Another Day in the Bubble of Gnu

Gnu activist Jerry Coyne received a letter from a 13-year-old fan, Linda, who asked him a question as part of a school project:

“Why do people still believe in religion and gods if science has otherwise proved the creation of the planet and evolution, as well as the fact that we don’t have souls, we have brains that create our personalities.”

It’s something of an odd question given that Linda has already been indoctrinated in the Offical Atheist Answer:

I do not know a lot about this subject because articles have been hard to find, but I do know a few important facts. I know people like to believe in gods and religion because either they have been strictly raised in that religion or because they do not want to accept that there is no afterlife, reincarnation, or some heavenly power watching over us. They do not want to accept that we are alone in our accessible universe and that we completely decide our own fate. These facts scare some people, so they look at religion and see that it solves all those problems. I have seen that you agree with some of these views and have elaborated on them in your speeches and presentations. I believe you would be able to help me answer my question because of these facts and your further knowledge on the subject.

Anyway, Coyne decides to hand off her question to his echo chamber:

I am, then, asking readers to take a few minutes and give an answer to this young, questioning unbeliever. I’ve put her question in bold to make it easier to you to find. Please help out if you can, even if you have only a few words. Answers from former believers would be especially valuable.

One of Coyne’s readers, “Heavymetalvomitparty”, did try to answer:

Others likely believe “God exists” for the same reason that you believe “science has proved the fact that we don’t have souls”: namely, someone whom they trust told them so.

In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.

And all that said, I’d encourage you (though I’m sure Mr Coyne won’t actually send my words your way) to not trust Mr Coyne and others like him when it comes to the subject of religion. He has not spent any serious degree of time studying theology, or philosophy, or really anything relevant to your question. If you want to understand what the word “God” means, ask theologians (or monks). If you want to understand why people believe “God” exists, ask philosophers of religions, psychologists, sociologists, and historians — don’t ask a evolutionary biologist who specializes in fruit-fly research.

From the looks of your letter, you’ve already been trusting people like Mr Coyne on these subjects. I’d encourage you to question some of the things you have been told you “know”: that religious people are either purely indoctrinated or purely fear-driven, that brains have been “proven” to create personalities, that scientific theories of origin are in any way relevant to the question of God’s existence, etc. These assumptions are common nowadays, but are promulgated only by people (e.g., Mr Coyne) who don’t know what they’re talking about and haven’t done their theological, philosophical, or even anthropological homework.

Of course, Coyne censors this comment and never allows it to be posted, sheilding Linda from such skepticism. Instead, Coyne waits three days and posts Heavymetalvomitparty’s comment as a stand alone blog entry. Coyne then criticizes the comments and turns it over to his echo chamber who, of course, go on the attack. Heavymetalvomitparty never appears in that thread, most likely because he/she is banned.

So Coyne, who postures as a Champion of Free Speech, asks his readers to comment. A reader with a dissenting view comments, but the comment is censored and never sees the light of day. Instead, Coyne turns the comment into a blog entry several days later and decided to “make an example” of the dissenting voice by never allowing him/her to respond to all the nasty replies that come from Coyne and his echo chamber. Gnu atheist ethics on display.

Let’s have a look at the core of Coyne’s reply.

Frankly, I’m tired of people claiming that those of us who have read considerable theology and philosophy, or were believers in our earlier lives, aren’t qualified to say anything about religion because we’re neither priests nor monks.

Frankly, I’m tired of activists with an axe to grind posturing as if they are behaving as scientists. That Coyne skimmed through several theology books just so he could write a chapter in his anti-religious book does not matter. Did he read with an open mind? Was he interested in truly understanding what these theologians were trying to say? Given that he knew he was writing a book that was supposed to sell to the Gnu atheist choir, it’s safe to assume he read such books from the perspective of pure disconfirmation bias. That is, he went fishing for things that would help him score anti-religion points in an anti-religion book that in turn would help sales.

As for being a “believer” in his early life, that’s laughable. According to Coyne: “I was raised as a reform Jew, which is a hair’s breadth from atheism” and he adhered to a “casual Judaism.” His life as a “believer” was that of a child who kind of thought a god probabaly existed, but all it took was to hear one song play one time and “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.”

Coyne continues:

One thing that we do have is evidence—the evidence that supports scientific contentions—and one thing that theists have is NO EVIDENCE: no evidence supporting the existence or nature of any god. That should be the end of the discussion.

It’s not surprising that Coyne wants to end the discussion with an atheist talking point. The problem is that those of us who have the ability to think at levels more deeply than talking point recital find the NO EVIDENCE assertion is not the end of discussion; it is just the beginning. We’ll overlook the subjective aspect of “evidence” and simply note what happens when we ask someone like Coyne to outline what would count as evidence. As we know, Coyne will provide a laundry list of gaps. Yes, gaps. When Coyne says there is NO EVIDENCE, what he means is there are NO GAPS. Coyne’s atheism thus boils down to this: No gaps, no evidence; no evidence, no God. This god-of-the-gaps atheism is intellectually dishonest, given that Coyne also decries god-the-gaps reasoning as erroneous. So from one side of his mouth, Coyne demands gaps as evidence. Yet from the other side, he would deny a gap as evidence precisely because it is a gap. It would make sense a Gnu activist would want to end any discussion with a game of “heads I win; tails you lose.”

I’m continually amazed at how believers are able to be so vehement in their attacks on atheists when, after all, we’re simply pointing out this lack of evidence.

More distortions of reality. First, many of us don’t attack atheists. We criticize New Atheists. Second, we don’t criticize the Gnus simply for pointing out lack of evidence. We criticize the Gnus because they are extremists who have declared a culture war on religious people, insisting that relegious people be publicly mocked in their militant attempt to rid the world of religion, which they label as Evil. It’s the extreme, bigoted, anti-religious nature of the movement that is being criticized, not some polite reference to there being some lack of evidence.

The more I see of theists, the more I see them as a group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics. And so they grow angry and dismissive, and attack the credentials of anyone who dares comment on God or religion.

At this point, Jerry needs to pause, take a breath, and recognize the simple fact that there is no evidence Heavymetalvomitparty is a theist or believer. The person could easily be an accomodationist or just an atheist who is put off by Coyne. What’s more, Heavymetalvomitparty doesn’t come across as being scared or angry. He/she does come across as dismissive, and throws in some snark, but Coyne has seriously misread this comment.

Perhaps what we have here is projection. After all, the New Atheists are the ones who are well known for being angry and dismissive. And perhaps they are scared – scared by the fact that, after 10 years of intensive effort, they have not been successful in trying to mainstream their anti-religious fervor even among other atheists and agnostics.

Finally, as any fool knows, “trust” in science is not the same thing as “trust” in religious leaders or mentors. Every religious mentor has a different point of view, some completely at odds with those of others. Think of what an imam versus a rabbi or priest might say to someone who “trusts” them, and compare that to the similarity of responses when someone asks several trustworthy biologists what the genetic material is, and how it makes proteins.

Well, for starters, if we were to ask trustworthy biologists how DNA (the genetic material) “makes proteins,” many would point out the genetic material does not make the proteins; ribosomes make the proteins.
Look, what generates the consensus in science is not “reason and evidence.” It’s something called The Experiment. You will find the more the scientific opinion is removed from well-designed, repeatable experiments, the more variation in the scientific opinion. The reason biologists can all agree about DNA as genetic material and the process of protein synthesis is because those topics have been thoroughly and repeatedly probed with the experimental approach.

If we turn to the existence of God, why even think the experimental approach would apply? You would have to engage in some robust theology to make the point that if God existed, his existence/nature could be probed with scientific instruments in the context of repeatable experiments. In other words, you would have to come up with the theology of God as Specimen. Until someone does that, it is silly to compare the consensus generated by the experimental approach to the lack of consensus that exists, in just about every topic, when we are cut off from the experimental approach.

Finally, I think Coyne once again misrepresents the person he censored. I don’t see where Heavymetalvomitparty claimed that trust in science is the same thing as trust in religious leaders. He/she simply pointed out the fact that

In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.

Heavymetalvomitparty goes wrong not in questioning someone’s trust in Coyne because he is not a religious scholar. The reason to distrust Coyne’s answers is simply because he is an activist with an agenda. You can trust Coyne to do one thing – come up with a way, any way, to advance his agenda. For that’s what activists do.

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13 Responses to Another Day in the Bubble of Gnu

  1. itsonlyphotos says:

    (Formerly UpstateIslandersFan) It’s a little frightening how much scientism is creeping into peoples’ worldviews. I think people are starting to attach vague scientific answers to questions which are much more profound than the accounting of the natural world. Heavymetalvomitparty (I love that name) has a good point, which is that questions of origins are secondary to questions of how or why, which is more the domain of religion and philosophy. David Bentley Hart made a good point about Jerry Coyne, which is that no matter how good a geneticist the man may be, he has trouble reasoning himself to the end of a syllogism, which is ironic because Coyne thinks of himself as quite the intellect. It seems that he is quite narrow in what he believes can count as knowledge or worthwhile exploration, which narrows his worldview to an extreme point of ignorance and stupidity. I sense with Coyne that he is a person who has really poor social skills and emotional skills. He seems entirely self-absorbed and thin skinned.

  2. Dhay says:

    I looked for where David Bentley Hart might have written that about Jerry Coyne, and found something very similar that he wrote about Richard Dawkins as part of his review of the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists:

    But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point being made, and it is his unfortunate habit contemptuously to dismiss as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude him. Frankly, going solely on the record of his published work, it would be rash to assume that Dawkins has ever learned how to reason his way to the end of a simple syllogism.

    But I don’t doubt that he could equally as well have written that of Coyne, and perhaps he has, elsewhere.

    The whole review is worth reading. Coyne doesn’t feature in it, though: as Coyne’s blog post dated October 26, 2009 tells us, Coyne contributed only “a cover blurb”; presumably Coyne wasn’t in the top 50 thinking atheists in 2009; I wonder where he ranks now.

  3. Crude says:

    don’t ask a evolutionary biologist who specializes in fruit-fly research.


  4. itsonlyphotos says:

    @ Dhay, the comment Hart made about Coyne was during a presentation he made to University of Virgina religious studies students regarding his book Being, Consciousness and Bliss, which, according to Ed Feser’s blog, Coyne had been reviewing, despite his not having read it. Hart was giving Coyne his due as a geneticist, but was arguing that Coyne is unwilling or unable to use logic in his arguments. I do think it’s interchangeable from one new atheist to the next. They put so much faith in scientific understanding that they strangely dismiss the mind that is relied upon to make any sense of scientific data. I’m not a trained philosopher, however, I think philosophy is an important endeavor. For these people to dismiss it is obnoxious and ironically anti-intellectual.

  5. Dhay says:

    > “I was raised as a reform Jew, which is a hair’s breadth from atheism” … all it took was to hear one song play one time and “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.”

    For Coyne, his conversion is inextricably linked in his own mind to the Sgt. Pepper album; his blog posts and interviews as much testify that he is as fixated on the album as the Page 3 girls of my youth testified that what seemed like the whole previous generation of men were fixated on stockings and suspenders; fetishes (and aversions, likewise) seem to be very easily established, even by one memorable (or unpleasant) experience, and not all of them are sexual.

    It has seemed odd to me that it should be a whole album which was “a witness—indeed, perhaps even a cause—of my youthful godlessness”, and that it should be “The vinyl copy [album] of Sergeant Pepper, as many of you know, was responsible for converting me into an atheist”; the crisis may have lasted “about 30 minutes”, but Jerry Coyne keeps repeatedly referring to a bare “that moment” of conversion: during “that moment” there must have been a particular track playing, perhaps “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, or one of the other twelve tracks; one would very much expect Coyne to identify his conversion not with the album but with the one song playing at “that moment”.

    By referring only to the album, Coyne implicitly tells us he doesn’t actually know which track was playing at “that moment”; which seems odd.

    I note from his blog posts that Coyne was taking LSD at age 16; also that he associated the Beatles strongly with LSD; that this album was widely reputed as being wholly or largely composed under the influence of LSD, which “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was widely supposed to spell out. So we can all easily imagine, can’t we, that while listening for the first time to a “psychedelic rock band” – pop, surely – playing an especially psychedelic new album, one with a track on it spelling LSD, an established LSD user will be sitting on his parent’s couch drinking Pepsi.

    If, on the other hand it was not Pepsi that Coyne ingested (or if the wealth of LSD associations triggered a “flashback” to re-experience the effects of LSD), it makes more sense that it should be the album, not one song, which Coyne has fixated on: for as Sam Harris points out, LSD destroys the sense of time passing …

    … time dilates in ways that cannot be described—apart from merely observing that these experiences can seem eternal.

    … such that probably the only indication of which song it was playing at “that moment” (which, of course, might not have been a moment but an extended duration, how would he have been able to tell) would be that it was one or other of those on the album playing during that mist of now-less subjective eternity.


    In his January 2, 2014 blog post entitled, “Guest post: A reader’s deconversion story”, Coyne says, “some of us who gave up our belief in God easily—like me—have no idea how wrenching it is to abandon deep-seated and lifelong religious convictions.”

    Got that? Coyne converted “easily”; he did not “abandon deep-seated and lifelong religious convictions” (indeed, in his National Geographic interview he testifies he was but “a hair’s breadth from atheism”); he did not find his conversion “wrenching”.

    Yet his present, new, improved account is that “the thought terrified him”, and as a consequence – an ascribed causality which is absent from the original account – he “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.” So, Coyne is shaking and sweating in terror for “about 30 minutes” in his new, improved account; it’s a prolonged terrifying ordeal resulting from abandoning something but “a hair’s breadth from atheism”; it’s a prolonged terrifying ordeal resulting from abandoning a “hair’s breadth” of religious belief; yet Coyne somehow had “no idea how wrenching it is to abandon deep-seated and lifelong religious convictions.”

    Something stinks, here. The old and new accounts are incompatible.

  6. Hey man — I appreciate the post! Thanks. It’s nice to see that others recognized the problems with Coyne’s response too.

    I actually wrote a full response early yesterday ( and linked to it in a comment on Coyne’s post. Predictably enough, though, he hasn’t approved my comment, which means that his readers will never know about it.

  7. Kevin says:


    Coyne’s inability to handle opposing views is why I’ve never bothered posting on his blog, but I found your post there beautiful in its blunt truth.

    If I want to know the evidence for evolution, I will not go to some random young-earth creationist who spent a couple years in school learning biology, and if I want to learn about the evidence for God, I’m not going to go to some random anti-theist who allegedly spent a couple years reading some theology and then wrote an awful book that proves he learned basically nothing.

  8. Dhay says:

    Jerry Coyne says, in the blog post itself, “Several Points: …”. Several indeed, but we can be certain that Coyne didn’t spend much time considering those several points, for he says in the comments:

    I spent almost no time on this. … writing a post like this takes about 10 min.

    I’d say much of that time must have been spent typing.

    With so little time left for reading, understanding and reflecting on heavymetalvomitparty’s actual reply to ‘Linda’, and on planning his own reply before typing it and checking it, it was perhaps inevitable that Coyne’s slapdash methods would have the result that – as heavymetalvomitparty points out – most bits of Coyne’s response wobble haphazardly in irrelevant directions.

  9. Dhay says:

    Dhay > … (or if the wealth of LSD associations triggered a “flashback” to re-experience the effects of LSD) …

    Here’s a quotation from a clinical psychiatrist, commenting on a WHO study reported as, “1 in 20 People Has Hallucinated”; the study attempted to exclude people who had had diagnosed psychotic disorders or attributed the hallucinations to drug use; but:

    Manevitz noted that many people with psychiatric illness do not know that they have a mental condition, and so some people in the study could have had a undiagnosed psychotic disorder. In addition, some people may have experienced hallucinations or delusions as a result of drug use, but they did not attribute the psychotic episode to the drug use because the episode occurred days later, Manevitz said.

    Jerry Coyne could have experienced a one-off psychotic episode while listening to Sgt. Pepper, and not realised what it was. (I draw the line at calling Coyne psychotic, though I note he has an obsession with anti-theism, an obsession with cats — including a talking cat which prattles inanities — and an obsession with ornate boots, so maybe.)

    Two points:

    The first is that LSD-induced hallucinations do not necessarily happen while actually taking LSD but can happen sufficiently later that the user does not make the connection — though the chances are that an LSD user would want to use the Beatles’ new psychedelic pop album to enhance the LSD experience, and use LSD to enhance the experience of the Beatles’ new psychedelic pop album, so my surprise at finding that actually was the case with the young Coyne would be … nil. Personally, I would be far more inclined to ascribe Coyne’s “shaking and sweating to LSD or flashback than to an only very recently remembered terror of the absence of an afterlife he was already a hairsbreadth away from not believing in.

    The second is that, because the approximately 1 in 20 result for hallucinations was obtained by surveying “more than 31,000 people in 18 countries”, plainly hallucinations are a lot more common than is popularly recognised.

    There was also a 1 in 100 result for delusions, which again are plainly a lot more common than is popularly recognised — and that 1 in 100 is those who remembered an episode of delusion (ie not all cases), and who did not remain so deluded that they did not recognise they had been deluded — so I think we can reckon the total number of delusions somewhat higher.

    Had Coyne been included in the survey, I expect he would have reported no (non-LSD) hallucinations and no delusions. But I remember, years ago, being warned: if we get called to the local psychiatric hospital, be very wary of people claiming to be doctors, many of whom are quite convincing because they believe they are the doctors, they are not the patients.

  10. Dhay says:

    In his June 18, 2015 blog post entitled, “Parrot cries like a baby”, Jerry Coyne appears to show the beginnings of self-awareness:

    Looks like today’s an almost all-biology day, which is fine with me; we need a day without godless ranting!

  11. Dhay says:

    In his June 17, 2015 blog post entitled, “Jesus @ #wrongskin”, Jerry Coyne uses a cartoon he found to rightly poke fun at the idea that Jesus looked like an ethnic Northern European.

    Yep, Jesus was Jewish, Middle-Eastern, and probably looked quite like…

    …Jerry Coyne.

    (I’d love to have PhotoShopped Coyne’s head into the cartoon picture, and displayed it here, but don’t know how.)

  12. Dhay says:

    In his December 15, 2015 blog post entitled “SCIENCE tells us what Jesus looked like!”, Jerry Coyne once again parades his Jesus mythicism; and once again rightly pokes fun at the idea that Jesus looked like an ethnic Northern European, linking to an AOL news item and video.

    Except the reconstruction and picture of what Jesus might have looked like — really the reconstruction is of a typical male Jew of the time — are not exactly news, for I remember the story and identical picture first appearing quite a few years ago. Coyne obviously doesn’t get out much, or keep up with the news.

    If one assumes that no major changes have taken place in two thousand years, then with the addition of a suntan and appropriately historical hair on face and head, Jerry Coyne’s own face could give us a good idea of what Jesus might have looked like; or Sam Harris’ face; or, if Myers is derived from Meier, perhaps PZ’s face likewise.

    It’s amusing to think that two or more of the most in-your-face New Atheists could be convincing Jesus impersonators.

  13. Dhay says:

    > Except the reconstruction and picture of what Jesus might have looked like — really the reconstruction is of a typical male Jew of the time — are not exactly news, for I remember the story and identical picture first appearing quite a few years ago. Coyne obviously doesn’t get out much, or keep up with the news.

    Yep, it appeared as long ago as 2001.

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