Update again, 10/20/11: I bid a hearty welcome to visitors from Dr. Coyne’s website. (I appreciate the link, Dr. Coyne.) He seems to have a policy of not allowing my comments to remain on his site, except for those that he can twist to suit his own purposes, as I have indicated in my earlier updates here. For that reason I will not be trying to join your conversation, but you’re welcome to join mine, or (since he brought it up) my take on God and genocide. Disagreement and debate are quite welcome here, under the reasonably civilizing terms of what I call the “Starbucks Standard.” (Discussion on the God and genocide article closed automatically 90 days after publication, as is my policy for all blog entries.)
Update, 3:45 pm, 8/4/11: See below concerning Dr. Coyne’s “judicious silence” in response to most of this.
Update 2, 4:10 pm, 8/4/11: Dr. Coyne wrote in response to a comment of mine,
It’s “Coyne”, Gilson. You can’t even get my damn name right. You hurtin’ for trafffic?
I answered him with a comment of apology for my iPhone’s auto-correct function changing it (from “Coyne” to “Cony”) and for my not noticing that before I hit the “post” button. As of right now it appears he deleted my comment, making it appear I made that mistake out of ignorance or stupidity. That’s dishonest and dishonorable. I call you out on that, too, Dr. Coyne.
************ End updates; original post follows************
Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago biologist and author of Why Evolution Is True, has observed (quite empirically and scientifically) that he can do good, even though he is an atheist. This made the pages of USA Today. It’s not clear to me what made that such big news. Coyne places it in context of the evolution controversy:
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American’s biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. “Evolution,” many argue, “could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul.”
Coyne tells us this is wrong; it could not be God who did that. I got word of this article from SteveK, who emailed me with it and added, “Coyne is out of his league.” I agree. Jerry Coyne is an outstanding biologist who has stepped outside of his field of expertise, and it shows. I want to speak directly to him now.
Dr. Coyne, your acknowledged excellence as a natural scientist does not extend to matters theological or philosophical. On at least one matter in this USA Today article you are demonstrably wrong. You point to multiple allegedly immoral acts of God in the Old Testament, and say,
Now, few of us see genocide or stoning as moral, so Christians and Jews pass over those parts of the Bible with judicious silence.
Judicious silence? My own recent articles on this topic run to some 9,000 words, plus hundreds of comments in conversation with skeptics and atheists. Included in those 9,000 words are reviews of two books on the topic, which in turn cite dozens of other books and articles. These books, one of which was written by the president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, are quite in the mainstream of Christian discussion. A few years ago Timothy Keller, the prominent pastor of a church of 5,000 in Manhattan, included discussion on it in his bestseller The Reason for God. We are not being silent on this. You are, in other words, utterly wrong. Yet you speak as if having authority on the subject.
It seems to me there are but two options. Either you misstated the facts because you do not know what you are talking about, in which case you have taken up a voice of authority for no good reason; or else you knowingly, intentionally misstated the facts. Maybe there’s a third option. If so please let me know. I am unable to think of what it might be, other than culpable ignorance on the one hand or else lying on the other. Neither of those fits your position as a respected scientist and academic.
Dr. Coyne, I call you out on that.
I was surprised by your cavalier handling of the Euthyphro dilemma, the issue from Plato you relied on (though not using its name) to try to prove that “morality itself — either in individual behavior or social codes — simply cannot come from the will or commands of a God.”
I understand the limitations of a short print article. You can only say so much, and it is necessary to condense a point. Still you simply cannot pretend that you have authority to use language like “simply cannot” here. You cannot honorably and in good conscience pretend that you have the last word on the subject. You cannot pretend that Christians and Jews have never noticed the Euthyphro question, or that we have never offered a theistic solution (here, for example). What does a scientist and professor have to do with pronouncing an issue like this settled: an issue that is out of your field, and on which you have not even acknowledged the ongoing conversation?
Dr. Coyne, I call you out on that.
I am sure that as a researcher you understand the value of thinking for yourself. I would venture to guess that you think skeptics and atheists are more free-thinking than religious people. In view of that I want to call you out yet one more time. Your USA Today article is a re-hash. It’s nothing but Internet atheist talking points. It’s all been said before, and answered, and said, and answered. Do you have any original thoughts on the subject, I wonder? Can you think freely about these things?
As for your ability to do good, and secular morality in general, I leave you with a comment I myself have borrowed, although unlike you I will identify its source, Romans 2:14-15:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
Theologians down through the centuries have recognized this passage and others like it as teaching “common grace.” It is one of Christianity’s core teachings; were you even aware of it? (Is this, too, part of your range of culpable ignorance?) The Bible itself tells us we can recognize and practice moral good without knowing the Scriptures. It also tells us we can be immoral. You have shown us you can be moral as an atheist, which is no surprise; it’s a perfect fit with Christian theology. You have also shown us you can be unoriginal and either dishonest or else authoritatively (and therefore culpably) ignorant.
It’s not the least bit impressive, and I don’t know why we Christians ought to let you get away with nonsense like this.
The other day I urged Christians to refuse to pretend to know what we do not, partly because that kind of behavior contributes to an anti-intellectual mood in culture. You, Dr. Coyne, are contributing to anti-intellectualism the same way. And by your example in this article you are not noticeably contributing to any improvement in ethics.