How Deeply Atheism Can Corrupt Rationality

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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.

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33 Responses to “ How Deeply Atheism Can Corrupt Rationality ”

  1. To repeat again and again:

    To reject God or deny His existence is a direct affront to the First Commandment. The Commandments are there NOT to please God but to help us, well, stay human. (As Andrew’s link under a separate cover noted: it is a JOY to be what we are made to be, and even a greater JOY to become what we should become.)

    In other words, a violation of the First Commandment is a grave sin–proximately against the perp; ultimately against God the Creator.

    The result of sin is, proximately, the corruption of human nature… ultimately, it leads to death (Romans 6:23).

    One of the capacities of human nature is rationality.

    Therefore, the capacity for reason in the sinner is corrupted to the extent the person is culpable.

    Therefore, the sinner’s human nature is denigrated–the sinner dehumanizes themselves.

    What has atheism bequeathed to the world? Mass murder, genocide, ontological reductionism, dehumanization, will-to-power, power over the weak… death, by any other name.

  2. “the complete lack of evidence for a deity.”

    What Coyne means is that there’s no good, convincing evidence that the imaginary friend of so many people exists. And that’s a statement of fact. If there was, surely someone would have won the Noble Price (and not just one) for demonstrating that there is such a thing as an unembodied, immaterial mind (which, btw, makes as much sense as the idea of an unembodied, immaterial digestion, so it’s not even wrong), and that one such mind (God) created the Universe, thus solving the biggest mystery there is: how the Universe came to be.
    You think there’s good evidence for your God, Tom? Make sure you send it to Stockholm. In fact, that’s all unbelievers need to say in response to the pretenses of the faithful that they have evidence for God. Unless you mean “bad” evidence, that is.

    P.S. Coyne knows very well what “evidence” means, he’s a well-known scientist scientist. Unlike you. Which is why people generally are interested in what he has to say, not someone whose “expertise” is in fairology, sorry theology.

  3. “There is answered prayer.”

    nonsense. not a single scientific study involving intercessory prayer have found any (good) evidence that it works, and surely there would’ve been an abundance of such evidence if it did. Now, you can always take refuge in the standard shtick that God wants to remain largely hidden, so that he doesn’t coerce people to believe in him. which, of course makes the whole “there’s (good) evidence for God” point moot.

    “But there actually are miracles being documented around the world daily”

    there are miracle claims that are being reported, and as of yet, not one is supported by convincing evidence.

    “The humanness of humans, including free will, consciousness, moral worth, and so on, has not given way to science. ”

    maybe not, though some have. but then, none of them are discussed in the context of ridiculous theistic dogmas from the Iron Age, which has been almost entirely chased out of academia, (the only exception is philosophy of religion).

    “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.”

    that’s just pathetic. I’d suggest to you, if you want to pity someone, I’d say it should be those people who believe that Satan literally exists and is out to get you, miracles occur, prayers are answered, an uneducated, deluded rabbi was resurrected from the dead, and so on., and not someone like Coyne whose naturalism is practically the “orthodoxy” in academia (not the lunatic beliefs of Christians or Muslims which are considered on par with belief in unicorns, and just as disreputable)

  4. Duly noted.

    There is no proof for the existence of God that would satisfy a Nobel committee. That’s perfectly consistent with Christian theism, and your objections display your confusion of evidence vs. proof.

    Perhaps Coyne knows what “evidence” means—not that he demonstrates it, but he is, as you say, a scientist, and that makes him (if your implication there is accurate) one of the only persons in the world who understands what evidence is all about. I guess you think no other profession deals in evidence. That’s an odd stance to take up, but again, we’ll register it as duly noted.

    Anyway, maybe he knows what evidence means or maybe not. The more applicable question is whether you do.

  5. I also note that you only accept a certain kind of evidence: quantifiable and empirical. I note additionally that you reject miracle claims without having apparently given any thought to what those claims contain. I suggest you read Keener’s Miracles. I suggest you also give up your scientism: it is a failed epistemology, whether one is a theist or not.

  6. AOR,

    Coyne consistently demonstrates that he has no understanding of what the word God even means let alone the evidence put forward for God. Your drivel reveals the same lack of understanding.

    Coyne knows very well what “evidence” means, he’s a well-known scientist scientist.

    Coyne is a biologist, he knows what counts as evidence in the field of biology. There are questions other than biological ones and for those we consider different types of evidence. His expertise in biology does not automatically confer on him expertise in other areas.

  7. While we’re at it, AOR21, do you consider Coyne a good spokesperson for your position? What is your assessment of his overall logic? His circular reasoning, which I’ve identified above? His inability to comprehend the point he thinks he’s rebutting?

  8. @AgeOfReasonXXI:

    What Coyne means is that there’s no good, convincing evidence that the imaginary friend of so many people exists.

    Then Coyne does not know how to write.

    And that’s a statement of fact. If there was, surely someone would have won the Noble Price (and not just one) for demonstrating that there is such a thing as an unembodied, immaterial mind (which, btw, makes as much sense as the idea of an unembodied, immaterial digestion, so it’s not even wrong), and that one such mind (God) created the Universe, thus solving the biggest mystery there is: how the Universe came to be.

    The only fact right before us is that you are an irrational ignoramus. Let me count some of the egregious errors, sophomoric fallacies, etc. in this short but overtly idiotic paragraph:

    1. The presupposition that the question whether God exists is a *scientific* question.

    2. The presupposition that only empirical evidence, of the sort trafficked in the modern empirical sciences, is relevant in deciding the question.

    3. The idea that proving that “God exists” is the same as proving that an “unembodied, immaterial mind” exists.

    4. The idea that “unembodied, immaterial mind” is self-contradictory. If you have a proof of this why don’t you send it to a peer-reviewed Philosophy journal as you have just defeated a large portion of, if not all, dualists from Plato onwards. That makes you the greatest philosopher in the history of mankind, so I am eager to see your proof.

    5. For the record it is “Nobel Prize” not “Noble Price”, though I am hardly surprised that you cannot tell the difference between the two.

    6. There are several arguments (some better than others) that show that the Universe *must* have been created. What they do not answer, and *cannot* answer is *how* God did it. And before you spout anymore nonsense (one can always hope), the specific way I am framing the question, Science *cannot* answer this question as well. And before you spout anymore nonsense (one can always hope), let me warn you that contrary to you or Jerry Coyne I do know what I am talking about since I have actually studied physics.

    not a single scientific study involving intercessory prayer have found any (good) evidence that it works, and surely there would’ve been an abundance of such evidence if it did.

    Scientific studies of intercessory prayer are worthless as the very nature of what it purports to prove shows (hint: would you take your wife or girlfriend to a lab and experimentally test her loyalness? What do you think would be her attitude?). As far as abundance of evidence, ask *any* Christian commenting on this blog. That evidence is hardly convincing? Fine, I am not selling it as compelling either.

  9. Coyne wrote:

    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.

    That’s a good example of what philosopher of science Karl Popper termed “promissory materialism.”

  10. but then, none of them are discussed in the context of ridiculous theistic dogmas from the Iron Age, which has been almost entirely chased out of academia, (the only exception is philosophy of religion).

    All bow to Academian Orthodoxy. Although, the “chasing out” of some of those Iron Aged (hey, at least you got the period correct) foundational assumptions has led us down some pretty ugly paths. But, such are the sacrifices one makes for Science® and the preservation of guilt-free sinning.

  11. That’s a good example of what philosopher of science Karl Popper termed “promissory materialism.”

    It’s their own version of the second coming, the parousia of science.

  12. @AOR
    When are you going to present reasoned arguments, without the ever present (and obnoxious) fallacy of argument by ridicule and chronological snobbery? Just once I’d like to see reasoned, rational discourse from you, supported by real citations from real references – something that shows you have considered and examined the data on both sides of the issues being discussed.

  13. Wow Tom Gilson, there are so many holes in your diatribe here I am quite surprised you chose to publish it. I guess circular logic will always bring you home.

  14. @14 Name one specific example of “circular logic,” and reference a standard definition against which we can compare.

  15. @Russ (#14) are you actually going to follow up on this with a real discussion? Are you going to substantiate your claim?

  16. This article, from the ASA web site, is a nice complement to Tom’s Divine Hiddeness post. I especially like this statement

    Although it isn’t stated directly in the Bible, God seems to prefer a balance of evidence: there is enough reason to believe if we want to believe, but not enough to intellectually force belief against our will. Instead of overpowering us with undeniable logic or mighty miracles until we grudgingly give up and give in, God wants us to want to come to Him. With this balance there is authentic free will, and the choice is primarily made not by intellect, but by heart and will. * A balance is also needed for developing the “living by faith” character so highly valued by God. In a world where it may seem justifiable to be intellectually agnostic, God wants a non-agnostic faith, a total spiritual commitment, a true repentance followed by a complete trust in God that is manifested in all thoughts and actions of daily living. {* God also draws us to himself through the loving power of the Holy Spirit; this page won’t discuss questions about Calvinism, re: human responsibility and divine sovereignty }

    This is also a good article.

  17. Coyne wrote:

    Science has never given way to religion.

    It seems to me that Coyne is also is guilty of creating the false dichotomy that religion and science are irreconcilable. Religions such as Christian theism are not at war with science, rather it is the “scientism” that Coyne champions that is at war with religion.

  18. It looks like russ has run away… and aor is full of his usual nonsense and ignorance… Sigh…

    Anyway, have you folks seen this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUxECgPxyEw&sns=em ? It’s a ~three-min video titled “I Am Sin”. I’m not sure the producers noticed the strange conflation of “am” with the privation of good…

    See the other ignitermedia.com videos as well, like “Regrets” and “Come Awake!”

    And this is for the “oh my… they can’t be that stupid?!?” file: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mind-reviews-the-self-illusion

  19. @Tom Gilson:

    The current go-to (Aristotelian in mode) demolition attack against what Tyler Burge named “neurobabble” is Bennet and Hacker’s Philosophical foundations of Neuroscience.

    Feser, in his long series reviewing Alex Rosenberg’s latest book, made some comments on Libet’s experiments, drawing from Bennet and Hacker’s (along others, like Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind). You can read it here.

  20. Tom has my full support in attacking Coyne’s sloppy reasoning – but why are we to suppose this is a corruption of atheism? One doesn’t have to look hard to find theists making the same sloppy mistakes all without the benefit of atheism.

  21. Lots of Christians do lots of stupid things, yet Christianity opposes sin and stupidity–it raises up, it points up. It tells people: you can do better, you were meant for better things. We won’t get there without Grace, but at least its always excelsior.

    What possibly could “better” mean for atheism?

    Atheism is precisely what is animating Coyne: atheism is always looking down–least common denominator: it leaves a body-count trail with no apologies, it is reductionist, it is ANTI-rational, no free will, no objective good or evil, no natures, and now no identity (echos: Luke 8:30 “we are legion!” and the Borg). Atheism is–literally–demonic.

    Next question.

  22. Unfortunately, waxing romantic about Christianity does not actually answer the question posed. You can say Christianity “points up” all you want, but Christians seem no more or less vulnerable from logical fallacy and bad philosophy than anyone else.

  23. 25.Unfortunately, waxing romantic about Christianity does not actually answer the question posed. You can say Christianity “points up” all you want, but Christians seem no more or less vulnerable from logical fallacy and bad philosophy than anyone else.

    This is true. So does that make Coyne’s and Dawkin’s apostles the atheistic equivalent of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson fans? If so, what does that say about the state of atheism today?

  24. d asks,

    why are we to suppose this is a corruption of atheism?

    Partly because Coyne had written,

    I swear, when I hear an educated priest make statements so palpably false, it makes me see how deeply religion can corrupt rationality.

    It’s perfectly wrong and perfectly idiotic. So my post was a bit of tit-for-tat, except for one thing: where he thought he had identified irrationality in the priest, he was wrong. Where I highlighted Coyne’s irrationality, I was right.

    Now, I agree that theists can be irrational and often have been. I even agree that they can (for example) distort history.

    The difference between theism and atheism is that atheism is inherently distorted, and mistakes like Coyne’s are part and parcel of that error. Further, Christianity takes it that truth has an ontological frame that makes it inherently right–morally right, existentially right, relationally right, ontologically right. Atheists can and often do seek the truth; they can and often do (to at least some extent) discover the truth. But just atheism per se cannot explain why sexism is wrong, it cannot explain why truth-seeking is right.

  25. d: Tom has my full support in attacking Coyne’s sloppy reasoning – but why are we to suppose this is a corruption of atheism?

    Because atheists like Coyne promote themselves as some type of champion of reason and evidence. So it’s a truth in advertising issue. Here are the next questions you should ponder:

    1. How is it that a scientist like Coyne could so easily find himself promoting sloppy reasoning?

    2. Does any Gnu over at Coyne’s blog challenge him on his sloppy thinking?

    When one begins to answer these questions, they will uncover the intellectual corruption that is at the heart of the Gnu movement.

  26. Does any Gnu at Coyne’s blog challenge him on his sloppy thinking? How would anyone know? If you challenge Coyne you get banned.

    Still, there are a whole lot of commenters there who have yet to be banned, meaning there are a whole lot of them who should be challenging him but aren’t. So your point remains, Mike.

  27. In addition, Coyne and other atheist scientists fail to recognize and admit how fundamentally Christian the entire scientific enterprise is.

    Modern Western science (i.e., from the renaissance on) is premised on the ontological reality of the universe, on the stability of particles and waves and the relationships between them, and on the discoverability of these relationships, and on the consistency of the universe (by which I mean that we don’t expect unicorns and other things to pop in and out of existence).

    These assumptions, as noted by Christians and Christian scientists over the last few hundred years, are theological assumptions and specifically Christian ones. Isaac Newton, etc. believed that the universe could be investigated, understood and explained because God was dependable, faithful, rational, etc. and hence so would be the universe he created (and thus reflecting the nature of God).

    Atheist science can and does proceed on these assumptions, but it cannot provide a philosophical rational for them let alone a materialist rational from experimental science (which is also a philosophical position, though “of course” philosophical thoughts are nothing but electrochemical reactions within the bags of atoms we call humans).

    J.

  28. I am impressed with the quality of the comments here but can’t get past the fallacy of your “evidences” statement. “There are libraries full of evidences for God.” No there are not. You’re begging the question. You seem prone to insult those that don’t agree with you and I don’t want to trade insults but there’s no getting around the fact that Books professing god is not proof of god nor evidence or god. ” I don’t think he knows what “evidence” means. Or “complete.” Or “lack.” Or “deity.” shows a level of pique I really wasn’t expecting-now I know.

  29. I’m sorry the idea of “libraries full of evidences for God” is giving you pause, Safe as Houses. I don’t quite see how it begs the question, though. First, it’s a factually testable statement: if there are libraries full of information that supports belief in, or else arguments in favor of, the existence of God, then there just are those libraries. That’s an empirical matter, not a conclusion to an argument. It’s neither valid nor fallacious because it doesn’t have the formal characteristics that could make it one or the other.

    If I were wrong about this, then, I would be empirically wrong, not logically wrong; but I’m not wrong: those libraries exist (or at least large library sections of that sort, if you want to be literal about it). Many of them.

    Further, this is not about “books professing God,” but books supplying reasons to believe in God. You may or may not think that’s sufficient evidence to believe in God, but your disagreeing with the conclusions of such evidence doesn’t make it into non-evidence. If a jury disagrees that a crime-matching gun in the suspect’s possession nails him for the shooting, it doesn’t mean the gun is automatically non-evidence. Both the prosecuting and the defense attorney can agree there are shelves full of evidence implicating the defendant, without there being enough to convict. It’s still evidence either way.

    Besides that, the evidence for God is pretty convincing, in the view of many.

    So please, if you think I’m begging the question with this, explain just what you mean, with a proper understanding of what “evidence” means. You might even take a long look at some of those evidences as you do so.

    Coyne apparently misunderstands “evidence;” I hope you can take a second look at it and see it more clearly.