Jerry Coyne has convinced himself science and religion are incompatible at three different levels. Yet what we truly have are three levels of confusion on the part of Coyne.
In my view, the real conflict acts on three levels. First, the methods used to judge propositions as true differs radically and irreconcilably between science and religion. The former uses scripture, revelation, and dogma; the latter all the armamentarium of science: empirical observation, prediction, testing, doubt, peer review, blinded methods, statistics, etc.
First, this just shows how accurate I was in anticipating Coyne’s book argument over a year ago:
In other words, Jerry Coyne has lost the ability to think like a scientist. The entire premise of his whole book is an exercise in cherry picking propped up by straw man argumentation.
First, the straw. Coyne exists in a cartoon version of reality where religion excludes reason and evidence. While there is great diversity among religious people, it is fair to say that the majority of religious people do not eschew reason and evidence.
In other words, while religious people use scripture, revelation, and dogma, most religious people don’t rely solely on scripture, revelation, and dogma.
Secondly, my previous criticism of Harris also applies here:
Conflicting with the method of science (the need for controlled, objective, experimental testing) is irrelevant. Being a good father, being a good husband, and being a good politician, all conflict with the methods of science. But this does not mean being a father, husband, and politician means you are in a zero-sum game with science.
Summary of Level One: Coyne knocks down a straw man position in order to make an irrelevant point.
Second, the outcomes of religious versus scientific approaches to understanding differ: the “truths” arrived at by religion (and I’m talking here about factual truths, like the Resurrection, Muhammed’s reception of the Qur’an from God, the existence of an afterlife, and so on) are not accepted scientifically, though most believers (see below) see them as factual. The inability of religious people to find genuine truth is amply shown by the conflicting factual claims of different faiths (one example: if you’re a Christian, you probably think that the only way to heaven is through accepting Jesus as Savior, while Muslims feel that such a belief will send you straight to Hell).
Now we are in the realm of Bad Science, Bad Theology. Yes, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus is not accepted scientifically. But that’s not because science has shown such a belief to be false. It’s not because science has tested the claim and found it wanting. It’s simply because the claim is outside the domain of science. If anyone doubts me, then point to the scientific study that falsified the resurrection. Explain the experiment that disproved it.
Summary of Level Two: Bad Science and Bad Theology. Explained in a little more detail in my response to Harris trying to peddle this same confused thinking.
Finally, the inability of religion to give convincing evidence for its claims leads to a philosophical incompatibility: since empirical study of the universe has historically advanced our understanding by completely ignoring the divine and supernatural, we see, like Laplace, no need for that hypothesis. In other words, the practice of science is explicitly atheistic, leading, if you’re consistent, to a philosophical view that there’s no evidence for gods.
Inability of religion to give convincing evidence? If we unpack that claim, it simply means “there are no gaps.” In other words, Coyne would have a “need for that hypothesis” ONLY if there was something that could not ever be possibly explained by natural causes – a Gap. In other words, this is God of Gaps reasoning, where Coyne represents the view that such God of the Gaps reasoning is indeed a valid method of reasoning and the problem is that there are no Gaps. Thus, his God of the Gaps logic leads him to argue: No gaps, therefore no God.
Summary of Level Three: Coyne builds his atheism on God of the Gaps reasoning.
So what do we have? Knocking down straw men to make an irrelevant point. Bad science and bad theology. All propped up by God of the Gaps reasoning. That is all that Jerry Coyne and his fellow New Atheists bring to the table.
Look, if you are a New Atheist, or sympathize with these views, you are probably tempted to dismiss my criticisms. You can’t be sure where I am wrong, but you just know I am wrong somewhere. If so, then perhaps you can explain a recent empirical fact. Coyne just made his case in his new book, Faith vs. Fact, a few months ago. Has this book gained any traction in the academic community? Where are the mainstream scientists and philosophers coming out to praise and promote the book? The simple fact is that the larger community of scholars and scientists have essentially shunned Coyne’s thesis and book. They are probably not impressed by tired, old arguments situated in activist apologetics.
Or look at it this way. Essentially the same arguments were made by the militant atheist groups from the old Soviet Union. Does anyone really believe these communist propagandists were true scholars and intellectuals speaking powerful truths? So why think this new crop of atheists are any different when they simply recycle the same old propaganda?
These science vs. religion arguments don’t resonate among scholars and appeal only to militant atheists. That’s because the militant atheists want to use science as a weapon in their culture war. Most scholars are not interested in playing such games.