoatl and demonstrated his love for him with vast human sacrifices, we would have been spared the horrors of the Purges!

          …wait…what…? You mean that’s not the right god?

          Well, how ’bout Ares?


          You have some other god in mind, like YHWH, who killed all the first-born Egyptian children, whom you wish Stalin worshipped?

          Or maybe you don’t actually understand what atheism is?


              1. Annoys me though, I thought I was just linking a pic of Kev Smith as Ares. He had fun with the role and I love black humour.

  6. I concur with your choice of The Varieties of Scientific Experience.

    I think this is a brilliant book and much underrated. It’s one of my favorite “Atheist books”. Since it is the transcription of lectures (and some Q&A following the lectures), it seems to me it’s pretty concise.

    Sagan had that same ability (it seems to me), like Stephen Pinker, to speak in clear and coherent paragraphs.

    1. It’s funny, I wrote this before I read your interview (II just looked at the list of books); and we made the same point about the book.

      I also like Tom Payne’s The Age of Reason. Sort of a manifesto for the Enlightenment.

  7. I am happy with the books on your list which I have actually read.

    The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Sagan can use all the promotion you have to offer. It did not make a large splash when it came out, perhaps because Sagan didn’t actively promote (being dead and all).
    Sagan is often thought of as somebody who attacked pseudoscience but was friendly to religion. If you read this book, you’ll see that he was not. It’s clear that he sees religion as just one of the many brands of irrationality he was fighting his whole life. He was a New Atheist before there were New Atheists.

    Yes, but… he opposed religion in a nice way. He was the “good cop” as opposed to Dawkins’ “bad cop.”

    “I found the book hard slogging, as you probably did too…”
    I would not stand strong on the presumption that the interviewer has read all of your books.

    A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by A.D. White – lengthy and encyclopedic. “Dickson White was a believer, by the way. He says he’s a Christian and that by writing this book, he is furthering religion.” Indeed, and amazing. Considering what he was willing to give up, including that the Bible was a collection of myths, its amazing he thought there was anything left of Christianity to believe in.

    1. Yes, but… he opposed religion in a nice way. He was the “good cop” as opposed to Dawkins’ “bad cop.”

      Well, I agree, but …

      He (Sagan) spoke in more conciliatory language than Dawkins does (in for instance, TGD); but he (Sagan) is really relentless in making his point, quietly, calmly, with no invective (or nearly none). He does not back down or sugar-coat it. He just keeps pointing out the truth of the matter and making his audience look at it.

      In my opinion, this is very effective.

      1. Absolutely. I think it was Sagan’s affability, and his boyish demeanor, that defused the anger many people would feel about what he said. In some places he’s just as uncompromising about religion as Dawkins.

        Sadly, I don’t have Sagan’s personality!

        1. I still say there’s no substantive difference between the lot. People are drawn towards Carl and away from Richard because Richard speaks as if he’s just drunk a pot of tea whilst Carl sounded like he’s just smoked a bowl of pot.

          Nothing worng with your own personality, Jerry!


          1. Are you suggesting that Jerry should take drugs before talking on this subject? We know what would happen.

            “Religion … is fucking brown …”

            Still, it’s better than accommodationists fawning over religion.


            1. Ha! If nothing else, that’d make for a fantastic podcast with Sam — the two of them get together, start the recorder going, and then ingest their substances of choice….


      2. Part of it is simply (IMO) public perception: Sagan was seen as someone who focused on “SCIENCE!!!! (oh and a little atheism on the side).” Whereas if you bring up Dawkins, despite his scientific portfolio people tend to think of him the other way: “ATHEISM!!! (oh and a little science on the side)”

        I think some of that is just dumb luck: the first thing you read/see by some prominent person likely colors how you think of them from that point on. With Sagan, that was Cosmos. With Dawkins, at least for younger folk, its probably God Delusion. But I would bet that people who’s first experience with Sagan is Jerry’s recommendation would develop a different view of him…and I’d also bet that if you started your Dawkins reading with The Selfish Gene or earlier works, you have a different (more science-oriented and less atheism-oriented) view of him too.

  8. The piece on Cornell, the secular institution was very interesting. Of course, earlier yet, was the University of Virginia, 1819, which Thomas Jefferson had much to do with. As I recall Jefferson was designing the place and the religious folks kept coming around asking where the Divinity section would be located and he just put them off. Finally said a Professorship of Theology has no place at this school.

  9. One of the questions:

    When you read the book [The Varieties of Scientific Experience], you feel very small. It almost seems as if the history of scientific discovery has been about finding out human beings are nothing special. It starts with Copernicus — we’re not at the center of the universe — and it just gets worse and worse.

    I really have trouble respecting this sort of comment.

    You feel bad because human exceptionalism is not true? You’re not a special snowflake?

    Well, too bad! Time to pull up your big-girl pants and look at reality without the rose-tinted glasses.

    1. Again, I’m pretty sure Sophie was being devil’s advocate here. Human exceptionalism is, after all, one of the things that religious people defend avidly and one of the things evolution dispels. Remember, the interview was partly designed to draw me out about issues that the interviewer thinks would concern a lot of people. And from my talks and the emails I get, divine “purpose and meaning” is at the center of people’s concerns.

      1. Does anybody ever get around to explaining what the divine purpose actually is?

        Not just what the gods wand of us, of course; that’s the whole point of gods in the first place — for people to speak on their behalf and thus assume their authority. I don’t like pork; ergo, YHWH decrees that none shall eat pork, and who are you to question YHWH?

        The religious claim the gods are necessary to give meaning to life and cite that as a key reason for belief…and yet it’s typically the atheists who’ve found meaning to their lives and the religious who endlessly search and debate.

        Maybe that’s the key to ending religion…help people figure out what they want to do with their lives now that they’re all grown up. Who needs gods to tell you what to do when you’re too busy with your own stuff?


  10. A fascinating interview, and how striking to find Alex Rosenberg’s ‘Atheist Guide’ on the list of five! This book has haunted me since I first read it three years ago. As a humanist I was intellectually devastated to find how little R. valued the humanities within the curriculum of scientism.

    So I started a response in the form of an apologia, hoping to salvage the field of study to which I’d devoted my life’s work. But, strange to say, the more I looked, the more I agreed with R.: literature (my area) was stories, and the study of literature was ‘stories about stories’–in other words, nothing that could give the world knowledge in R.’s scientistic sense (which is the only sense: he also views economics as ‘ersatz’ science).

    Now, as Prof. Coyne has occasionally commented here and says in the interview (‘But where I part company with Alex is where he dismisses the humanities as an illusion. On one level, he’s right. They are. But on another level, we live our lives as human beings and the humanities have an emotional effect on us’), we read literature for its emotional effects on us. That is surely true, and R. agrees:

    ‘When it comes to real understanding, the humanities are nothing we have to take seriously, except as symptoms. But they are everything we need to take seriously when it comes to entertainment, enjoyment, and psychological satisfaction’ (307).

    BUT. What is the role of a professor of literature in this process of reading, cognition and emotional effect? Very minor–merely to suggest what students should read and read a few of these selected book with them during a semester. In other words, a ‘facilitator’ and little more.

    And if I were to write a critical essay on the books we read, that would be not a contribution to knowledge but a ‘story about stories.’ It is this that disturbs me, for I cannot meet R.’s argument. He’s right.

    The only avenue to knowledge might be curtailing literary criticism (and certainly the outlandish chaos of ‘cultural studies’) until it focuses on HOW literary texts are formed to bring about ‘psychological satisfaction.’ In conjunction with cognitive neuroscience, such a humanistic approach could perhaps make a genuine contribution to knowledge.

    1. My defense would probably go something like this:

      In real life, you’re going to encounter many difficult, nonquantitative problems. You won’t always have the lab setting you need or the data you need to “do science” in support of making an important decision. Humanities, done right, teaches you how to think critically in situations and for problems where you lack the quantitative data, time, or environment needed for good science. They also cover how to reason and develop good arguments when the judgment required is inherently subjective. Lastly, good decisions are often not just about having good method; it also often requires at hand a significant body of knowledge concerning a specific subject. The humanities provide this: they cover the case studies and body of knowledge of how humans have tried to grapple with these types of problems in various fields in the past. It would make no sense to try and fold this subject matter knowledge into one of the sciences or get rid of it altogether.

      1. Well said. And I appreciate the ‘done right’ caveat, especially as college-level humanities–particularly literary criticism and cultural studies–have been done wrong for so long that the patient has all but died.

  11. But most science — physics, chemistry and archaeology — doesn’t really bother religious people.

    Conversely, I have a sense that the % of PhD chemists, and maybe physicists too, who are also religous is somewhat higher than biologists (if for no other reason than that they aren’t assailed by the religous). Any stats on that?

    1. I don’t have any statistics, but the fact that journals like C&E News can receive angry letters from creationists (and GW deniers) when they do science education related matters and such. However, I suspect also that many are engineers. (Salem hypothesis, anyone? For those who remember

      1. Engineers pretty accurately reflect the cross section of the population. So it’s not surprising that a large percentage are theists.

        From my own personal experience working as an engineer for 30 years, I can attest that atheists are as rare in engineering as they are in the general population. I’ve only met a tiny handful (at least that were willing to speak about it). And many have surprised (floored) me with their belief — even people I thought I knew really well, even those who studied philosophy at university (or does that cut the other way? 🙂 )

        1. As engineers are about “design,” one can find the occasional engineer averring that he detects “design,” and therefore a “Designer,” in nature. I gather that generally engineers are not in the business of trying to disprove scientific theories. For all practical purposes they accept theories as fact. (E.g., aeronautical engineers and jet aircraft and the theory of gravitation, and air/fluid flow over curved surfaces.)

          1. “For all practical purposes they accept theories as fact. (E.g., aeronautical engineers and jet aircraft and the theory of gravitation, and air/fluid flow over curved surfaces.)”

            That’s right.

        2. Yes. Engineers are all about making things work. Figuring out why things work is a rather different set of skills, related, but different enough to leave plenty of room for invisible friends to hang out.

  12. I’m finding FvF quite impressive, and also enjoyed reading the interview. I have two additions to Jerry’s fine selection of five books:

    “The Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem”, a collection of essays edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, Aug. 2013 – published by Jerry’s hometown University of Chicago Press. I’m not a big fan of Pigliucci, but I do admire the work of Boudry (check out his doctoral thesis, “Here Be Dragons”). There are good contributions from Barbara Forrest, Michael Shermer, and Donald Prothero.

    “God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion” by Victor Stenger, April 2012. Stenger has a tendency to be shrill and over-strident, but he occasionally draws some neat distinctions.

  13. Good choices though I must admit not having heard of Herman Philipse before. I would recommend (though without removing any of the books you’ve enumerated) the following books on science and religion:

    1) Pascal Boyer – Religion Explained (though you did allude to Boyer)

    2) Bertrand Russell – Religion and Science

    3) Matt Young – No Sense of Obligation

    4) Victor Stenger – God and the Folly of Faith (or any book by Vic Stenger)

  14. He shows that religion is not only irrational but it’s incoherent. In the first part of the book he shows how people’s concept of God is so incoherent that he could basically stop the book right there and conclude there’s nothing to talk about. People can’t even define God. And to a large extent he’s right.

    This is a really important point and I think any of us that have engaged believers have run into this. (Usually under the guise of: “Well, that’s not the God I believe in. No one believes that.”)

    But no matter how much you try to pin them down about exactly what they mean, they evade the question. (In general. I just listened to a debate in the UK about the Bible and there was one evangelical believer in the audience who did admit that he believed everything in the Bible literally.)

    I find this very frustrating.

    1. I’ll bet you one hundred thousand kajillion dollars that he doesn’t believe Luke 14.33. And, if I cared to spend another 15 seconds thinking about evangelicalism, I could easily come up with 10 more.

  15. A good interview. I wasn’t bothered by the interviewer asking questions like that – we might have heard them a hundred times before but many readers of that site (and folks not engaged in the debate) would not have done!

  16. A truly enlightening interview: I am particularly grateful to PCC for recommending some books that I could have otherwise overlooked, such as the Sagan and the Philipse (after I have read FvF, of course).

    But I must pick up on one of Sophie Roell’s comments, where she refers to “the UK with its religion-heavy elitist education system”. Sorry, what? Yes, it is the case that, for historical reasons, about a third of UK schools have a religious (mostly CofE) foundation; that in recent years, unfortunately, a number of religious groups have been allowed to set up new academies and “free” schools, some of which are far too faith-based than is desirable; and that we still have absurd laws on the statute book, such as that requiring all schools to have a daily assembly “of a predominantly religious character”.

    But the numbers of hard-line faith schools is still very small; the Dept for Education and Ofsted have, for the most part, taken a hard line against stuff like creationism in science lessons; and the religious element in the daily routine of most (CofE) schools is pretty light (disclaimer: I have been a Governor of one such school for over 20 years). And in secondary school, and of course even more so at University level, the accusation of “religious-heavy elitism” is simply wrong.

    The UK education system is far from ideal; and recent events such as the “Trojan horse” scandal in Birmingham, where a cabal of Islamist activists seems to have been intent on converting numbers of schools into not much better than madrassas, are disturbing. but Sophie’s comment, on the face of it, is not justified by the facts.

    1. I wonder how that “predominantly religious character” manifests these days. Forty years ago, we certainly had very God-y teachers leading assemblies. But there was no real push back when I was in the sixth form and lead a secular anti-racist, anti-homophobic assembly for the “upper school” quoting passages from David Gerrold’s _The Trouble with Tribbles: The Story Behind Star Trek’s Most Popular Episode_ (the bit about deciding to add a black character … until he realised that there already was one!) and from one of Asimov’s essays.


      1. I am sure that in most schools, including even ‘church’ schools, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. From personal experience, kids take it in their stride; and the influence they get at home is far more important than the mild religious atmosphere at many CofE schools. All my children went to this school, and all have turned out cheerful sceptics, and with an appreciation of the art etc that has been influenced by christian cultural traditions.

  17. Hello everyone! Couldn’t resist joining the discussion. Jerry is very sweet to defend me, but this I will say: I have spent much of my working life working in China, and I do think it is a real counter-example to atheism leading to rationalism. Chinese are just as crazy as Americans despite having 0 belief in God. They’re just crazy in different ways.
    Not that I have any time for religion, especially in the Middle East. In fact, as a woman, I don’t even go there, because I got fed up of men touching my breasts.

    As a product of elite British schools, I feel strongly that being forced to go to chapel every day counts as religious indoctrination. This is what I was referring to. David Cameron went to Eton, he surrounds himself by other public school boys, and while I didn’t go to Eton, I would still be willing to bet my life on the fact they had to go to chapel every Sunday and probably every other day of the week (or possibly just MWF or TuTh).
    I don’t know anything about fanatical schools in the UK — but in a way you have to choose your audience and this interview wasn’t really geared towards people who are really into religion, it’s geared towards people who happily live with religion and science without thinking much about it. This is something the UK is quite full of — at least at a private school level. State schools are fine in this regard, I am sure, but I did not go to one as my parents were living in West Africa, so I was at boarding school.

    1. Chinese are just as crazy as Americans despite having 0 belief in God. They’re just crazy in different ways.

      True — and most of that crazy lies in “traditional” superstitions, like the effectiveness of ground-up tiger genitals as a Viagra substitute.

      I believe that’s why Jerry pointed to Scandinavia, where they haven’t merely ditched the gods, but the superstition itself — at least, for the most part.

      Faith typically takes those in the West to religion, but, wherever you are, it takes you to trouble. That’s why Jerry targeted it in the title of the treatise.


      1. True. I am Dutch and certainly rationality rules. My husband’s criticism is that these ultra rational societies are rather boring to live in. I wanted to raise this point with Jerry but didn’t think it was suitable for a serious interview.

          1. That, and I’ll take the boredom of not having to worry about being stoned by Muslims for apostasy! Give me the excitement of a thriving secular culture any day of the week. Please!


    2. Hi Sophie, thanks for your clarification. I don’t want to hijack this thread, which is properly about Jerry and your truly insightful interview. Just to say that Cameron’s 7 days a week at Eton chapel don’t seem to have left much of an impact! He admits that his faith ‘comes and goes’ and shows little signs of consistently acting on it. In fact, as usual, he is just another politician osculating rumps in exchange for votes.

    3. I have spent much of my working life working in China, and I do think it is a real counter-example to atheism leading to rationalism. Chinese are just as crazy as Americans despite having 0 belief in God.

      China is less communist now than it used to be, but that is aside.

      I recommend you look up what Bertrand Russell had to say about communism, and how he referred to it as a ‘religion.’
      “I think all the great religions of the world – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Communism – both untrue and harmful.” – My Religious Reminiscences (1957) reprinted in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell

      There’s a more specific quote in which he goes into the basis for calling it a religion, but I can’t find it off-hand.

  18. When life-long cherished beliefs are refuted by unanswerable, reasoned arguments people tend to get testy. There’s nothing you can do about it. Hitchens had the right attitude.

    I can tell from FvF that your comprehensive reading of “sacred” texts and “sophisticated” theology paid off, but it must have been excruciating.

  19. I’m adding the first four books Jerry mentioned to my to-read list; can’t really imaging myself ever reading the White.

    Appreciate the suggestions from others, too.

    Good ones I’ve read are:

    God, The Failed Hypothesis by Vic Stenger.
    Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? a book of essays edited by Paul Kurtz
    Scientists Confront Creationism a book of essays edited by Petto and Godfrey
    Why Evolution Works (and Why Creationism Fails) by Young and Strode.

    Obviously the last two are more specific than “science vs. religion”.

    And, tomorrow I start reading the book on the topic that I’ve really been looking forward to!

  20. Glad to see Philipse’s book in the list. It deserves to be more widely read. Though the academic approach does sometimes get a little tedious. The two chapters going through the logic of Plantinga’s reformed epistemology may have been necessary to give a complete argument against it, but the fact that Plantinga’s argument is ad hoc gets a passing mention in one paragraph of those two chapters. The same could be said for a lot of the logic refuting Swinburne – quite obvious objections to Swinburne are mentioned almost in passing (such as the discussion on whether infinite dispositions are simple), while the arguments keep coming back to whether Swinburne was successful in constructing a C-inductive argument. But there’s so much in it that slogging through the overly technical aspects is rewarded.

    Haven’t read the other 4 books. I’ve got Dennett’s on my existing physical “to read” pile, Rosenberg’s book on my “one day I’ll get it off Amazon for Kindle” list, and can’t find the Sagan book on Kindle (is it there for US people?) nor at my local library. In any case, it looks like a good range of materials to get through.

  21. One book I’d like to talk up on this topic is Niall Shanks’ God, the Devil, and Darwin: A Critique of Intelligent Design Theory. The book is good because it explores the nature of science, of methodological naturalism, and the barriers any non-naturalist theory must overcome in order to be a successful explanation.

  22. Reading the Albatross. You write beautifully and I am oh so envious.
    I have another idea to throw in the pot.
    I taught sociology at university level in the sixties. It was only toward the end of that decade that I began getting verbal confrontations in class about evolution. I thot the issue had been solved.
    My idea is that we add creationism to the hot buttons of abortion and gay rights. Has this been done?
    Some people think the hot buttons are coding for racism.
    You write so well that I think each entry is meant for me alone.

  23. Jerry,

    I was wondering why the interviewer never asked how you came up with the idea of comparing science and religion. I mean, when you really think about it, whoa, they’re incompatible. Why didn’t anyone ever notice that before? It would be cool if you could go into the details of that.


    1. I have discussed that several times, including in the book itself and last night at my talk. They’re compared because they both claim to be ways of knowing what’s true about the universe.

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