Tom Gilson

Jerry Coyne’s Line In the Sand

Yesterday in a very quick post I pointed to an inconsistency in Jerry Coyne’s New Republic article, “Seeing and Believing,” which is a critical review of two new books by the theistic evolutionists Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Today I must mention several things I really appreciate about what he wrote, and offer some suggestions about what it it may mean.

My first appreciation is this: far too often when Intelligent Design opponents speak of it in terms of creationism, they leave their terms vague. “Creationism” is spat out as an epithet, almost never defined. That’s just never helpful, in view of all the multiple competing denotations and connotations of the word. Coyne, bless him, tells us what he means by it:

But regardless of their views, all creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God’s image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called “irreducible complexity.” This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God.

There are some points to criticize in that definition, especially with respect to the relationship of creationism and Intelligent Design. I have made corrections of that sort often enough in the past, so this time I’ll leave them for others to handle if they wish. Here is what’s more interesting to me. Let’s take this as a working definition for now, for the sake of seeing what it leads to. More specifically, given Coyne’s definition of creationism, what does he consider is wrong with it? The answer, as it turns out, is not what one would expect.

My second note of appreciation is for the careful way Coyne spells out his answer to that important question. He places the entire relationship of religion and science under scrutiny, presenting some very helpful, accurate analysis along the way. For example, some liberal theologians water down religion to make it compatible with evolution, which leaves it, he says, “a hairsbreadth from pantheism,” or “leaves God out completely.” In this he is exactly right. To achieve that compatibility in truth, “a proper solution must harmonize science with theism;” and he correctly recognizes that this theism ought to be of the sort that is “actually understood and practiced by human beings,” not by ivory tower theorists.

This sets the stage for his appreciation and then his criticism of Giberson’s and Miller’s books. Neither of these authors is friendly towards Intelligent Design, much less toward any of the earlier manifestations of “scientific creationism.” Miller is one of ID’s more vocal critics, possibly the most effective of them all. His particular effectiveness comes from his not presenting much of a theological axe to grind: he is a practicing Catholic, a vocal believer in God. Giberson, too, though not as prominent in the debate as Miller is, criticizes ID from the standpoint of a believer in God.

Coyne says several positive things about their critiques of design. Then, in preparation for his criticism, he takes aim himself against not only ID but also the general category of religious truths. Religious truth, he says, is fundamentally flawed:

What, then, is the nature of “religious truth” that supposedly complements “scientific truth”? The first thing we should ask is whether, and in what sense, religious assertions are “truths.” Truth implies the possibility of falsity, so we should have a way of knowing whether religious truths are wrong. But unlike scientific truths, religious ones differ from person to person and sect to sect. And we all know of clear contradictions between the “truths” of different faiths. Christianity unambiguously claims the divinity of Jesus, and many assert that the road to salvation absolutely depends on accepting this claim, whereas the Koran states flatly that anyone accepting the divinity of Jesus will spend eternity in hell. These claims cannot both be “true,” at least in a way that does not require intellectual contortions.

Coyne’s problem with religious truth is similar to that stated by Tom Clark: we don’t have an adequate test for its truth or falsity. Coyne should realize, I hope, that just because religions disagree, that is no proof that all of them are wrong, or that a wholesale rejection of a spiritual view of life is justified. He seems not to be aware that religions are subject to rational and evidential tests, which, though they may not in all cases be conclusive, are nevertheless strongly indicative of which beliefs are worthy of being held.

Be that as it may, in making his complaint about religious truth, Coyne draws a firm line in the sand. Though on the surface they may seem to be allies among those who battle against Intelligent Design or creation science, Coyne considers Miller and Giberson to be virtually creationists themselves.

Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God….

Besides his “aesthetic design” argument, Giberson offers another reason for his faith–we might call it the argument from convenience….

This touching confession reveals the sad irrationality of the whole enterprise–the demoralizing conflict between a personal need to believe and a desperation to show that this primal need is perfectly compatible with science.

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified.

And now we are ready to answer the question, what is the problem with creationism, as Coyne sees it? And what is the problem with Intelligent Design? Astonishingly, it’s not that he disagrees with ID’s scientific findings! Otherwise how could he lump staunch evolutionists like Miller and Giberson together with ID proponents or other “creationists?” On this evidence, is it too much to suppose that Coyne would reject ID even if Behe’s and Dembski’s arguments for it were widely accepted?

The question isn’t about the science at all, is it?

No, it’s not the science, it’s the worldview behind the debate. And here is my final note of at least partial appreciation for what Coyne has done here: he has succeeded in making it clear that for him (and likely for others) the ID question is a matter of worldview. I call it “partial appreciation,” because I’m not entirely sure Coyne realizes what he has done. He has drawn his line in the sand, and where he places his friends and his opponents has nothing to do with their science; it’s about their religion.

It is for him a religious battle, and his position is a religious one—not that he is religious himself, but that his position is defined by his own view of religion. This is what he has accused ID of doing, and yet he has done it himself.

I’m glad he has made that so plainly apparent, whether he sees it himself or not.

Recent Related Posts:
A Man of Great Faith
Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Whose Rhetorical Maneuvering?

5 thoughts on “Jerry Coyne’s Line In the Sand

  1. Hello. My worldview is reality. A religious worldview is a rejection of reality. It should be obvious only one worldview could be correct and it should be obvious reality is the only worldview that makes sense. God is just another word for magic, and magic is not real.

    I have a few things to say about creationism and intelligent design. I think people who pretend these are different ideas are being dishonest. Invoking creationism is the same as invoking supernatural magic. Invoking intelligent design is the same as invoking supernatural magic. There might be minor differences between the two ideas, but both ideas invoke magic, and nothing could be more childish than that.

    You talked about “creation science” and that’s an extremely dishonest thing to say. Creation is not science, and intelligent design creation is not science. They are beliefs in magic, and even the most religious scientist knows he can’t invoke magic to solve a scientific problem.

    I feel sorry for Christians because they don’t know what they’re missing. The idea that everything we see can be explained by science makes a person free. A world without magic god fairies is a wonderful place. It’s not easy to explain. You got to experience a life free from religious insanity to be able to understand what it’s like.

  2. Let us know if you ever manage it, bob. You’ll know you’re getting close when you realize that design is actually a real thing, not magical mysterious fairy-stuff.

  3. @bobxxx:

    I agree only one approach could be correct, and that reality is the only worldview that makes sense. It’s gratifying to see that we’re in agreement on that much, at least.

    I note your opinion that creationism and intelligent design are the same. This was the topic that I decided to pass over in the blog post, because I’ve covered it so often before. Creationism is defined in multiple different ways, and under some of those definitions, ID is a form of creationism. That would be true under Coyne’s definition, for example. Since you brought it up, I’m going to go ahead and write a blog post on it again. Stand by for an hour or two for that, please.

    both ideas invoke magic, and nothing could be more childish than that.

    Are you familiar with the term self-referential irony?

    You talked about “creation science” and that’s an extremely dishonest thing to say…. They are beliefs in magic, and even the most religious scientist knows he can’t invoke magic to solve a scientific problem.

    Thank you for that admission: religious scientists know they can’t invoke magic to solve a scientific problem. I don’t know of any who would even think of doing that.

    You see, this word “magic,” bobxxx, is not unlike what I said above about definitions of creationism. (I noted my appreciation for Coyne’s taking the time to define his term.) In this context, you’re using “magic” as another epithet to spit out. What does “magic” mean? And how does that relate to the conception of a Creator God? Or is it just a word you can toss out like a thought-grenade and expect it to explode all over us?

    The idea that everything we see can be explained by science makes a person free.

    Free from what? Free for what? I’d like to know more about what you mean. Jesus Christ makes us free from the true guilt of being alienated from God; and he makes us free for living a life of love, service, joy, peace, purpose, and meaning.

    Did you know, by the way, that many, many scientists say that if everything can be explained by science, then that makes human freedom a total illusion? That’s not “creationist dogma.” That’s standard naturalism in at least one of its common forms.

  4. bob,

    The idea that everything we see can be explained by science makes a person free.

    How does science explain the concept of being made a free person?

  5. “I feel sorry for Christians because they don’t know what they’re missing. The idea that everything we see can be explained by science makes a person free. A world without magic god fairies is a wonderful place. It’s not easy to explain. You got to experience a life free from religious insanity to be able to understand what it’s like.”

    Good Heavens, Bob, don’t you think some of us know *precisely* what we’re missing, having once been non-Christians and even atheists? Do you have the slightest idea what *you’re* missing, Bob?

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