Monday, February 15, 2016

James Ryerson's biased book reviews in the NY Times

By Mathew Goldstein

The New York Times published a book review article on February 9 by James Ryerson titled "The Twain Shall Meet".  Mr. Ryan states several conclusions derived from the three books he reviewed.  Those conclusions are flawed as will be explained below.

The first book reviewed is a criticism of atheism written by a priest who is a psychologist and professor of religion.  James Ryerson says this: ... "it’s that these crusaders [advocates for atheism] are convinced that science is the only arbiter of reality and truth. They may be right about that. But that is a philosophical claim, Jones reminds us, not a scientific one."  

My question to James Ryerson is this: Do you know of anyone who practices this alternative philosophy that the arbiter of reality and truth is to be found somewhere other than the empirical evidence while driving a car?  Would you prefer that your taxi driver be making his driving decisions based on what he claims is a source of knowledge that only he experiences?  Or that he claims is revealed to him through some dubious interpretation of an ambiguous and self-contradictory collection of old books that makes sustained extraordinary claims about reality and truth which blatantly contradict our scientific knowledge about how the universe functions?  Or based on the same empirical evidence that all passengers simultaneously share via the physical senses of vision, hearing, smelling, and touch?  Why is it that religious people, like everyone else, apply an empirical evidence standard when making "how the universe functions" decisions that matter to their own day to day physical welfare but then abandon that same standard when making decisions that do not matter to their own daily physical welfare?  For anyone who thinks there is a coherent, logical, philosophy that properly justifies this methodological dichotomy, I say you are either fooling yourself or knowingly trying to fool others.

Mr Ryerson then favorably reviews a book that claims history demonstrates harmony between religion and science.  He says this: "Nor did Copernicus or most other early modern advocates of the new astronomy think it was incompatible with Christianity."  Has it even occurred to Mr. Ryerson that 16th century scientists who wanted to escape the prejudices of their day would not publicly concede that their discoveries conflicted with church teachings even if they actually thought so?  Copernicus refused to published his findings regarding the relative positions of the earth and sun, sharing them with only a small number of fellow scientists whom he trusted, and he confided at the time that he did this out of fear of negative repercussions to himself due to widespread intolerance, an intolerance that clergy had no small part in fostering.  Nor is what the scientists considered compatible with Christianity a better indicator of compatibility than what the church officials thought.  After all, the experts on Christian doctrine are the Christian clergy, not the scientists.  

Here is the truth, facts that Mr. Ryerson conveniently ignores in his book review, presumably because it does not comport with his commitment to the viability of compatibility:  The Catholic Church's chief censor, Dominican Bartolomeo Spina, expressed a desire to stamp out the Copernican doctrine.  But with Spina's death in 1546, his cause fell to his friend,  the Dominican theologian Giovanni Maria Tolosani.  Copernicanism was absurd, according to Tolosani, because it was scientifically unproven and unfounded.  Tolosani declared that he had written against Copernicus "for the purpose of preserving the truth to the common advantage of the Holy Church."  Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Genesis, said that "We indeed are not ignorant that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre."  In March 1616 the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on the grounds of ensuring that Copernicanism, which it described as a "false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture," would not "creep any further to the prejudice of Catholic truth.

Apologists for Christianity like James Ryerson, and maybe also the authors of the book he favorably reviews, go deep into denialism mode regarding the blatant, unequivocal, historical hostility of Christianity to science.  They do not, and frankly I think they will not, honestly confront the fundamental and profound difference between the failed methods of relying on authority, fixed revelation, personal interpretations of personal experience, and logic and reason from human intuition, versus a recognition that the only successful method of determining how the universe functions has over and over again proven itself to be the method of following the empirical evidence as closely as we can.  They fail to acknowledge the full extent of this difference and its implications because what they are engaging in is unbalanced propaganda in defense of Christianity and not an honest effort to inform and educate. The New York Times thinks such defense of revisionist history is worthy of publication.  Commercially it probably is and that is one reason why we need more atheist commentary.

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