Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Omnibus of Fallacies

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Omnibus of Fallacies

Article excerpt

Omnibus of Fallacies Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible BY JERRY A. COYNE VIKING, 336 PAGES, $28.95

Faith versus Fact is some kind of achievement. Biologist Jerry Coyne has managed to write what might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre. True, the competition for that particular distinction is fierce. But among other volumes in this metastasizing literature, each has at least some small redeeming feature. For example, though Lawrence Krauss's A Universe from Nothing is bad as philosophy, it is middling as pop science. Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great was at least written by someone who could write like Christopher Hitchens. Though devoid of interest, Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation is brief. Even PZ Myers's book The Happy Atheist has at least one advantage over Coyne's book: It came out first.

The book flies off the rails before it reaches page one. In an unintentionally comic passage in his preface, Coyne explains what he has in mind by "religion." First, he tells us that his main target isn't religions that emphasize practice, such as "the more meditation-oriented versions of Buddhism." Rather, it is religions that emphasize controversial truth claims about the world-in particular, "theistic faiths," those that affirm the existence of a God or gods. But even more specifically, he says, he will "concentrate on the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism." Two sentences later we learn that in fact it is "mostly the various brands of Christianity that occupy this book." But far from all the brands, since in the very next sentence he adds that, actually, he "will talk mostly about science and religion in the United States."

By the following page he qualifies this even further, indicating that the views of "regular believers" interest him more than do the fancy arguments of theologians. Next it is conceded that it is "only a few specific areas of science," such as Darwinism, that are rejected by religious believers. Yet, as Coyne admits, even "evolution ... is accepted by many Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and liberal Muslims." In short, when all the qualifications are in, it seems that Coyne's paradigm of "religion" is Bible Belt creationism. Apparently, he was absent the day his college statistics class covered the notion of a representative sample.

But to be fair to Coyne: He doesn't always use the term "religion" in this idiosyncratic way. And that's the problem. He has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by "religion." Forty pages later, he'll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by "religion." If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.

Coyne speaks repeatedly of "religion's methods," as if there were some common technique applied by scholastic logicians, Buddhist monks, and Appalachian snake handlers. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, Hindu nationalism, the cargo cults of Melanesia, Scientology-all of these and more are casually lumped together as examples of religion, as if the differences weren't at least as significant as whatever similarities Coyne thinks he sees. This is like pulling random lines from a physics textbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and an episode of Star Trek and then putting them forward as equally typical illustrations of "science" and of "science's methods. …

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