No Tolerance for Criticism

As we know by now, Gnu activist Jerry Coyne has no tolerance for dissenting viewpoints. So it is of no surprise that Coyne lashes out in anger when he received the following email:

Dr. Coyne,
Good afternoon. I have come across your lecture where you extensively address not only theology but morality at length. Do you have any training whatsoever in theology or philosophy?
What are your qualifications in these fields? I have searched extensively to see if you are one of the leading figures in these fields of study and have not come across anything so far.
Please point me to the right place so that I can understand why you are an expert in the history of philosophy.
Miguel Arechavaleta
Professor of Philosophy
Barry University

This must have enraged Coyne, as he replied on his blog:

Such passive-aggressive snark! I didn’t answer this flea, of course, as it’s a waste of time. He would just try to continue the exchange, and, with such rudeness, he doesn’t deserve a response. But I’m putting up the email here so that the commentariat can address his implicit argument in the comments. I’ll then just send him the link.

It’s amusing to see an antireligious activist who is cashing in on a movement that mocks religious people complain about “rudeness.” Not only does Coyne hypocritically complain about “rudeness,” but he demonstrates his hate by referring to the philosopher as a “flea.” In fact, his whole “response” is to get his hateful readers to respond to the philospher as a “flea.” Of course, there is nothing new about the New Atheist movement engaging in name-calling and mocking, so let’s look more closely at some of Coyne’s other claims.

Coyne wrote:

One of the most common attacks on non-theologians who criticize religion is that we aren’t professional theologians, or that we haven’t fully marinated ourselves in the tedious lucubrations of people like Duns Scotus or Tertullian. This, of course, is basically an ad hominem argument, dismissing criticisms of religion based on the writer’s perceived lack of credentials.

Not so fast. It’s only an ad hominem if one does dismiss the criticism solely on the basis of lacked credentials. If one proceeds to point out the problems with the criticisms first, it is perfectly appropriate to bring up the lack of credentials, especially if they help explain the origin of the flawed criticism.

In fact, reader Dhay showed how this was done just a few days ago. Begin by reading this.

And, as you know, I spent over two years reading this stuff, so it’s not like I’m thrashing about blindly in the muck of theology.

A whole two years? Look, there is no evidence for this claim, but I’ll accept it on faith. Coyne receives no points for “reading this stuff.” What matters is how he read it. Did he read it with an open-mind or closed-mind? Did he read to understand another point of view or for the purpose of debunking another point of view as part of his upcoming book? If it is the latter, all we have is disconfirmation bias, not scholarship. And given that Coyne is an activist trying to sell books to members of his movement, I think it quite reasonable to expect his “reading” will entail cherry picking and misrepresentations in a way that will help sell books. Time will tell.

The refutation, of course, is simple: a lack of professional training in an area doesn’t mean that your statements about that area can be completely disregarded.

True. But the problem is that Coyne will be promoting himself as Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago as part of his book promo. Yet when it comes to the topic of his book, Coyne comes to us as a self-educated layman. In fact, he does not even come to us as one who shares the values of academia, as can be seen when he once declared:

What about the many of us who feel that the best thing for science—and humanity as a whole—is not respectful dialogue with evangelical Christians, but the eradication of evangelical Christianity?

The book is part of an eradication objective, written by a self-educated activist who is part of a modern day hate movement.

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15 Responses to No Tolerance for Criticism

  1. Ilíon says:

    Just try pointing out any of the numerous and blatant logical flaws in ‘modern evolutionary theory’ and see how short the time-span until Doctor Coyne that you have no standing to criticize ‘modern evolutionary theory’ if you don’t have the “proper” credentials (*).

    Oddly enough, lacking the “proper” credentials does not seem to disqualify one from singing the praises of ‘modern evolutionary theory’.

    (*) Of course, even if one does have the “proper” credentials, one isn’t allowed to criticize ‘modern evolutionary theory’.

  2. mechanar says:

    Cant see In any way were that was passiv agressiv but okay lets assune the man meant it in the worst possible way, is that a way to react in such manner? It would make him the much bigger person if he simply would brush it of but I guess behaving like an adult is to much to asked.

  3. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    I’m getting more interested in philosophy lately – although I must admit I have no training in it and it’s very confusing.It takes me a while just to get a grasp on certain concepts being put forward, but once I do, it’s pretty interesting. One thing has become very clear to me is that the modern disdain for philosophy is a form of a reactionary movement to disclose on any criticisms of a purely mechanistic worldview. The argument follows that if philosophers would only shut up and let scientists interpret reality then we could all make progress. But philosophy seems to me to be something that is very important. If nothing else, it’s weightlifting for the brain. After all, a lot of science involves a collection of data about the natural world, which is great and has it’s place.But some philosophers seem to be asking how do we interpret that data and given what is accepted by scientific inquiry, how then do we reconcile other issues, where sometimes what arises are contradictions or conflict.

    Recently, I’ve read about eliminativist philosophers who seem to be the most fundamentalist of the materialists. They seem to very proudly and unabashedly proclaim that not only is all that exists the natural world, but that sources of knowledge can only be discovered through scientific methods because modern science is effective and predictable and efficient. Where I find them most interesting is what they espouse and how much more honest it is than Jerry Coyne, who claims that to be an ardent materialist, but that uses terms that seem to fly in the face of materialism. Eliminativists seem to get rid of everything that speaks to teleology. Everything, including intention and purpose seems to be not just irrelevant, but completely illusory. Nothing can be understood except as the result of fundamental underlying processes, ie: physics, chemistry, biology. Not only only are consciousness and free will illusions (or psychological myths), according to the eliminativist, but intrinsic purposes are illusory. What’s interesting is what these people espouse – is what most materialists don’t espouse when they speak of purpose or intention or anything that can be seen as an accidental result of physical processes. What I respect about these people is that they take materialism to its extreme. They may be wrong – and I suspect they are – but when people like Coyne speak of materialism they do so in a way that shows to be disingenous as to what materialism actually should logically entail.

  4. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne > And, as you know, I spent over two years reading this stuff, so it’s not like I’m thrashing about blindly in the muck of theology.

    Actually, I think he is thrashing about blindly: that Coyne can blithely allege that, “I believe because it is absurd” is anything that a modern Christian would say, or even that it is anything that an ancient Christian would ever have said, is absurd itself.

    Coyne cannot detect the absurdity of his notions; Coyne doesn’t comprehend the very basics about Christians or Christianity; Coyne doesn’t know his chosen subject, the subject on which he has just written a book.

    Whether or not Coyne has relevant credentials, which would presumably somehow make his ignorance more impressive, is irrelevant.

  5. Kevin says:


    I too became interested in philosophy (and psychology, specifically the interplay between values, beliefs, and actions) a while back, and one thing I’ve noticed about New Atheists is that they are either a) not deep thinkers, or b) hardcore adherents to scientism. I firmly believe that one of the things many of them dislike about philosophy is that it actually requires more than knee-jerk hatred of something to maintain a position. It requires introspection and the discovery and removal of biases and fallacies, which would completely decimate the New Atheist position.

    The other problematic aspect of philosophy is that it is the frame of reference by which evidence is interpreted. For someone who is not into scientism, science is not the end-all and be-all of knowledge and atheism is not the default position. New Atheists are primarily driven by hatred of religion, so anything that presents a logical counter to their own position is to either be attacked or dismissed as irrelevant. They make the same mistakes with philosophy as they do religion by comparing its discoveries of nature with science and declaring science the winner. Once you consider how idiotic that is, the argument is completely disarmed. Philosophy is not intended for discovery, it is for interpretation. New Atheists abhor interpretations that don’t lead to atheism, so philosophy is considered beneath them. Ironically, a sound understanding of philosophy would help them to not sound so idiotic all the time.

  6. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    @ Kevin, I think you may be correct about New Atheists. There is a blinding, visceral reaction to anything transcendent and a knee-jerk reaction to label people who believe that there is something beyond the physical world as ignorant and superstitious. I think that a lot of this is attributable to the idea that religion – Christianity in particular – relies upon people to be scientifically ignorant. Just because the people of the Medieval period were not scientifically advanced does not mean that a Christian in the 21st Century is obliged to be scientifically in the sand. I don’t even think medieval Christians were willingly scientifically ignorant. It’s clear that even before Copernicus (a priest) and Galileo (a church goer) there were Christians doing forms of astronomy, but their astronomy was perhaps limited based upon the knowledge imparted by pagan times. And that’s not an indictment of pagan antiquity because they were operating under their own constraints. There’s also a common New Atheist argument that belief in God is somehow a testable theory, which would mean that God is somehow subject to physical laws the way that an atom or molecular chain is. But that is conceptually absurd if God is to be the uncaused cause of all things, including physical laws, matter and energy, which is how I understand most of the fathers of the Church saw God.

    What strikes me as odd – and I’ve mentioned this before here – is that materialists can hold that there is something called reason and that they have some sort of access to it. If you have materialism, reason seems pretty hard to access because you exist in a closed loop and your only access to reason is by a cosmic accident. I think if something such as reason exists it is something that is eternal and it’s hard to justify believing in it unless you believe in God. That’s not saying materialism is incorrect, but that it’s hard to justify reason while at the same time accepting that everything is a part of a closed causal system. I think you could try to hammer Richard Dawkins over the head with this point constantly, but he’s not going to want to understand this concept because he simply believes – based on his scientific knowledge that – belief in God is unreasonable or irrational. I would say in this respect he and a Jerry Coyne are as obstinate as someone who rejects out of hand the concept of evolution or the age of the universe being perhaps 15 billion years because it flies in the face of a literalist interpretation of scripture.

    On a final note – though I’m worried Michael may ban me for lack of brevity – I bet if you were to have asked those at the Reason Rally three years ago just what they thought reason was, you’d get disparate responses (some of which would define it as a rejection of God and anything immaterial). What I think they should call it instead is not the reason rally but the rally for materialism. They may invite some confused shoppers looking for discounts on Prada or Apple products, but I think fundamentally what they are arguing for is materialism. This is why I think a lot of so-called skeptics are not as much skeptics as they are materialists. And that’s alright. They simply reject the possibility of certain transcendent experience because they believe that matter is all there is and nothing can penetrate its closed system. I just think it’s more honest to dispense with the word skeptic and instead call oneself a materialist.

    Several years ago there was a conference on naturalism that was held and reading some of the rundown of it, I noticed something interesting, which was that although the presenters considered themselves materialists, each had a uniquely different view on what that meant. If I remember correctly, one materialist got up and said essentially, “guys, some of what you’re talking about is nonsense. We’ve gotta scrap some of these notions of because they are also unaccountable vis-a-vis materialism” (paraphrased).

    I think in particular he was talking about discussion of morality. Now, materialists may not want to be caricatured the way a Roman Catholic or Anglican or Methodist would not want his/her view of scripture conflated with that of a fundamentalist. I’m sensitive to that, but when a materialist holds that there is no purpose in nature and that matter is all there is, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that person has no basis to believe in morals, intentions, a rational mind and certainly not any type of consciousness. If fact, I think if someone is going to claim that he/she is a materialist they need to be prepared to answer whether they are the same entity at night who woke up in the morning, considering that the human body is made of atoms and those atoms form molecules which are in a constant dance – even in the human brain. So if one wants to be a committed materialist acknowledging no rational order in nature it seems to follow that the constantly changing nature of existence should have him in a constant state of change. Anyone who makes plans to schedule a trip to next year’s Reason Rally (Materialism Rally) may need to consider whether they will actually be the person who arrives at the National Mall next year considering that billions of chemical reactions will have taken place in that time. That’s a more honest materialism in my opinion. Okay, I’m done. Sorry Michael.

  7. Kevin says:

    All good points. And I’ve had atheists admit to me that a combination of cultural norms and personal opinion (you can guess which is dominant when they don’t line up) is sufficient justification to condemn in harsh terms those who don’t conform to their opinion of morality. You and I would find that completely irrational, but as you say, skepticism and “reason” are not properly applied with these atheists.

  8. Bilbo says:

    Coyne once admitted that he didn’t know the difference between epistemology and metaphysics. I’m just wondering if he’s figured that out, yet.

  9. TFBW says:

    New Atheists tend to have an awkward relationship with philosophy. They love philosophy and philosophers who support their ideology, but they tend to disdain philosophy and philosophers in general, outside that special case. As a relevant example, last year, Coyne asked the question, “how does philosophy help science?” (as though that were the fundamental measure of value of any subject). He gave Dan Dennett a passing thumbs-up, of course, and was highly appreciative of Robert Pennock for his anti-Intelligent-Design activism, but was hard pressed to see anything useful in philosophy outside of those few instances which (not coincidentally, I think) provided confirming support for his worldview. In Coyne’s own words:

    Those are both science-friendly philosophers, and that kind of work, which infuses scientific thinking with rigor thinking, as well as sweeping away the dross, count as a definite contribution to science.

    It’s an issue that I’d like to examine in detail some time — possibly at book length — but the short of it is as follows. Coyne is, I think, on-target when he he speaks of “rigor thinking”. Good philosophy must have good abstract analysis at its core, regardless of the broader subject matter. Good philosophy elucidates the otherwise hidden assumptions between related ideas, and clarifies what beliefs can and can not be consistently held. Good philosophy picks apart the implications of ideas that most people give only superficial consideration. Philosophy is the art of reasoned analysis, argument, and clear thinking.

    In answer to Coyne’s question, then, philosophy helps science not so much by contributing ideas to science which improve the practice of science, but by making people better thinkers. All else being equal, a better thinker is a better scientist. I did a graduate diploma in philosophy just before commencing my PhD in computer science, and I believe that the practice I got in the philosophy course improved my ability to analyse and convey analysis in my PhD thesis, not because it contained any related material, but just because it gave me a year or so worth of practice analysis and argument prior to the main event.

    It seems to me that Coyne’s problem, along with Dawkins and many others, is that he’s a bad philosopher. Compounding the problem is that he seems to think that being a scientist is sufficient in and of itself to establish one as a clear thinker. That comes with the “scientism” package, I guess — along with the attitude that everything else is useful only to the extent that it is useful to science. Scientific training and practice grants one competence in that particular field, but it does not contribute to general clarity of thinking in the way that philosophy does. Science is far too narrow in its focus for that.

    I strongly suspect that Coyne appreciates the work of philosophers who support his worldview not because he understands their arguments, but for more visceral reasons. The exact same thing is true for philosophers who contradict his worldview. I see no evidence that Coyne is even capable of engaging a sophisticated philosophical argument: he just spits bile and dismisses triumphantly when faced with opposition, self-appraises such efforts as successful debunking, values his appraisal highly because he’s a scientist, and thinks that “scientist” implies “clear, rigorous thinker”.

    As such, Coyne is right on target when he says that philosophy can contribute by “sweeping away the dross.” Alas, he’s incapable of recognising when it has successfully done so against any of his cherished ideas, mostly because of misplaced overconfidence in his own philosophical prowess.

  10. Dhay says:

    Coyne’s reading of theology apparently goes back to at least July 4, 2011, when in his blog post entitled, “Why am I reading theology?”, he declares “Under the tutelage of the estimable Eric MacDonald, I have spent several weeks reading Christian theology. And so far, I have learned only three things: …”

    Ah good, if that rate of learning continues, Coyne might eventually get past the level of cluelessness that leads him to claim that a Christian might make the alleged theological statement, “[We] believe because it is absurd”. After nearly four years, he hasn’t yet.

    The “estimable Eric MacDonald,” appears to have been a lousy tutor, one who had dropped Coyne in at the deep end with Process Theology; surely there was something a bit simpler, more basic and, dare I say it, more relevant, that Coyne could have cut his teeth on; understandably, Coyne was way out of his depth, and utterly bemused: “I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.”

    Coyne appealed for help: “But I persist, and am asking readers, particularly if they have some knowledge of theology, if they have any insight into the following questions. I am dead serious here, and not looking for sarcastic answers. I’m even hoping that some real theologians will read this and provide some answers.”

    Coyne’s policy of hair-trigger permanent banning of everyone capable of providing a serious discussion and a credible challenge to his misconceptions means there is no chance of answers from his readers. And that brings us back to the issue of Coyne’s credentials, or the lack thereof.

    The “flea’s” pointing out that Coyne lacks relevant credentials evidently smarts with Coyne. His pointing out that he had spent “over two years” reading theology (if not understanding it, unless things subsequently improved markedly) is actually an attempt to establish that he does have some sort of credentials. But what sort of credentials is that?

    Credentials prove you have impressed knowledgeable people in a field, whose approval of your work is credible evidence of your abilities. Who has Coyne impressed?

    Has he impressed his instructors? Well, he seems to have been adrift from his sole tutor, MacDonald, right from the start; by October 28, 2013 he and MacDonald had “had some differences”, and by March 10, 2014, “Eric MacDonald [who] taught me a lot about theology … has finally parted company with New Atheism.”

    What were these irreconcilable differences? “I [MacDonald] found myself at loggerheads with much that sailed under the banner of the New Atheism, finding its conception of religion so contrary to anything that I would have said about my faith in earlier years that I find myself no longer able to associate myself with this movement. Much that new atheists say about religion is simply so much straw. Of course, it does apply to the fundamentalists and some evangelicals (two separate points of view), but some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical.” So I take that as a very firm,”No.” Coyne certainly didn’t impress his tutor.

    If you enroll for a course you get supervision, feedback and correction, and above all you get regularly assessed by assignments and examinations. For Coyne, nothing. Or if you prefer, MacDonald rejected Coyne’s coursework as hopelessly inadequate — see quote above.

    That’s a clear fail on coursework, then. No credentials there.

    Graduation exam result: none. Post-graduate award: none. No credentials there.

    So what about peer-reviewed papers on Theology, published in the prestigious journals? Well, it looks as if Coyne couldn’t get anything published in even something so lightweight and inappropriate as the Sydney Journal of Literature & Aesthetics, which Raphael Lataster recently did. Coyne hasn’t tried to, of course, and I’m sure that will be not just because he has been busy writing his popular book, but also because (on the MacDonald testimony) Coyne would surely never get a paper past peer review. Definitely no credentials there.

    Do Coyne’s many blogs count as peer-reviewed? As pointed out above, nobody who can peer-review is likely to be able to comment. No credentials there.

    Do Coyne’s many attacks upon “sophisticated(tm)” theologians count towards credentials? No, for the prefix, “sophisticated(tm)”, is a word which signals that Coyne hasn’t understood the theologian’s argument and wishes to simply dismiss the theologian by the magical incantation of that one sneering but vacuous word, “sophisticated(tm)”. No credentials there.

    Does Coyne have the “credentials” that the unqualified academically, but nonetheless skilled car mechanic next door has, namely the ability to do the job satisfactorily? “[We] believe because it is absurd”. No, no credentials there either.

  11. Dhay says:

    In his May 9, 2015 blog post entitled, “We’re #1!”, Jerry Coyne predicts “the two most common tactics the faithful (and faitheists) will use to go after [his book]”.

    The first is that he will be accused of strawmanning:

    1. “Coyne attacks a caricature of religion, one that nobody believes in. It’s typical New Atheist strawmanning.” This is what I call the Eagleton/Armstrong Gambit. People who use it need to get out more.

    And the second is a strawman, a caricature of religion, one that nobody believes in:

    2. “Coyne assumes that religion is largely based on factual propositions: beliefs about what is true. That’s an old-fashioned and obsolete version of religion. Religion isn’t about truths; it’s about community and morality and feeling.”

    You just can’t make this stuff up.

    No, Jerry Coyne, I personally don’t accuse you of strawmanning, because I reckon you are sincere in coming out with this rubbish. I think you will most accurately be accused of not knowing your arse from your elbow.

  12. Michael says:

    I have a prediction to make also. In the next few months, we might see some new Gnus, armed with Coyne’s arguments/claims, coming here to inform us how religion and science are incompatible. So here is my prediction about such people – four words will describe them. Fish in a barrel.

  13. TFBW says:

    Following up on my previous comment in this thread, I note that Massimo Pigliucci wrote an article a few years ago on the anti-philosophical attitude of Lawrence Krauss, which I find quite resonant. (A hat tip to our resident research sleuth, Dhay, as this was one link removed from a link he provided.)

  14. Dhay says:

    It’s been interesting to read Eric MacDonald’s blog. He comes across as someone very intelligent, very erudite, and someone I would love to have as my Minister because I would learn so much from him.

    Now to drop a level or several — back to Jerry Coyne.

    Eric MacDonald > … some Christian theology is so much more sophisticated than this as to make much new atheist opposition to religion sophistical.

    Perhaps this is where Jerry Coyne got his trademark “sophisticated(tm) theology” phrase. In practice, it seems simply to mean that Coyne doesn’t understand the argument, again.

    But it also raises the question of whether Coyne’s own arguments, in book and blog, might validly be termed, “sophisticated(tm) atheology”; or, following MacDonald, “sophistical(tm) atheology”.

  15. TFBW says:

    I don’t think of Coyne as sophistical. I would describe Boghossian in those terms without hesitation, but not Coyne. For Coyne, the term that springs to mind with regards to his style of atheist apologetics is “oafish”.

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