The Faith of Scientists: Rebuttal to Jerry A. Coyne’s Article in Slate Magazine

bible-faith     There is great confusion these days on particular terms especially when it comes into the realm of theology, philosophy, and science. The term faith is thrown around with a variety of different meanings. For some, faith means a blind acceptance of something not proven. For others, faith represents something accepted as true from experience. The definitions are often crossed especially for those who are antagonistic to the Christian faith. Such is the apparent case with Jerry A. Coyne, a contributor to the liberal online magazine Slate. Coyne writes the following concerning faith:

A common tactic of those who claim that science and religion are compatible is to argue that science, like religion, rests on faith: faith in the accuracy of what we observe, in the laws of nature, or in the value of reason. Daniel Sarewitz, director of a science policy center at Arizona State University and an occasional Slate contributor, wrote this about the Higgs boson in the pages of Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals: “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.” Such statements imply that science and religion are not that different because both seek the truth and use faith to find it. Indeed, science is often described as a kind of religion. But that’s wrong, for the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:

“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”

“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”

“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”

“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise”…

To state it bluntly, such faith involves pretending to know things you don’t. Behind it is wish-thinking, as clearly expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”…The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion…Finally, isn’t science at least based on the faith that it’s good to know the truth? Hardly. The notion that knowledge is better than ignorance is not a quasi-religious faith, but a preference: We prefer to know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work. We don’t describe plumbing or auto mechanics as resting on the faith that it’s better to have your pipes and cars in working order, yet people in these professions also depend on finding truth…So the next time you hear someone described as a “person of faith,” remember that although it’s meant as praise, it’s really an insult. (Coyne 2013).

I added a good portion of the article so that I am not accused of misrepresenting Coyne (note: there is a link to access the article in its entirety in the bibliography). Coyne holds four major problems in his article. These problems are wrapped up in four great misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding of Biblical Definition of Faith

Coyne, like many antagonists to faith, misunderstands the biblical definition of Faith. The Greek term for faith is pisteuo. The term represents more than a belief in something that one cannot see. Rather, it represented a dependency upon someone or something. It is an assurance of something. For the early apostles, their faith in Jesus came by the miracles performed before their very eyes. Many Christians were transformed into believers after witnessing the resurrected Jesus. This evidence led Thomas to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:28-29). Some would claim that Jesus did not call for evidence in His proclamation to Thomas. But this is an erroneous belief at the outset as Jesus had just given Thomas tremendous evidence. Jesus was scolding Thomas for the extremes in which Thomas was calling for before Thomas would believe.

What of those today? Could the risen Jesus appear before people today? Of course He could. However, God has left an amazing trail of proofs that believers can follow to have a dependent faith upon God and Christ. This is something that Coyle does not address. Many believers have faith because of experience and evidence. The fact that there is an orderly universe and because scientists can do science points to the necessity of God’s existence. Coyne greatly fails in this area.

Misunderstanding of Apologist’s Explanation of Scientific Faith

Coyne and Daniel Sarewitz misunderstand the point being made by Christian apologists about the faith of scientists. Apologists not only confront what is known, but how something is known. Norman Geisler writes of faith’s relationship to reason, “Faith and reason are parallel. One does not cause the other because ‘faith’ involves will (freedom) and reason doesn’t coerce the will (On Truth, 14. A1.6). A person is free to dissent, even though there may be convincing reasons to believe” (Geisler 2012, “Faith and Reason,” 159). This is exactly the same thing that occurs in science. The scientist places faith in the scientific method to produce the results that he/she seeks. The scientific method cannot be proven as an accurate means by the scientific method. It is accepted by faith, or rather trust, in that it can produce the results desired. Reason is employed in the use of experiments to bring forth a result which can be accepted or trusted.

Coyne’s argument is very one-sided. Coyne uses an argument about penicillin. Could there not be occasions where the penicillin would not work? Perhaps a person is allergic to penicillin. Then the medicine could not be used. Sometimes medicines do not produce the results desired. Does the scientist’s faith waiver in the medication? No, because more likely than not the medicine will work, but it may not always. In such a case, the scientist IS applying a trust, or faith, in the probability that the medicine is more likely to work than not. When you go to the doctor, more likely than not you will sign a paper that will state that the medicinal practice is NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE. The probabilities are that the medicine you take will work, but it is not a guarantee that it will work. It seems that there is a trust in science that Coyne abhors.

faith     Misunderstanding of Hebrews 11:1

Coyne quotes Hebrews 11:1 in his article Hebrews 11:1 states, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3). The point that Coyne focuses on is “what we do not see.” However, the verse does not relate the “wish-thinking” that Coyle purports.

The Definition of “Assurance”

The term assurance is disastrous for Coyne. The writer of Hebrews uses the term “elenchos” which means “‘reproof’” once, and ‘evidence’ once. 1 a proof, that by which a thing is proved or tested. 2 conviction” (Strong 2001). So, it seems that the author is claiming that the faith that the individuals have is based upon the evidence of past experience. Although they cannot see God, they know that God will live up to His promises by their past experiences.

The Evidences of Times Past

A closer reading of the Hebrews 11 text shows that the evidence of past events is exactly what gives the believer this faith…or trust. As Greg Koukl says, “Never read a Bible verse” meaning that the text should be read in paragraphs and sections. This is a great case in point. If one reads chapter 10, the reader will find that the writer of Hebrews gives past evidences in history of how God had delivered the people. Ultimately, as most of the readers had experienced first-hand, their faith was proven in the person of Jesus Christ. So, this is not an untested, or “unevidenced belief.” It was a belief that was tested and proven.

Misunderstanding of the Self-Defeating Claim

Finally, as often occurs with antagonists of the faith, Coyne is guilty of a self-defeating claim. Coyne writes, “The notion that knowledge is better than ignorance is not a quasi-religious faith, but a preference: We prefer to know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work. We don’t describe plumbing or auto mechanics as resting on the faith that it’s better to have your pipes and cars in working order, yet people in these professions also depend on finding truth” (Coyne 2013). Coyne’s preference is based upon one’s dependence on what one believes to be true. Coyne places his trust in the scientific method. So, this basically places Coyne back in the same realm as religion. A multiplicity of Christians base their faith upon what the wealth of evidence shows…God’s existence and the divinity of Christ (see other articles on this website which deal with these issues).

Some will claim that one cannot find God in the universe. John Lennox gives a great illustration of this point,

“Take a Ford motor car. It is conceivable that someone from a remote part of the world, who was seeing one for the first time and who knew nothing about modern engineering, might imagine that there is a god (Mr Ford) inside the engine, making it go. He might further imagine that when the engine ran sweetly it was because Mr Ford inside the engine liked him, and when it refused to go it was because Mr Ford did not like him. Of course, if he were subsequently to study engineering and take the engine to pieces, he would discover that there is no Mr Ford inside it. Neither would it take much intelligence for him to see that he did not need to introduce Mr Ford as an explanation for its working. His grasp of the impersonal principles of internal combustion would be altogether enough to explain how the engine works. So far, so good. But if he then decided that his understanding of the principles of how the engine works made it possible to believe in the existence of a Mr Ford who designed the engine in the first place, this would be patently false-in a philosophical terminology he would be committing a category mistake. Had there never been a Mr Ford to design the mechanisms, none would exist for him to understand” (Lennox 2009, 45).

The fact that there are laws of physics, mathematical stability, logic, reason, the existence of the universe and its properties, processes, information, and consciousness all point to the necessity of God’s existence. This does not even include the possibility of revelation, the miraculous, experiences with the divine, near-death experiences, and the historical confirmation of the resurrection of Christ Jesus. The acknowledgment, or faith, in God’s existence is not based on “unevidenced belief,” but rather a conglomeration of evidences all pointing towards a powerful, eternal, conscious, intelligent, being…ie. God.

Conclusion

Coyne is adrift on the same boat that many religious antagonists sail. Coyne’s article represents a great misunderstanding of the evidences pointing to God and the definition of faith. Unfortunately, Coyne’s beliefs are purported by many believers who give such a view of unproven faith. In our day and time, it is important for the believer to know what he or she believes. The believer should know why he/she believes what they believe. Most importantly, the believer should have had an experience with the divine which counts as an apologetic…or as we call it in the south…having a testimony.

Bibliography

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Coyne, Jerry A. “No Faith in Science.” Slate.com. (November 14, 2013). http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/11/faith_in_science_and_religion_truth_authority_and_the_orderliness_of_nature.html. Accessed November 17th, 2013. 

Lennox, John. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Oxford: Lion, 2009.

Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001.

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