Book Plunge: Faith Vs Fact. Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Part 1

What do I think of Coyne’s book published by Viking Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

It’s hard to really describe Coyne’s book on Faith vs. Fact. Two sayings that I was given fit it well. The first is that every page is better than the next. The second is that it is not to be tossed aside lightly but hurled with great force. It would be difficult to imagine a more uninformed writing on a topic unless one had read the rest of modern atheists today like Dawkins and Harris and others. I had even made a number of predictions before reading Coyne’s book that I was sure would take place. Lo and behold, my predictions were right. While the modern atheists consider themselves to be clear and rational thinkers, they pretty much just copy and paste what everyone else says.

It’s also important to point out that looking up references in this book is quite difficult. Coyne does not give page numbers or titles often and the end notes do not even have the page numbers nor are they numbered. Hopefully this will be taken care of in future editions.

It’s hardly a shock to see that Coyne starts early off with the works of Draper and White to show the conflict of science and religion. Of course, many of the claims in the book are known to be just plain false by historians of science. Some of them in White’s book for instance remain entirely unverified today. For much of this, I will rely on the work of James Hannam. It is noteworthy that Coyne never once brings up a book such as Galileo Goes To Jail. Numbers is a real scholar in the field and an agnostic. The book contains a number of agnostic writers and while there are Christians and other faiths as well, you cannot tell by looking at the chapters who is writing what. Coyne is holding on to a myth for atheists that should have been dispelled years ago, but like all people of faith, he has to hold on to those myths to support his belief system.

Now some might want to ask me about my own personal opinions at this point. That’s fine. I’ll clear it up. I am not a scientist and I do not discuss science as science. When it comes to evolution, it makes no difference whatsoever to me and I oppose Christians who have not studied evolution commenting on it. If they want to criticize it, well God bless them, but make sure that if they do, that it is a scientific critique. We do not need a critique of “The Bible says X.” I think too often we have read Genesis as if it was meant to be a scientific and material account instead of the functional account I believe it would have been seen to be by the ancient Israelites and others. If evolution is to fall, and that is not my call at all, it will fall because it is bad science. Either way, the question matters not to me. I am not saying it is unimportant, but that I do not have the time to study it and my interpretation of Genesis doesn’t care about the question.

It’s a shame however that Coyne and other atheists do not pay the same courtesy. While I am not an authority on science and do not thus speak on science, Coyne and others who are not authorities in the relevant field think they can speak on philosophy and history and theology. It is certainly amusing to read a book where it is claimed that Christians have overstepped their bounds (And indeed, too many do and I have strong words for them just as much) and yet Coyne regularly does this where he speaks on topics he has no expertise on and as we shall see later on, he quite frankly makes embarrassing statements that would make any scholar in the field shake their head in disbelief.

Coyne tells us on page 6 that it is off limits to attack religion. I must admit this was a newsflash to me. I suppose it must be news to the rest of the world. The new atheists have been publishing books since shortly after 9/11. Most every Easter you can see a new article or theory coming out claiming something crazy about Jesus that we’re just now discovering. I can go on Facebook and YouTube and see numerous people speaking out against religion. We have seen homosexual activists targeting people of faith, as we are often called. If it is taboo to go after religion, it is apparent that most of the world didn’t get the memo.

I am also confused as to what percentage of Americans are atheists. On page 9, we are told that nearly 20 percent of Americans are either atheists or agnostics or say their religion is nothing in particular. On page 12, we’re told that 83 percent of Americans believe in God and only 4 percent are atheists. Color me confused as to which one it is.

Coyne points to the National Academy of Sciences containing a large number of atheists, but why should this be a surprise? The question of God as we will see is not a scientific question, but is rather a philosophical and metaphysical question. Why should a scientist hold any sort of authority there? Of course, I will not accept the redefinition of science that Coyne gives later on. But why does the NAS statistic not trouble me? Let’s look at what their web site says.

Because membership is achieved by election, there is no membership application process. Although many names are suggested informally, only Academy members may submit formal nominations. Consideration of a candidate begins with his or her nomination, followed by an extensive and careful vetting process that results in a final ballot at the Academy’s annual meeting in April each year. Currently, a maximum of 84 members may be elected annually. Members must be U.S. citizens; non-citizens are elected as foreign associates, with a maximum of 21 elected annually.

The NAS membership totals approximately 2,250 members and nearly 440 foreign associates, of whom approximately 200 have received Nobel prizes.

So let’s be clear. 84 members are elected a year. If we count Americans alone, how many scientists and engineers get Ph.D.’s a year? 18,000. Considering that’s from Scientific American Coyne should not have any trouble with that. What that amounts to is that NAS can become a sort of exclusive club where people can get other people who agree with them to come on board, which makes it hardly representative of all scientists. Consider it a sort of good ol’ boys club. That does not mean that the work they do is not valid, but it does mean it should hardly be considered a fair representation of all scientists.

On page 15-16, we have the notion from Coyne that we are increasingly realizing free-will does not exist. Supposing this was true, while Coyne says it would eliminate much of theology, it would also eliminate much of everything else. After all, if there is no free-will, Coyne does not believe what he believes because he is a champion of reason or anything of the like. That’s just the way that the atoms have worked together to make him think. He has no say in the matter. None of us should be convinced by anything he says either and if we are, it is not because of reason but because that is how our atoms responded to something somehow.

Coyne on page 20 refers to teleology as an external force driving evolution, at least from a more theistic perspective. Yet when we use the term teleology, this is not what we mean. Teleology comes from the four causes of Aristotle. The last is the final cause. The final cause was the purpose for which something existed or why it did what it did. Final causality exists throughout our world and it is the reality that an agent acts toward an end, be it intentionally or unintentionally. If an iceberg floats through water and cools the water around it, that is final causality. Aristotle considered this to be the most important of the causes.

In fact, as Gilson shows, this is a necessary aspect of evolution. Evolution did not dispense with final causes but itself has a final cause. The final cause is so the most fit species can survive for the passing on of their genetic information. Evolution, like any kind of competition, has the goal, and again this is not necessarily consciously, of producing the best end product. Unfortunately, Coyne does not possess a basic understanding of Aristotelianism at all so it’s not a shock that he makes a mistake like this. The sad part is his faithful followers who do not possess this knowledge will eat this up thinking that Coyne is right in what he says and not bother to check. I see it happen too often with all the bogus claims that atheists spread on the internet about the fields that I do study in.

As predicted, much of what Coyne says depends on his misuse of the term faith. It’s so easily predictable that Coyne will use this. Of course, absent is any interaction with Biblical lexicons or any study of the Greek language to see what the Bible means when it encourages us to have faith. Faith is for Coyne on page 25, the acceptance of things for which there is no strong evidence and of course, throughout the implication is any belief without evidence is faith. Is this what the writers of Scripture meant by faith? Not at all. For a man who later says fields like history are a science, one would have thought he would be more scientific in his approach, but he is not. Coyne has accepted yet another atheist myth. Had he consulted an actual work of scholarship he might have found this definition:

Faith/Faithfulness

“These terms refer to the value of reliability. The value is ascribed to persons as well as to objects and qualities. Relative to persons, faith is reliability in interpersonal relations: it thus takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The nouns ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘fidelity’, ‘faithfulness,’ as well as the verbs ‘to have faith’ and ‘to believe,’ refers to the social glue that binds one person to another. This bond is the social, externally manifested, emotionally rooted behavior of loyalty, commitment, and solidarity. As a social bond, it works with the value of (personal and group) attachment (translated ‘love’) and the value of (personal and group) allegiance or trust (translated ‘hope.’) p. 72 Pilch and Malina Handbook of Biblical Social Values.

What this means is that faith is really a response to what has been shown. Aristotle would even use the work pistis, which is translated as faith, to refer to a forensic proof. Faith was the loyalty that was owed someone based on the evidence that they had given you. Okay. Well how does that comport with Hebrews 11:1? Very well, thank you. The notion that it is belief without evidence that the Bible espouses is really a myth that atheists throw around without evidence. It is apparent then who the real people of “faith” are.

Now do many Christians have a faulty view of faith? Absolutely, but are those the people Coyne should really go to to get the best of the other side, especially if he wants to be scientific and gathering evidence? Why not study what Christians throughout history have meant by faith? Unfortunately, this seems to be out of bounds for Coyne. Coyne will keep perpetuating this myth throughout his book as if when science came along that all of a sudden people decided that they should have evidence for their beliefs. Sorry Coyne, but numerous people, including Christians, reached that conclusion long before you did.

We can be pleased to see that Coyne says history is a science, but unfortunately as it will be shown later on, this is because Coyne deems to be scientific, any system that relies on gathering evidence for its claims. It’s easy to say that something is scientific in that sense if you just change what the words mean. In doing this, Coyne hopes to show the superiority of science later by saying that history is included under the rubric of science. Not really. History is its own field and it has a historical method just as much as there is a scientific method.

This is all the more amusing since in the book also Coyne says he was practicing science for thirty years and he had never thought about what science was. In fact, he tells us that until he started writing this book, his definition was false. Well it’s nice to know that Coyne is writing to tell us that science and religion are incompatible when before even starting the book he didn’t know what science was. Somehow he knew that whatever science was, it had to be incompatible with religion. Perhaps Coyne should have invested more thought into what it was that he was doing all these decades.

Coyne also speaks against those who claim we shouldn’t accept evolution because we do not see in in our time, to which he says we ignore the massive historical evidence in the fossil record and such. He tells us that if we only accept as true what we see with our own eyes in our own time, we’d have to regard all of human history as dubious. It’s amusing to know this same person will later say we have to be suspicious of miracles because we do not see them around the world today. (However, this claim is also false. Coyne has not shown any interaction with Craig Keener’s massive two-volume work Miracles. One would think that being scientific, Coyne would have wanted to look at the best work of evidence on the topic presented and no, when it comes to miracles there also isn’t even any response to John Earman’s refutation of Hume’s argument. Coyne should have been interested in this since Earman is himself an agnostic and says that Hume’s argument, which Coyne endorses, would be a science stopper if followed through consistently.) Of course, we will find that Coyne’s understanding of historical miracle claims is incredibly lacking, in fact, no doubt one of the worst moments of ignorance in the book.

I am also quite sure that David Bentley Hart would be surprised to find that he is listed as a liberal theologian. I am quite sure it’s because Coyne does not understand what Hart would mean by referring to God as the ground of being. While Coyne does have listed in the back Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, he might have been better served by going to a book like Hart’s Atheist Delusions. But then again, never let not understanding what someone is talking about be a reason to stop you from speaking on what that person is saying.

Coyne also tells us that the Nicene Creed contradicts other faiths, which it does, as if there is some point to this. It seems odd to say that it’s an argument against a worldview that it contradicts all other worldviews. Of course it does. Coyne does tell us that the creed tells us Jesus is the Messiah and other faiths don’t accept this, including Islam. In fact, Muslims believe that those who accept Jesus as the Messiah will go to Hell. Well, this would certainly be news to most Muslims. As we find in Sura 3:45

(Remember) when the angels said: “O Maryam (Mary)! Verily, Allah gives you the glad tidings of a Word [“Be!” – and he was! i.e. ‘Iesa (Jesus) the son of Maryam (Mary)] from Him, his name will be the Messiah ‘Iesa (Jesus), the son of Maryam (Mary), held in honour in this world and in the Hereafter, and will be one of those who are near to Allah.”

Did Coyne not do any fact checking? The Muslims are opposed to saying Jesus is the Son of God or the second person of the Trinity, but not opposed to saying that He is the Messiah.

Coyne also says literalism is not a modern offshoot, but rather is the historical way of reading Scripture. The only way Coyne could believe this is if he had no experience with the way the ancients read Scripture. Even before the New Testament, we have works like Longenecker’s showing the various ways many passages of the Old Testament was read by the apostles and their contemporaries at the time, such as the Qumran community. Had he moved on to later times, Coyne would have been able to find that the church fathers happened to love allegory, including Augustine who he refers to as a literalist. (For Coyne, it looks like if you believe in a historical Adam and that Jesus died and rose again, you must be a literalist, a rather naive way of approaching a claim.) Origen, for instance, was all over the place with his use of allegory. He could have also read Mark Sheridan’s work about how God was spoken of in the patristic tradition and passages were often not read in their literal sense because they had to be read in a way that was fitting of God, meaning He had no body or no emotions so those passages had to be read differently. A work like Robert Rea’s would have shown him that in the medieval period, there were four different styles of reading a text.

But since Coyne mentioned Augustine, let’s use a quote of his on interpretation.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]

Augustine would probably be disappointed at the way many lay people handle the Scriptures today. By the way, if Coyne wants to know where this comes from, it comes from Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Augustine’s literal meaning was also that everything was created all at once instantly and that the days are laid out more in a framework type of hypothesis.

If this is so, why the hang-up on literalism today? To begin with, Coyne never defines literalism and if he means that every passage is read in a wooden sense, no one does that. Much of the Bible does have metaphorical language and figures of speech and hyperbole and the like. Yet one cause of it today is that we are seen as a Democracy and every man should be able to understand the basic position of Christianity and that means the Bible should be readily understandable by everyone. Well it’s not. As my friend Werner Mischke says in his book, “Culturally speaking, the Bible does not ‘belong’ to you; It’s not your book.” Coyne could have benefited by reading other works like The New Testament World or Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. Ironically, the real enemy here is a more fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and yet it is the exact same approach Coyne takes. He is a victim of the problem he sees in his opposition. Were we to get past much of our anthropological elitism, we’d start studying the Bible and trying to fit ourselves into the worldview of its authors. We might disagree with it still, sure, but we’d have a better informed disagreement.

This kind of material leads up to where we’ll continue next time, with what I consider to be one of the most embarrassing paragraphs in Coyne’s book.

Part 2 of the review can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

Part 4 can be found here.

Part 5 can be found here.

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