The Incompatibility of Science and New Atheism: Case Study #1

Atheist activist Jerry Coyne writes:

The thesis of “New Atheist” books like The God Delusion and God is not Great is that the net effect of religion has been bad, both in ancient times and today. Yes, the authors argue, religion has sometimes motivated people to do good things, but that is far outweighed by the misery, death, and divisiveness produced by religion since it arose thousands of years ago. And certainly, the argument continues, religion today is not a force for good; we have science and secular philosophy to turn to.

Indeed. In fact, Coyne understates the New Atheist position. Dawkins describes religion as “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus,” Sam Harris declared, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion,” and Coyne himself has insisted, “Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion.”

After a decade or so of this vitriolic rhetoric, Coyne finally comes to notice the obvious:

Although I agree with that thesis, I can’t say that there are data that make an airtight case for it. After all, how do you weigh any beneficial effects of religion (making people behave charitably and so on) against the repression it’s caused, the deaths that have accrued in inter-religious wars, and other malfeasance? All we can do is make a judgment call, and although to me religion comes down as harmful on balance, I couldn’t prove it. One can only cite anecdotes, and the other side has their anecdotes too.

Coyne admits that his extreme position – religion as one world’s greatest evils – has been a “judgment call” based on nothing more than anecdotes. In essence, he has conceded the weakness of his position. What’s more, anecdotes don’t count as scientific evidence. In science, we don’t make bold claims without evidence, demonstrating one way in which New Atheism is incompatible with science.

So what does Coyne do?

He says he is “really writing this to ask readers” some questions. And his first question is this:

How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity? NOTE: This is an empirical question and requires empirical data for an answer, not gut feelings or anecdotes.

Whoa! Coyne is fishing for data to support his preconceptions. This is classic confirmation bias and is the antithesis to the scientific approach. In science, we do not begin with deeply held convictions and then go looking for data to show that we are right. But that is precisely what Coyne is doing here. And as such, he is showing yet another way in which New Atheism is incompatible with science.

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4 Responses to The Incompatibility of Science and New Atheism: Case Study #1

  1. Bilbo says:

    Even if Coyne succeeded in demonstrating that on balance religion has had a bad effect on human society, this would not necessarily imply that atheism was ethically preferable. One could argue that what is needed is a better religion, one that discourages the bad effects of past religions while encouraging their good effects.

  2. Dhay says:

    I see that Coyne’s linked blog post includes:

    “If you can get people to behave better by making them believe in things that aren’t true, shouldn’t you favor that?” It’s not a question that can be rejected out of hand or sneered at.”

    OK, let’s have a look at his blog dated December 11, 2014, entitled, ““The dark side of free will””; there he says:

    And, just to get you riled up, I don’t see what advantages there are in accepting compatibilist free will as opposed to being a pure, incompatibilist determinist. The usefulness of compatibilism seems limited to its keeping philosophers employed and the Little People convinced that they do have some sort of “free will” after all, even if it’s not the kind of free will they think they have.

    Yep, Coyne has already demonstrated that he is an advocate and practitioner of making people better by believing in things that might or might not be true. He would have his acolytes convert to a pure, incompatibilist determinist position purely because of the “advantages” of doing so: from the video Coyne embeds, the advantages would seem to be incarcerating fewer people and not blaming (demonising – that’s the British in-word) disadvantaged people for their disadvantage.

    I do actually agree with Coyne’s attitude towards incarceration, and even towards his (unmentioned) attitude towards incarceration for using drugs; I am British, which means I am by culture far to the left of anything Coyne can even imagine – sorry, my thoughts and opinions are utterly alien to most Americans, even to Coyne: but there is no way that I can imagine that accepting something is true because of its social consequences, and only because of its social consequences, is sensible or is intellectually valid. Coyne is bullshitting, which is to say that he doesn’t care whether what he claims or proposes is actually true, so long as the consequences (“advantages”) are acceptable to him.

    “I would like, therefore it is” is neither a good philosophical nor a good scientific argument: more fool Coyne.

  3. agrudzinsky says:

    The zeal with which new atheists fight religion is, certainly, religious itself. I don’t see a difference between new atheists opposing religion and Jesus opposing Pharisees, for example, or church opposing homosexuality.

  4. TFBW says:

    I agree with Michael that this post by Coyne is confirmation bias writ large, and with other remarks that have followed, but there’s an aspect of it to which I’d like to draw more attention.

    Coyne says:

    And certainly, the argument continues, religion today is not a force for good; we have science and secular philosophy to turn to.

    To me, this particular remark demonstrates unclear thinking on Coyne’s part as to what religion, philosophy, and science are, exactly. Coyne is conflating numerous ideas and calling them “religion”, for example. In some ways his meaning is too specific, and in other ways he’s dragging in extraneous concepts.

    To demonstrate this, let me start by sharing my own thoughts on what religion, philosophy and science are — at least in contrast with each other.

    I think of philosophy as being the umbrella discipline under which (among other things) questions relating to the nature of good and evil are examined. In this capacity, philosophy tries to understand what good and evil are, exactly, and has made several noble but ultimately inconclusive attempts at formalising the nature of good and evil. This has given us a taxonomy including concepts like “realism”, “cognitivism”, and “error theory”, plus specific theories like Kant’s Categorical Imperative and utilitarianism. In principle, if philosophy were to succeed in its task of formalising morality, it would be able to describe the ideal moral code, but it’s a problem that has resisted resolution for thousands of years.

    Religions tend to incorporate some model of morality — typically (in the West, at least) some form of moral realism grounded in the moral authority of God or gods. Religions tend to assert their particular model of good and evil as given, based on a background story about the nature of God, the gods, or the universe as a whole, rather than constructing the kind of intuitively-grounded arguments commonly associated with philosophy. In other words, religions offer a moral code, but they take it as given based on a broader world view, rather than seeking to derive it by analysis.

    Science, in contrast, tells us nothing of good and evil: it speaks only of raw physical consequences. One can bring preconceived ideas of good and evil to the table of science, and regard possible courses of action as good or evil based on one’s moral judgement relating to the expected outcomes, but science neither studies the nature of good and evil, nor tells us how to be good. One can only introduce good and evil into science by accepting the model of good and evil offered by some religion, or effectively inventing one’s own (perhaps based on one’s preferred philosophical moral theory).

    Thus, when Coyne says that “science” is something that we can turn to as a force for good, I find it a lot like saying that “political activism” is something that we can turn to as a force for good. In both cases, the philosophical question of “what is good?” must have already been answered by prior religious convictions, explicit or implicit. “Science” and “political activism” are simply vehicles by which the supposed goods are carried out.

    Coyne suffers from a lack of clarity on these important distinctions. He conflates “religion” with “theism”, which he further conflates with “evil”, or at least with malign influence, until “religion” is a vague but harmful thing which centres around belief in God. He conflates “secular” with “good” in a mirror image of his attitude to theism, so “secular philosophy” is beneficent by implication, and he conflates “science” with knowledge in general, such that science must have something to say about the subject of morality and goodness.

    If Coyne were clear in his thinking, he’d see the truth in what Bilbo says: that his true aim is not the abolition of religion, but the formulation of a better one. But he can’t do that because he’s invested in “religion” as a proxy for “theism”, and “theism” as entailing “bad” — partly for rhetorical convenience, no doubt, but one pays a penalty for such convenient conflation when it comes to rational analysis.

    If Coyne were clear in his thinking, he might also see the implications of his materialist, incompatibilist determinism which Dhay mentions. Specifically, he might notice that it leaves no objective basis for good and evil at all. Of theistic religions, he says, “it’s easy to point to the bad stuff they do, and hard to find the good stuff,” but what possible basis does he have for calling anything “good” or “bad”, except as a subjective stamp of approval or disapproval which we may freely dismiss as mere opinion? Does he have any theory of moral agency at all in the absence of both free will and objective moral ideals?

    So not only is he promoting blatant confirmation bias as though it were science, he’s presenting his emotional disposition towards theism as though it were simple proof of a moral fact (that religion is mostly bad), while simultaneously promoting a metaphysics which seems utterly incompatible with the existence of moral facts in general. The phrase, “not even wrong” springs to mind at this point.

    Coyne says, “one can only cite anecdotes” in justifying a judgement call that religion is harmful on balance, but it’s worse than that in his case: his anecdotes appeal to a purely intuitive concept of “harm” that doesn’t even seem to cohere with the rest of his world view. After all, what does “harm” even mean in relation to a collection of atoms which do nothing but conform rigidly to the laws of physics?

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