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Thursday, 2 July 2015

John Horgan Reviews Jerry Coyne's "Faith vs. Fact"

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has joined a number of other scientific New Atheists in jumping on the anti-theism bandwagon with his book Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible in which he attacks religion and declares it thoroughly incompatible with science. Given that Coyne has already demonstrated less than stellar competence when straying outside of his narrow area of professional expertise as evidenced by his flirtation with the pseudohistorical belief that the historical Jesus never existed, the odds of it being little more than a poorly-informed scientistic rant are hardly minimal.

Scientific American writer John Horgan has reviewed Faith vs Fact, and appears somewhat less than impressed:
Coyne contends that religion "is severely at odds with science, and that this conflict is damaging to science itself, to how the public conceives of science, and to what the public thinks science can and cannot tell us." This is a defensible position, but Coyne poses it in such an extreme form that he discredits his cause.
Given that Horgan is a non-theist whose main objection to Christianity is the problem of evil, his criticism can hardly be attributed to a desire to defend Christianity, unless one subscribes to an absolutist form of atheism which dismisses accommodationists such as Horgan as enemies reason, a view which is hardly rare among the New Atheists, and suggests strongly that their anti-theism is more of an ideology than a simple profession of unbelief.

The full review is at the Wall Street Journal, but Horgan provides a few highlights of his review at the Scientific American blog:
Coyne’s defenses of science and denunciations of religion are so relentlessly one-sided that they aroused my antipathy toward the former and sympathy toward the latter… He overlooks any positive consequences of religion, such as its role in anti-slavery, civil-rights and anti-war movements. He inflates religion’s contribution to public resistance toward vaccines, genetically modified food and human-induced global warming. 
Conversely, he absolves science of responsibility for any adverse consequences, such as weapons and ideologies of mass destruction. “The compelling force that produced nuclear weapons, gunpowder, and eugenics was not science but people.” Right. Science doesn’t kill people; people kill people.
Such a position of course ignores the fact that pseudoscience promotion is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon as seen in the promotion of vaccine denialism by atheist Bill Maher, while Christianity had a significant role in laying the foundations for modern science. Horgan continues:
Mr. Coyne’s loathing of creationism, similarly, leads him to exaggerate what science can tell us about our cosmic origins. Mr. Coyne asserts that “we are starting to see how the universe could arise from ‘nothing,’ and that our own universe might be only one of many universes that differ in their physical laws.” Actually, cosmologists are more baffled than ever at why there is something rather than nothing… And multiverse theories are about as testable as religious beliefs. 
Mr. Coyne repeatedly reminds us that science, unlike religion, promotes self-criticism, but he is remarkably lacking in this virtue himself. He rejects complaints that some modern scientists are guilty of “scientism,” which I would define as excessive trust—faith!—in science. Calling scientism “a grab bag of disparate accusations that are mostly inaccurate or overblown,” Mr. Coyne insists that the term “be dropped.” 
Actually, Faith vs. Fact serves as a splendid specimen of scientism. Mr. Coyne disparages not only religion but also other human ways of engaging with reality. The arts, he argues, “cannot ascertain truth or knowledge,” and the humanities do so only to the extent that they emulate the sciences. This sort of arrogance and certitude is the essence of scientism.
The dismissive attitude Coyne and other New Atheists have towards theology invariably results in them making astonishingly naive attacks on Christianity which betray their substantive ignorance of the subject they criticise. Former president of the BioLogos Foundation Darrel R. Falk observes in his review of Faith vs. Fact that:
Coyne spends considerable time addressing Christian views on Adam and Eve and is highly dismissive of current scholars who seek to explore alternative ways of thinking about Adam and Eve in light of the scientific evidence. Nowhere does Coyne mention the work of Scot McKnight...or John Walton...two leading biblical scholars who address the question of whether early Jewish thinkers (including the author[s] of Genesis itself) considered Adam and Eve the single parents of the human race. It is likely that many thought of them as archetypes for humankind in general and Israel in particular. The views of these ancient scholars within the Jewish tradition of over 2,000 years ago would, in turn, have influenced the writing of the apostle, Paul who, being highly steeped in Jewish tradition—was certainly fully aware of the possibility of Adam’s archetypal status. Coyne, if he was setting out to responsibly critique “accommodationist” views, really ought to have addressed the high quality scholarship regarding ancient thinking about Adam and Eve. He was also theologically na├»ve in his assertion that Christian theology depends upon whether they were really the first parents of the entire human race. That is simply not the case and the above scholars among others (like N.T. Wright) make this point abundantly clear. He is unscholarly here; he simply doesn’t know the basis of the thinking of evangelical “accommodationists.” If this was a side issue for the book, it wouldn’t matter so much. However, as he lays out the raison d’etre of the book, it is the analysis of “accommodationist” thinking that is supposed to be at its very core.
Coyne thoroughly deserves his reputation as a first-rate evolutionary biologist and writer. His book Why Evolution is True is in my opinion the best presentation for the evidence for evolution that exist. Unfortunately, as anyone who has followed his website for some time, he has a habit of blundering badly when he steps outside his narrow area of competence to attack Christianity as seen in his claim that Christianity was not supportive of science. This problem of blundering when pontificating on matters well outside core competence is a problem ironically that unites fundamentalist Christians and the New Atheists.