Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Fact/Faith Debate: Why Science Hasn't Killed Religion, by Jack Gage

Two Harbors Press, ISBN 9781938690228, January 2013

This book is framed as "case studies" voted on by a "jury" consisting of a Catholic, a Mormon, a Southern Baptist, a Jew, a Muslim, and an atheist. Once they've voted, an agnostic, and only the agnostic, is allowed to "comment." All of these individuals are nameless.

Let's be clear. The agnostic gets to comment on what the "jurors" say and what their thought process must have been, while the reader is not allowed to hear the voices of the actual jurors.

It's important to note that Jack Gage is not a scientist, and does not appear to have much if any scientific education. He's a businessman and a lawyer, and apparently of the school of thought that says that if you're a successful businessman and a lawyer, you're an expert on everything.

The subtitle presents this book as an inquiry into why religion survives in the modern world, and hasn't been eliminated by the advance of our scientific understanding of the physical world. In practice, Gage doesn't even address that question until the last chapter. We'll come back to that.

Gage's case studies include the age of the Earth, the historical validity of the history of North America as presented in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham, Exodus, and other similar matters. He's not really interested in all religious viewpoints, though he talks expansively about them at the beginning. It's the Abrahamic religions that concern him, and that's what all his "case studies" involve.

The first section deals mainly with the problems of the Book of Mormon as well as changes in Mormon doctrine and practice over the years. It's easy to dismiss the Book of Mormon based on the archaeological evidence; those events, including the cities, wars, mines, etc, simply did not happen. Yet Gage is so extreme and so contemptuous in his language that I felt an impulse to defend the Book of Mormon. He also goes on at length about the fact that there are three main Mormon denominations, who disagree on some key issues of practice. Why hasn't God told the Mormons who is right? he asks. He returns to this theme repeatedly, clearly finding it an unanswerable refutation of the validity of religious belief.

What he's missing, of course, is that most religions and denominations recognize free will. We're allowed to be wrong.

In the section on the age of the Earth, there's some Southern Baptist bashing, not quite so bad as the Mormon bashing earlier. In the section on evolution, Mr. Gage blithely asserts without any reference to reality that evolution constitutes a major challenge to Judaism and all Christian denominations, especially Catholicism, as well as Islam, on the grounds that all of these faiths and denominations believe that the Genesis account is to be read literally as an accurate factual account of the creation of the world. This is not correct; in fact it is simply nonsense with no mooring in reality.

I think that his claim is not true of all branches of Judaism, possibly not of any of them, but I'm not an expert on Judaism, so I don't pretend to be able to make conclusive statements on the matter. I do know that, as a Catholic child in the 1960s, I was taught evolution out of diocesan-approved textbooks in Catholic parochial school. I was specifically and explicitly taught that the Bible is about our relationship with God, not a science textbook, and that rejecting the best scientific evidence based on a literal reading of the Bible is not just wrong, but heretical, because it's calling God (who would be responsible for the false physical evidence the scientific understanding is based on) a liar. The Catholic Church has never taught Biblical literalism, and rejections of Biblical literalism can be found as early as the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. In several trials over the teaching of Creationism in American schools, Catholic bishops have testified in favor of teaching evolution, and against teaching Creationism. Catholic bishops have never testified against evolution or for Creationism.

So on this fairly basic and critical point, Jack Gage has no idea what he's talking about. You'd think he'd have gotten a clue from his Catholic juror consistently voting in favor of the science-based conclusions on evolution, the age of the Earth, and related subjects, but apparently that was too subtle a clue for him.

It's no surprise at all that he seems to be unaware of the existence and work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, or any of the many other Jesuit scientists, or the Vatican Observatory, or any of many lay religious believers who were and are scientists of significant accomplishment.

In that context, it's interesting that he talks about Gregor Mendel and his early work on inheritance of characteristics, although, inexplicably, he consistently refers to him as Gregory Mendel. And although he knows Mendel was a monk, he seems to overlook the inconsistency of this fact with his basic premise.

I can't rehash every bit of silliness in this book. I'll skip now to the end, the final chapter, wherein Gage finally gets to the point addressed in his subtitle: why the vast majority of the human race are still religious believers. Sadly, while addressing some of the factors that may have led to the development of religion in the first place, he does not seriously entertain the possibility of any reasons for its persistence other than gullibility, moral weakness, and brainwashing. We are still religious because we can't cope with bad things happening to us, because we aren't interested in facts, and because we are taught to be when we are very young.

Anyone who equates Taliban-controlled madrassas in Pakistan, with Catholic parochial schools which are the schools in America most likely to teach evolution, is not well-grounded in reality.

The issue here is not whether you are religious or not. There is, in fact, as Mr. Gage correctly observes, no proof of any religious doctrine. The issue here is sweeping contempt for people who don't agree with him, and blind ignorance of what the people he has such contempt for actually believe. He is not, in fact, interested in any facts which don't support his thesis that religious believers, most of the human race, are much stupider than he is. He says, explicitly in this last section, that religious believers are not interested in any of the fascinating cosmological and existential questions raised today by astronomy and physics, and is utterly unaware of the work that has been and is being done by religious believers on these very questions--even when he's citing it.

It seems almost beside the point to mention that the book is also not well written. Mr. Gage does not seem to have mastered punctuation beyond the period and the question mark, and the book is filled with run-on sentences, badly constructed sentences, disagreements of person and number, and sentences that clearly changed direction partway through, forcing the reader to backtrack and reread them more than once to be sure of what he actually intended to say.

Overall, not recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.