The Inanity of Jerry Coyne

January 29, 2013

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.

Is the Problem Faith?

December 12, 2012

Jerry Coyne recently posted a video which he puts up as a reasonable argument from Richard Dawkins as to why religious belief is ‘bad’:

Dawkin’s arguments in this video (like those of most New Atheists, for whom he is Dear Leader) are a typical string of straw men, Red herrings and ad hominem attacks.

In his first claim Dawkins contends that religious folk are an incurious lot that don’t question or consider anything beyond what is written in their Holy book or as he characterizes it, “This is how it is. It is all written in the Holy Book. It was written 2000 years ago and that’s the end of it”. It’s rather obvious he is referring to Christianity here since Christianity is about 2000 years old. Of course this is a straw man version of Christianity since historically Christianity is anything but incurious. From the Apostle Paul to Augustine and Aquinas, to Newton, Pascal and Mendel, Christianity is filled with folks who pursued knowledge and understanding about every aspect of life. Christianity’s contributions to theology, philosophy, science and culture are undeniable.

But Dawkin’s claim makes even less sense when one considers the Christian view of nature and the universe. For Christians historically Scripture wasn’t the final Word but the launching pad for intellectual development. The Bible’s picture of our world as an orderly place that is conducive to rational comprehension is a greater impetus to explore and understand the universe than is the atheist’s perspective is. To see why this is one need only consider the following scenario:

Imagine for a moment I told you about an incredible art gallery. Not only incredible, but this particular art gallery was filled with artwork by the greatest artist that ever existed. The works of this artist were so intricate and so vast that generations of people had devoted their lives to the study of his productions and never come to the end of them. Now imagine further that I told you not only was this the greatest artist ever, but this artist was so wise that he had anticipated those who would study his work and had worked into them wisdom and truth that would benefit those who took their time to gaze upon his handiwork. Would you be curious about such an art gallery? Would you devote time and effort, perhaps even pay something to see such a place? If after a little effort you began to see that indeed what was there opened your mind to greater truths and understanding would you perhaps consider it your life’s work to study the works of this artist? I would think most would.

Now imagine I told you about another gallery. The works of art in this gallery are unusual – because no artist produced them. The art is incidental – it exists merely as the result of a series of unplanned events that began no particular purpose in mind. You could spend your life studying the art, but in the end the art has nothing for you, it just is. The very notion that you are seeing ‘art’ in it – that is design, purpose and beauty – is an illusion you have projected upon the objects in this gallery. You may glean some understanding of the processes that produced the art but in the end you always come to the same dead end – it’s just there, there is no ultimate explanation for why it exists. And we know the end result of these works – they are decaying, and in time they won’t exist at all, and neither will anybody’s memory of them. They began without purpose, and they end without any permanent value.

This explains the absurdity of Dawkin’s characterization of faith. The Christian’s faith in the order and meaning of nature gives him confidence that he can explore and understand it. The greatest motivation for exploring the universe has been to understand more about God – which is why so many scientists, including some of the originators of science, were also men of God in one way or another. It is a pursuit that is purposeful and fruitful; in the Christian perspective nature is a reflection of the mind of God.

The second contention by Dawkins is that faith is potentially lethal; it has been used to turn men into weapons because religious people are particularly vulnerable to mindlessly do acts of violence due to their unquestioning belief. At this point he does a bait and switch, referring to the Islamist suicide bombers instead of the Christians he previously targeted. For New Atheists, such details “don’t matter” as Dawkins puts it. Of course they don’t matter for his purpose, which isn’t to discern the actual causes of violence but to besmirch religious. This latter contention is more ridiculous than the first.

The ‘religion incites violence’ argument fails in two major ways. The first is that while religious belief is virtually a universal human attribute, the particulars of religious belief vary widely. Tendencies to religious violence seem almost wholly dependent on the particular beliefs of a religion. No one can contend that the Quakers, Amish and Mennonites, who are among the most devout believers, are in any way violent. Buddhists and Baptists don’t seem particularly inclined to strap bombs on themselves. And the most religious cultures aren’t necessarily the most violent. So there is no necessary connection between religion and violence.

This isn’t to say religious belief can’t incite the worst human behaviors – but the second reason the argument fails is that men are capable of atrocities quite apart from religion. Men have killed millions in the name of eliminating economic classes, attempting to breed a master race, even murdered in the name of equality and liberty – all perfectly secular considerations.

So if religion doesn’t necessarily incline men to violence and secular interests may, what are we to conclude? The Christian understanding makes the most sense here – men on the whole are corruptible, given to selfish ambition, desires for power and wealth and dominating others. In short they are sinners. This why the New Testament emphasizes the need for the transformation of human nature. And for a society as a whole it takes generations to internalize the moral behaviors we take granted now, and a few tragic choices to undue those same behaviors. Dawkin’s naturalism has no power to accomplish this.

So Dawkin’s arguments fail completely here. What is amazing to me is that Dawkin’s arguments are held up as the pinnacle of reason by Jerry Coyne and other New Atheists when his logic is so transparently fallacious. If this is the best of atheist reason, then the movement is bereft of any intellectual vigor whatsoever.

Fairness and the Monkey Mind

September 24, 2012

One ongoing contention by atheists is that God is unnecessary to ground morality because humans are naturally social and interdependent creatures who have inherited these characteristics from their evolutionary forebears. As evidence for this contention they often point to examples of certain social behaviors in apes and monkeys, our presumed nearest non-human cousins. We’ll ignore certain nasty behaviors by such animals (and why such behaviors aren’t equally ‘moral’ by this estimation) for now and examine instead a concept that is generally seen as moral in the Christian West – fairness.

In an August post called Where does morality come from? A demonstration with monkeys atheist and evolutionist cheerleader Jerry Coyne (who seems to be a big fan of these sort of studies) attributes the reactions of a capuchin to not receiving a grape in exchange for a rock during the course of an experiment to the monkey’s sense of ‘fairness’, a characteristic he considers to be a basis for morality:

This video is about as powerful a refutation I’ve seen of the notion that our morality is given by God rather than either evolved or a product of our culture. This is taken from a wonderful TED talk by Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several popular books. His talk is called “Moral behavior in animals”, and is witty and full of insights (you can also watch it here if you don’t have the right Flash player).

Do watch the whole talk, as you’ll learn a lot about “morality” in our mammalian relatives, and there are several nice videos. In the one I show below, two naive capuchin monkeys display what looks for all the world like a reaction to “unfairness” (the video appears about 3/4 of the way through de Waal’s talk). As de Waal notes, cucumbers are okay food for the monkeys, but they really like grapes (de Waal claims that monkeys like food in proportion to its price at the supermarket). A pair of capuchins can see each other getting cucumbers and grapes (they have to give the experimenter a rock before they get a piece of food).

See what happens when one of them is given a grape for his rock, and the other a cucumber. Remember, this is the first time these monkeys have been subject to this procedure:

So in the estimation of Jerry Coyne the capuchin’s reaction is an offense to the monkey’s sense of fairness. How does he know this? Because the monkey appears to be reacting in a manner a human might act when they are frustrated by being treated unfairly. And from this appearance he comes to the conclusion that this sense of fairness humans concern themselves with can be understood to derive from our animal ancestors and we can dismiss with God.

Now its possible monkeys have some idea of fairness. It’s possible other animals do. I have a Golden Retriever that gets petulant when I don’t take her with me when I run an errand. The response is similar to that of a three year old that declares it’s “Just not fair” that they didn’t get to go to the park. There is no reason why I as a Christian would deny the existence of such sensations in animals – but is such frustration really the basis for our moral notion of fairness? This is where I think comparisons start to break down.

Fairness in humans of course is a much more idealistic concept than mere frustration at unexpected treatment. We have entire social and political system designed specifically to ensure fairness. We even have symbols of fairness like Lady Justice, a symbol which goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. It is the notion that there is an underlying moral order against which actions should be evaluated without regard for the individual conducting the actions. So the human notion of fairness or the closely related concept of justice is not merely an innate reaction, but a sense that there is way the world ought to be and certain circumstances contradicted this ideal. There is no evidence capuchins are motivated by such ideals.

Of course, Jerry Coyne is inclined to see the rudiments of these ideals in the grasping of a monkey for a grape because he has a belief system which is supported by interpreting monkey responses this way. Though he would call such observations scientific, the reality is such experiments are far from empirical since we have no idea what is happening in the minds of these animals as they react. Both Coyne’s ideas about what fairness is and how he interprets such reactions are highly subjective. Indeed these sorts of experiments have soiled the scientific reputations of other researchers like Marc Hauser who bet his career on interpreting the motivations of monkeys and ended up resigning his position at Harvard due in part to the inherently interpretive nature of such studies.

Atheist tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to naturalism, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of evolutionary development from ape-like ancestors. So any animal behavior that slightly resembles a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion. Of course, atheists tend to ignore studies that that indicate our presumed ape relatives actually have little interest in fairness, like the one recently published in Biology Letters aptly titled, Theft in an ultimatum game: chimpanzees and bonobos are insensitive to unfairness. In the study researchers set up a scenario where the apes could choose to leave a portion of grapes for the group mates. This is what Professor Keith Jensen, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences observed:

“In each scenario one ape had to choose whether to steal the grapes or leave a portion of grapes for the other. We found that consistently they would steal the food without taking into account whether their action would have an effect on their partner. Neither the chimpanzees nor bonobos seemed to care whether food was stolen or not, or whether the outcomes were fair or not, as long as they got something. Our findings support other studies of chimpanzees but also extend these to bonobos. Both apes have no concern for fairness or the effects that their choices may have on others; in stark contrast to the way humans behave. We can therefore conclude that our results indicate that our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race.”

Presumed similarities between the behavior humans and apes always lead atheists to conclude they are related, but the opposite is never true – when their behaviors so obviously diverge, atheists never take from that fact that humans have instilled in them something unique that was not merely the result of naturalism.

But then again atheism is never a product of evidence.

The Absurdity of Jerry Coyne on Free Will

January 9, 2012

In a recent USA today column, New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne explains how the proper (read: atheist) view of our minds renders it impossible for us to have free will; we are in fact “meat computers”:

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.

As one can imagine, such a view of the mind would modify our vews on a whole host of issues. Of course Coyne atheist that he is, sees this reality as undermining Evangelical Christianity:

But there are two important ways that we must face the absence of free will. One is in religion. Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don’t freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied “soul” — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

Coyne is apparently unaware that a number of Evangelicals are Calvinists (and that Calvinism is Christian theology) but he is right that as much as one’s theology depends on free will it would be undermined by his view of the mind. Obviously all of this is moot if we accept that Coyne’s premise that we are merely ‘meat computers’, so why he bothered to go down this road to begin with is a mystery. Alternatively if we think humans are something more than that, that is we have a spiritual aspect, then we would reject Coyne’s reductionism anyway.

But what Coyne doesn’t seem to be aware of is that the ‘no free will’ argument undermines atheism as well. After all, if what we believe is merely the product of incidental physical inputs that produce “nothing more than structural and chemical changes” than that would also include beliefs about atheism. The atheist idea that our beliefs are the result of either ‘reason’ or ‘faith’ is absurd since if atheism were true all ideas are merely the result of uncontrollable physical inputs. Coyne’s materialism destroys both reason and faith.

This was not always so. Once upon a time atheists and skeptics referred to themselves as ‘free thinkers’ – my own father considered himself one of these, predicated on the notion that he had chosen to embrace reason and reject the authority of religion. The word ‘skeptic’ connotes the same thought process – one is deciding what to believe as a result of skeptically evaluating the options. If what Coyne says about free will is true, then no such thought processes or choices are going on. Religious, irreligious, skeptical, atheistic – all are merely organizations of molecules in the brain resulting from processes far beyond the control of the thinker.

And it is not only atheism and Christianity that are undermined by Coyne’s view of the mind, but the common view of human history as well. Ordinarily we view human history as a set of events driven by the choices of humans in the past. Choices to conduct one war or another, choices to follow one set of beliefs over another. We even designate entire periods after those choices – the Enlightenment or the Reformation for example. If Coyne is right, human history is no different than any other natural phenomena; that is, merely the inevitable interaction of physical events set in motion by the Big Bang. Human history would be no more a product of choice than is the orbit of the moon or the chemical composition of Martian soil. And if past history is merely the result of forces set in motion by the origin of the universe, then so too is all future history – and we would no more be able to change the future by our choices than we can change the motion of a our galaxy. The future of humanity was already determined moments after the Big Bang.

Of course, most people don’t believe any of this. The vast majority of humanity has been and is theistic in one form or another because people don’t like to pretend that the evident design of nature, the innate desire for truth, the hunger for meaning and the sense a choice are all illusory. They prefer to live lives where truth can be known and meaning can be found and choices can be made in internally consistent ways. And the reason people become Christians is because they believe that truth and meaning are best found in the person of Christ Jesus.

It is the great irony in all this that people become atheists in part because they don’t want religious dogmas to control their choices; if atheist Jerry Coyne is right then that is not a choice anyone can make.

*Hat tip to my friend Neil at Eternity Matters  for spotting this first – he makes a number of fine points in his post*


November 17, 2011

Though it’s tempting to try to tie the Whitehouse shooter with the Occupy movement the way the Left tried to do with Jared Loughner and the Tea Party movement, I won’t go there no matter how much they tempt me.

The Non-conflict Between Science and Religion

November 15, 2011

Excellent interview with Stephen Barr, professor of Particle Physics at the Bartol Research Institute and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. Here he discusses the myth of the ‘conflict’ between science and religion – something I have dealt with before.

One bit he covered that I had forgotten about was the fact that the Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo had a view of time 1600 years ago that wasn’t to be understood by science until the 20th century – namely that time originated with the material universe, which comports with our modern notion of spacetime.

In some ways Dr. Barr may be preaching to the choir a bit here given the fact that only 15% of scientists at major universities see religion and science in conflict.

And most of those scientists are named Jerry Coyne.

Atheist Contradictions – Secular Human Values

November 10, 2011

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently wrote this in reply to his fellow New Atheist Jerry Coyne:

During my debates on morality I point out that all of the good teachings in the world religions (which show up in all of them) are really HUMAN values: peace, love, cooperation, and so on. Those values transcend religion, and are in fact the values we use when we are judging from the outside whether we think a particular religion is good or not.

This is of course the sort of gobbledygook one hears often from New Atheists. At the very first his assertion is based on an absurdity. There is no such thing as a ‘human value’; humans value many things – love, happiness, wealth, power, sex, ambition, equality, etc. Some value some of those over others. People differ about which values are legitimate and which aren’t.  Christians don’t claim they invented their values, merely that they provide a logically consistent basis for preferring some values (like peace, love, and cooperation) over others, like aggression, hatred and selfishness. Atheism of course provides no basis for preferring one set of values over another.

Because there are no such things as ‘human values’ the idea that we ‘judge’ whether a religion is ‘good or not’ is ‘bass ackwards’ as they say. Different people judge various belief systems (religious or otherwise) based on the values they hold but how they got those values to begin with isn’t merely a product of being ‘human’. Invariably, as we explore where the values individuals came from we end up looking at culture and history – and this always leads us back to religious beliefs. Atheists haven’t created or adopted any values that didn’t emanate from an earlier religious foundation and any values they do adopt are merely a matter of personal preference, not an objective consideration.

So Barker is begging the question here – to say that certain values ‘transcend’ religion is to say that there must be some source of values that preceded religion. This is problematic because the very things that distinguish us as human – our consideration of values and morals, our spiritual capacity and the fact that we produce and are the product of culture are intertwined. To say values transcend religion is like saying that biological ‘life’ transcends respiration; proving this false is as easy as putting a pillow over someone’s face.

So once again we see an atheist not only confused about what Christians claim, but confused about the origin and definition of values all together.