Monday, November 16, 2015

Christianity gets Jerry Coyne "monologuing"


(Note: originally posted on Amazon.)  A couple years ago, I debated the sociologist Phil Zuckerman in California on whether Secular Humanism or Christianity offered the greater hope for humanity. The church where the event was held did not immediately put the debate on-line as they had promised. Jerry Coyne wrote as follows:

"This is why this form of Christianity is inimical to democracy. I can’t imagine Zuckerman, myself, or any other debating atheist refusing to allow the debate to be aired—no matter how bad our performance was."

Ironically, I posted several times on that thread, including some innocuous "behind the scenes" explanations, but also criticism of Coyne.  As far as I could figure out, none of it ever appeared.

Coyne is allegedly also capable of posting comments that directly challenge Christians, then deleting his responses, making it appear that the Christian poster is unable or too cowardly to reply.

Nor are theists Coyne's only victims. His allies at Pharyngula report a series of first-person stories of how thoughtful atheists with opinions different from Coyne's own have been censored, without any warning or explanation, on his web site. (They didn't mention that Coyne likewise censors Christians, however.)

So not only can I "imagine" Coyne censoring informed, well-stated opposing arguments, he seems to do it all the time.

I begin by pointing this out because one of Coyne's main conceits in this book is that Science (the word seems naked without caps) is quite different from religion in being open to and eager for testing, debate, and free exchange of ideas. He begins Chapter Two, "What's Incompatible," by talking about going to seminars at Harvard run by Richard Lewontin and being shell-shocked by the lively clash of ideas there. This is supposed to be quite different from how religions are run (in fact, that was exactly my experience getting my PhD in a Christian institution, and I enjoyed every moment of it from day one, unlike Coyne; and of course Catholic and Buddhist monks have long histories of debate -- I suspect Aquinas would take the whole brood at Is Evolution True and leave it looking like Odysseus' house the day after he dealt with the suitors.)

The fact that Jerry Coyne does not practice what he preaches, does not mean that the content of his sermons is wrong. And in this book, he proves a skilled preacher: his argument is well-organized, he gives examples that sound reasonable, and he is capable of making distinctions. He has read a few worthwhile Christians -- often wrongly, but I'm used to that -- and is capable of recognizing and dealing with nuance. (He almost gives Christianity some credit for the birth of modern science, for instance.)

How tiresome, though, to see another New Atheist book based on the patent falsehood that for Christians, faith means (to quote his particular wording) "the acceptance of things for which there is no strong evidence." (25) Sam Harris did that, Peter Boghossian did that. Richard Dawkins started the ball rolling (well it had been rolling for centuries, but at a greater velocity.) Alister McGrath refuted it in the very first rebuttal to the New Atheism, and I refuted it in the second (The Truth About the New Atheism.) Then several of us got together and sent it to the bottom in True Reason. We showed that Christian Scriptures and tradition both solidly agree on the proposition that Christian faith ought to be and is solidly backed by evidence. What faith really means, as philosopher Tim McGrew and I defined it, is "trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties." That is the definition that Christian tradition, including the Bible, best supports as a whole.

Is this Halloween? The Blind Faith Meme just keeps coming back, like a visit from a species of Undead that even shots through the noggin can't dispatch.

Mind you, Coyne's version of the Blind Faith Meme has evolved, slightly. For one thing, there is some ambiguity in this particular definition. Does Coyne mean that by "faith," Christians mean we should accept claims for which their is no strong evidence? Or does he mean that while Christians think there is strong evidence, there really isn't?

He seems to argue for both propositions. One has to take him to mean the first, since he adds, "In science faith is a vice, while in religion it's a virtue." And that is false, as we show. Yes, we deal with the usual out-of-context cherry-picking of verses, such as Hebrews 11, "Faith is a substance of things not seen," and the story in John about Jesus telling Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe." Why do skeptics never seem to notice that Jesus does give Thomas evidence, that Thomas has received such evidence for three years on a daily basis, that the whole Gospel of John is obsessed with offering evidence, and that the New Testament systematically describe at least seven different kinds of (strong) evidence?

And that is also true of the Christian tradition. Skeptics always cherry-pick a few out-of-context words from Tertullian and Kierkegaard, sometimes Luther, and ignore the rich contrary tradition that McGrath, McGrew and I, among others, cite.

Coyne writes:

"For if you can tolerate the criticality and doubt -- they're not for everyone -- the process of science yields a joy that no other job confers: the chance to be the first person to find out something new about the universe."

Coyne does not, in fact, seem to "tolerate the criticality" all that willingly. But I, and many others who work in theology (or the history and theory of religions, my field) can say unambiguously that we know that joy. I have been the first person to find out "new things" about the world, at least, which is a part of the universe. And I find that scientists who are Christians are often among the most fascinated by the discoveries I describe. And theological works I have read have also clearly demonstrated that joy of fresh discovered, for good reason.

But why is Coyne writing about Christianity in the first place? He's read a bit of Plantinga, Craig and others, but he doesn't really seem to know much of what he's talking about. Some more examples of "information underload" here:

"I haven't cherry-picked these responses while ignoring dissenting views: I've simply never seen any Christian avow in print that he'd abandon belief in the Resurrection if science proved it wrong."

In "science" Coyne includes "history." (Though Richard Carrier, whom he cites on the relationship, is more correct to include the former in the latter.)

How about the first Christian theologian, St. Paul? "If Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain." Hasn't Coyne read the First Epistle to the Corinthians? Well, yes, he has, citing this very passage at length (45). Clearly Paul was saying that if the Resurrection could be disconfirmed, no one would have a right to believe in Christianity.

Or how about Francis Schaeffer? He certainly said something very similiar to this. As did C. S. Lewis, the most famous modern Christian thinker.

Coyne makes liberal use throughout this book of versions of what is called the Outsider Test for Faith, popularized by John Loftus, whom he thanks in his acknowledgements. For example, on page 157:

"Finally, even if you attribute scientifically unexplained phenomena to God, ask yourself if the explanation gives evidence for your God -- the God who undergirds your religion and your morality. If we do findn evidence . . . can it be ascribed to the Christian God, or to Allah, Brahma, or any one god among the thousands worshipped on Earth? I've never seen advocates of natural theology address this question."

But as an advocate of natural theology, I not only refuted John's argument against Christianity in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story, I turned it on its head, and showed that comparative religion and the "Outsider Test" provide at least four positive reasons for Christian faith.

And I've seen others address it too. Pascal, for instance, can be considered a natural theologian, and he addressed it. So does Bill Craig, whom Coyne cites so much in this book. So does William Paley, whom Coyne also cites.

"The story of Job has baffled scholars for centuries, for its 'meaning' is murky, yet there is no lack of those willing to give it a metaphorical spin."

Actually, the meaning is pretty clear, and explained in the preface of this literary masterpiece. (And then again, in the conclusion.) It is, admittedly, a complex work that requires patience, not amenable to mere scoffing.

Coyne predictably attacks Intelligent Design. Like Plantinga, I tend to "waffle" on this theory. But I know enough about it to see that Coyne misrepresents it.

Amusingly, on one page Coyne complains that Christians deny the possibility that God created unembodied rational beings (162), while a dozen or so pages prior (149), he complains that Alvin Plantinga appeals to unembodied rational beings that God created. This reminds me of Chesterton's quip about skeptics who were so eager to contradict Christianity, they don't mind contradicting themselves.

Although Coyne either has not read enough of Christian thought or is too unsympathetic to retain it well, the main body of Coyne's book is well-written, full of ideas and arguments with support of varying quality, and a lively interaction with believers and skeptics. Few of his arguments will appear novel to experienced readers, and many well-read Christians will be aware of rebuttals. So he doesn't take the case for skepticism much deeper, but he does summarize atheist arguments at a certain level -- better than, say, Dawkin's God Delusion -- that will I think satisfy most skeptics, or at least those who are not too skeptical of their skepticism, yet.

At the end of the book, Coyne asks, "Why does it matter?" He answers in 38 pages or so. I feel like answering at similar length, but at the end of a long review, I'll be brief.

* Now Coyne defines faith as "belief without supporting evidence." I thought that was supposed to be belief without "strong" supporting evidence? This is sloppy. In any case, Coyne has not given strong supporting evidence that that's what Christianity advocates -- because it is not.

* "The notions that you possess absolute truth about divine aspects of the universe, that adherents to other faiths are simply wrong . . . " Coyne is describing his own position here, not mine.

* Coyne describes unorthodox sects that disavow use of medicine, and (in horrid detail) the suffering that children endure because of that. He does not mention that billions of people have been treated in hospitals founded by Christian missionaries. He does not mention, say a single missionary doctor couple I had the privilege of knowing, who dramatically improved the lives of tens of thousands directly, and millions indirectly. This is grossly unfair.

* "Is there any institution other than religion that could see terminal suffering as beneficial?" My own eyes? If "eyes" can be called an "institution." Mind you, I'm all in favor of pain-killing medicines, thank God for them. But despite the pain, which still lives with me, I am grateful to God, and to the person who endured it, for that last day.

* Coyne allows that serious Christians were at the forefront of the rise of modern science. He cites "historian Richard Carrier" to say that if anything, paganism should be credited for science, given the Greeks (and Coyne adds, the Chinese). But Carrier himself makes the point that the pagan Greeks often did science for the same reason Newton and Kepler did science -- for the glory of God. They were pagans, but the notion of a Supreme God had become important among the ancient Greeks. (Also among the Chinese, though the impact of Chinese theism on science remains obscure to me.)

* Coyne spends five pages on the threat religion poses to the planet due to Global Warming. But he conflates four premises of AGW: (1) That the atmosphere has warmed; (2) that the warming is due (largely or mostly) to human activity; (3) that this is a "dire" threat; (4) certain prescribed (and highly expensive) solutions. He says opposition is "simply dangerous."

Coyne ought to learn from the scholastics to think more clearly. That the air has warmed a degree or two since 1850 is undeniable: that human activity has contributed significantly to that, is almost certain. But about half of that warming came when CO2 release was a tiny fraction of what it became after World War II. One simply cannot export the real scientific consensus on (1) to (3) or (4), or even fully to (2).

* Coyne complains about the "second-class status" of women in the Catholic Church. I have shown in great detail that in fact, Christianity has dramatically benefited women in concrete ways around the world.

* If "faith" disappeared, "Can you really claim that hatred based on religion would inevitably be replaced by hatred based on something else . . . "

Of course I can. Was Coyne busy in the lab during the 20th Century?

* "The largely non-religious societies of Europe are good ones . . . " (252)

And as I told Zuckerman, citing Zuckerman's own atheist and agnostic sources (along with historians), it was Christianity that turned pillaging Vikings into productive Danes and Norwegians.

* "Making peace with old enemies . . . " I think Jesus said something about that.

* "Religion weakens the incentive to fix both personal and societal problems." (256)

I don't know about "religion" in general, but Jesus Christ majored in fixing both. And anyone who tells the story of how slavery was abolished, caste in India challenged, human sacrifice ended, women educated in most of Asia, modern science and medicine invented then broadcast to the world, or the institutions of freedom and democracy arose in societies around the world, and fails to mention radical, Bible-quoting, praying followers of Jesus, is telling gross historical falsehoods. Again, as I have shown.

Towards the end of the book, Coyne calls not for a dialogue, but a "monologue." (Like Syndrome in the Incredibles.)

Monologuing does, indeed, seem to be what Dr. Coyne is most comfortable with still, as when he crept into Richard Lewontin's class and was astonished by the apparently virtupitous atmosphere. So let him huddle in the corner with a few books, and make, so eloquently as he pleases, his one-sided case to his disciples -- while the main conversation, to which he is frankly not yet knowledgable enough to contribute much, and the search for ultimate truth, will go on elsewhere in the room.


Anonymous said...

In fairness, I don't believe Paul is claiming "disprove the resurrection and I'll reject Christianity". He is claiming that Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection, but he goes on to claim that the evidence is overwhelming. Having a "dead" man appear to you in blazing light and say "I'm alive; repent and get with the program!" in front of your very eyes will do that.

David B Marshall said...

OK, but I think it comes to the same thing. If you say, "If test results disprove that humans are related to monkeys, then my theory will fail." The fact that you are confident that no such test will achieve any such result, doesn't make the position any less intellectually creditable or in sync with what Coyne demands.