In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
Had Ashley received medical care, Coyne writes, she would likely have recovered. The Kings, tried in an Arizona court for negligent homicide, expressed no remorse, pleaded no contest, and were convicted on a lesser charge. They effectively escaped punishment, because their actions were faith-motivated. “Had the Kings been atheists,” Coyne writes, “there was a good chance [Ashley] would have lived.”
This tragic story backs up the chief argument Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, makes in Faith Versus Fact, namely that “it is time for us to stop seeing faith as a virtue, and to stop using the term ‘person of faith’ as a compliment.” In the book’s 262 pages, Coyne tackles arguments stating that belief in God is a laudable quality, and reasons instead that faith is detrimental, even dangerous, and fundamentally incompatible with science, even while peacemakers try to find common ground between the two. Coyne, it should be noted, has spent much of his career objecting to religious rejection of Darwinism—he published a bestseller, Why Evolution Is True, that was based on his blog of the same name. In Faith Versus Fact, his overarching argument is that religion and science both make claims about the universe, but only one of the two institutions is sufficiently open to the fact that it might be wrong.