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In Defence of Jerry Coyne

Over the last couple of weeks a series of articles has been appearing in the US media attacking biologist Jerry Coyne. They’re in response to a post on his own website, Why Evolution Is True (WEIT). On 13 July 2017 he wrote ‘Should one be allowed to euthanize severely deformed or doomed newborns?

This wasn’t the first time the subject has come up for discussion on WEIT. He’s written about it before, and it upset people in the past too. This time though, it came at the same time as the Charlie Gard case. Conservatives and the religious right were already up in arms, and this fed the narrative.

Conflict of Interest

I should say up front that I have a conflict of interest on the subject of Jerry Coyne. Jerry and I are friends. However, I don’t think that stops me from looking at this topic fairly. I am friends with Jerry for no other reason than because I like him. The fact that he is well known makes no difference to me – it’s not how I choose my friends. I’m not the sort of person who “sucks up” to get or keep friends. I’m quite open about disagreeing with him if and when that occurs. Jerry is a genuinely good, kind man. Anyone who knows him well will tell you the same thing.

Who is Jerry Coyne?

Most readers here will already know of Professor (Emeritus) Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago well. In fact, many of you only know about Heather’s Homilies because Jerry is kind enough to refer to some of my posts on WEIT.

Jerry’s academic credentials are without doubt. As well as over one hundred papers in his field, he has written three books which are all held in high regard. The first, Speciation, is an academic work written with a former student, H Allen Orr. In 2009 Why Evolution is True came out, and is still a best seller. In 2015, we got Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

Speciation is beyond my own science knowledge, so I haven’t read it. However, I can highly recommend both Why Evolution is True and Faith vs Fact. Both are excellent and enjoyable reads.

 

In recognition of the quality of his work, multiple awards have also come Jerry’s way.

Media Opposition to Jerry Coyne

I’ve just about lost count of the number of media outlets which have now come out to attack Jerry on the post in question. So far I don’t think I’ve come across a single one that has all its facts straight. You’d think they might at least do the minimum of research for their articles i.e. read what Jerry wrote! However, some don’t even appear to have done that. Further, the nuances of what he writes don’t fit their agenda so the best they can expect is the cutting room floor.

Many of the articles even go so far as to portray him as some kind of monster, advocating the introduction of eugenics by stealth.

There are five characteristics the articles mostly have in common:

1. They misrepresent Jerry’s views.
2. Each outlet is either on the political or religious right.
3. They create a link between Jerry’s ideas on euthanasia and his background as an evolutionary biologist.
4. Each makes at least one error in their reporting, and those errors are then part of the case against Jerry.
5. Once Jerry is cast as a demon by all that, his atheism is brought into the articles to confirm that status.

Summary of Media Disapproval

Here’s a table I’ve drawn up of some of the articles attacking Jerry.

Jerry Coyne Critics

And links to the articles in question:

NewsMax:Chicago Prof’s Shock Proposal: Kill Deformed Newborns

The Daily Caller:University Of Chicago Prof Argues For Newborn Euthanasia

The Chicago Fix:UChicago professor: It should be legal to kill newborn babies

National Review:Does Darwinism Lead to Infanticide Acceptance?’

Milo:UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PROFESSOR COMES OUT IN SUPPORT OF ASSISTED SUICIDE FOR BABIES

Breitbart:Univ. Chicago Prof Argues for Morality of Infanticide by Logic of Abortion Rights

The Washington Times:Famed evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne argues killing of disabled newborns is ‘merciful’

Evolution News (1): ‘Darwinian Biologist Endorses Killing Handicapped Babies Who “Suffer”

Evolution News (2):Euthanasia Reveals Atheism’s Moral Confusion

LifeSite:Professor: One day killing newborn babies will be widespread, and ‘it will be for the better’’

Black Christian Network:University of Chicago Professor Jerry Coyne Uses Abortion to Justify Infanticide

Life Issues Institute:Abortion Makes Euthanasia Okay

National Pulse:University of Chicago Professor: If Abortion Is Allowed, Why Not Infanticide?

Christian News Network:Evolutionist Professor Says Parents Should Be Allowed to Euthanize Severely Deformed Newborn Children

First Things:PUTTING INFANTS “DOWN LIKE DOGS”

Townhall:When a Professor Justifies Infanticide

Just the titles of the articles gives you some idea of the frenzy they’ve whipped themselves into!

The Link Between Evolution and Euthanasia

Creationism cartoonDespite the fact that most of these articles make a connection between acknowledging the theory of evolution and questioning whether we should let babies suffer as they die, I personally can’t see the logic. I suspect the fact that many on the religious right see accepting evolution as evil in itself has some relevance here.

Evolution is scientific fact. It will remain so unless and until the unlikely event of the emergence of a better explanation for the evidence.

Jerry’s ideas about whether it might sometimes be better to euthanize babies are a question of philosophy. Unlike the media outlets attacking him, I thought I’d ask him directly whether he thought there was a connection between being an evolutionary biologist and his thoughts relating to euthanasia. His response:

No, there’s absolutely no link between my studies of evolutionary biology and my views on euthanasia. To say that I want to weed out sick infants to improve the human gene pool is a total mischaracterization of my position, which stems solely from philosophy and thinking about ethics. It’s the classic “naturalistic fallacy” to think that we should do to our own species what natural selection did. If I really believed that, I’d be against any medical care, as well as eyeglasses and dentistry, which of course allow genetically “inferior” people to survive and reproduce. And I’d be having as many kids as possible, for of course those who leave the most offspring (and genes) are the winners in the evolutionary race. But, alas, I’m childless, and have never had the desire to pass on my genes.

And that’s almost exactly the answer I thought I’d get, because I read his posts on the subject. It’s a shame the media didn’t do the same.

A Link Between Atheism and Euthanasia?

I also asked Jerry if he thinks being an atheist has any influence on his opinion. This is what he told me:

Only insofar as I am able to think about the question in a purely utilitarian way, considering how to best reduce the amount of suffering in the world, without my views being polluted by unfounded religious notions such as the soul or the idea (of which Mother Teresa was one exponent) that it’s somehow good to suffer.

Mother Teresa, of course, was pretty evil when it came to suffering. She went around the world for years begging for millions, including from multiple morally bankrupt characters wanting good publicity. That money disappeared into the coffers of the Catholic Church. Those in her “clinics” though would continue to suffer without even adequate pain relief. Her opinion was that this suffering brought them closer to Jesus as they were suffering like him.

Christopher Hitchens quote about Mother Teresa.

Another atheist, Christopher Hitchens, on Mother Teresa. Hitchens wrote “The Missionary Position” about Mother Teresa, which I highly recommend.

So Where Does Jerry Coyne Get His Ideas Regarding Euthanasia?

The best person to ask about this is, again, Jerry himself. So I did.

My exact question was, “What do you think has been the biggest influence in forming your views?”

Jerry’s response:

Vis-à-vis this particular view, it’s clearly the work of Peter Singer, one of the first to broach the idea that under some circumstances euthanasia of newborns is the moral thing to do. He’s written extensively on it, and has been brave enough to state his conclusions (nearly all of which I agree with) publicly, even though they’re close to being heretical. For that he’s been demonized, picketed, deplatformed, had his universities besieged by requests to fire him, and even physically attacked. He’s a brave man to follow his philosophy exactly where his conclusions lead, and to try to prompt others to think through this difficult issue–even though most instinctively reject it or would rather avoid thinking about it. It really does need to be discussed publicly, just as assisted suicide of terminally ill adults (also once demonized) was discussed and is now being adopted.

I also asked, “Are [your views] still evolving?

My views are indeed still evolving–mostly about what medical conditions would make euthanasia the right choice, and how one should regulate this procedure so it’s used in an ethical way and as consistently as possible. But I’m very sure that in some circumstances it is indeed the right thing to do.

The Religious Right

Pew Survey "Is Belief in God Essential to Morality?"

(Source: Pew Research Center. Click graphic to go to source.)

Linking Jerry’s views to his being an atheist and evolutionary biologist is just another way to attempt to demonize him. Atheism to many, especially in the US where religion still has a strong grip, represents a lack of morality. Thus, any who might consider his arguments get the label “immoral” or “amoral” before they even start.

Further, in the eyes of the religious right it’s a convenient way to link his views to the atrocities of the eugenics programme of the Nazi regime. The fact that Jerry makes it clear throughout that he completely opposes even the idea of eugenics is one they conveniently ignore. It’s also not a position a secular Jew is ever likely to take.

So what is it that is so wrong with what he’s suggesting? Making the choice to stay alive and suffer is all very well if you’re an adult. If it’s your religious beliefs that inform that choice that’s fine too. As much as anyone can, an adult is in a position to make that choice. When it came to the end of her own life, Mother Teresa certainly made a different choice for herself than she made for those in her care. Her care was the best care possible. There was no unnecessary suffering as far as anyone is aware.

But for a baby who’s not in a position to make that choice, it’s a different matter, and that’s what Jerry is saying. What is so moral about forcing a baby that is going to die, or live in a vegetative state, to carry on living? We’re talking about a human being who cannot possibly understand why he or she has to suffer. Surely the moral thing to do is, as Jerry suggests, stop the suffering? And if God is real, and is the loving, compassionate, understanding being that his followers says He is, surely He will understand.

Maybe God Will Intervene and Cure my Child?

Another issue with too many is the false belief that somehow God will intervene and perform a miracle cure. If you believe that, you’re talking about the same God who is causing the suffering in the first place. There has never been a miracle cure that doesn’t have a rational explanation. Amputees do not see their limbs grow back, no matter how much people pray. If that ever happens, it will be because of advancements in science. In the meantime, we rely on science to design better and better prosthetics.

However, I would think that would make someone more sympathetic to Coyne’s position. There will be no miracles outside the possibilities of science. A baby will continue to suffer pain unless we stop it.

Science vs Religion

Charlie Gard

Charlie Gard with his parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates.

Charlie Gard with his parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates.

A real life scenario is the recent Charlie Gard case. He couldn’t see, hear, move, or even breathe on his own. The doctors said all he knows is pain, with no chance of recovery. Their recommendation was to let him die, and eventually his parents made the decision to withdraw life support. Countless numbers of parents have been in a similar heartbreaking position away from the media glare.

In these situations, once they withdraw life support, the parents have to watch their precious baby struggle for every breath until its inevitable death by suffocation. What Jerry Coyne says, and I agree:

It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.

If I was in a situation like that of Charlie Gard’s parents, I would want to stop my child suffering. Currently, the only legal way is to withdraw life support. I would want it to be possible for the doctors to give my child something so he or she didn’t have to struggle to breathe and suffocate to death. I would want to reduce my child’s suffering as much as possible. For suggesting this, critics give Jerry labels like “Doctor Death,” “monster,” “immoral,” and more.

I cannot see what’s immoral about that. All I see is kindness, and that’s the Jerry Coyne I know.


Update 6 August 2017

Pliny the Inbetween put up this great cartoon about the situation at The Far Corner Cafe.

Jerry Coyne as Angry Catman


 

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149 Responses to “In Defence of Jerry Coyne”

  1. Martin Hanson says:

    The ‘right to life’ brigade never cease to amaze me. The very Republicans who proclaim most vociferously the ‘right’ of a foetus to live, even if tests show that it has no chance of surival for more than a few months after birth, are the same people who deny the right of poor people access to medical help. For most Republicans, the Right to Life begins at fertilization and ends at birth.

    • j.a.m. says:

      Rubbish. Very nearly half of US children get medical care courtesy of taxpayers, a number that has mushroomed over the last couple of decades under mostly Republican Congresses.

      • JohnE says:

        What in the h#ll are you talking about? Yes, coverage “mushroomed” because of Obamacare, a law passed by Democrats, that the subsequent Republican Congresses have attempted on nearly 50 separate occasions to repeal. In other words, it has mushroomed DESPITE the Republicans, not BECAUSE of the Republicans as you’ve dishonestly suggested.

        • j.a.m. says:

          You’re misinformed. The tedious lie parroted by Mr. Hanson above is that pro-life Republicans “deny the right of poor people access to medical help.” The fact is that the Republican-passed SCHIP cut the uninsured rate among low-income children nearly in half before the end of the Bush administration. The trend of mushrooming enrollment and expenditures started long before anybody had heard of Obama. The Obamacare expansion covered non-elderly and non-poor adults.

      • Historian says:

        To imply that Republicans want to expand health care to anyone at taxpayer expense is absurd.

        • j.a.m. says:

          Facts are facts, even when you find them absurd (and by “absurd”, I assume you mean inconvenient).

          • It rather depends on your definitions j.a.m. Yes, Republicans want everyone to have good quality healthcare, which they pay for themselves or via medical insurance. However, the policies they introduce make that impossible.

      • Not even half. What an indictment.

      • GravelInspectorAidan says:

        j.a.m. says: 4th August 2017 at 1:16 pm
        Rubbish. Very nearly half of US children get medical care courtesy of taxpayers,

        So, not even half of US children get healthcare from the US state. What a wonderful way of saying to over half of future voters, “We don’t care a jot about you. Please go away and die.”

  2. David Coxill says:

    Hi ,a well thought out defence of the doc .

  3. Carmen says:

    I wonder at the sensationalism apparent in most news story, Heather. Is that the sort of thing people are most often reading these days? It seems to me that people don’t want to think anymore, just react emotionally. I find myself rolling my eyes at so many headlines these days.
    I am a mother of four and a grandmother of twelve and I agree with Dr. Coyne.

    • GravelInspectorAidan says:

      It seems to me that people don’t want to think anymore, just react emotionally.

      I refer the honourable lady to the comments on oxytocin addiction which I was typing at the same time as she typed her comment.
      Shall I open another can of worms? Behaviorial determinism due to hormonal effects.

  4. GravelInspectorAidan says:

    As another regular contributor to Prof Coyne’s blo^H^H^H website, I concur with your interpretation of his character – very moral, thoughtful and considerate.
    One thing that Jerry has mentioned on (rare) occasions in the past is his choice to be child-free, but he’s never (TTBOMK) elaborated on his reasoning. I’m not sure that he’s ever been asked, because it’s his choice. But one consequence of that is that he’s probably never been subjected to the doses of hormones that most parents have. If I understand the chemistry correctly, the principle drug involved is “oxytocin”, and it’s destructive effects on rationality have been amply displayed by the behaviour of Charlie Gard’s parents over the last few weeks. They are probably having a pretty rough “cold turkey” as they get over their recent huge doses. They’re a very unpleasant example of the hugely damaging effects of this drug.
    Personally, I suspect that a lot of the opprobrium that adheres to this subject is from people reacting badly to the idea of having to give up this drug-of-choice. Having seen heroin and speed (speed particularly!) addicts facing and denying the prospect of escaping from the certainty of their drugs-of-choice, the parallels are striking.

    • rickflick says:

      Good point. Oxytocin is the force driving our cravings, and to crave and love ones child is natural – even if not always rational. The YouTube videos of mother elephants getting crazy trying to save their young from a rushing stream or grassland well hole serve to illustrate the power of oxytocin, which I assume is the same hormone that drives all mammal species.

      • GravelInspectorAidan says:

        Oxytocin is the force driving our cravings,

        ONE OF the forces that drive our cravings. IANA neurochemist, but others include the seratonin/ dopamine complex (it’s not clear if it’s the absolute levels, the ratio, or different for different neural complexes (why would it be the same?), acetylcholine (involved in the memory formation/ fixation/ recall can’o’worms), and the shipload of what are known as “endocannabinoids” involved in both pain regulation (one of my caving buddies disappeared into the research decades ago, and has disappeared ; hard at 6ft7) and “feelgood” factors (probably explaining a lot of the effects of cannabis.
        Verily, a can of worms. And not all of the same phylum.

    • Maya M says:

      To me, Charlie Gard’s parents illustrate the inherent greatness and tragedy of human existence.

  5. Jenny Haniver says:

    Who better to defend Professor Ceiling Cat against such charges? Your exposition and analysis is comprehensive and your extensive, direct quotations from the primary source makes it invaluable, as is your compendium of pertinent sources for the canards. I find them so absurd and offensive that it’s too easy for me to dismiss them on risibility alone (I’m sure Peter Singer is wiping his brow right now in gratitude that such diatribes aren’t directed against him – this time), but the people who utter such deprecations are deadly serious and they have an audience of like-minded, deep-end fundamentalists, Christian and otherwise, who will fan the flames of heresy, which in this day and age is nothing to sniff at because one immediately smells the unmistakable sulphurous stink of Manichean dualism in Good Christian garb.

    These are extremely complicated matters, highly situational, as well as necessarily broadly conceptualized, and such complex considerations cannot be conveniently reduced to “x is good, y is bad”; and in claiming the higher ground of “good, ”thereby engaging in reductio ad absurdum and condemning PCCE’s thoughts to crude, mechanistic expressions of unmitigated evil; and it’s precisely the fundamentalists who make such reductive claims.

    I recently called to PCCE’s attention the curious case of Jahi McMath http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/07/24/expert-videos-show-jahi-mcmath-is-alive-getting-better/, which I leave to interested persons to investigate. Whether she is “still alive,” suffice it to say, I think I would have withdrawn life support. What kind of a “life” could she have – I honestly don’t know, but it’s not a life I would want to live – for the rest of my life, whatever that means. Maybe she would raise a finger that indicates she does want to live. Maybe she’d raise her middle finger, which is one they asked her to raise — calling it the “fuck you finger,” which she did. Does that mean anything other than she can apparently consciously respond? If it means more, just what? If she wants to “live,” that way, and can indicate that is the case, should she be denied that wish? Is it a right? In that case, I don’t think I would turn off life support.

    • Jenny Haniver says:

      Regarding my statement “I recently called to PCCE’s attention the curious case of Jahi McMath…Whether she is ‘still alive,’ suffice it to say, I think I would have withdrawn life support…” In light of my subsequent qualifications, I should have written “On the face of it, whether she is “still alive”…” because I amended my remarks in light of certain situational possibilities, and even if it’s not an existence I’d want, if that’s what she wants, that’s not my call, and would dread being put in a position where I’d have to make such a call, and I want to stress that.

  6. Yakaru says:

    That is a very thorough demolition of the disgraceful attacks on Jerry Coyne. Being able to tabulate the errors and false claims like that demonstrates the basic insincerity of their approach.

    They all miss the essential point that Coyne is talking about reducing suffering. They also miss, as they do with Singer, that he is not “reducing humans to the level of animals”, but rather is someone who takes suffering seriously, regardless of species membership — a an ethical view of the unity of life (based on levels of sentience and consciousness) that is uniquely biological.

    They also love linking eugenics to biology, although it was biology that originally showed the idea to be not only unethical but factually wrong. They love claiming eugenics is an “inevitable outcome” of darwinian thinking, (left wing academics do this too), although it’s based on artificial selection and not darwinian natural selection. And they love linking it to the Nazis, although the Nazis got the idea in part from the way California was running its eugenics program.

    Jerry is also a trenchant opponent of the death penalty, which at least some of those good Christian folk definitely support.

    • Jenny Haniver says:

      +1

      • nicky says:

        Yes, Jerry’s point is compassion. More specifically, he argued that instead of cutting off the life support machines, leading to an agonising death, euthanasia would be more compassionate, more humane. He specifically limited euthanasia to babies suffering and having no hope of life without life support.
        He did not even imply anything about eugenics -nor evolution, for that matter.
        Thank you, Heather, for an elaborate and outstanding defense of the highly honourable stance taken by prof. Coyne (emeritus).

    • Graham Martin-Royle says:

      “reducing humans to the level of animals”

      Surely that should read “raising humans” because we don’t treat animals in the same way that we treat humans, i.e. we treat animals so much better. We refuse to allow our pets to suffer in the same way.

      This is a very difficult subject but at least both PCC(e) & Peter Singer are allowing this to be discussed. To just sweep this under the carpet, which so many want to do, does not further the discussion at all.

      • Yakaru says:

        Yes, poorly worded in this context perhaps — I didn’t mean to exclude the fact that in this case reducing such babies to the level of a loved pet, we would indeed be treating them more humanely.

    • GravelInspectorAidan says:

      regardless of species membership

      I’m going to try to pastiche … Pastor Niemõller (can’t even compose the diacritics right!).
      First they disregarded skin colour, but I did not complain for I was of the dominant skin colour.
      Then they disregarded my hair straightness, but I did not complain for I was of the dominant hair straightness.
      Then they disregarded my nose shape, but I did not complain for I was of the dominant nose shape.
      And when they came to disregard my species, there was everyone left alive.

      I’d better get on with the day job.

  7. HaggisForBrains says:

    Thank you, Heather, for a well-researched and thorough defence of Jerry. I’ve already made my views clear on WEIT, under my real name. Suffice to say that I fully support Jerry’s well-considered view.

  8. Ken says:

    A bunch of media with no integrity at all, on this issue at least. They don’t seek a genuine debate of the issue, but stoke preexisting prejudices, this time at Jerry’s expense and sadly those who will continue to suffer actual pain when the needed debate gets derailed.

  9. Thank you everybody.

    After trawling through all the anti-Coyne articles to write this I was feeling pretty disillusioned about human nature. The way they were prepared to lie just to try to make an “evolution adhereht” (how’s that for an insult! 😀 ) look bad was pretty depressing.

    You have restored me!

  10. GBJames says:

    Thanks for writing this, Heather.

  11. alexandra moffat says:

    Proof that religion can bring out the worst in people is this vendetta against JC -a marvelous, eclectic, moral, intelligent, amusing, articulate, humble, curious , very special example of the best of humans. Because I’ll bet that religious biases are behind most of the vituperation.

  12. alexandra moffat says:

    Comment

  13. Mark Sturtevant says:

    This is simply a wonderful post. Clear and succinct.
    I have not closely followed the commentary in WEIT over these posts, but I wonder if it has been mentioned that a lot of the flames from the media is not probably not a genuine misunderstanding but is instead a deliberate distortion to further alienate the right against the left.

  14. Bob Terrace says:

    Good analysis, especially for those of us who use reason and logic to decide our position on this. The religiosity of the non-thinkers is what drives them to emote hateful nonsense and shows that many of them did not read the original article. This is not surprising in the US, since they are taught to rely on faith instead of facts (see what I did there?). The evangelical cults seem to be the largest impediment to progress in civilization in the US.

  15. Kevin Henderson says:

    This post adds well to the conversation. I hope many read it.

    This is a topic people should 1) not be fearful of and 2) leave as much of their preconceptions at the door.

    A minor note. I am against sustaining life artificially for an unnecessarily long time. Where long can be defined as hours to possible a weeks depending on the circumstances. I do not think that suffocation is necessarily suffering. The actual pain that results is fleeting and quickly the mind turns off. A sedative provides possibly only thirty seconds or less of discomfort. That’s not what I would call needless suffering.

  16. Randy schenck says:

    Very good review of the attackers and lack of reason. The professor is an easy mark for them, regardless of the position on any subject. He is a known atheist, so always use that one. He is an evolutionary biologist and that is very bad. He isn’t married with 6 kids so his opinion on this subject means nothing. Never do we hear much from the attackers regarding any reason for their position. When the doctors come to you and lay out all the information regarding your child’s condition or maybe your parent and ask you for your input, I hope the reply isn’t, well Jerry Coyne is an atheist.

    • Claudia Baker says:

      Ha, great comment Randy!

    • Blue says:

      Excellent analysis, Randy.

      And, too, thank you Ms Hastie for your such thorough analysis of Dr Coyne’s .actual. position upon this matter.

      I, too, have quit with my altogether commenting on W E I T because of personal attacks made on me there — as has happened now today there upon you. Certain commenters there .know. who they are.

      And .what. they are ? And what they are IS: without fact and without evidence against your or my positions and statements.

      Blue

  17. Ken Kukec says:

    Really good piece, Heather.

    I’ve been sorely disappointed in the quality of argument from those opposing Jerry. To hear them tell it, you’d think Jerry’s lookin’ to snuff every kid who debouches the birth canal with an Apgar score less than perfect.

  18. Heather, this was a well-thought, well-worded advocacy for Professor Ceiling Cat, who, adopted a compassionate and reasoned position borne out of his kindness and compassion for others. Nicely done!

  19. darrelle says:

    Excellent article Heather. It’s very evident that you spent a good deal of time and effort on research and analysis. It is very refreshing to come across people who believe accuracy is important.

  20. j.a.m. says:

    Prof. Coyne backpedals a bit in response to Heather’s question, but it’s plain from his original post that his views follow inevitably from his fanatical ideology, which denies that the human person exists, much less that it is “special”. When someone says, “When religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia [i.e., homicide],” it’s reasonable to observe that the speaker is a hard-boiled atheist.

    • Carmen says:

      . . . and just WHAT is a ‘hard-boiled atheist’?? Might this be a phrase from a flaming fundamentalist?? 😉

    • There’s nothing “fanatical” about Jerry, and he doesn’t “[deny] that the human person exists.” Once again your religious views have warped your comprehension ability j.a.m.

      Also, he’s not “backpedal[ing]”. As he learns more and thinks more his opinion becomes more sophisticated and nuanced. I happen to know he’s reading a(nother) book about the subject at the moment in order to educate himself further. How many books about euthanasia by experts, both for and against, have you read?

      • j.a.m. says:

        I hear Justice Gorsuch’s book is excellent, but I have to say the subject would be way, way down on my interest list.

        Look, I realize that Coyne is your friend, and you want to stick up for him, and this is your soapbox, so I should try to leave it at that. I join everybody in commending the careful effort you always put into your posts. That said, there is something very wrong about slandering a saint of authentic and heroic compassion, while at the same time confusing that word with homicide.

        [P.S. I see today Coyne put up yet another post on the topic of religion. (This time he had to resort to a Google search to dig up a suitable target for denunciation.) His points never vary. There’s never any indication he knows anything or learns anything. His only apparent interest is to denounce what he can’t understand. Nuanced is not the right word for it.]

        • Yakaru says:

          You do understand, don’t you, why Jerry Coyne writes at all about religion? –Because he spent basically his whole career being attacked by religious fanatics who are angry that reality doesn’t function the way their scripture said it does. This is not just a point of personal annoyance. It is a genuine threat, both to children (who have their education ruined) and to society as a whole.

          He was challenged by theologians to understand their subject, so he studied hundreds of the books by leading theologians before writing his book on the subject. If you wish to criticize him for supposed ignorance, it would look better if you weren’t yourself ignorant of his views and the issue itself, to claim he denies the existence of the ‘human person’.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: You might have a point if Coyne’s antipathy were limited to creationists, but it’s not.

            What does it tell us about human psychology that someone can study “hundreds” of books with no effect — i.e., end up clinging to the same opinions that (by his own account) he formed decades before, as an adolescent loafing on his parents’ sofa, tripping out to Sgt. Pepper? It must take enormous will power to come into contact with that many thinkers and yet avoid any taint of post-adolescent thought.

          • As a child you were probably taught that God made all people just as we are today. In adolescence you were taught the theory of evolution and recognized that it is a far better explanation for the evidence. No matter how many times you have read the Bible and creationist theologians since, or speak to creationists, would you describe yourself as “clinging to the same opinions … formed decades before … [with] enormous will power …”. You think that God is real and don’t understand how someone could think otherwise. Those of us who see no evidence of any gods, whether the Christian God or any other, don’t see how people can go on believing in an entity for which there is no evidence. Most atheists will tell you that if there was evidence for God, or any of the other gods, we would recognize their existence. I would. However personally, if God turned out to be real, I still wouldn’t worship Him. Imo He doesn’t deserve worship. He’s an a$$hole – just read the Bible for proof.

          • j.a.m. says:

            I can only reiterate the Gandhi quote that I shared recently: The reality of God “is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within… Such testimony is to be found in the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes…”

            I don’t think we get anywhere by trying to conceive of God as an entity, or as Christian or non-Christian, or as an Old Testament character, or as “a god”, or in similar terms. But one can encounter and experience and glorify God through the pursuit of truth, good, and love. That pursuit leads to the greatest personal happiness and best version of the self.

            But if somebody thinks they’ve figured it all out without reference to God, God bless ’em. I wish them luck.

            http://www.heatherhastie.com/aussie-columnist-says-atheism-wrecks-liberal-democracy/#comment-16061

          • It’s true there are people whose characters transform for the better after what they believe is feeling the presence of God, whatever than means to them.

            However, there are also plenty of people for who perpetrate evil because they believe that is what their interpretation of God wants them to do. Does their experience mean God is evil? How do you know which is the real God? You can’t have the good without the bad.

            The reality is that neither actually proves God. It may prove God to that particular person. If they’re persuasive, they may be able to convince others. But none of it is evidence.

            Go to Converts’ Corner at the Richard Dawkins website, and you’ll find plenty of people who attest that they no longer believe in God because of Richard Dawkins.

          • Ken says:

            Of course, when all you have is opinion, you can only reiterate opinion. As I also pointed out in that thread, you missed Gandhi’s crucial line, “…I confess I have no argument to convince through reason…”. The rest is just opinion, however strongly and sincerely held. At least Gandhi had a strong enough character to admit that, unlike so many.

            And once again, we’re not the ones who claim to have “figured it all out”. That’s the game your lot plays. But at least we know now you’re not a Christian. It’s taken you a long time to be honest about that. Unless of course, you’re playing with words again to obfuscate instead of illuminate. And yet you have the gall to accuse others of not knowing and not learning.

          • Yakaru says:

            @jam,

            I’m with you on the Ghandi quote, but he was of course a Hindu. So we don’t need to discuss anything else about the truth or falsehood of Christianity.

            Jerry has also said that he has no problem with religion when it is expressed or practiced as you suggest. (He noted John Shelby Spong as a theologian with whom he has little if any substantial disagreement.)

            Ghandi’s statement is — like most Christian theology — a paraphrase of Plato. No progress since then. So that is why you can read hundreds of theology books without getting anything new out of them.

            One of the main points of Jerry’s book is that theologians find highly inventive ways of denying that theology makes fact claims and can therefore not be challenged by science; and then sneaking back over into the territory of science and saying that it is really Jesus, that divine/historical figure really existed, who you are now feeling.

            Personally, I have no problem with arguments from revelation — if the good aspects of humanity have a divine origin, they would only be able to be felt in the first person. But those making such claims should be decent enough to concede that

            a) not having any evidence means they are asking for an awful lot of trust to simply be granted without needing to show any of these wonderful personal qualities they have hypothetically developed; and

            b) they’re no the only ones making these claims, and shouldn’t feel insulted if, instead of taking them seriously, non-believers ask them to go to the end of the queue.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: I perused the bibliography in Coyne’s book to get a sense of the “hundreds” of theologians he supposedly studied. Curious thing — they aren’t there. (And no, you can’t reduce twenty centuries of Western religious thought to Platonism, or anything else.)

          • You may not be able to find them, but he did spend two years reading theology in preparation for the book.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: I can isolate myself in a dark closet and try to puzzle out the right way to live on my own, or I can do it with others, within a community and tradition devoted to seeking truth and goodness. Neither way is entirely free from error, but one is more likely than the other to bear fruit.

            As for the poor gullible souls lured into atheism by the likes of Richard Dawkins: After reading a few of those stories I’d say the most likely explanation is low self-esteem (or some other psychological challenge).

          • Yakaru says:

            @jam

            Believe it or not, jam, the purpose of a bibliography is list those books referenced in the work. It is not there to show off how many books someone read while writing it. I am surprised at your ignorance sometimes.

            I was referring to Plato’s attitude to the natural sciences in relation to his theology. Subsequent theologians have at best attempted to emulate him, and at worst — well we know what that looks like.

            I was not referring to 2000 years of quibbling about whether or not Jesus was 50% human and 50% divine, or 100% human and transformed into 100% divine, or always 100% divine from birth onwards, and all that.

          • j.a.m. says:

            Actually, a bibliography is just a list of books. The average non-scholarly reader would expect to find the sources that the author studied or consulted or recommends, whether or not he specifically cites those works in the text.

            The truth is there is no evidence for the claim that Coyne devoted two years to the study of “hundreds” of volumes. Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt on that score, the fact remains that genuine learning requires an open mind, and depends as much on interaction with people as with books. For that the evidence is nil.

          • There is not “nil” evidence. I recall reading on Jerry’s website several times that he was currently reading this or that theologian in preparation for Faith vs Fact. It’s also something we have discussed personally via e-mail. If I chose to breach his confidence I could tell you what book he’s currently reading too.

            You define “open learning” as someone coming around to your pov. You cannot comprehend someone reading theology for two years and remaining an atheist. Just like most of us cannot comprehend someone reading the Bible and remaining a theist. Or both you and the rest of us being unable to understand how someone can read another of Jerry’s books, WEIT, and still not accept that evolution is real.

            It depends on the type of book whether there is a bibliography, or whether it requires one.

          • j.a.m. says:

            Actually, I can imagine (and know and know of) people who are philosophically and theologically and religiously literate, but are not believers or practitioners. People of that description have penned some of the most acute critiques of Coyne’s and Dawkins’s books.

          • Yakaru says:

            @jam,
            Ok, how about one example of what you consider an “acute critique” of Coyne.

          • rickflick says:

            John Horgan seems to argue that Coyne is guilty of exaggerations. Hardly a dramatic opposition. His examples such as Coyne’s view of free will and loathing of creationism sound about as weak and content free as arguments come.

        • There is nothing in my post about Mother Teresa that isn’t documented fact. i. e. there’s no libel. Several years ago I did quite a bit of research on her. I understand that many have a different view about her, mainly because they don’t know about the bad stuff. I have no hesitation in standing by what I wrote about her.

          • GBJames says:

            I don’t think j.a.m. is all that interested in facts. “Saints”, minor deities that they are, hold their position without any reliance on fact.

          • j.a.m. says:

            Saints are not deities, and they are honored for the facts of their exemplary lives.

          • Teresa of Kolkata’s life was far from exemplary. Even the Church doesn’t deny that she forced baptism on those in her care. I recommend you find out more about her from a source other than a hagiography.

            https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/02/25/why-to-many-critics-mother-teresa-is-still-no-saint/?utm_term=.a63495e5b07f

          • GBJames says:

            No, j.a.m., they have all the characteristics of minor deities. They are (believed to be) spirits to whom you can pray and who will act on your behalf. Of course they lack the power of the major gods, but so what. One does not pray to “honored for the facts of their exemplary lives”. Clara Barton is honored for the facts of her life. Nobody prays to her. Huge numbers of people pray to saints every day in Catholic Churches all around the world.

            And, why anyone who isn’t addled by faith would honor Agnes Bojaxhiu is a complete mystery. One of those imponderables, I suppose, that count as evidence that deities do exist.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @GBJames: If you’re in the dark as to why people of all faiths honor Mother Teresa, you may as well start with the Nobel Peace Prize announcement:

            http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1979/press.html

            And as a respecter of facts, you would want me to correct your factual misstatements of Catholic belief. Saints are people. Like all people, they’re both spiritual and corporeal. There are no “gods” or “deities”. (It’s called monotheism.) And a Catholic can pray to Clara Barton if so inclined. Believe what you like, but don’t misrepresent the views of others.

          • GBJames says:

            @j.a.m… Your assertion that saints are “just people” is simply wrong. They are “spirits” that people beseech for assistance. That is what a (mini) god is. When Catholics ask Mother Mary to help their sick child, or help find the car keys, they are “interacting” with something that has all the attributes of a deity, a divine eternal being. Tell me that isn’t a god(ess).

            Catholic christianity is monotheistic in name only. There are countless magic spirits.

          • Carmen says:

            As a ‘saint’ (ie, the next thing to god) one would think Agnes would have had special status in the spiritual realm. Alas, she never once heard the ‘voice of god’. (as per her biography). Odd, eh?

          • j.a.m. says:

            @GBJames: Why don’t you look it up. (It’s not cool to misrepresent other people’s convictions. I think that’s one of the points Heather was making.)

          • GBJames says:

            Look what up, j.a.m.? The number of people who believe in angels and demons running around? It isn’t hard to find. If angels and demons are little gods. Supernatural beings.

            You’re just insisting that Boss God is the only one that deserves the word. But when one considers what real believers say they believe and how they behave, it is clear that there are countless gods out there.

            http://www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-nearly-8-in-10-americans-believe-in-angels/

          • God even admitted there were other gods himself, otherwise why did he waste a commandment telling people not to worship any of the others? Personally, I think no rape, or no slavery, or no genocide, or something else would have been better. The trouble is, He endorsed all those.

          • j.a.m. says:

            You made specific false claims about specific doctrines of a specific Church, even after your error was pointed out to you. That isn’t very nice, and it’s certainly not worth an argument.

          • GBJames says:

            Which claim is false? That there are lots of demigods in Catholicism? That people pray to saints beseeching them to act on their behalf?

            And your complaint is that I’m not “nice”? It isn’t “nice” to point out that angels, demons, and saints are kinds of gods?

            I’m not trying to be nice. I’m trying to be honest. I’d welcome the same from you.

          • j.a.m. says:

            If you’re honestly trying to be honest, then look it up as I helpfully suggested, and get your demigod facts straight.

          • Carmen says:

            Since it’s all bullshit, why the wounded sensibility act, j.a.m??

          • GBJames says:

            I guess I have to ask it again, j.a.m. Look what up?

            Whether Catholics pray for things to supernatural beings that aren’t the Top God? Go over to Catholic Answers where someone wonders which saint is the best one to ask for financial help. There’s a dozen of them offered: St. Jude, St. Nicholas, St Philomena, St Anne, St Bernadette of Lourdes, and the list goes on and on.

            Supernatural beings that will act on your behalf are deities. They may be little ones or big ones. But they are spooks-for-hire, as it were, spirits who people can get to do nice things for them. That’s far beyond “respected person”.

            https://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=169770

            Or… how about looking at a prayer to Mary? Here’s one from http://www.catholic.org:

            O Mother of Perpetual Help, thou art the dispenser of every grace that God grants us in our misery;
            – snip –
            take me under thy protection and it is enough for me: yes, for if thou protect me, I shall fear nothing; not my sins, for thou wilt obtain for me their pardon and remission; not the evil spirits, for thou art mightier than all the powers of hell; not even Jesus, my Judge, for He is appeased by a single prayer from thee.
            – snip –

            That demigoddess is even mightier than Jesus! (Who, need I remind you, Catholics say IS God.)

          • rickflick says:

            Methinks Mr. JAM is like one of those inflated clowns with heavy feet. When you knock them down they bounce right back again. 😎

    • Maya M says:

      You are wrong. In my predominantly atheistic culture, euthanasia – let alone euthanasia of newborns – is an exotic concept, at least for now.

    • Bob Terrace says:

      Terrific!

    • Steven in Tokyo says:

      I concur that that is a great change for the better. I hope I find myself in a place like that when my time comes.

    • Yakaru says:

      I knew someone here in Germany who used it rather than facing an agonizing death from cancer.

      Another person I knew here who never even thought of doing it, because of her religious beliefs. She had always been told that faith healers work, so she spent her last months in misery and agony, desperately visiting faith healers and paying these disgusting parasites handsomely.

      Had she been exposed to different ideas during her life, she could have been in a position to make a more conscious choice, whatever that might have been.

      Yet the church names faith healers as saints and calls Jerry Coyne a sinner and damns him to hell.

  21. Thank you everybody for your kind words. I appreciate it.

  22. Carmen says:

    @j.a.m.
    “But one can encounter and experience and glorify God through the pursuit of truth, good, and love. That pursuit leads to the greatest personal happiness and best version of the self.”
    I’m not sure how you explain (to yourself) those who experience great personal happiness and the best version of self without a belief in the supernatural. It must be as mysterious to you as it is to me to realize that there are many who must conjure up (holy) ghosts to explain it. 😉

    • rickflick says:

      Yes, and besides, doesn’t the pursuit of truth require a sincere desire to accept what the evidence supports rather than the sacrifice of intellectual integrity for personal happiness? When the religious are asked for evidence, they point to faith, personal revelation, or authority, none of which qualifies as objective evidence. So, right from the start of the argument there is in insincerity, and a corruption of the idealistic goal. The contradiction is glaring and ironic.

    • j.a.m. says:

      Like I say, God bless ’em and good luck.

      No big mystery, I just assume they haven’t thought very seriously about it.

  23. Yakaru says:

    @jam
    Thanks for linking to Horgan. I suppose it’s about as good as it gets in this area. It’s a weak review, I’m afraid.

    It starts off saying that Coyne should not have written this book because we don’t need it. Then he says he is being too extreme. Then he says that religious people are incapable of considering ideas that are written in a tone they don’t like. Maybe religious people are that pig-headed and ignorant. But I prefer it when people are just honest and straight forward about their views. If I think they’re trying to coddle, manipulate and condescend to me I dismiss them instantly. I find accommodationists disrespectful and infantilizing in the way they talk to religious people.

    The he says Coyne overlooks the positive in religion. That’s wrong. Coyne just say if you count the positive, you need to count the negative too.

    And he asserts that Coyne exaggerates the damage, without offering any evidence for this.

    And this is a misunderstanding of the issue:

    “Conversely, he absolves science of responsibility for any adverse consequences, such as weapons and ideologies of mass destruction. “The compelling force that produced nuclear weapons, gunpowder, and eugenics was not science but people.” Right. Science doesn’t kill people; people kill people.”

    He equates the nature science with the nature of religion.

    But people die in gas fires while cooking, but that doesn’t get blamed on cooking. No one blames the medical profession for torture, even though doctors often monitor torture victims to keep them alive.
    Science tells you how to make a bomb, but doesn’t tell you to bomb people or — or not to bomb them.

    Religions on the other hand do tell you it is good to bomb and destroy your enemies simply because they are your enemies. It’s in the scripture.

    He addresses absolutely none of Coyne’s devastating criticisms of theology. He leaves them all standing, and simply says that Coyne’s tone is off.

    • j.a.m. says:

      @Yak: Devastating? Wow. Which are those? I only know about the hilarious ones.

      Of the millions or billions of advanced civilizations in the universe, how many have better theologians than Jerry Coyne? — Some, Most, or All?

      • Yakaru says:

        I’m glad we agree that Horgan did not challenge any of Coyne’s main criticisms of theology in relation to science.

        How about naming one of Coyne’s criticisms of theologians that you think is hilarious and which I might think is devastating?

        • j.a.m. says:

          I wouldn’t dream of cutting in front of you, since I asked you first. Feel free to answer either question.

          • Yakaru says:

            Discussing universes which might have better theologians than Jerry Coyne is the kind of thing you can try with theologians but not me I’m afraid. The number is the same as the ones with worse ones. I don’t see any point in that kind of nonsense.

            I thought you might have wanted another try seeing as the first one was such a squib. But okay, what is “hilariously wrong” about Jerry’s take on ‘NOMA’? (p. 106-12 of our text.)

          • Besides. Jerry has never claimed to be a theologian. You don’t have to be a theologian to write about religion, just like you don’t have to be a mechanic to know when your car has broken down.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: Indeed. But if one is not a mechanic, they shouldn’t tell me they can fix my car, or that they have any idea what ails it. And they shouldn’t tell me that the mechanical arts are (forgive the expression, but I quote Coyne here) “excreta all the way down.”

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: For starters, it’s amusing that Coyne invests so much in building up NOMA as a straw man that he thinks he can easily knock down.

            Because NOMA isn’t all that useful. The domains (wisdom on the one hand, natural knowledge on the other) are not non-overlapping. Rather, they are concentric. Nature exists entirely within reality, without exhausting it. Wisdom surpasses nature to encompass all of reality. Everything that exists within the domain of natural knowledge also exists entirely within the superseding domain of wisdom. We can hold in common the patterns and data of natural knowledge without compromising our personal liberty to pursue the whole truth wherever it leads beyond them.

            Further hilarity ensues when Coyne works himself up over the idea that some religions seem to make “factual claims about the world”. Needless to say, the theological import of such beliefs are lost on him, while his trusty old hobbyhorse creationism gets a good workout.

            A minor miracle occurs when all the “evidence” about incompatibility turns out in Coyne’s favor. (The slightest whiff of incompatibility spoils the whole batch. On the other hand, it turns out that any religion that is compatible can’t be a true religion.) Voila! And they say miracles are impossible.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: Andy when are you going to reveal the “devastating” ones?

          • Yakaru says:

            jam, you don’t understand what NOMA is, nor why theologians love it so much in its various forms. I agree with you that theologians are wrong to use this argument. Thank you for being honest enough to concede that.

            However, I am not going to try to figure out what your cult-speak is referring to, with this kind of thing — “Wisdom surpasses nature to encompass all of reality”.

            You have entirely missed Jerry’s point about religion making fact claims. The point is that religions claim to understand the facts about reality that are lies. The “meaning” of them may or may not be lost on Coyne. That’s entirely irrelevant to his argument.

            Is it true that a faith healer cured cancer with the power of Jesus?

            Is it true that we have a soul that survives death and with burn for ever in hell?

            Does a soul enter a body at the time of conception? Does such a soul go to purgatory if the conception does not go full term?

            People gain worldly authority by claiming authoritative knowledge about such issues, and they are claims of fact that are either true or false. People suffer because of being told questionable or blatantly wrong information about such things by authorities who claim real factual knowledge of them.

            Jerry Coyne has rightly called them on their habit of (a) asserting real factual knowledge, and then (b) retreating behind such statements as “Wisdom surpasses nature to encompass all of reality”, when challenged.

            Either acknowledge ignorance of the fact claims and stop making them, or provide factual evidence for them.

            This is the border that theologians spring back and forth across while pretending to be standing still.

  24. j.a.m. says:

    @Yak: I get the NOMA concept well enough to recognize the falsity of the assertion that “theologians love it”. No great theologians or thinkers ever heard of it (Gould lived a millenium and a half after Augustine, for instance; seven centuries after Aquinas; and was born a half-century after Cardinal Newman’s death).

    And give me credit for following Coyne’s sophomoric arguments. His lack of comprehension is quite relevant. He evinces no interest in actually understanding a fellow human being’s personal experience and worldview; no interest in understanding why a thoughtful person would reach the opposite conclusion to his.

    As for the malarkey that the faithful are preoccupied with “factual claims about the world”, that assertion itself is empirically testable. How many propositions contained in the creeds, how many paragraphs in any catechism, how many debates in the score of ecumenical councils, how many sermons, how many encyclicals — have been more concerned with observing the physical world, rather than with theological and spiritual matters? (Yeah, but what about creationism!)

    A rational person should be skeptical about all self-appointed authority figures, pseudo-religious or otherwise. (This comment is ironic in light of your stout defense of Coyne’s supposed authority to make theological pronouncements.)

    A rational person likewise should be skeptical about claims of miracle cures — but such claims are by no means limited to the pseudo-religious genre. Quackery is quackery.
    https://draxe.com/10-natural-cancer-treatments-hidden-cures/

    On the other hand, the belief that there is a spiritual dimension of the human person is not in any sense a factual claim about the physical world. You can take it or leave it, but on its own terms.

    • Yakaru says:

      Again, you avoid and twist the issue. I didn’t claim that great theologians agree with Gould. Rather Gould was trying to agree with both mediocre and great ones. The reason why Coyne mentions it, is because he encounters it so frequently. Your argument is that he does not encounter it frequently. An insignificant thing to quibble about.

      Then you describe his arguments as “sophomoric”, but offer nothing to justify this bald assertion.

      Then you change the subject completely and say that he should have more interest in people experiences. But that is not his topic. He is responding to the arguments about science that theologians have raised with him against the science he practices. It’s not his fault if theologians always raise the wrong arguments.

      And none of them have bothered to learn what evolution is or study biology — yet they feel justified in dismissing it. Coyne is responding to their attacks.

      Personally, I probably do have a little more understanding or patience for why people might reach the opposite conclusion about the existence of something divine than Coyne does. But that doesn’t change the fact that all the indications from biology are that evolution occurs without any divine guidance.

      You’ve misunderstood the point about the catechisms etc. Fact claims are indeed implicit in a great many teachings. The NOMA argument, in all its forms, insists that these are not there.

      You also misunderstand the nature of authority in science. Coyne is not a “self appointed authority” when it comes to saying that biology finds no evidence for divine interference in evolution.

      You are correct in saying that there may be a spiritual world that has absolutely no point of connection whatsoever with the physical. There may be. And that’s where any discussion about it must stop.

      So we agree then at least, that theologians would have no business in making fact claims about the nature of physical reality.

      In other words, you are arguing that Coyne is wrong to highlight NOMA because theologians never use it, and if they did, they would be wrong as soon as they make the kind of fact claim that Coyne thinks they do, and you think they don’t.

      Well, they do.

  25. j.a.m. says:

    Thanks. First, let’s put to rest a couple of points that are uncontested. These include the science of evolution, and Coyne’s stature as a scientist. If this is just another tedious debate over evolution — please let’s not. (I can’t improve on Cardinal Newman a century and a half ago.) But even though Coyne bangs on about creationism, I gather that his ambition here is broader than that. So the question before us is whether or not his more general criticisms are “devastating”. (It is quite pertinent to ask if Coyne knows what he’s talking about beyond his specialty, but let’s not rehash that.)

    Coyne’s fundamental error is the seeming belief that truth can be reduced to a set of facts. Scientific methodology churns out reams of facts — and no wisdom. All the weighing and measuring and cataloging and theorizing avails very little when it comes to the fundamental problems that everyone confronts alone (Who am I? So what? Now what?) I accept the validity of every scientifically established fact: But that’s the starting point, not the finish line.

    Along with Coyne you say that “Fact claims are indeed implicit in a great many teachings.” The key word is implicit, or incidental. As stated in my last response, such teachings are not “about” physical facts. To paraphrase Aquinas, science studies nature’s physical properties, whereas faith concerns itself with nature’s relationship to God.

    Is this really the “gotcha” that you find devastating? (That justifies killing all those trees?

    • j.a.m. says:

      20 Happy those who meditate on Wisdom,
      and fix their gaze on knowledge;
      21 Who ponder her ways in their heart,
      and understand her paths;
      22 Who pursue her like a scout,
      and watch at her entry way;
      23 Who peep through her windows,
      and listen at her doors;
      24 Who encamp near her house
      and fasten their tent pegs next to her walls;
      25 Who pitch their tent beside her,
      and dwell in a good place;
      26 Who build their nest in her leaves,
      and lodge in her branches;
      27 Who take refuge from the heat in her shade
      and dwell in her home.

      — Sirach 14

      • Yakaru says:

        “Coyne’s fundamental error is the seeming belief that truth can be reduced to a set of facts.”
        Nope. Your error is think Coyne is doing that. He isn’t. He is pulling theologians up for embedding erroneous fact claims in their ideology, and refusing to admit either the erroneousness or even that it is a fact claim, by pulling all kinds of high-flown rhetorical stunts.

        You ignore the gravity of the issues that arise from all this. Ideas are more important and more relevant than you pretend.

        We can agree though that fact-claims, where ever they are embedded or implicit in theology, can be safely treated not literally true, and ignored.

        And any theologian who were to claim otherwise is being deceitful.

        • j.a.m. says:

          You object to my remarking on Coyne’s belief that truth can be reduced to a set of (observable but meaningless) facts. But “conformity with fact” is exactly the definition that he gives.

          To recap, Coyne’s central premise (that religions purport to be explanatory systems competing with science to reveal facts about nature) is false. We don’t see where explanations of natural phenomena have been a dominant or central concern of religious discourse over the ages. And St. Albert the Great grasped the essential distinction back in the 13th century: “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may…show forth His power: we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.”

          As for Coyne’s claim that the mere multiplicity of religions is evidence of their falsehood, imagine saying that a poem is “false” simply because it can be explicated or translated in myriad ways. Or that the beauty of a rose is negated by the many other colors and varieties of roses. What’s true is true, regardless of the idiom in which it is expressed.

          You say I misunderstand him, but his views are not complex and his reasoning is not subtle. It’s all little more than preaching to the choir to hear himself talk. No one who thinks seriously about it will be moved.

          In the end we’re left with the mystery of why so many trees had to die for the sake of this polemic. Obviously it comes down to Coyne’s fixation with creationism. Were he to stay in that general vicinity, within his competence, he might find himself on firmer ground, rather than at the bottom of an abyss.

          • Yakaru says:

            “Coyne’s central premise (that religions purport to be explanatory systems competing with science to reveal facts about nature) is false.”

            No it isn’t.

            Religious figures, like the theologians Coyne quotes in his book do in fact claim to know facts. “Our father who art in heaven” is a fact claim. Several in fact. And there is no evidence for any of them. This is the end of the story. If you think that religious people don’t actually believe it, then you need to convince them of that, not me.

          • j.a.m. says:

            Coyne’s premise is either true or false. You want it to be true. To defend that position you quote the opening words of a simple prayer and assert that these words themselves contain several fact claims.

            How do you figure that? What are these claims you claim to see? How does one tease fact claims about the physical world from the words of a prayer? Wouldn’t that be like finding blueprints for a flying saucer encoded in the Mona Lisa?

          • “Our father, which art in heaven” assumes that God is real, and that there is a real place called heaven. You don’t know this, you want to believe it. It asks for that god to forgive our transgressions of His laws – again a assumption that He is real, and has the right to impose His laws on humanity. It asks Him to help transgressing those laws in future, as if He has the ability to do that, and the same with preventing bad things from happening to the person praying. It then ends by stating that everything is His kingdom, and He has power over it, and will do forever. Those are fact claims which have never been proven.

          • Yakaru says:

            jam,

            I will take you at your word that the god you believe does not in any way impinge upon this universe, and that nothing that can be said about this god is in any way factual.

            In other words you, being in this universe, separate from God, have absolutely no way to know if that god exists.

            Many theologians and most Christians are not with you. They say God does impinge in this universe in ways that they can experience. It is with these people who Coyne is engaging. He does not engage with your beliefs and neither can I because there is nothing more to say about it than maybe, maybe not.

            Or are you going to revert back to saying that God does affect this universe and one can have factual knowledge of God?

          • j.a.m. says:

            Remember, what we are looking for (per Coyne) are propositions that are “about nature”, “about the universe”, “about what exists in the cosmos”, etc. It makes no difference whether such propositions are “true”, or “proven”; the only question is whether they fit the above criteria and therefore (per Coyne) conflict with science.

            God is not an entity within nature, the universe, or the cosmos; they are His creation. Propositions about God are not about nature, and do not fit Coyne’s criteria. (Coyne would simply deny that anything but nature exists, but whether that is the case is even less knowable than whether God exists.)

            While we can know something about God by the light of reason, for purposes of argument, it makes no difference whether God is real. The point remains that God-propositions as such do not overlap with science, because science only addresses observable phenomena within nature.

          • j.a.m. says:

            I might put it a little differently. Better to say that God is both transcendent and immanent. We can encounter God using natural intelligence, and the encounter can change our convictions and actions. I would agree with Coyne on one point: viz., that there is no point in believing in God if it doesn’t change your life.

            While we can know something of God by the light of reason, we can not reduce God to a set of facts or propositions.

            I’m confident nothing I’ve said could be considered unorthodox. But in any case, Coyne’s categorical assertions are still false.

          • I cannot understand your constant assertion that you can encounter God via reason. It is reason that shows that God is unlikely to be real. You accept evolution for example. Other Christians use their “reason” to assert that evolution cannot be true because God made us all. In your world, reason means whatever you want it to mean. For an atheist, reason is that which can be deduced from evidence. You have no real evidence, you have only your feelings. Your feelings are valid, but they are not evidence for God, or any other god.

          • Yakaru says:

            Those are all fact claims.

          • Yakaru says:

            To make it clear that my previous comment refers to @jam–

            Everything you said there is a fact claim.

            For this whole discussion you have been alternately making, and then denying having made fact claims.

            You have no evidence for any of them, so you are simply asserting them as fact, with nothing to back them up. This excludes you from contributing to discourse about matters relating to relating to reality.

            This is Coyne’s point. If the best you can do is make a statement that rises at best to the level of “maybe, maybe not”, then you have really contributed nothing to anyone’s understand of reality.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: I’m afraid you’re confusing reason with empiricism, which neither obviates reason nor reduces it to mere feeling.

            There’s no way to judge fundamental philosophical questions empirically, such as whether materialism is true, or whether a closed physical system somehow can create itself. If one acts as if one has “evidence” to support such positions, that’s intellectual dishonesty.

            Besides, how rational is it to take the position that we can judge empirically everything that is real or not — relying only on observational data accessible to human minds — given how little of such data are available? All the data collected throughout human history, put together, come to very little on a cosmic scale. And it’s all observed from a single point in the universe, in a single cosmic instant.

            Here I must note that on this blog we find plenty of very strongly held convictions — on very many subjects — that rest on prior beliefs and values as much as on any “evidence”. Another blogger with the same evidence but different beliefs and values would reach different conclusions (just as strong and just as valid).

            If reason tells us that a particular conception of God is unlikely to be real, it should be obvious that that finding tells us precisely nothing about a better conception of God. And asking for “evidence” is meaningless unless one can define what one means, so we know what we’re looking for.

            Ultimately, either [a] one believes that their own experience and existence — and the existence of everything and everyone they know and love — do have a final and transcendent source, or otherwise [b] one believes in some implausible and irrational alternative, which even if one were to accept, would be useless for living a life.

            In any case, our only goal should be the truth, or at least a practical philosophy for a good life. We should always be open to better arguments. If there’s a fresh, credible, rational case for atheism, let’s hear it.

          • I think j.a.m. you need to check a few definitions. You’re basically saying that reason is anything you want to imagine it to be.

            Asking for a rational cause for atheism doesn’t even make sense. Atheism is simply a lack of belief. You are the one making the positive assertion – that the particular god you believe in is real. Therefore, you’re the one who has to provide the proof.

            There are a million ways to say it and all have been used before. Atheism is a belief system like off is a tv channel or bald is a hair colour. There is no word like aleprechaunist for those that don’t believe in leprechauns, but I am just as much one of those as I am an atheist. But no one cares because people don’t define their lives by their belief in leprechauns, or judge others to be lacking in morality etc for not believing in them.

            I am also a humanist. That frequently goes with atheism, but not necessarily. If you want to assign a set of values to me, call me a humanist.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: The subject at hand is Coyne’s false claim that religions are explanatory systems that compete with science to reveal facts about nature. I’ve explained why that’s wrong, and I’m not surprised you want to avoid the subject. For my own part, I’ve made no such “fact claims”, but that’s neither here nor there.

            Sometimes “maybe, maybe not” is the truest and most prudent thing that can be said.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: I was responding to your question about how one can encounter God by the light of reason, and to your opinion that “reason is that which can be deduced from evidence”. Taking your suggestion to check definitions, I’m afraid we find that yours is mistaken:

            “Reason: the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” (Nothing about sense experience or “evidence”.)

            We use reason and conscience to determine which set of convictions and attitudes is more likely to lead to happiness and the best life. For anyone who is honestly searching, one’s attitude toward God is among the most consequential choices they make. Whatever term you prefer to use when someone elects to deny or ignore God’s presence, it ought to be a choice that they make knowingly, conscientiously and rationally.

          • J.a.m. – I think you need to read that definition of reason again, which I agree with completely. There is no room for any god in a process of logic. What you say doesn’t even make sense. As usual, you are a priori assuming the existence of your God, but there is no proof He exists outside your own imagination. You can believe in him if you want to, but you can’t force your belief that He exists onto others or introduce into an argument based on logic without first proving He exists.

            We use reason to determine the truth, not happiness. Believing in your particular god makes you happy. That doesn’t make Him real, or the truth.

            I’m not denying God’s existence. That’s like criticizing me for denying the existence of fairies. You prove God is real, and I will be happy to admit it. I still won’t be worshipping Him though – the God of the Bible is a complete a$$ho£€ and doesn’t deserve worship.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: I can keep patiently explaining as long as you keep trying to defend Coyne by ignoring what he actually says. If Coyne’s position were that SOME people make SOME claims that SOMETIMES conflict with science, we wouldn’t need this discussion. But such is not the case. Rather, he makes a crude categorical claim that (as we have seen) is categorically false. There is no evidence for his assertion that religions as a category are concerned with out-doing modern science in its weighing and measuring and cataloging and theorizing about bugs, rats and other critters.

            And try as you might, you can’t construe anything I’ve said here as a “fact about nature”. “Honesty is the best policy”, “All men are equal”, “I love you”, and “In the beginning was the Word” are all true statements, but not factual statements, and not statements about nature. They’re truths we won’t learn from empirical science; indeed science is serenely oblivious to them. But alas, Coyne (to judge from his writings) is so firmly in the grips of a fanatical scientistic mindset that serenity eludes him.

            As for “confusing” reason with logic, that’s logically impossible:
            “Reason: the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.”

            As for subjective experience being (er) subjective, no argument there. But it does not follow that every subjective experience is equally valid for discerning universal truths, or that we are powerless to apply reason and conscience to make right judgments and form sound convictions. That’s why nature and/or God gave us brains.

          • Yakaru says:

            @jam to @Heather:
            “….when someone elects to deny or ignore God’s presence”

            See my previous comment — you refer to a subjective experience as being an experience of “God’s presence”, rather than an interpretation of an experience. Then you suddenly leapfrog to the assertion that everyone has this “experience” and some deny its (to you) obvious cause.

            This is another string of unfounded, unjustifiable, and unsupported fact claims.

            “If Coyne’s position were that SOME people make SOME claims that SOMETIMES conflict with science, we wouldn’t need this discussion.”

            That is exactly what Coyne claims. As a secular Jew, he obviously finds cultural aspects of Judaism somehow pleasing or a part of his identity. His fight is where religion trespasses on the realm of science. You just refuse to acknowledge that the factual claims that are embedded in your religion are indeed fact claims.

            You could save yourself all this simply by learning how to add the appropriate qualifiers when you are talking to others about it, rather than lecturing us that we “deny god’s presence”.

            “And try as you might, you can’t construe anything I’ve said here as a “fact about nature”.”

            You conflate nature with reality, the universe.

            ““Honesty is the best policy”, “All men are equal”, “I love you”, and “In the beginning was the Word” are all true statements, but not factual statements…”

            You really don’t see the difference between the first two and the final one? I do. the ‘beginning’ refers to what exactly?

            “…but not factual statements, and not statements about nature.”

            So it’s not referring to this universe? How then can you “experience” all this stuff? You, like it or not, are a part of nature. If it is truly separate, you would not be able to experience it.

            “They’re truths we won’t learn from empirical science; indeed science is serenely oblivious to them.”

            They are “truths” in the sense that you get to decide that they are true, then no, science indeed does not work like that. But what do you say when someone asserts that in the beginning was not the word, but rather the mixing bowl of the god Shiva?

            “That’s why nature and/or God gave us brains.”

            Fact claim. At least you made an effort at a qualifier, and failed to make it unambiguously clear that you accept the possibility that nature alone “gave” us brains.

            Really, theologians could avoid all this trouble simply by applying qualifying terms more honestly instead of this high flown assertion of facts.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: I’m glad that you agree with the correct definition of reason. But it contradicts the first definition that you gave. Logical validity does not depend on existence, much less on empirical evidence. Your criteria are based on scientific empiricism, not on reason or logic.

          • j.a.m. I cannot agree with your pov and I can’t see how we can go anywhere. What is the point of arguing about what pink unicorns eat without first establishing that they exist?

          • Yakaru says:

            @Heather — That sums it up clearly.

            The standard response from theologians and, judging by the earlier exchanges, from jam as well would be: “Of course unicorns don’t exist. Who ever said they do? …But they are real though, even though they are not part of nature. And what’s the harm if some people sell unicorn food for people to leave out on the doorstep? It makes them happy, and sometimes, the food does mysteriously get eaten during the night, so who knows?”

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak writes: “Really, theologians could avoid all this trouble simply by applying qualifying terms more honestly instead of this high flown assertion of facts.”

            Okay, that’s reasonable. Can you get Coyne to go along with that? Will he tone down his own rhetoric and start using appropriate qualifying terms himself? Will the next edition of his book appear with a revised subtitle: “Why SOME Science and SOME Religion SOMETIMES Might Seem to be Less Than Fully Compatible Because I Get All Mixed Up When SOME PEOPLE SOMETIMES Omit Appropriate Qualifying Terms”?

          • Carmen says:

            Why would he do that, jam? When you’re the only one he confuses.

          • Yakaru says:

            I don’t know what you’re talking about, jam. The thing that distinguishes science from non-science is the appropriate signaling of the level of certainty for an asserted fact. It is what you and theologians avoid because it ruins high flown rhetoric and damages the special status for the speaker and their special pleading.

            Can you give an example of a sentence from Faith vs Fact that needs qualifiers? (Not a general accusation.)

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: Well, you can start with the subtitle, as I showed.

            On p. 64 Coyne writes: “My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they….arrive at conflicting conclusions about the [physical] universe”. If qualifiers matter, where are they? He does subsequently give a pass to Taoism and Confuscianism, but as he proceeds to bloviate ad nauseum, his central unqualified thesis remains exactly as stated in the subtitle.

          • Yakaru says:

            The qualifier is on p. 63 — “Let me first say what I don’t mean by incompatibility: that the existence of religion is simply and a priori incompatible with the practice of science. That’s clearly wrong, for in principle there could be both science and a god to be worshipped. Nor do I mean practical incompatibility…” and so on.

          • J.a.m. – well science and religion do come to conflicting claims. He doesn’t say that every claim is conflicting. So wtf is your problem there?

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: The point of arguing about anything is to learn something. If you learn something that you would not otherwise learn from arguing about pink unicorns, that’s all to the good. (What would you eat if you were a pink unicorn?)

            I think we’ve been down this road, but I agree with you completely that your idea of God does not exist, and is not worthy of belief. Unless and until you’re willing to revise your idea of God, we may as well talk about pink unicorns.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: Coyne gives three definitions of “incompatible” that he considers but rejects. Since these are definitions that he is at pains to say do NOT work for his purposes, they don’t modify or qualify the definition that he DOES finally choose, and that provides the basis for his claim. Again, the claim itself (helpfully set off with the words “My claim is this”) and the polemic that follows are categorical, unequivocal, and devoid of any meaningful qualification, subtlety or nuance.

          • Yakaru says:

            So let’s go through this then — this time *including* the parts you elided, and *excluding* the word you inserted, and I will ask you to add the necessary qualifiers, and justify each addition.

            That means at least three qualifying or modifying terms, and at least three concrete examples to back up your claim. And no vague, generalized claims this time. And use normal dictionary English.

            Coyne: (Faith vs Fact p. 64)
            “My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they
            -have different methods for getting knowledge about reality,
            -have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end,
            -arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.”

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: You’re not paying me enough to make an honest writer out of Coyne, but here goes:

            “My claim is this: In the main, science and religion are perfectly congruent and agreeable pursuits. Naturally, they use different methods to develop knowledge (after all, if there were no differences, there would be no difference). Science concerns itself with weighing and measuring and cataloging and theorizing about the birds, the bees, the flowers, the trees, and so on. By contrast, religion concerns itself with how we are to live. There are a few cases where conflict arises with fringe cults, but they are by far the exception that proves the rule.”

          • Yakaru says:

            F = Fail.

            You did not even attempt to provide any qualifiers to Coyne’s argument and have merely altered his claims to something more agreeable to you.

          • j.a.m. says:

            My version was a big improvement, but we aim to please:

            “My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they
            -have different methods for getting knowledge about reality,
            -have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and,
            -in the case of fringe characters who advocate for creationism, even seem to arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe.”

          • Yakaru says:

            Again

            F

            You don’t know the difference between a qualification and an assertion.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: I’ll leave it to you to work with Coyne on his logic and his prose. Maybe you can help him see that life is more than rats in a maze, and truth is infinitely more than facts and data. And feel free to pass along to him this friendly advice: Never leave the lab without a tour guide and a translator.

          • Yakaru says:

            I guess your cliched stereotype refers to Behaviorism, which was debunked more than 70 years ago by other scientists. It really doesn’t look like you’ve been keeping up at all with any of this.

          • J.a.m. – that ignorant comment about Jerry’s character could only be made by someone who both doesn’t know him and who is so blinded by his own faith that he is incapable of seeing that it’s not the only way to live an emotionally satisfying life. Before you criticize him any more, it’s time to look at your own prejudices.

            Also, please stick to the arguments and don’t get personal about someone who’s not here to defend himself. You wouldn’t be the first person I’ve banned for that reason. You do not know what you are talking about when it comes to Jerry’s personal life.

          • j.a.m. says:

            Once again, you’re being WAY too literal.

          • Yakaru says:

            Sorry, jam, but if you say Coyne has been making “hilariously stupid” (etc) errors, you should be able to point them out in plain English, and not with high flown metaphors.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @HH: I’m sorry, I was wrong to put it the way I did. It goes without saying that I do not know anything about the author personally, and did not mean to impugn him personally. The intent was only to question attitudes that find ample expression in the book and other writings.

          • j.a.m. says:

            @Yak: First, I’ve never used the word stupid, so you need to take that back.

            Second: If “rats in a maze” is a “high flown metaphor”…

          • Yakaru says:

            I apologise for accusing you of calling Jerry Coyne stupid. You didn’t say that, and I should have checked more carefully.

            But you did say he was “hilariously” wrong.

            You also implied implied that his scientific knowledge is limited behaviorist style research on lab rats. When I corrected you on this, you said I was taking you too literally. Now you’ve flipped back to saying of course you were being literal, even though you just apologized for implying that Jerry Coyne’s approach is that of a behaviorist stuck in a lab watching rats running through a maze and who needs a translator to deal with the outside world.

            I’m done with trying to figure out what on earth you are talking about.

          • j.a.m. says:

            It’s been a bewildering dialog, but c’est la vie.

      • Yakaru says:

        Hadn’t read that before. That’s the kind of thing to stick to!

  26. Yakaru says:

    jam: “The subject at hand is Coyne’s false claim that religions are explanatory systems that compete with science to reveal facts about nature.”

    Just because you don’t think theologians should argue that religion is an “other way of knowing” that complements science and brings knowledge that science can’t, does not mean that these claims are not regularly made. Refer to any of the theologians Coyne quotes in his book.

    “For my own part, I’ve made no such “fact claims””

    Good, so you agree, temporarily at least, that your claims about god, which you asserted as true, are in fact not true, and not factual. In other words, you agree that your statements about god are not true. End of story.

    “Sometimes “maybe, maybe not” is the truest and most prudent thing that can be said.”

    But you failed to say them either above or anywhere else in this discussion. Had you said it — maybe god is bla bla bla, and maybe not — it would have been more honest.

    ——

    “I’m afraid you’re confusing reason with empiricism”

    No, you’re confusing reason with logic. “My horse stands on top of a turtle but is not a turtle” is a logical statement but not a reasonable one.

    You are also conflating your “experience” (of “god”) with your *interpretation* of your inner experiences.

    What you think of as the presence of god, another might interpret as their own self consciousness, or the presence of Vishnu, etc. If you grant yourself such credibility, you instantly grant it to everyone else too, without offering any way of distinguishing that one or another is any closer to the truth.

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