I’m not surprised that Jerry Coyne would feel the need to reply to Tom Bartlett’s article from the CHE. As one of the lead activists in the Gnu movement, Coyne must be quite invested in “debunking” any article that refuses to portray religion as the root of all evil. In essence, Bartlett’s article poses a threat to Gnu movement in that it undercuts one of its the main planks– religion is so bad that it must be eliminated from the public arena.
Yet it is quite instructive to see how Professor Coyne reacts to the scientific research which shows religion might actually be beneficial to humanity and how the Gnus, in general, ignore this research.
First, he tries to deny this by citing one book by one Gnu:
Well, Dan Dennett certainly hasn’t ignored the origins of religion: just read Breaking the Spell.
Yet, in the article Coyne is replying to, Bartlett didn’t ignore Dennett and his book:
Among the New Atheists, Dennett has given the most attention to analyzing what religion does and how it came to be. He has written a book on that topic, though the tone is less investigative than prosecutorial. It begins by comparing religion to a lancet fluke, a type of parasite that invades the brains of ants. Later he calls religion an attractive nuisance, like a swimming pool stumbled into by an unwatched toddler. Even the title, Breaking the Spell, gives away the conclusion. In an interview, Dennett explains it this way: “One of the good reasons for studying religion is that it does so much harm, and it’s worth trying to figure out how to control it.”
Sounds to me like Dennett’s book is popular apologetics and not scholarship. This is not surprising given that Dennett is part of the Gnu movement. As a member of this movement, he cannot be objective about this issue. He comes to the table with an axe to grind. Like I said, apologetics, not scholarship.
Coyne himself seems to recognize just how feeble this rejoinder is. Instead of expounding on the insights and findings of Dennett, he completely ignores them and immediately begins to rationalize:
But in the main, we’re not interested in that: I, for one, feel that we’ll never understand how religion came about, whether it has a genetic basis, and so on, and such studies are largely exercises in wheel-spinning. Now they might produce some interesting results in a few decades, but I’d rather spend my time arguing against faith than understanding its origins.
Whoa. Let’s break this down:
we’re not interested in that
So the Gnus, who like to posture as if science rules all their thinking, admit that they ignore science. Coyne just admitted he and his fellow Gnus are not interested in science. Why is that?
I, for one, feel that we’ll never understand how religion came about, whether it has a genetic basis, and so on, and such studies are largely exercises in wheel-spinning.
My oh my. So, according to Coyne, this just happens to be one place where science is a useless waste of time. And the scientific research is just an exercise is “wheel-spinning.”
Now they might produce some interesting results in a few decades, but I’d rather spend my time arguing against faith than understanding its origins.
So Coyne would rather engage in apologetics than do science here. Gnu atheists often bristle when people point out Gnus think and behave like fundamentalists or cult-members. Well, given Coyne’s anti-intellectualism on this point, is it any wonder that people make that observation? He has just admitted he would rather argue than learn!
After promoting an apologetics book and wallowing in anti-intellectualism, can it get any worse? Consider Coyne’s other excuse for ignoring science:
The problem is that we lack any quantitative way to tell for sure if religion increases or decreases what Sam Harris calls “well being.” How do you measure a marginal increase in charity among some Christians against a disfigured Afghan woman? How does one weigh faith-based hospitals in Africa (which often involve prosyletizing) against the Catholic church’s deliberate promulgation of AIDS by criticizing condoms? How does one balance the group “solidarity” that religions give Americans versus the fact that Islam deliberately disposseses and stifles the ambitions of anyone with two X chromosomes? And the piece doesn’t even mention creationism, which of course is a direct outgrowth of religion.
Let me translate this for you – Harris’s notion of well-being is scientifically useless. For it turns out that scientist Jerry Coyne has not the foggiest notion how to apply Harris’s thesis. He is befuddled and clueless and helpless. And remember, Harris himself has “moved on” from his useless thesis and shows no interest in applying it either. How do we explain this? Simple. Harris’s notion of using science to determine morality is nothing more than Gnu pseudoscience. Coyne’s has just helped us to demonstrate this for all to see.
What’s more, Coyne has run up against yet another question where science can provide no guidance. For Coyne, an experienced scientist, shows no interest in devising a quantitative way to tell us if religion is a net positive or negative. And, as a scientist, he has no idea how do it. Could it be because he knows science cannot deliver on this one? That would explain why he decides to reach a conclusion by abandoning the scientific approach:
I’ve made the judgment, as have other New Atheists, that on balance religion is a negative force. No, I can’t produce data that absolutely prove this, but I’m convinced by what I see. (emphasis added)
He made a “judgment.” He’s personally convinced by what he sees! What he sees? That’s it? That’s it.
But does he see what he wants to see? Does he see what he expects to see? Does he see what everyone else sees?
Coyne needs to deal with the reality that there are many, many people who see religion as a net positive. He needs to deal with the reality that those who see religion as a net negative are in a fringe minority. He also needs to deal with the fact that everyone who builds their views around confirmation bias would make the same exact argument he made – they are convinced by what they see. For the whole idea behind confirmation bias is make sure you keep seeing what convinces you.
Sorry, but what “he sees” is not good enough to anyone who values the scientific approach. He is entitled to his opinion. But that is all it is.
So in summary, Coyne acknowledges he has no interest in the science of faith’s origin, believes such research would be a waste of time, and maintains that science cannot discover the truth about this aspect of our reality. So the man who preaches the need to have science rule all our thinking abandons science and goes with “what he sees.” And “what he sees” just happens to be one of the main talking points of the Gnu movement.