Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review: Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Jerry Coyne’s new book is a real keeper. It is a strongly written and well-researched defense as to why both science and religion, and more specifically faith and facts, run counter to one another. Mainly this is because of the fundamentally different ways they go about declaring what is knowledge, what is fact and what is truth.

Dr. Coyne writes systematically about why knowing and understanding the differences between facts and faith are critically important for leading an evidenced-based and therefore an informed life. He also tackles why reasoned knowledge is so important, and conversely why lack of knowledge if you follow religious ideas to guide your thinking, each have a significant impact on our social and work lives, on our society and also on world culture.

The book is dense, which is a very good thing, because when a writer takes on the topic of science vs. faith he or she better know what they’re talking about. Wonderfully, Dr. Coyne more than meets this intellectual litmus test and shows that science and religion are essentially oil and water. The author’s thesis throughout the book is that fact and faith are incompatible at the core of their nature because each approaches how we understand the world and universe so differently.

Dr. Coyne knows his subject well. His previous book, Why Evolution is True, was on the New York Times bestseller list for its clarity and understanding of the natural processes which operate under Darwin’s main biological premise - the Theory of Natural Selection.

If you don’t know the author from his writings or from YouTube, Dr. Coyne is an evolutionary biologist who has taught evolution science for more than two decades at the University of Chicago. He’s also an internationally known speaker on topics related to science, evolution and evolution denial.

Here is a talk he gave at University of Edinburgh on the topic of science and faith:

The tone of Dr. Coyne’s new book underscores his reverence for facts and the scientific method as a way to know truth over both faith and theological understanding. If I am interpreting the fact/faith schism correctly found within the pages of the book then the message is clear. Science correlates with the democratic right to know and to test, to observe and to grow, and to change and use peer-review based on new evidence to keep itself in a constant cycle of renewal. Whereas religious claims regarding both truth and the nature of the universe remain static and are essentially based on magic, authority, theology, tradition and un-evidenced belief.

I was very pleased to read that Dr. Coyne takes on accommodationists early in the work. He leaves no room for accommodation, unlike the late paleontologist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, who viewed religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). Gould’s view was that science and faith are equal ways of knowing the foundational truth about human nature, the natural world and of the universe in which we live.

Dr. Coyne has no such predisposition to commune with accommodationists and lays out clearly why we need to baulk at the idea that science and religion can play nicely in the same ontological sandbox.

Essentially, Dr. Coyne sees accommodation as a big part of the problem because it equalizes a faith-based approach to knowledge with the scientific method. A space where no such equality actually exists except in the individual and collective minds of politicians, lay people, organized faith and even scientists who wish to make such equality appear real.

I was also pleased that Dr. Coyne discussed the importance of an early and ongoing effective science education to help people access and lead an evidenced life. However, the problem of science education is multifaceted, as he notes educating people about science (and evolution) is just half the struggle. According to Dr. Coyne, it’s also the need to de/re-educate those who are so infused with faith teachings their whole life which is the other half of the struggle. 

Explained anecdotally, Dr. Coyne discusses how after some of his talks smart and sincere people will thank him but still cannot accept the idea that evolution is true, even when they are confronted with immense and irrefutable evidence. Dr. Coyne writes that most of the time it’s the early childhood and long-lasting faith teachings as well as one’s personal religious history that make people think evolution is some form of liberal lie rather than scientific truth.

If I have any issue with the book it’s in the title. My preference would be to have the word “Fact” appear before the word “Faith” in the title to better correspond to the words after the colon. In fact the whole cover is somewhat downplayed just a bit for my own tastes.

But if you want a strong book about why reason is important not just from a philosophical point of view. If you want to read a book on the importance of fact-based and critical thinking that will implore you to take action. If you want a book that clearly and cleverly explains how a life of knowing the fundamental nature of things through a strong scientific education is worthy of our respect and activism. Then Dr. Coyne's book is the only book on the market right now that can lead you down that road to such intellectual freedom and conclusions.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering the Fallen and Those Who Have Served

Today we formally remember those brave men and women who paid the highest price for our continued freedom. Those who have served in the armed forces and who gave their lives, or who have returned from their service with apparent and not so readily apparent wounds, and those who have served without injury and with honor.

Men and women who have ensured through their service that Constitutional democracy and secular freedom, the grand experiment which began two centuries ago thanks to our Founding Fathers remains, as recalled by President Ronald Reagan, an America which is a "Shining city on a hill."

Regardless of your personal feelings regarding Reagan, or any president, or any war, or any government policy, the men and women who have served the nation in the military and in wars past deserve our continued respect and allegiance.

As is clear from current battles waging around the world, those forces of tyranny who are left unchecked and who are allowed full reign over their domain have no issue with committing terrible and inhuman injustices in the name of clan, faith or political ideology. The outright mass murder and destruction of whole peoples in Syria, the cultural artifacts destroyed in the name of faith in Iraq, the disallowence of free speech because it offends a religion in so many nations of the Middle-East, or a political ideology in China and Russia or in other parts of the world are all clear signs of tyranny.

In order to maintain national and sometimes international civil society and to ensure secular freedom, a strong US military is necessary in the post-Cold War in which we live.

It's not that use of our military force should be a first choice in the defense of freedom. It clearly shouldn't be so. But it should be a freely available choice for our leaders as it has been for more than 200 years.

It is you and I and the national diplomacy and foreign aid assistance which we are taxed to give that makes the United States a moral standard for others to follow. Although I grant you that in these last years our leadership has been somewhat tarnished thanks to poor choices by past Commander-in-Chiefs.

But it is also the support of NGOs and support of the United Nations and so many service corps which each show the America that is only sometimes remembered and praised. And it is the a fact of history that no other nation allows for such diversity of person, community, thought, belief, expression and action and that's what makes the U.S. so unique and so vital for peace.

And it is our military, the rod of peace if you will, that allows for the U.S. to remain economically and socially so progressive.

Granted we have very far to go. All nations do. But a world without the secular freedom and military abilities of the United States would not be a safe world for those who claim or which to claim such secular freedom and the freedom of expression guaranteed by not only our Constitution but by United Nations declaration as well.

TLC No Longer Digs the Duggars

TLC's The Duggar Family
Cable television's The Learning Channel (TLC) has canceled one of its most watched and frequently lauded shows. The program, Nineteen Kids and Counting, told the real-life story of the Duggars, a evangelical Christian family whose exploits were documented as part ethnography and part live television melodrama. The show was cancelled as admitted claims of sexual abuse and a parental cover-up of the facts have made their way into the national news cycle.

TLC began as a nascent education channel when cable first came into vogue.  But over the years it has become a channel that shares the exploits of individual and group outliers for viewers who like to be voyeurs. Sort of like a real-life The Truman Show. 

The Duggar family wore its conservative values on their sleeves (that would be 38 sleeves all together) and as the children grew up, some married and started growing families of their own.

Now, it has come to light that this religiously pious family, members of which certainly benefited economically from their fame, have some skeletons in their closet. The Duggars are Creationists, they're anti-abortion, anti-gay rights and have little interest in secular life. These ideas are certainly their right to think and to act on as they wish - and while they're the pride of the extreme Christian right - their beliefs really make them outsiders in American society.

But the Duggars who perhaps never vocally said so themselves, were held up as a family to mirror both in thought and behavior. Their pull was based in part by their pro-family moral authority - all kindness and light. Granted, some people just watched because they were fascinated with the strange counter-intuitive way they lead their lives. I'd certainly fall into this latter category.

Let's be real. No family is perfect and each family has members who, even under the best conditions, could turn to a life of crime or do things that are criminal or certainly immoral or unethical in nature. So I don't want this post to be misconstrued as throwing stones at glass houses.

So when the Duggars' adult son was found to have sexually abused under-age girls when he, himself, was under-age, the cracks in the family's squeaky clean persona came crumbling down very quickly.

It also appears that the father, Jim Duggar, knew about his son's abuse of his younger sisters and other girls for more than a year yet did not account to the authorities in any way. Finally, it's also come out that the matriarch of the family, Michelle Duggar, had a gay member of the program's production crew fired from the show because of his homosexuality.

If you go from moral authority to sexual abuser secular society has little interest in watching or enjoying your company. If you don't believe me, look at the number of Catholic faithful who are leaving the flock because of their Church's terrible behavior related to child sexual abuse. If you get people fired from their jobs because of who they are, what they believe or what they look like, that's not very "Christian" either.

Now, I personally feel sorry for the Duggars in many ways. I certainly never agreed with their stance on anything related to my own beliefs regarding science, humanism and atheism. But it must be difficult for the family to now find themselves on the other and darker side of fame.

When everyone knows your name and face when you're beloved the sky is the limit to your reach and respect. Now, everyone knows your name and face and you're rejected for the actions of certain members of family members.  No one likes the microscope or the camera when it's pointed at you on the rejected side of fame.

But you can't have it both ways when you're on television or in the media. The 19 Duggars seem to have had their 15-minutes of fame (that's 285 minutes of fame in total but who's counting). So let them go back to their private lives. Let them keep thinking their radical Christian dogma, but let them do it without being in the fishbowl of television.

The Duggars need to crawl back under the 19 rocks which they crawled out from under just a few years ago. The times seem to be calling them back so let them go in peace and in privacy.

And let's hope those injured by the sexual abuse receive the counseling and justice they deserve. They more than anyone have a right to peace and privacy as well.