Jerry Coyne’s Multiple Definitions of Faith

When it comes to defining faith, Jerry Coyne can’t make up his mind. So far, in one interview, he defined it as follows:

“Belief without evidence sufficient to convince any reasonable person.”

But then in another interview, he defined it differently:

I don’t care if a religious person accepts science and practises their own private faith. The problem is that this acceptance of faith — which means belief without substantial evidence — as a useful means to ascertain truth has invidious social consequences.

Of course, what both definitions have in common is their reliance of subjectivity. The first one depends on finding a “reasonable” person and the second depends on determing whether evidence is “substantial.” Since both are subjective judgment calls, and thus exist in the eye of the beholder, Coyne is left standing in the ironic position of not being able to scientifically detect when faith exists.

He also comes up with yet a third definition…in the same interview:

But I don’t think it is necessary that if you get rid of religion some other superstition or ideology is going to rushin 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.

So now faith = confidence in? I see. When Coyne expresses faith, he is just expressing confidence. But when someone else expresses faith, they have belief without substantial evidence. One definition for me, another for thee.

Yet one wonders why he even uses the word faith here? He could just as easily said, “I have confidence that ultimately people will realize that the Enlightenment project….” What’s more, what is the source of his confidence? Does he really believe there is substantial evidence that ultimately people will realize that the Enlightenment project is the way to go? I’d say that is a belief without substantial evidence. Which would mean his declared faith does indeed conform to his original definition.

It’s amusing to note Mr. Faith vs. Fact is a Man of Faith.

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12 Responses to Jerry Coyne’s Multiple Definitions of Faith

  1. TFBW says:

    That reblog is a spam link.

  2. Michael says:


  3. the Enlightenment project, the project of using rationality to guide your actions,

    So speaks somebody who clearly knows nothing of Mediaeval — or, for that matter, Enlightenment — philosophy.

    “Yes nearly all moralists before the eighteenth century regarded Reason as the organ of morality. The moral conflict was depicted as one between Passion and Reason, not between Passion and ‘conscience’, or ‘duty’, or ‘goodness’. Prospero, in forgiving his enemies, declares that he is siding, not with his charity or mercy, but with ‘his nobler reason’. The explanation is that nearly all of them believed that fundamental moral maxims were intellectually grasped.


    The eighteenth century witnessed a revolt against the doctrine that moral judgements are wholly, or primarily, or at all, rational. Even Butler in the ‘Sermons’ (1726) gave the role which had once been Reason’s to ‘Reflection or Conscience’. Others handed the normative function over to a moral ‘sentiment’ or ‘taste’. In Fielding the source of good conduct is good feeling, and the claims of Reason to be that source are ridiculed in the person of Mr Square. Mackenzie’s ‘Man of Feeling’ (1771) carried this process further. In Wordsworth ‘the heart’ can be favourably contrasted with ‘the head’. In some nineteenth-century fiction one particular system of feelings, of domestic affections, seem not only to inspire but to constitute morality.


    The belief that to recognise a duty was to perceive a truth — not because you had a good heart but because you were an intellectual being — had roots in antiquity. Plato preserved the Socratic idea that morality was an affair of knowledge; bad men were bad because they did not know what was good. Aristotle, while attacking this view and giving an important place to upbringing and habituation, still made ‘right reason’ (ὀρθὸς λόγος) essential to good conduct. The Stoics believed in a Natural Law which all rational men, by virtue of their rationality, saw to be binding on them.” (Lewis, The Discarded Image, pp. 158-160.)

    Sorry to quote at such great length, but the idea that the Enlightenment was all about reason and logic is one of the biggest, and probably one of the most intellectually harmful, myths in modern pop history.

    (Incidentally, I’m surprised Lewis didn’t quote David “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions” Hume. I’m sure Mr. Hume would be shocked to discover that he was part of a project of “using rationality to guide [his] actions”.)

  4. Dhay says:

    As Shadow To Light has so often pointed out, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne both arrogate all use of reason to “science”, such that even a plumber tracing a leak is a “scientist”.

    (Harris himself famously failed to reach that minimal “plumber” level of scientific competence when his ceiling leaked during a prolonged drought, when his first action was to call a roofer to stop what he – with total unreason and lack even of common sense – supposed must be rainwater; you just cannot make this stuff up – unless Harris did make the story up, in which case he has lied to his readers.)

    There are various objections to this definition of “science”; one is the established usage in case law, which is very, very different from the usage merely proposed in their blogs by Harris and Coyne:

    … “Science is what scientists do,” which courts have used to separate junk science from the real McCoy. As a trial judge declared in the important 1982 case of McLean v Arkansas, “Their [scientists’] work is published and subject to review and testing by their peers. The journals for publication are both numerous and varied.” If something claiming to be science appears in none of these outlets, then, that tells you it is an impostor…

    The Harris/Coyne “plumber” standard for what counts as “science” appears only in their respective blogs, not in any peer-reviewed paper or journal; it has not been seen, vetted or accepted by the scientific community; it is an imposter.

    Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

    1. Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.
    2. Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.
    3. The known or potential error rate.
    4. The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.
    5. The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

    Looks like the Harris and Coyne “plumber” standard for what counts as “science” is a very, very unconvincing imposter. I’d say it would be laughed out of court.

    How can Harris and Coyne believe their own definition of what counts as “science”? Well, they have faith – which according to Coyne is (one or both – take your pick, or reconcile them if you can):

    “Belief without evidence sufficient to convince any reasonable person.”

    “Belief without substantial evidence.”

  5. Dhay says:

    Interestingly, but perhaps predictably in view of the flak he must be getting for it now it has become better publicised by his FvF, Jerry Coyne has provided us with a second account of his Sgt. Pepper album atheism-conversion experience; the two accounts are different, and they are incompatible.

    The original account, appearing first in a 2008 Chicago Tribune article (but it might well date earlier, the article looks like it has collected quotes from various earlier articles or sources), is one which Coyne has linked to several times in the last few years, starting with his March 30, 2011 blog entitled, “Holiday snaps, northern Virginia”; there, he quoted the passage in full, and though he thought it important enough to correct “Alexandria, Va.” to “[JAC: it was ARLINGTON, Virginia]”, Coyne evidently considered that nothing else in the passage was worthy of correction, clarification or retraction, so it has evidently passed his peer review as being an entirely satisfactory account bar that one detail:

    I finally got to go through some of my possessions that were in my mother’s care when she died. Two of them were notable. The first is the very album I was listening to at the moment I became an atheist. Jeremy Manier explained in an article from the Chicago Tribune, reprinted at the Dawkins site:

    One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album while lying on his parents’ couch in Alexandria, Va.

    Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good. He went on to study how new species evolve, and found the Darwinian view of nature perfectly in tune with his abandonment of faith.

    The good news is that my mother saved the album! So here it is, a witness—indeed, perhaps even a cause—of my youthful godlessness: [Picture of himself holding the album.]

    (Coyne’s link to the RDF website became dead when that site was re-vamped, but the re-printed article can still be found on the old-RDF website at, or you can view it more conveniently at the Chicago Tribune website at

    Note the Sgt. Pepper album is here “perhaps even a cause” of Coyne’s conversion. He echoed this a few days ago, saying, “The vinyl copy of Sergeant Pepper … was responsible for converting me into an atheist”. “Cause”, “responsible”: Coyne is obsessively fixated on his conversion’s being a consequence of playing the Sgt. Pepper album; I suppose it’s because he had no other “cause” credible to himself, nothing else he could think “responsible”, nothing such as adequate intellectual and philosophical grounds.

    I note that although the irrationality of this conversion struck me immediately, surprisingly none of the commenters at Coyne’s blog picked up on it – has Coyne a very unperceptive or uncritically fawning band of followers, or did Coyne perhaps ban and remove criticism. Again.

    On the RDF/old-RDF website, in Comment 13, ‘Wosret’ picked up on it: “This annoys me. I don’t like hearing such arbitrary and illogical “conversion” stories. No better than the guy from the human genome project and his frozen waterfall, in my opinion. I’ve never believed in god, so I don’t know what a conversion is like. However, I would hope that someone gets here through intellectual means. I never always rejected the ideas, when I decided to, it was on intellectual and philosophical grounds. Not because I heard a song or saw a frozen waterfall.” [My emphasis.]

    ‘Wosret’ would probably condemn Coyne for reaching “Belief without evidence sufficient to convince any reasonable person”, or “Belief without substantial evidence.”

    Coyne links to the article again in his August 29, 2011 blog entitled, “How Ricky Gervais became an atheist”, using the link to illustrate “we do have one thing in common: we both went from a believer to an atheist in the space of one hour.” One of the commenters there was a bit more perceptive, and had evidently read between the lines of other blog entries of Coyne’s, especially those telling us Coyne was already taking LSD, and those telling us of the link in Coyne’s thinking between the Beatles’ music and LSD: “Good acid, huh?”

    It’s linked a few more times since, the most recent being just a few days ago, in his May 29, 2015 blog entitled, “On my way home”: “The vinyl copy of Sergeant Pepper, as many of you know, was responsible for converting me into an atheist (see the story here [link])”. Ah, so it was the album which converted Coyne to atheism; I suppose that’s very slightly better than “reasons he still doesn’t understand”; or is it? It seems highly irrational to me.

    This time, the irrationality was picked up on by Commenters 22 and 31: “I didn’t know about the Sgt. Pepper story until now, and I think I should mention that without that knowledge, the reference to it on page xiii of Faith vs. Fact sounded rather weird to me. It reminded me of when Tommy Chong said he played Black Sabbath at 78 speed and saw God”; “I’m not so sure that I follow, but how did listening to a British psychedelic rock album turn you toward atheism? I do not recall any themes in the album promoting it in any of the songs. A Day in the Life? Luck in the Sky with Diamonds?” Coyne’s reply to each was … no reply.


    Coyne’s second, differing account of his Sgt. Pepper album atheism-conversion experience is introduced by his blog post dated June 1, 2015, entitled, “Publicity: I espouse nonbelief in National Geographic, and a podcast with Godless Spellchecker”, where Jerry Coyne links to a telephone interview with him by National Geographic‘, dated May 29, 2015 and entitled, “In Age of Science, Is Religion ‘Harmful Superstition’?”

    Jerry Coyne, author of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible was in high school listening to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album when he had an epiphany: God does not exist. The thought terrified him. But his subsequent work as a geneticist and evolutionary biologist gave him a scientific foundation for his teenage conversion.

    That was the pre-interview introduction, so it is not certain that Coyne himself used the word, “terrified”; but Coyne does not correct it, whereas he does correct the spelling of “T. S. Eliot”, so he has peer reviewed the interview and given his tacit agreement and approval to all else in the second account.

    The interview begins:

    Your journey towards atheism started with an epiphany, at age 17, listening to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. Take us back to that moment.

    I was raised as a reform Jew, which is a hair’s breadth from atheism. … I was in high school when the Sgt. Pepper’s album came out. I was lying on my parents’ couch listening to this new album and all of a sudden it just popped into my mind that everything I’d been taught about God and religion had no evidence behind it. I started sweating, but not because of the heat. I always thought there must be an afterlife. And the sudden realization that that probably wasn’t true made me start shaking and sweating. Ever since then I’ve been an atheist.


    Let’s compare and contrast:

    Original: “For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died.”

    Becomes: “… it just popped into my mind that everything I’d been taught about God and religion had no evidence behind it.”

    In the original version, Coyne didn’t at the time (in 1967, at age 17) understand the “reasons” for it dawning on him that “there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died” – read “causes of”, for plainly Coyne identified no reasons, no rational motivations, and no rational support for his conversion, no intellect, no philosophy, nothing that would satisfy ‘Wosret’ – and even in 2008 he “still” couldn’t identify what “reasons” he had had for conversion; from 2011 to a few days ago, inclusive, Coyne repeatedly linked to the first account without making any attempt at correction, clarification or retraction (beyond “ARLINGTON”), so it was still a case of “’reasons’ he still doesn’t understand …” – still the height of irrationality, even if you factor in a late, irrational, “The vinyl copy of Sergeant Pepper … was responsible for converting me into an atheist” – still the height of irrationality a mere few days ago.

    In this new, improved version, Coyne now represents his youthful self as a rationalist, as an evidentialist, as someone who rejected God and religion for a rational reason, namely lack of evidence. At a stroke the irrationality – the utter absence of reasons, that is represented by “reasons he still doesn’t understand” – that utter irrationality has become instead the rationality of his rejection being based an apparently good reason, a reason which Coyne now says he does understand, and which Coyne implies he understood all along.

    That’s quite a difference from the first account. I suspect that Coyne’s book promotion tour has brought him into contact with a number of people who say, like Commenter 22 above, “the reference to it on page xiii of Faith vs. Fact sounded rather weird to me”; that Coyne has finally realised that to maintain credibility he must re-cast his account as something rational, instead of as rather weird.

    But Coyne’s two accounts are incompatible.

  6. Dhay says:

    I see that in his June 5, 2015 blog post entitled, “Eugenie Scott and Ruth Bancewicz hold a science-religion lovefest”, Jerry Coyne says:

    One sign of the desperation of modern theists is their eagerness to redefine “faith” as something beyond “belief without evidence.” It’s a touchstone of Sophisticated Theology™ that they try to say that faith is something more than what the Bible says (Hebrews 11:1):

    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    And, as we know, the Bible is infallible!

    Wow! I’m a Sophisticated Theologian™! I hadn’t even realised I was a theologian, and now I find I am Sophisticated™, to boot. And my ministers, and probably most, if not all, of the congregation are also practitioners of Sophisticated Theology™.

    More seriously, it’s plain that Coyne’s criteria for Sophisticated Theology™ are abysmally low, calling even those who reach a mere very basic standard, Sophisticated Theologians™. Coyne, despite having claimed he studied theology for “more than two years”, would probably hate to be called a Sophisticated Theologian™, and I have to say I certainly wouldn’t accuse him of having reached that level.

    With Coyne’s “Sophisticated Theology™” serving as a marker for arguments that Coyne finds too difficult to actually address, and which he “counters” by the dismissive hand-waving of the two mere vacuous words, “Sophisticated Theology™”, instead of by counter-arguments, I rather think we can as validly dismiss Coyne’s own arguments — and certainly his one- and two-word vacuities — with a counter-vacuity of our choice.

    Instead of using two magical words, as Coyne does, I propose the one extra-magical word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious™”. (One word to ring them all, and in the light, blind them.) This word should banish any New Atheist anti-Theist arguments Coyne proposes with the same effectiveness as Coyne’s “Sophisticated Theology™” magically banishes Christian arguments.

    Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious™. Yep, I feel it working already.

  7. Dhay says:

    Let’s change Coyne’s prattle slightly, to make it more accurate:

    One sign of the desperation of modern New Atheists is their eagerness to redefine “faith” as “belief without evidence.”

  8. Dhay says:

    In Jerry Coyne’s blog post dated June 26, 2015, entitled “Important note to readers and contributors”, Coyne announces he’s about to go on a big Road Trip, returning about August 8, and outlines how his website will be run in his absence.

    What I find particularly interesting is the end paragraph:

    If I die in a car crash (I haz premonitions), it’s been a good run, and hoist a good glass in my memory. kthxbai.

    And two posts and five and a half hours later, Coyne’s “A farewell felid” post starts with, “I take my leave …” (possibly just from Chicago, but possibly from his readers), and finishes:

    If I die, this will be my last post.

    So Coyne has declared he has had a premonition he will die in a car crash during his Road Trip, and appears to take that premonition seriously. I wish him an uneventful and enjoyable Trip.

    If you read the ‘another interview’ by Five Books, linked by Michael above, you will find reference to “fermions and bosons”, which is a synecdoche for Coyne’s near-total agreement with the extreme philosophical materialist reductionism of Alex Rosenberg, a reductionism in which there is no room for anything supernatural — whatsoever.

    Now it’s not totally clear that a premonition has to involve the supernatural — perhaps he has subconsciously registered the sound of a wheel nut rattling — but if Coyne is saying or implying that he has had a clairvoyant experience, an experience of the supernatural, that hardly accords with his usual supernatural explanations excluding, “fermions and bosons” only, materialism.

  9. Dhay says:

    I see that in the July 6, 2015 post entitled “Open thread: how did you become an atheist?”, Jerry Coyne’s proxies have continued the switch to using the new, ‘improved’, National Geographic interview version of Coyne’s conversion story instead of that more obviously irrational and damaging original version which he has repeatedly referred to over the years.

    But it’s still irrational, and proxy Grania evidently realises that: “Probably few of us had as dramatic an experience as Jerry’s own Road to Damascus deconversion experience where there was one pivotal moment that marked: Here believer; and afterwards no more.

  10. Larry Olson says:

    “When it comes to defining faith, Jerry Coyne can’t make up his mind.”

    When it comes to God, theists can make up their mind. When it comes to heaven, theists can’t make up their mind. Some death cults believe that heaven is all about 72 house maids willing to give you pleasure and fly planes into buildings because of it, other people claim heaven is limited to 27,000 slots, or is it 144,000, or is it only 15 people that are allowed in heaven? (jehovah witness). I purposely made the number of slots wrong because I could care less. It’s very similar to a hard drive with limited space: Jehovah witness heaven has only so much hard drive space available to store people’s avatars.. Maybe Jehovah witnesses should take a look at Nick Bostrom’s simulation joke – maybe this limited slots available in heaven has something to do with heaven being run on a limited computer with limited resources.

    Then you’ve got all the theists that disagree about law systems. Sharia law, a can of worms. No one agrees if Jesus was a liberal or a conservative, but for some reason the bible seems to make him out as a liberal socialist who helps the poor, when in fact 99 percent of people that follow him are right wing capitalists who think the poor are lazy.

    Can’t make up his mind? Try religions and their leaders, and their followers. None of them certainly could ever make up their mind.

  11. Kevin says:

    What does that have to do with Jerry Coyne?

  12. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne, quoted above > One sign of the desperation of modern theists is their eagerness to redefine “faith” as something beyond “belief without evidence.” It’s a touchstone of Sophisticated Theology™ that …

    The verb “to sophisticate” can certainly mean “to mislead or corrupt by sophistry” — though that seems to be an archaic usage — but “sophisticated” does not in any customary usage mean “misled by, corrupted by or produced by sophistry” — which what I suppose Coyne must intend to mean by “sophisticated”.

    Coyne uses this normally very complimentary adjective — it would ordinarily describe theology (and theologians’ thoughts) as complex and subtle — as if it were uncomplimentary, he is surely sneering at theology. I think he has blundered by confusing “sophisticated” (which has a normally complimentary meaning, in this context, which Coyne surely cannot mean) with the uncomplimentary, indeed sneering, “sophistical” which he probably actually meant.

    In his blog posts, Coyne has often added that ™ trademark symbol to indicate he owns and is proud of the evidently novel term (else how could he trademark it?) So I presume he is the source of whatever virus causes one to use “sophisticated”, and which has spread to tildeb and also (as I see on one of my rare looks at his blog) to John Loftus. Seems to be a virus which infects New Atheists

    I wonder whether the compulsion to misuse “sophisticated” is caused by an evidently very contagious virus, a virus which infects New Atheists, a virus which also causes a compulsion to claim that Hebrews 11:1 says that “faith is belief without evidence” or similar.

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