How Deeply Atheism Can Corrupt Rationality

Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago biologist, is nothing if not dependable. When he takes religion to task for errors in thinking, you can always count on him demonstrating difficulties with rationality. Most recently he was upbraiding Father Alexander Lucie-Smith for writing in the Catholic Herald. He quotes Fr. Lucie-Smith:

Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” [JAC: That quote comes from Dawkins’s River out of Eden.] …

What the statement seems to be conveying, rather than a scientific observable truth, is an existential statement of belief about the nature of the universe. While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement. But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

Then he insists in response that Dawkins was making an inference from evidence. Well, so be it; that’s exactly what Dawkins was doing. It’s a bad inference, an unsupportable one, but an inference nonetheless. For example, Coyne says the problem of evil proves there is no God, but in fact the logical version of the POE was long ago shown to be toothless. Further, when Coyne speaks of “no apparent reason” for suffering, he goes well beyond science into philosophical reasoning; or perhaps rather, he fails to move into such reasoning. The world is full of truths that are not apparent, and suffering that has understandable explanations. If the reason for suffering isn’t apparent to Coyne, then maybe he’s not looking for it in the right place.

Then Coyne speaks (with full italics) of “the complete lack of evidence for a deity.” I don’t think he knows what “evidence” means. Or “complete.” Or “lack.” Or “deity.” There are libraries full of evidences for God. Maybe he doesn’t like those evidences. Maybe he thinks they fail to prove the case for God. To say, however, that there is no evidence is to declare one’s ignorance. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

“Evidence,” by the way, is any information E relating to some proposition P such that the knowledge of E’s truth increases our confidence in the truth of P, relative to our confidence in P’s truth if E is unknown or is known to be false. That is of course a definition of good evidence; there is also spurious evidence. If E is thought to be true when it is in fact false, it is spurious evidence for P; or if the relation between E and P is not actually of the sort that E ought to boost confidence in P, then again E is spurious evidence.

Now perhaps Coyne wants to say that absolutely every piece of evidence for God is spurious. If so then he is again displaying his ignorance, or perhaps his biases, for he says that if there were miracles, regenerated limbs, answered prayer, then that would be evidence. But there actually are miracles being documented around the world daily. There is answered prayer. And there are many, many other forms of evidence for God of other sorts. His bias prevents him from crediting any of this.

He goes on,

Every bit of observational evidence previously adduced by religion for a God: creationism, the existence of morality, the motions of the planets, has given way to science. Science has never given way to religion. Thus there’s every expectation that the Last Redoubt of Natural Theology, the “fine-tuning of the universe” and the existence of physical laws, will also be explained by science. It’s more than just an unsubstantiated assumption, then, that the universe doesn’t care for us: it’s a judgment based on evidence.

No, not every bit of observational evidence has given way to science. The humanness of humans, including free will, consciousness, moral worth, and so on, has not given way to science. Coyne denies free will, and he thinks science has led him to that conclusion, but in fact what led him to it was his assumption that every event is explainable in scientific terms. Here’s how his thinking on it works:

  1. No event occurs that is not explainable (in principle at least) in scientific terms.
  2. Free will could not be explainable in scientific terms.
  3. Therefore free will does not exist.
  4. Therefore “free will” provides no evidence for the existence of phenomena that are unexplainable in scientific terms.

But 4 depends on 3, and 3 depends on 1 and 2, and 1 depends on 4; he is arguing in a classic circle.

I could mention a number of other phenomena that remain unexplained by science: meaning in the universe, the first life, and yes, fine-tuning. His hope in an explanation for that is a fine statement of faith, substantially short on evidence other than extrapolation from history. If history teaches us anything, it’s dangerous to pin one’s faith on extrapolations.

Finally, quoting Fr. Lucie-Smith and then responding, Coyne says,

Is this what Professor Dawkins believes? Is this what modern atheists believe? It does sound pretty close to the quote from Dawkins above. But if he believes this how can he believe in an ordered universe, one that is susceptible to rational and scientific observation?

Since when can one see science as “nonsensical” if there is no intrinsic (i.e., God-given) meaning to physical phenomena? Science works, whether it’s done by an atheist or a believer. Is it nonsensical to give antibiotics to an infected atheist, or for an atheist to develop new drugs? That is a meaningful endeavor regardless of whether there is a god. Suffering is relieved, regardless of whether the moral view that suffering is bad comes from God or an atheist. I swear, when I hear an educated priest make statements so palpably false, it makes me see how deeply religion can corrupt rationality.

I swear, when I hear an educated biologist make statements so palpably unaware of what he’s talking about, it makes me see how deeply atheism can corrupt rationality.

Here’s what he missed, in the unlikely case it wasn’t obvious enough already. Fr. Lucie-Smith wasn’t saying belief in God gives meaning to physical phenomena, or the effectiveness of science, or to medicine. He wasn’t saying belief in God is responsible for the existence of morality. He was saying it depends on whether there is “intrinsic (i.e. God given meaning to physical phenomena.” Note that my quote there is from Coyne himself, and he got that much right. But then he jumps inexplicably from the question of whether God gives meaning to the question of who believes or doesn’t believe that God gives meaning. And then he calls the priest “corrupted” in his “rationality for it! (Note to Jerry Coyne: the existence or non-existence of meaning is not the same as the belief or non-belief in God as the meaning-giver, which is not the same as the ability for believers or non-believers to explain the existence of meaning. Got that?)

Coyne is dependable: dependably irrational on issues like these. He is demonstrably wrong this time as he has been in the past.

So having said that, and I hope that’s clear enough, let me add this: there is something terribly tragic in corrupted rationality. It harms the carrier, and it spreads like contagion. Coyne needs to be called out (again) for his smug professorial errors. At the same time, in this universe he considers “blind, pitiless, and indifferent,” there remains room to open our eyes to a fellow human being, to pity him, and to pray for him.