Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 1

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 1

Dr. Craig begins a series interacting with prominent non-theists Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. Are science and religion in different domains and therefore cannot overlap?

Transcript Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 1

KEVIN HARRIS: So many people have called our attention to this interview between Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne that we just had to do a series of podcasts on it. Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. I really think you are going to get a lot out of this series so be sure to listen each week. It gets into some great topics: the conflict between science and religion, free will, so many other things. Dr. Harris and Dr. Coyne are both prominent non-theists and represent so much of what a very vocal opposition to religion in general and Christianity in particular is saying these days. On his blog Sam Harris interviewed Jerry Coyne about Coyne's new book called Faith versus Fact: Why Religion and Science are Incompatible.[1] What we will do is play segments of this interview and Dr. Craig will interact with each. These segments will be edited for time but will be in context and get the gist of the issue. Of course, you can listen to the entire interview at Sam Harris' blog.

Bill, you've had interaction with Sam, but not with Jerry.

DR. CRAIG: Right, we had a debate at the University of Notre Dame put on by the Center of Philosophy of Religion there on the foundation of moral values. I have had a chance to meet him personally and interact with his views. Coyne I have not met nor have I interacted with his work.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK, let's start toward the beginning of the interview.

DR. SAM HARRIS: The thing you focus on in the new book is this phenomenon that we've come to call accommodationism. Can you explain what that is?

DR. JERRY COYNE: It is a view held by both believers, agnostics, and atheists themselves sometimes that there is no inherent conflict or any kind of conflict between science and religion. There are various ways that you can couch that compatibility thing, but that is basically the view – that there is no conflict between the two areas.

DR. SAM HARRIS: Was the first clear and clearly wrong-headed expression of this Stephen J. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria? Where do we get this notion of fundamental compatibility?

DR. JERRY COYNE: Yeah, actually he is the guy that made it famous, but in 1925 by Alfred North Whitehead I have a quote from him here that says, “Remember the widely different aspects of events which are dealt with in science and religion respectively. Science is concerned with the general conditions which observe to regulate physical phenomenon, whereas religion is wholly wrapped up in the contemplation of moral and aesthetic values. On the one side there is the law of gravitation, and on the other the contemplation of the beauty of holiness. What one side sees the other misses and vice versa.” That is Whitehead in 1925 anticipating Gould by 74 years saying basically the same thing. It is the separate magisteria view. Gould of course made the view famous because he was a famous scientist, the public lapped up his works, and he wrote a whole book on this what he calls the “NOMA” or non-overlapping magisteria hypothesis. Plus everybody loved the idea. Why can't we all get along? That is a very popular idea. You can't be wrong if you say something like that. It was a famous book. But you see this kind of view of non-overlapping magisteria scattered throughout the discussion of science and religion throughout the 20th century.

DR. SAM HARRIS: Just to be clear about what non-overlapping magisteria are, it is the idea that there are these two domains of expertise that are separate and one is the purview of religion and the other is the purview of science and they don't overlap so in principle there can be no conflict between science and religion.

DR. JERRY COYNE: That is correct. I think Gould was badly wrong about that but that was his thesis. One sphere, just to be clear, is the domain of investigating what is real in the universe, and the other domain Gould said was the bailiwick of meaning, morals, and values which is the religious circle.

DR. SAM HARRIS: I just can never understand why this idea has a half-life of more than like 90 seconds among smart people because clearly every religion is making claims about certain invisible things and certain ultimate faiths really existing.

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, surely you remember “NOMA” from Stephen J. Gould. I remember people on both sides didn't like it because people on the religion side didn't like to be relegated to fuzziness and not being factual, and people on the scientific side said, We are not just about hardcore facts.[2]

DR. CRAIG: I think these kinds of labels paint with far too broad a brush and show an insensitivity to comparative religions. Some religions, such as Christianity, certainly do overlap with scientific knowledge of the world and what it claims about the way the world is. But other religions, for example pantheistic religions like Hinduism or Taoism or Confucianism, are not clearly overlapping with science because they are not talking about verifiable realities that intersect with the world. Think of Confucianism, for example, which is just about as they say moral values and conduct of one's life. So I think they are painting here with far too broad a brush. You need to be more discriminating about which religion you are talking about when you ask the question, Does that religion make factual claims about the world? Some do, and some don't.

KEVIN HARRIS: Sam Harris continues here saying that the fact religion in general does make claims about reality.

DR. SAM HARRIS: There are invisible spirits, there are souls, there are gods, there is a hell you can go to or successfully avoid. These are all claims about the way the universe is, and how someone like Gould could think they don't trespass on the terrain of science – I can't even begin to see how this confusion is arising in someone like him.

DR. CRAIG: This illustrates the point that I am making. He is obviously speaking here out of a Christian Western tradition, but Buddhism, for example, doesn't make any claim that there is a soul. It doesn't believe in souls. It doesn't believe in the afterlife. So you need more sensitivity to comparative religions when you try to assign these labels.

KEVIN HARRIS: He probably has Christianity in mind.

DR. CRAIG: I think that is pretty clear when he talks about doctrine of hell and things of that sort. He is clearly thinking of the Western Christian tradition.

DR. JERRY COYNE: I knew Steve. He was on my thesis committee. He was a diehard atheist if there ever was one. I don't know if this book was like a psychological burp in him or that it was a gambit to gain popularity with the public. I just find it hard to believe knowing Steve – he has passed on now – that he would really believe this. But, you know, when faced with the kind of argument you made (which I agree with 100%) that almost all religions (there may be a few outliers) make statements about what is real in the universe globally claim that that is not real religion. So, for example, creationism, which is a staple of Christianity in the United States and is accepted by 43% of all Americans (Young Earth Creationism) is a tenant of Protestantism – any Protestant. That is a claim about the real world. I mean Genesis talks about basically how old the Earth is if you calculate it back. It talks about everything being formed at once. It makes statements about Noah's Flood. All these things are not only scientific statements but they are scientifically checkable. What Gould did when faced with that is he said that is not real religion. But he finessed the problem by just defining a way as not religious those statements that religion makes about reality. So, of course, tautologically he was correct but it doesn't make sense. Theologians have glommed onto this evasive maneuver he made. You know, in some circles it is still popular to deny that religion does not make statements about reality, but most theologians have rejected Steve's statement just on the religious side because they recognize that their own faith makes claims about reality.

DR. CRAIG: I think it is very clear that creationism is an example, especially Young Earth Creationism, of a religious worldview that makes factual claims about the physical world. By contrast, he's quite right in pointing out that a good number of what one might call neo-liberal theologians advocate a view of religion which doesn't make any sort of factual claims about the world. Indeed, in the aftermath of logical positivism and verificationism during the 1930s and 40s, liberal theologians seemed ready to say that religious statements don't make factual claims but that these are expressions of, for example, one's absolute dependence upon God or that these might be emotive expressions of the beauty and the grandeur of the world or one's gratitude for living. That is certainly true that a good number of modern neo-liberal theologians would hold to a view of religion which claims that religion doesn't make scientific factual claims. It is odd that Coyne would recognize that because that contradicts the point that he and Harris were making that religion isn't a non-overlapping view.[3] Now he is recognizing that for many modern liberal theologians it is such a position. So that is a little bit inconsistent.

KEVIN HARRIS: They are critiquing a position that they think that that is being inconsistent.

DR. CRAIG: But how is it inconsistent for a liberal theologian who believes what I just said to say that science and religion are non-overlapping domains? It seems to me that given his liberal views, that is perfectly consistent. It is inconsistent with, say, creationism or, I think, biblical Christianity, but it is not inconsistent with liberal theology. As I say, this is a direct contradiction to what they said before that religion makes factual claims that science can verify and now they are recognizing that in the minds of many neo-liberal theologians that is not the case. They interpret religion in the same way that Stephen J. Gould does. So you've got to show some reason to think that these folks are wrong. You can't say they are inconsistent.

DR. SAM HARRIS: To take Christianity as an example, if you think that Jesus really existed you are making a claim about a historical person. If you think that he really survived his death and in some sense persists and can hear your prayers and that he may be coming back to Earth to raise the dead in turn, you are making claims about biology, you are making claims about the human survival of death, you are making claims about telepathic powers of a now invisible carpenter. You are making very likely claims about human flight without the aid of technology.


DR. SAM HARRIS: It is very frustrating.

DR. CRAIG: Again, he is obviously correct. For those who hold that the resurrection of Jesus is a literal event of history, as we do, we are making factual claims that can in some measure be verified or falsified.

DR. SAM HARRIS: This is, as you I think suggested also, related to the idea that many people have that religious beliefs don't actually lead to any significant human behavior in this world. Because religious beliefs are in principle vacuous and they are only about solidarity and community and finding this sort of nebulous meaning in life they don't actually lead to concrete behaviors that we need to worry about. So jihadism is not the result of what any specific Muslims believe – it is politics, it is economics. So religious belief is not worth worrying about.

DR. CRAIG: I think what he is saying here is that you can't ignore religion on the basis of the view that it is irrelevant and doesn't affect human behavior. That is obviously correct even given the Whiteheadian view that they talked about earlier that religion is only about moral and aesthetic values, not about factual claims. If religion is not about factual claims, as neo-liberal theologians think, but is really about moral and aesthetic values then obviously that is going to affect your behavior. You will guide your life by the ethical code that you've adopted. You will have an appreciation for beauty and art that you perhaps would not have held otherwise. Clearly religion is going to motivate and affect a person's behavior whether it intersects with science or not.

KEVIN HARRIS: That is what we are going to hear in a moment. He says obviously that is going to affect public policy and the society in which we live.

DR. SAM HARRIS: It is an attitude that many of our fellow atheists hold, and therefore they see no reason to oppose people's religious certainties even when they are seeming to encroach int the public sphere in the kinds of public policies that members of our own government want to enact. They continually doubt that religion is at the bottom of those policies, whether it is opposition to gay marriage, or embryonic stem cell research, or whatever it is in the context of the United States. I find it incredibly frustrating to interact with this kind of denialism which is the other side of what you are calling accommodationism.

DR. JERRY COYNE: Yes. It is interesting. There is actually two claims there. The first one is that religion does not make any meaningful statements about reality, and the second claim (which could be separate from that) is that religious beliefs don't lead to behavior. Those things are not necessarily connected with one another, but it would be an interesting exercise to see if those people who claim that religious beliefs don't have epistemic content are the same people who deny that, for example, belief in the Qur'an leads to suicide bombing. I think somebody like Karen Armstrong would instantiate both of those views.

DR. SAM HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

DR. JERRY COYNE: She has this apophatic view of religion that you can't say anything about God, and of course she goes around and claims everything bad that religious people do is not based on religion themselves. So, you know.[4]

DR. SAM HARRIS: Scott Atrane, the anthropologist, has linked those two ideas very explicitly in the way he talks about Islam. These religious beliefs are in principle vacuous, they have no propositional content about the world that could motivate anybody to do anything differently, and therefore nobody does anything differently on their basis, i.e., nobody blows himself up for that reason.

DR. CRAIG: I think that we need to surface here an assumption that is lying below the surface and that is that claims about ethical and moral values are somehow not objective truths about the world. There is a kind of subterranean scientism that is lurking here where the only factual claims one is making about the world are verifiable scientific claims and that when neo-liberal theologians make ethical and aesthetic judgments on the basis of religion, they are not really making claims that have any objective truth value. That may be true for some of them, but it is not necessarily true for all. Those who would reject scientism could well see themselves as making objective truth claims about the world even though they wouldn't be scientific in nature.

DR. JERRY COYNE: I would like to ask those people, what would it take to convince you that they really were motivated by religion? They are like theologians in a way. There is nothing you can tell them to disabuse them or no evidence whatsoever that would convince them that they are being motivated by religion because they can always think of a way that it is something else.

DR. CRAIG: I think it is evident that Muslims can be motivated to carry out jihad because of the teachings of their religion. As I have said publicly on more than one occasion, Islam is a religion that enjoins violence and was, in fact, historically propagated by violence in the support of religion. By contrast, the ethics of Jesus motivate a very different kind of behavior when followed consistently because he taught that you should love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you, do good to those who use you, and so forth. So it is a very different ethic in Christianity than in Islam. Obviously, these differing religions will have a polar opposite impact upon one's behavior.

KEVIN HARRIS: That makes it all the more wrong then to lump religion into this one big orb.

DR. CRAIG: It is so obvious that these fellows here have not made any serious attempt to study the various religions of the world and to really understand them because this painting with the broad brush, lumping everything together, is just not useful in talking about the impact of different religions upon human behavior and the kinds of claims that they make about the world.

KEVIN HARRIS: We are out of time. We will pick it up next time with Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. It gets even better, believe me. Dr. Craig literally comes out of his seat on some of the things that Harris and Coyne say, so you don't want to miss a minute of it.[5]

[1] See (accessed November 24, 2015).

[2] 5:06

[3] 10:03

[4] 15:04

[5] Total Running Time: 19:00 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)