Pot Scolds the Kettle

In a previous posting, we saw Gnu activist Jerry Coyne’s idea of co-existing with religious people in a pluralistic society:

If religious people just kept to themselves, just went to church, respected the findings of science and a) didn’t teach it to their kids (which I think is a form of child mistreatment) and b) didn’t try to take their religious beliefs into the public sphere and make them law for everybody else, than I wouldn’t care so much.

Of course, there is a certain kind of familiarity with this kind of militancy, one that was apparently picked up by Coyne’s interviewer. For she responded with a very good question:

But we do now have experience of atheistic societies. I’m thinking of the Soviet Union and post-1949 China, both of which rejected religion and claimed to be scientifically-based societies. If you take faith out of the picture, don’t other crazy schemes emerge? Is it really religion that is a danger to science and society or is it human beings that are a danger to science and society?

Coyne’s response is quite lame:

The problem with the Soviet Union and China is that religion was replaced by an ideology which was largely anti-science and certainly anti-rational. In Russia, under Stalin, the cult of the leader replaced religious belief. That’s why they didn’t like religion, because it displaced people’s affections for the leader. It was in the Soviet Union that Lysenkoism, which is explicitly anti-scientific, took over and ruined Russian genetics for 30 years.

An “anti-science”, “anti-rational” ideology? That is certainly not how the Marxists viewed and promoted themselves. Like the Gnu atheists, the communists/Marxists postured as Champions of Science as part of their anti-religious worldview.

In fact, that leads to the great irony.

Here’s Jerry Coyne promoting a book that is arguing science and religion are incompatible as its main thesis. Yet this was the very argument that was part of the ideology that replaced religion in the Soviet Union. For example, here is how one communist teacher’s group described their mission in the 1950s:

“The formation of a materialistic attitude (Weltanschaung) in the students and scientific atheistic education is the paramount responsibility of every teacher. Teachers of biology, physics, chemistry, history, and literature can play an exceptionally important role. By revealing from its very foundations, the materialistic interpretation of the order in the universe and in human society, they can at the same time show, with vivid and pointed examples, how the slaves of religion try to falsify scientific truths and to fool the gullible public. It is necessary that the basic incompatibility between science and religion be clearly presented to the students, and that the detrimental effects of religious belief on scientific progress be clearly pointed out.

As sociologist Paul Froese explained:

Scientific atheists believed that their technological and scientific successes would obviously disprove the validity of religion because the two are fundamentally in opposition. Official Soviet ideology stated that “religion exists where knowledge is lacking, religion is opposed to science” (Yaroslavsky 1934:48). One can think of this as a strong albeit naïve version of secularization theory.

All of this leads me to wonder about a certain question. Professor Coyne wrote a book on the incompatibility of religion and science. Does he ever make an effort in the book to survey the history of this incompatibility argument and how it has been tied to certain ideologies?

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5 Responses to Pot Scolds the Kettle

  1. No Man's Land says:

    That’s a fair question I think.

  2. TFBW says:

    Interviewer asked, “if you take faith out of the picture, don’t other crazy schemes emerge?” Coyne didn’t say yes or no, but talked about replacement ideologies which were “largely anti-science and certainly anti-rational,” so I’ll take that as a “yes”.

    Interviewer asked, “is it really religion that is a danger to science and society or is it human beings that are a danger to science and society?” Again, Coyne didn’t answer directly, but said the following, which leans away from the “human beings” alternative.

    … I don’t think it is necessary that if you get rid of religion some other superstition or ideology is going to rush in and replace it. I have faith — and I use the term in the sense of ‘confidence in’ — that ultimately people will realize that the Enlightenment project, the project of using rationality to guide your actions, is the way to bring society forward.

    It’s nice to know that one is allowed to use the word “faith” to mean “confidence in”, but does he have any empirical basis for that confidence? The interviewer asked, “these ultra-rational northern European societies that you’re describing, are they producing more scientists than the US with its young earth creationists or the UK with its religion-heavy elitist education system?” Coyne’s response:

    I don’t know the data, but in terms of a per capita rate, I’m not sure you can say they’re worse off than the US and the UK.

    Note well: he doesn’t know the data. This is not an argument from data — it’s an argument from personal intuition. He expects the data to follow — or at least not to contradict him — should he ever get around to examining it. I’m reminded of Dawkins and his assertions about teaching the doctrine of Hell to children being worse than “mild” sexual abuse, which was similarly grounded in personal intuition and a complete absence of empirical data — although he would like to see data that confirms his intuitions if anyone has it.

    Could the hypocrisy be any more blatant?

  3. Michael says:

    Note well: he doesn’t know the data. This is not an argument from data — it’s an argument from personal intuition. He expects the data to follow — or at least not to contradict him — should he ever get around to examining it. I’m reminded of Dawkins and his assertions about teaching the doctrine of Hell to children being worse than “mild” sexual abuse, which was similarly grounded in personal intuition and a complete absence of empirical data — although he would like to see data that confirms his intuitions if anyone has it.

    Indeed. Note also how he twists the question. He was not asked if “these ultra-rational northern European societies” would be worse off because of their rejection of religion. It was pointed out to him that his thesis predicts “these ultra-rational northern European societies” should be better off in terms of scientific output.

  4. TFBW says:

    Yes, I was struck by the lack of confidence evident in that response. For a man who is so adamant that science and religion are fundamentally at loggerheads, he’s practically damning his alleged strongholds of secularism and reason with faint praise. Are those societies better, asks the interviewer? Well, I’m not sure they’re any worse, says Coyne. Such a vote of confidence. He has to draw attention away from the empirical data and appeal to prejudice in order to make his case.

    He harps about “using rationality” as though it were his modus operandi, yet he eschews hard evidence on the subject while inviting his audience to commit fallacies. He asks, rhetorically, “if there wasn’t Catholicism, would we have the demonization of gays in the US?” What is this but a resounding appeal to bigotry? I mean to say, if there were a solid connection between the two, you might expect a solidly Catholic country like Italy to have more legal opposition to homosexuality than atheistic regimes like Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, but no, homosexuality has been legal in Italy since 1890 according to Wiki, while it was only legalised in the latter places a hundred years or more afterwards, subsequent to a shift away from extreme communist ideology. I see more of a connection between totalitarianism and persecution of homosexuals than Catholicism and the same — but that doesn’t suit Coyne’s narrative, does it?

    I could go on enumerating Coyne’s anti-reason argument techniques, but life is short.

  5. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne, in his blog dated March 26, 2015 entitled, “Teaching evolution in Kentucky—with accommodationism”, says:

    “… telling students that religion is compatible with evolution is a theological view, not a scientific one.”

    And later:

    “… let me add that I have exactly the same objection to professors who tell their students that evolution is incompatible with religion. That, too, is a theological (or philosophical, depending on your take) add-on that shouldn’t be taught to students in a science class.”
    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/teaching-evolution-in-kentucky-with-accommodationism/

    Coyne is clearly of the opinion that to teach students that religion is compatible with evolution, or to teach students that religion is incompatible with evolution – both of these violate the First Amendment.

    I’ll make the surely reasonable assumption that Coyne’s particulars of who might be telling who, and where, and what laws might thereby be broken, is irrelevant to this more general point: –

    If Coyne claims that, “religion is compatible with evolution is a theological view, not a scientific one”, and he has “exactly the same objection to … evolution is incompatible with religion”, it looks very much like Coyne has thereby claimed that, “evolution is incompatible with religion is a theological view, not a scientific one.”

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