Truth Claims Rooted in Feelings and Anecdotes

I wanted to blog about this before I forget and the data get buried.

For over a decade now, the New Atheists have been preaching a message – religion is evil and the world would be so much better if only we could get rid of it. Yet as we have seen, atheist activist Jerry Coyne recently did his best impersonation of Capt. Obvious and finally figured out this atheist message was without empirical evidence. Coyne, adopting a position that is incompatible with science, concedes that this New Atheist Message has always been a “judgment call” supported by nothing more than anecdotes.

Of course, being a faithful believer in The Cause, he does what any activist would do – he goes fishing for “evidence” to prop up his preconceptions by asking his readers to come up with something.

Well, this sets the stage for our next entry. Coyne returns to the topic and summarizes the “findings” from his faithful fans:

in my post on Friday, I asked readers to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?

That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles.

Now you should be able to see why I wanted to archive this blog entry.

Coyne’s blog is one of the most popular New Atheist blogs out there. And he has unknowingly let the cat out of the bag one more time – he acknowledges most of his readers, which we can safely assume are representative of the entire New Atheist population, feel they can resolve empirical questions “not with data, but with logic or from first principles.”

There it is.

Staring you right in the face.

Coyne, living in his cocoon, doesn’t realize he gave away the store.

He also adds:

Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.

A rare moment where Coyne is making sense. But it is worse than this.

First, anecdotes don’t count as scientific evidence. As Coyne originally pointed out, “One can only cite anecdotes, and the other side has their anecdotes too.”

Second, there is the cherry picking again. It is not hard at all to point out places where secularism does bad stuff too. Neither is it hard to point out the good things religiously-inspired beliefs have done.


One person I talked to said that New Atheist books like The End of Faith or God Is Not Great were meant not to show that religion in its net effects was harmful to humanity, but instead to emphasize that there were some bad effects of religion that had been overlooked. I disagree: I claim that those books were very clearly written to show that religion was a bad institution as a whole.

Coyne is right again.

So I would encourage you to bookmark this blog entry for future reference when dealing with others on your own blog, on some forum, or in real life. While none of this is news to those of us who follow the New Atheist movement, keep in mind there are many people out there who are susceptible to the Gnu talking points and who are willing to take the “comittment to evidence” Gnu posturing at face value. Coyne’s off-the-cuff blog entry nicely, and succinctly, documents and confirms what many of us have been saying:

1. The Gnu’s “Religion is Evil Message” is rooted in emotion and rhetoric, not science and evidence.

2. The Gnu’s posturing about being “committed to evidence wherever it leads” has always been an empty talking point.

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15 Responses to Truth Claims Rooted in Feelings and Anecdotes

  1. GeoffSmith says:

    I’ve claimed this since I read all those book as a barista several years ago.
    Not only did I often find that the people parroting the books to me hadn’t read them, but also that they probably never would. It was never about science or evidence.

  2. Michael says:

    Yep. That’s why it is useful to bookmark Coyne’s unintentional confession. Nothing like 2-3 paragraphs admitting we have been right all these years.

  3. Allallt says:

    I agree: a correct metric and subsequent study has not been done. It would be interesting to see whether religious people generally feel more consolation than the nonreligious… and whether social phenomenon like the dark ages and the enlightenment through history are related to religion. However, that is not the same as emotion and rhetoric: it was a first principle and logic argument. Yes: speculation and conjecture, but not emotion and rhetoric.

  4. TFBW says:


    I’d love to see how you get to “religion is evil” from first principles and logic. Heck, I’d like to see you do so much as develop a model of good and evil from first principles. In my experience, those arguing this point can’t distinguish “first principles” from “prejudices”, and the process is simply one of rationalising one’s negative disposition to religion by cherry-picking confirmatory examples (i.e. emotion and rhetoric).

  5. Michael says:

    When Dawkins likens religion to small pox, when Harris would rather see rape than religion, when Coyne wants to make a religious upbringing illegal, and when Boghossian tells us religion is a dangerous brain virus in need of containment, it’s nice to know the Gnu’s are speaking from speculation and conjecture rather than emotion and rhetoric. 😉

  6. Allallt says:

    I’m just making sure you get the accusation correct.

    There’s some evidence, by the way. There is a negative correlation between religiosity and happiness index scores (which means things like equal rights, crime rates, discrimination, employment etc). It’s not conclusive, but it’s all in the same direction.

  7. Dhay says:

    Allalt > There is a negative correlation between religiosity and happiness index scores (which means things like equal rights, crime rates, discrimination, employment etc). It’s not conclusive, but it’s all in the same direction.

    “… all …”? Odd, then, that this United Nations report for the OECD, “World Happiness Report 2013”, does not so much as look for a correlation between happiness and religiosity, let alone find it. It discusses religion only in terms of traditional (including Stoic) values for what constitutes “happiness”, itself a contentious and rather vague term. Indeed, the first few search results I got for “happiness index scores” related to how happy the planet is, ie related to ecology and long-term sustainability.

    I think you need to be rather more precise. When you make a claim based on data or reports that are supposed to exist somewhere or other, would you please provide at least one link; then we can discuss your best case instead of merely waffling unspecific and unsupported generalities at each other.

  8. Michael says:

    I’m just making sure you get the accusation correct.

    I did.

  9. Dhay says:

    I’m not sure this is the correct place to post this, but I note that Jerry Coyne’s proxies — he’s away — have just posted a blog for him entitled, “Woo, quackery and pseudoscience, oh my…”, and including a poster of “The red flags of quackery”: “Consult this handy guide to pseudoscience, scams and quack medicine. Remember, it only takes one match to be considered suspect.”

    One of the sixteen signs of “Woo, quackery and pseudoscience, oh my…” is, “Buy My Book”, deconstructed as “For when they can’t say, ‘Read my peer-reviewed journal article'”.

    Hmm… I think Victor Stenger has written a number of books not backed by peer-reviewed journal articles, and has one still pending publication which I predict will be the same; Sam Harris’ books on moral philosophy (or was that ‘moral science’?), on free will and on the first-person science of meditation have not been backed by peer-reviewed journal articles; Jerry Coyne’s book on science and religion, which is currently pending publication — that will surely be backed by a peer-reviewed journal article in a science, philosophy or philosophy of religion journal.

    It will, won’t it? Coyne wouldn’t want to be accused of quackery, would he?

  10. Billy Squibs says:

    Wait! Allat, did you mention the “Dark Ages”? This wasn’t a social phenomenon as you say. It was an inaccurate historical term that owes much to Enlightenment hubris. The Middle Ages was a mixed bag of social, moral and intellectual flourishing and decline – much like any period in human history, including the one we currently inhabit. The term “Dark Ages” has been dropped in academia because it is simplistic, arrogant and inaccurate.

    Also, what’s this about all evidence pointing in the same direction? The very first Google entry using the search terms “religion” and “happiness” is a Wikipedia article that lists many studies that flatly contradict your claim. None of this says anything about whether a particular religion is true of course. In fact, I half-expect that a Christian living out their faith in a way that mirrors the NT and the earliest followers of Christ will experience times of deep unhappiness and even persecution.

  11. Allallt says:

    The top 10 happy countries are: New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Australia (source:
    These are generally irreligious countries (source:
    The most religious countries on that list (Bangladesh, Niger, Somalia, Indonesia) have low national happiness scores (source: and

  12. Michael says:

    Couldn’t a racist use the same data to make the argument that white people have a superior ability to create happy societies?

  13. Kevin says:

    I suspect the correlation is actually in reverse. People who have everything they need don’t think about religious matters. Take all those atheists in Europe and toss them into abject poverty for the rest of their lives and let’s see how many remain atheists.

  14. TFBW says:

    First up, Allallt, you are invited to withdraw your overreaching statement that the evidence is “all in the same direction”. This may be used as evidence of confirmation bias on your part, you see, so fair warning.

    Having said that, your analysis is weak. If you look at the breakdown of religions by country, you’ll find that your top ten countries are also majority Christian (although Netherlands is borderline at 50.6% Christian). Many of them are vast majority (>80%) Christian. So your top ten happy countries are also generally Christian countries. If you look at the few countries which are majority “unaffiliated”, their performance isn’t great.

    Frankly, I consider my analysis here to be somewhat simplistic, and I wouldn’t be willing to draw any strong conclusions from it. It’s certainly no worse than your analysis, though, and it points to an entirely different conclusion than yours, so excuse me if I dismiss your evidence as too weak to support anything.

    Second, your top ten “happy” countries are not based on a measure of happiness. They are ranked by the “social progress index”, which does not include individual reports of personal happiness in its metrics. The article to which you link is not the primary source, and it describes the index as “national well-being”, which is still a projection of belief onto the data. So even if your correlation were a strong one (which it isn’t), it’s still not entirely clear what it would prove, other than correlation with someone’s idea of “social progress”.

  15. Isaac says:

    AllAlt’s argument based on happy countries is even worse than has preciously been pointed out. Most of those “happy” European countries were among the first to embrace Protestantism. Hundreds of years ago. And they were Catholic before that. Biblical morality and values are so entrenched in their cultures that you’d be a fool to imagine one (still mostly young) generation of atheists undoing all the good. In Norway, they finally got seperation of (Lutheran) church and state…earlier this decade! Give atheism at least 50 years to wreck the place, okay? Norwegians can’t go from mostly stoic missionaries to an entirely black-metal church-burners in 10 years.

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