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.