Do you know why it is hard to take the New Atheists seriously? Because so many of them, intellectually arrogant as they may be, are essentially ignorant about the phenomena on which the declaim so loudly, and dishonest or deluded about what they affirm so ferociously.
Today’s example is Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. He writes in USA Today:
Religion in America is on the defensive.
Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers.
The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins) has been castigated even by atheists for the extraordinarily sloppy, even dishonest treatment of its subject. The End of Faith (Sam Harris) contradicts its own argument for “reason” and “evidence” by claiming that all religion leads to terrorism, an empirically false assertion that renders anything else the author says about the subject dismissible. If this is what Coyne is relying on to prove that “religion is on the defensive,” he’s already lost the argument.
Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head.
Because Christians, Jews, and Muslims, at the very least have no problem with the notion that God can use the material world for His purposes (just like human beings), they also reject any necessary opposition between “divine explanations” and “material ones.” As for the supposed non-existence of souls or spirits, Coyne is obviously from the Yuri Gagarin school of theology (the Soviet cosmonaut who famously declared that God must not exist, because when he went to outer space he couldn’t see Him). He also contradicts a later point by making a conclusion based on insufficient, incomplete, and still potentially incorrect research.
We now know that the universe did not require a creator.
Actually, we don’t know that, and in fact can’t know that. For someone who is so devoted to reason and evidence, Coyne has a disconcerting habit of making unprovable faith statement.
Science is even studying the origin of morality.
A statement that proves nothing, especially if one looks at the linked article.
But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a “New Atheist,” there are many others attacking the “movement” and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident.
The truth of which contentions Coyne demonstrates nicely in this article, especially by claiming that only people who think the way he does are “rational.”
Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth.
Coyne is a fine example of the operation of what John Henry Newman called “antecedent reasons.” He starts with an unstated, unquestioned, perhaps not even acknowledged assumption: only the material world is real. Once one has made that assumption, one can declare a priori that any form of reasoning that recognizes a non-material element to existence is irrational. Christian theology begins with the assumption that there is an element of reality that is not material, and goes on from there. Hence, it must be irrational, and any “truth” that it uncovers must of necessity be false. Yet Coyne doesn’t bother to prove his assumption (in fact, cannot prove it; indeed, his assumption, unlike that of the Christian, is falsifiable objects, “for surely numbers, equations, formulas, functions, properties, and propositions are among the the objects studied by physics; and just as surely none of these things is a physical object”–Ned Markosian, Western Washington University). He simply makes an assumption, and then proceeds to insult those who disagree based on it.
Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed “true” — a notion that’s always provisional — unless it’s repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, “How can I find out whether I’m wrong?” I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.
You’ve got to laugh when an evolutionist can’t even make an argument in his own field. A billion-year-old ape fossil would not demonstrate that evolution didn’t happen. It would merely disprove the current theory that mammals descended from lower forms of animals. Why couldn’t there have been a second, independent beginning of life that began with apes? Is that really so much harder to believe than that a random combination of chemicals–within which nothing resembling life existed–happened to come together in just the right way to form the first living things? For apes to appear spontaneously only requires a greater degree of organization of those same chemicals. From that point, evolution could proceed as formulated, with apes eventually evolving into the genus homo.
But that’s really secondary to the larger point, which is that Coyne, the author of a book entitled Evolution is True, doesn’t seem to even understand his own argument regarding the nature of truth. If “evolution is true,” by Coyne’s telling that means it has been “repeated and verified.” But of course that hasn’t happened, and isn’t going to happen, because the theory of evolution isn’t like experimental science. It’s based on observation, analysis, and to a significant extent speculation, and while you can repeat each of those things, that’s just a matter of different people going over the same ground to see if those who went before missed something, rather than repeatable experiment. (On the other hand, microevolution, which no one disputes, is based on experiment.) Furthermore, by claiming that “evolution is true”–no provisonality there, especially since Coyne denigrates anyone who offers the slightes doubt–Coyne demonstrates that he isn’t open to the possibility that it may be false. It’s true, that’s all there is to it, and you’re a knuckle-grazing, Bible-thumping, pinheaded Neanderthal if you disagree.
Physicist Richard Feynman observed that the methods of science help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Which Coyne demonstrates throughout this piece.
Science can, of course, be wrong. Continental drift, for example, was laughed off for years. But in the end the method is justified by its success. Without science, we’d all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. As Stephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.
Now the ground shifts. Science doesn’t win because it’s true, but because it works. And what does that mean, exactly? It produces medicine and technology? Fine. Does it produce meaning and purpose in life? Does it produce love and trust? Even on pragmatic grounds, as important as science is it isn’t the be-all and end-all of human existence, nor can it be. In any case, Coyne needs to decide whether he’s arguing about the nature of truth or the production of results.
Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe?
Yes, if one doesn’t rule it out a priori as a source of truth. As for his claim regarding moral truth, his claim is so broad as to be meaningless. There isn’t even agreement within religions about moral truth (homosexuality and abortion, anyone?), much less among atheists (some of whom are humanists, some of whom aren’t, and some of whom are positively misanthropic).
Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections.
So, “almost all religions” are…Christianity?
These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority.
For a “scientist,” Coyne seems remarkably unwilling to actually, you know, investigate the nature of faith. If he got his knowledge of the world’s religions from actually reading what religious thinkers write, rather than from Richard Dawkins and the sides of cereal boxes, he’d know how ridiculous this sounds. Of course there’s reliance upon “revelation, dogma and authority” in religion–does that mean that reason and evidence aren’t used as well? Of course not. Reason and evidence are primary tools of science–does that mean that revelation (at least in the sense of discovering things not previously known, or even having them shown to us by nature when we weren’t looking for them at all), dogma, and authority have no role? If you think that, you’ve never heard scientists argue for a position that is threatened by new information. Yet for Coyne, the side of science that doesn’t fit his argument is simply ignored, while the side of religion that doesn’t fit is, to him, no doubt a completely unknown field.
And this leads to the biggest problem with religious “truth”: There’s no way of knowing whether it’s true. I’ve never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can’t rationalize as consistent with a loving God.
Apparently we can add the subject of theodicy to the list of things about which Coyne has strong opinions unsullied by any knowledge. Check that–it is yet another matter about which he has a strong faith but no knowledge. He thinks that the Holocaust proves the non-existence of a loving God. He doesn’t bother to argue this, but instead simply takes it on faith, and uses that faith to imply that anyone who thinks otherwise must be stupid. In fact, the Holocaust doesn’t demonstrate anything about the existence of a loving God. It may be that a loving God does not have the power to prevent human evils. It may be that He does, but chooses not to in the pursuit of a higher purpose. It may be that “love” means something different to God than it does to Coyne. Any of these positions can be argued, but Coyne doesn’t do that, because doing so effectively would require that he have some clue what the other positions are, and what the rationale behind each is, and that’s a lot harder than throwing invective.
Which belief, if any, is right? Because there’s no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity’s miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.
Religion’s history is well documented, and in many instances atrocious. Point granted (even as I also recall that humanity has engaged in atrocious behavior for a wide variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with religion at all, behavior which says more about humanity than it does about humanity’s religions).
In contrast, scientists don’t kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.
But here Coyne demonstrates that he is not only ignorant of history, but believes in fairy tales. The nobility of science! Would that be mid-20th century German science, which as a whole gladly gave itself over to the job of proving Nazi racial theories (and let’s not forget the medical experimentation on human beings that was justified by those theories)? Would that be mid-20th century Soviet science, dominated by the likes of Trofim Lysenko (who like many of his German colleagues was not above using the oppressive power of the state to suppress dissent against his cockamamie theories)? No, noble scientists–humble seekers after truth–don’t kill each other to settle their differences. In some instances, they use the politicians and police to do it for them.
Please don’t hear this as in any way a blanket condemnation of scientists. God knows that would be a horrible calumny. This post isn’t even meant to be a blanket condemnation of atheists, many of whom are perfectly reasonable people who recognize that religion has a place in the world, even when they disagree with it, and have no use for the kind of attacks that Coyne and his New Atheist buddies have been launching for the last several years. But isn’t this entire column of Coyne’s, which puts all believers and all faiths under the heading of “religion” and then tars them all with the most extreme brush, an example of just such a libel? He proves the point with his conclusion:
Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith’s certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.
And any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we’re not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won’t magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!
Yeah, it’s a pity the world made no progress of any kind until atheism became the dominant worldview. Respect for the individual, political freedom, concern and help for the poor, democracy, economic prosperity, advances in medicine, Newtonian physics, creation of the modern university–none of these or a thousand other advances in human well-being and civilization were possible without atheism. Nietzsche über alles!
Why some people of faith see the New Atheists as “arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident” I’ll never know.