Science rocks. Religion sucks.
I'm only a few chapters into a new book by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, "Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible." But it's pretty darn clear that those four words are a good summary of his thesis.
Which I totally agree with.
Coyne has no patience for accommodationists who believe that science and religion are somehow complementary, offering up different ways of understanding the cosmos that, when combined, produce more knowledge than either science can alone.
In a summary of what the book is about, Coyne writes:
I also take up the notion of "other ways of knowing": the contention that science isn't the only way of ferreting out nature's truths. I'll argue that in fact science is the only way to find such truths -- if you construe "science" broadly.
...I will have achieved my aim if, by the end of the book, you demand that people produce good reasons for what they believe -- not only in religion, but in any area in which evidence can be brought to bear. I'll have achieved my aim when people devote as much effort to choosing a system of belief as they do to choosing their doctor.
I'll have achieved my aim if the public stops awarding special authority about the universe and the human condition to preachers, imams, and clerics simply because they are religious figures. And above all, I'll have achieved my aim if, when you hear someone described as a "person of faith," you see it as criticism rather than praise.
There's a great passage in the book that Coyne introduces in this fashion:
...Religions make explicit claims about reality -- about what exists and happens in the universe. These claims involve the existence of gods, the number of such gods (polytheism or monotheism), their character and behavior (usually loving and beneficent, but, in the case of Hindu and ancient Greek gods, sometimes mischievous or malevolent), how they interact with the world, whether or not there are souls or life after death, and, above all, how the deities wish us to behave -- their moral code.
These are empirical claims, and although some may be hard to test, they must, like all claims about reality, be defended with a combination of evidence and reason. If we find no credible evidence, no good reasons to believe, then those claims should be disregarded, just as most of us ignore claims about ESP, astrology, and alien abduction.
After all, beliefs important enough to affect you for eternity surely deserve the closest scrutiny. Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." His inevitable corollary was that "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." The philosopher L.R. Hamelin describes what happens when we apply science to the existence of God, stipulating five criteria for the "God theory."
Here's the Hamelin passage. I think it's wonderfully brilliant and persuasive. Deal with these criteria, God-believers. You can't, but your failure will demonstrate why it makes no sense to believe in God.
First, we hypothesize that God is real, with real properties. Second, we create a theory about what a real God and HIs properties means. A God doesn't just sit there; what does He do? Third, we make this theory testable: we must be able to determine whether it is true or false. Fourth, we must test the theory by observation or experiment. Finally, we ensure the theory is parsimonious: that is, if we took out God, the theory wouldn't explain as much.
Once we have followed all these steps, we have a scientific theory that includes God, which we can test against what we actually observe.
But constructing this kind of theory of God puts believers on the horns of a dilemma. Centuries of scientific investigation show that the best scientific theories, testable by observation, include nothing like a personal God. We find only a universe of blind, mechanical laws, including natural selection, with no foresight or ultimate purpose.
Alternatively, a believer could reject one or more of the criteria for a God theory, but doing that has profound implications.
If she admits that God is not real, she's already an atheist. If she says God doesn't do anything, who cares? If her theory cannot be tested at all, then there's no way of telling if it's true or false. If her theory can be tested only by private revelation, not by observations available to everyone, she unjustifiably claims private knowledge. And if her theory is observationally identical to a theory that does not include God, then she's again an atheist, for a God who makes no difference is no God at all.
The only remaining question is whether some people would find this analysis useful, and I know many people who, applying this analysis, have abandoned their religion.