I was reading a post recently by New Atheist Jerry Coyne criticizing a book by philosopher J. P. Moreland called Christianity and the Nature of Science. I haven’t read the book myself, so I can’t speak directly to Coyne’s criticisms, but I can speak to the logic of his main argument. Essentially he argues (contra Moreland) that theology has not arrived at “some truth concerning the world”. How does he know that? Well according to Jerry Coyne, he knows that because so many religions disagree on the nature of God:
Now let me first agree that philosophy has progressed, at least in areas I’m familiar with, like ethical philosophy, where bad arguments have been weeded out and questions have become clearer.
But that doesn’t apply to theology. One need consider only this: if theology has arrived at “some truth concerning the world,” then that “truth” is flatly denied by adherents of other faiths. There is in fact no unanimity among religions about how many Gods there are, what God is like, what God’s commands are, whether there’s a hell or an after life of any sort, how you get saved, whether you’re reincarnated, and so on. There are, for example, more than 34,000 denominations of Christianity alone, and that doesn’t include all those other religions. And all of them differ not only in claims about the nature of God and how one is saved, but about things like divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control. If you think that religion has arrived at the truth, first have a look at this truncated phylogeny of Christianity (which of course leaves out the thousands of other religions).
As is typical of Jerry Coyne as well as New Atheists generally, what is missing here is logic. He doesn’t ever justify why the existence of various beliefs about some topic undermine the fact that we can know something true about said topic. Take a study like political philosophy. It has been fairly well established that constitutional democracies that respect individual rights are far superior to any number of other political systems in terms of freedom, personal prosperity, health and scientific and technical advancement. Despite this fact, many of the same political systems that have always existed still exist. We still have tribal warlords, kings, dictatorships, communist regimes, and theocracies. And within the broad umbrella of constitutional democracies, there are many variations – multi-party systems, two party systems, those that employ prime ministers and those that employ presidents, and some that do both. If Coyne’s logic were accurate, then we would have to conclude that nothing has been learned about what constitutes a good political system. Of course such a conclusion is absurd.
But thinking about his contention this way partly explains why there are so many systems of religion. The reason dictatorships and the like still exist despite the demonstrable superiority of constitutional democracies is that such systems allow certain individuals and groups to selfishly retain power they would otherwise not have. In other words corrupt human ambition explains the existence and proliferation of demonstrably untrue ideas about governing. I would say much the same is true about false religions or ideas about God – such ideas benefit certain people or groups of people in terms of their selfish ambitions. It is no accident that people are punished for conversion in large parts of the Islamic world, or in Hindu controlled India, or even in secularist regimes like China, North Korea and Cuba. So the existence of multiple religions doesn’t in any way undermine the idea that we can grow in our knowledge of God.
Of course science is different than certain other kinds of knowledge like theology or political philosophies in that science is essentially a method or tool, whereas our religious and political beliefs govern the way we live individually and the way we run our societies. Discovering that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way round may change one’s view of the solar system – but understanding human nature and how God intended us to live can change every aspect of one’s life. This isn’t to say scientific knowledge doesn’t impact our lives, but we choose how that knowledge will be used – and how it is used depends on other beliefs that science can’t inform.
Even so, Coyne overplays his hand. He cites the common misused figure of ‘34,000 denominations of Christianity’ as if this represents 34,000 fundamentally different beliefs. If Coyne himself actually knew anything about theology, he would know that the vast majority of Christians who are members of those denominations all adhere to certain fundamental truths like the Apostle’s Creed. As a Christian of the New Testament evangelical stripe, I find shared beliefs with Aquinas and Luther and Calvin and C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham – even though I am not of the same ‘denomination’.
But such a fine to thought process is probably too much to expect from the likes of Jerry Coyne. New Atheism is not after all an intellectual pursuit, but a rhetorical hammer meant to obliterate all thought contrary to its own. We shouldn’t expect them to be rational when discussing such matters.