Monday, July 27, 2015

Why is Jerry Coyne an Atheist?

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, which one scholar describes as the first full-orbed response to the New Atheism, I dealt with the objection, "If Christianity is reasonable, why do most eminent scientists reject faith in God, not to mention the details of the creed?"  The title of the second chapter in that book was, "Are Scientists too 'Bright' to Believe in God?"  That chapter was written in response to Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who casually assumed that in this case, "correlation means causation," that scientists deny "religion" because they're too intellectually advanced to fall for the silly set of errors bounded by the word "religion."

I admitted that one possible explanation for data that shows atheism is concentrated among elite scientists, is that these folks are just "too bright" to believe such tomfoolery.  But then I detailed seven other plausible explanations for this pattern.  The first reason I gave why so many elite scholars (it's not just scientists, it's also psychologists and anthropologists, in particular) are unbelievers, is that hostility in the academy may lend a "selective disadvantage" to believers:

"It's a seller's market for post-Christian ideas, especially if they can claim 'scientific' endorsement.  Many great modern schools of thought have been founded by virulent post-Christian thinkers: Marxism, Freudianism, Social Darwinism, French existentialism, behaviorism, objectivism, postmodernism, postcolonialism -- the list is long and painfully polysyllabic.  What did their founders -- Marx, Engels Comte, Freud, Haeckel, Nietzsche, Sartre, Skinner, Wells, Rorty, Said, and so on -- have in common?  Not that they obviously contributed a great deal to science.  All were 'bright,' as were most of their followers . . . Each claimed the mantle of science.  Each wowed intellectuals by attacking the Christian view of nature, humanity, or morals.  All adopted the Enlightenment story of scientific progress . . . But quite a few of these folk threaten to go down in history as quacks.  Nor were they all harmless quacks."  

If atheism carries a selective advantage in science, it may be because atheists more often select scientific careers .  If you come to believe in atheism as a young person, you are more likely to pursue a career in fields thought to nurture your worldview.  I then told the story of EO Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, who found a substitute for his Southern Baptist faith at the age of 16, after reading a few books, and getting the gist of evolutionary biology -- along with some quasi-scientific notions he later recognized as absurd.  I noted:

"Wilson wasn't argued out of his faith.  At 16, he hadn't studied the evidence for Christian beliefs and found it deficient . . . What seduced Wilson was a bigger story."  

In his new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne falls into the same trap that ensnared Dawkins and Dennett almost a decade ago.  He assumes, with a fairly cursory dismissal of such alternative explanations, that "correlation means causation:" that success in science, or the evidence-privileging attitude that is a prerequisite of such success, is why eminent scientists are usually atheists.  But what is especially ironic about Coyne's argument, is that he undermines it himself, by telling his own story -- a story that shows how prejudice, not a passion for reason and strong evidence, made him a confirmed atheist at the ripe age of 17.  (But we knew that about Coyne anyway -- a scientist who doesn't allow informed Christians to respond freely on his blog, even after he has mocked them by name.)

It is equally interesting to see how Coyne is seemingly unaware of how his own story undermines his point, to the extent of supposing it rather supports that point, instead.

I'll begin by citing Coyne's story and his argument.  Then I'll show how the two conflict, though Coyne oddly does not seem to recognize that obvious fact. 

Here's Jerry Coyne's own account of how he "scientifically" determined that religion was all just bunk: 

"And a bit more biography is in order: I was raised as a secular Jew, an upbringing that, as most people know, is but a hairsbreadth from atheism.  But my vague beliefs in a God were abandoned almost instantly when, at seventeen, I was listening to the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album and suddenly realized that there was simply no evidence for the religious claims I had been taught -- or for anybody else's, either.  From the beginning, then, my unbelief rested on an absence of evidence for anything divine."

Did you get that?  At seventeen, having been raised a "hairsbreadth from atheism," Jerry Coyne "suddenly realized," in a satori-like moment of "realization" while listening to a Beetle's record (but without going through the years of training that Zen realization generally involves) not only that his own "vague" beliefs had no evidence for them in his own as-yet minimally-furnished young mind.  No, that would be far too modest. Coyne realized that there was no evidence for religious beliefs, anywhere outside his mind, either.  Furthermore, he "realized" that there was no evidence, anywhere -- not in this world, not on the moon, not perhaps under some rock in Uttar Pradesh or Inner Mongolia -- for ANYONE'S religious beliefs.  Not even religious beliefs the young man had never even heard of, yet.

You might say such conviction, based on such scanty data (it doesn't sound as if Coyne was even well-read in religion at the time, as 17-year-olds go -- which is generally not far) sounds like a typical religious conversion at about that age.  I suppose it was, except in one regard.  Most conversions are to a belief, not away from all beliefs.  And it is vastly more reasonable, and humble, to hear an altar call and say, "I hear you, speaking to my heart, oh Lord!"  than to say, "Wow, cool tune -- hey, the train of thought inspired in my head by this psychedelic music must mean that every religion on Earth is bunk, and that Augustine, Confucius, Kepler, Newton, Pascal, Tolstoy, Lewis, Plantinga, and all those folks were utterly deluded about the true nature of reality!"  And then to maintain that for decades afterwards, and believe that this was somehow a more rational act of belief than the "leaps of faith" common among devotees of the Bagwan Rajneesh or David Koresh.

That's what Coyne does.  "From the beginning, then, my unbelief rested on an absence of evidence for anything divine."  Not, "My conclusion was, perhaps, premature, given the paucity of data I had surveyed at the time, but in my own experience at least, it has been borne out by subsequent events.  Perhaps other people, however, have contrary data to offer, and I will listen carefully and dispassionately to their accounts when people offer them, not censor Christians who post on my site."   Now that would be a scientific attitude, as Coyne describes it in subsequent pages.   

One expects a degree of bombast from teenagers.  But when they retroactively try to justify that adolescent hubris almost fifty years later, pretending that such a brash conclusion, almost bereft of mature knowledge, was actually scientific, and shows why the world's most eminent scientists deny God, perhaps after all there is some explanatory value here, after all.  Perhaps this very brashness, this sweeping, retroactive dogmatism does explain the psychological mechanisms by which many radical atheism often takes form.

And from what?  From listening to an album some of whose songs were banned on the BBC for fomenting drug usage, not atheism.  ("OOOH, I get high with a little help from my friends."  So take a hike, Alvin Plantinga!  "Lucy in the sky with diamonds!"  Take that, William Lane Craig!  So much for your version of the Kalaam Cosmological Argument -- it was Lucy, not God, who caused the Big Bang!)

Coyne goes on to write at great length about the objectivity and humility of science.  He describes his shock studying under Richard Lewontin at Harvard, to find that every research paper and proposal was ripped to shreds in seminars.  ("Shy and reserved, I felt as if I'd been hurled into a pit of unrelenting negativity.")  This is the glory and wonder of science, he says, that it can be falsified, that proposals need to survive tough scrutiny before they see the light of day.  "The pervasive doubt and criticality weren't intended as personal attacks, but were actually the essential ingredients in science, used as a form of quality control to uncover the researcher's misconceptions and mistakes.")

Religion is just the opposite, Coyne claims.  Religion encourages you to believe despite the (lack of) evidence, to shut your eyes to contrary evidence, to grit your teeth and go on believing.

And yet Coyne, on his own website, censors educated and (better) informed Christians who challenge his views.  It seems he cannot stand to have his crude notions about religion challenged by people who know the facts better than he does, on a subject on which he sees fit to write publicly. 

And where did the lively debate he praises really originate?  Well of course there was ancient Athens, where Socrates asked tough questions -- though eventually he was executed for doing so.  But one could certainly find some lively discussion in that town.  Though come to think of it, most of the people in Athens, including Socrates and his student Plato, were religious.  There were the debates of the Medieval Scholastics, epitomized by the form of Thomas Aquinas' great work the Summit of Theology, in which almost every question is challenged from more than one angle.  Of course the Medieval university was a Christian invention.  And the debates it held are the forerunners of Harvard debates -- indeed, I seem to recall that Harvard itself was founded to train Christian pastors.  Debate was also enormously important among Tibetan Buddhists: the Tibetans are said to have adopted esoteric Buddhism after debate (Zen was one alternative). 
Zhu Xi debated Confucianism at Yue Lu Hill for three days.
The Medieval Confucian Zhu Xi likewise debated one of his opponents for three days at Yue Lu Mountain across the river from the southern Chinese city of Changsha -- just next door to where Mao Zedong went to school, before he shut down debate across China in the name of "dialectical materialism."

Nor were my doctoral studies, surrounded by Christians from around the world studying most everything under, and over, the sun, bereft of debate.  Our seminars were held on Wednesday, around a long table, and people chomped at the bit to offer critical assessment of papers read -- I was often first in line, and mine consequently caught a particular amount of fire.  This was in the city of Oxford, where Christian scholars had been debating for a very long time indeed.

Really, Jerry, if you're going to pat yourself, and your fellow atheists, on the back so unrelentingly, you might make your self-praise more credible by omitting the story of how a Beatles record convinced you that no one on Planet Earth had any evidence for religion at the age of 17, that's your story, and you're going to stick to it.  

So Jerry Coyne may give himself airs, if he likes.  But let's not pretend that modern evolutionary biologists invented the debate.  And let's not pretend that Coyne himself allows it to be practiced on his website.  He preaches boldness, but practices timidity. 

Here's what I wrote on this blog two years ago, when, following my debate with Phil Zuckerman, Coyne posted a critique on his website, and I tried in vain to respond.  It appears that Coyne goes even further: he apparently wants to censor Christians on university campuses.  So much for intellectual boldness:

Jerry Coyne.   Jerry doesn't remember me, and clearly hadn't seen the debate.  So his target wasn't myself so much as Adventure Church, and Christianity in general, as a threat to democracy.  Those who know him, can only find his sermonette deeply ironic:

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.

What I can imagine, is Jerry Coyne censoring Christians for posting on his blog while making too much sense.  That has happened to me.  You make a point there, several people throw wild criticisms at it and at you, you respond patiently, politely, and rationally -- and your response never appears. 

And in fact, I posted several times on that thread, including some innocuous "behind the scenes" explanations, but also criticism of Coyne.  Last I checked, none of it had appeared.

My friend Tom Gilson has seen worse.  Coyne is allegedly capable of posting comments that directly challenge Christians like Tom, then deleting his responses, making it appear that he is unable or too cowardly to reply.  And it seems Coyne is also engaged in what Tom describes as "witch-hunting," by seeking to pressure universities to cancel classes that fairly discuss evidence in nature for God.
So Coyne is being disingenuous.  Not only can he "imagine" censoring considered opposing arguments, he does it all the time.  He seems to be deathly afraid of an honest exchange of views. 

Which is more dangerous to democracy: a private religious institution that gets cold feet after a debate, for a few days, or an anti-religious scientist who can't handle disagreement on his own blog, and projects his bossy personality on the public sphere by getting public institutions to suppress Bad Think on campus?  And then brags about how he would never censor a debate? 

Coyne works himself into a fine lather:

Imagine what these Christians would do if they turned America into the theocracy they want!

The vast majority of Christians want no such thing.  And here Zuckerman's comments sail way past the evidence, as well:

They are indeed afraid to air the underling truth of my position: that no civil society can thrive if it does not exist upon a bedrock of democracy, and democracy is not a Christian value — it is not articulated anywhere in the Gospels, nor is it promulgated, in any way, by Jesus or Paul. Rather, democracy is a secular humanist ideal — something dreamed up and established by and for people.  (Coyne cites Zuckerman, from his blog)

Yeah, and Zuckerman himself admitted in the debate that the people who "dreamt it up" were Christians, not Secular Humanists. 

One might wonder here, not only about the charity of Zuckerman's Patheos conclusion, but also its rationality -- generalizing about Christians from the narrow evidential base of one church.  Reason is supposed to be high on the list of virtues for the Secularist Millennia. 

But Zuckerman was piqued, and can be forgiven a bit of venting.  Coyne has no such excuse. 

I explained, in the debate, how Christianity did indeed nourish civil society in the West, citing eminent historians who have examined the matter, and how the value of separation of Church and State derives in part historically from the New Testament.  I quoted two specific verses that were cited in the Medieval debate on this subject.  Zuckerman did not address this point. 

Protestant missions were also key to the spread of democracy around the world, as Singapore University sociologist Robert Woodberry points out:

Protestant missions are significantly and robustly associated with higher levels of printing, education, economic development, organizational civil society, protection of private property, and rule of law, and with lower levels of corruption. 

But a fellow who can't handle dissent on his own blog, or in state universities, wants to trash the entire Christian record, based on a few days' delay in releasing the tape of a debate? 

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