Anthony Grayling reviews WEIT, and another book too

March 23, 2009 • 11:02 am

The distinguished British philosopher Anthony Grayling has reviewed WEIT at “The Thinking Read,” over at Barnes and Noble.  Very nice review–I am “chuffed.”

. . . . .
Everyone who reads Coyne’s book with attention will acquire this understanding. It is a model of expository clarity and intellectual rigour, a point for other science writers to note; all that readers need note is how accessible it is, and how fascinating. Moreover in it Coyne carefully and conclusively refutes efforts by “intelligent design” creationists to contest evolutionary biology. This, given the state of the debate over biology, is by no means the least important aspect of his book . . .
Coyne shows science carefully, responsibly, testably, profoundly at work on the glory that is the natural world. It starts with no prejudices (it is not trying to prove that there is no Fred, having decided at the outset that this is its aim), but is open and self-critical. What you see in Coyne’s account is science as the enterprise that seeks to understand, and always stands ready to revise itself in the face of contrary evidence. It is a beautiful process, and the results are literally wonderful. Coyne’s book is a testament to this. It seems almost coincidental to say that it is also a brilliant introduction to evolution which should be required reading: in its blaze of illumination the ID case melts like summer snow.

On another note, Grayling (a vociferous atheist) has just ripped the accommodationist theologian John Polkinghorne a new one over at The New Humanist for Polkinghorne’s ludicrous attempts to harmonize religion and science. A sample:

So let us dwell instead on the “truth but in different domains” manoeuvre.

To get this to work you have to cherry-pick which bits of scripture and dogma are to be taken as symbolic and which as literally true – so: Genesis is symbolic, the resurrection of Jesus literally true – the chief criterion being convenience, with the resurrection as a bit of necessary dogma whose violations of biological laws you just have to shrug your shoulders over. But you only do the cherry-picking and reinterpreting to the religious sources; science is not so easy to treat in this way. The rule appears to be that where science and religion directly conflict – about the origin of the universe, let us say – the religious tale (Genesis) gets turned into symbol, thus sidestepping the possibility of direct and testable confrontation. And indeed there is no possible test of religious claims; again conveniently, “God will not be tested.”

Moreover, as Beale-Polkinghorne exquisitely show, they can by this technique of evasion, rewriting, special pleading, Jesuitry and speciousness provide a religion-consistent answer to every question and every objection: which reminds one of Popper’s telling remark, “A theory that is consistent with everything explains nothing.”

Thus in short, on the religious side of things you make up truth as you go along, by interpreting and reinterpreting scripture to suit your needs and to avoid refutation by confrontation with plain fact; and thus it is that Beale-Polkinghorne can claim that both science and religion seek truth. I would call this dishonest if I did not think it is in fact delusion, which – since a kind of lunatic sincerity is involved – it rather palpably shows itself to be. And it happens that “lunatic” is appropriate here, for the painful experience of wading through this book gave me an epiphany: that religious faith is extremely similar to the kind of conspiracy theory that sufferers from paranoid delusions can hold: the faithful see a purposive hand in everything, plotting and controlling and guiding – and interpret all their experience accordingly.

4 thoughts on “Anthony Grayling reviews WEIT, and another book too

  1. I searched for “John Polkinghorne” in He’s got a long long list of publications–unblievable! In fact, his latest book, “Theology in the Context of Science”, was just published March 17. Grayling has a full time job, I think. However, I certainly wouldn’t blame him if he decided never to read another theology book. Thanks for linking to the Grayling review; it’ll help me figure out how these guy’s minds work–or don’t work (psychopathology).

    BTW, I note that “Questions of Truth” has 2 positive reviews at (U.S.) and no negative reviews. If Grayling would drop off his review at it might do something to instruct believers interested in the book. In general, reviews are a resource for fighting religion that shouldn’t be overlooked.

  2. I followed the link: “Quote of the week: Jerry Coyne on the incompatibility of science and religion”. (I agree totally: if god did it, then, god did it, and science could never explain it.) On this point, I want to note that the new “Understanding Science” website, funded by the National Science Foundation, is supporting the “compatibility of science and religion”. I looked at the site yesterday and was rather shocked. In a list of misconceptions the site wants to correct is: “Science contradicts the existence of God”. Drilling down, we find:
    “With the loud protests of a small number of religious groups over teaching scientific concepts like evolution and the Big Bang in public schools, and the equally loud proclamations of a few scientists with personal, anti-religious philosophies, it can sometimes seem as though science and religion are at war.

    The attention given to such clashes glosses over the far more numerous cases in which science and religion harmoniously, and even synergistically, coexist.

    So, “a few [loud] scientists” (who, BTW, are outstanding) are somehow equated with “a small number[?] of [loud] relgious groups” who are anti-science. Bullshit! I’m feeling an email of protest in-work!

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