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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Coyne vs. Haught - advantage, Coyne

While I was flying from Los Angeles to Sydney earlier this week, something of a fracas arose between Jerry Coyne and John Haught over Haught's attempt to prevent publication of their debate/discussion/symposium/whatever it was last month at the University of Kentucky. I came into this much too late to do more than sign (along with hundreds of other people) a petition asking for the video to be made public.

In the event, the video has appeared, but it was made public on condition that Jerry Coyne publish an open letter to him from Haught explaining the latter's reasons for being reluctant. You can find this here along with Jerry's briefer response; in any event, here is the substantive part of Haught's letter where he sets out his motives:
Why then do I hesitate in this case? It has to do with you alone, Jerry, not anyone else, including myself. I have had wonderful conversations with many scientific skeptics over the years, but my meeting with you was exceptionally dismaying and unproductive. I mentioned to you personally already that in my view, the discussion in Kentucky seldom rose to the level of a truly academic encounter. I agree that it was probably entertaining to the audience who gave us a standing ovation at the end. Nevertheless, instead of being flattered by this I went away terribly discouraged at what had just taken place. I wish to emphasize that I do not exempt myself from criticism.

The event at the University of Kentucky did not take place in the way I had expected. My understanding was that each speaker was to provide a curt 25-minute presentation of how he understood the relationship between science and theology. I did just this, and I have no objection to having that presentation made public. People who attended the event, moreover, can testify that in my presentation I avoided talking about or criticizing you personally. Instead I was content to make some very general remarks about why I consider science completely compatible with theology as I understand it.

When Robert Rabel of the Gaines Center at the University of Kentucky, a true gentleman who remains far above reproach in all of this, contacted me last summer and invited me to participate in the event, he asked me for names of people who would differ from my own position. I recommended you as someone who would definitely have a different perspective, to say the least. Prof. Rabel informed me that you agreed to participate with the qualification that you did not want to debate me, but simply to lay out your own way of looking at science and religion. I took this to mean that you would do something parallel to what I did in my presentation.

Instead, you used the event primarily to launch a sneering and condescending ad hominem. Rather than using your 25 minutes as an opportunity to develop constructively your own belief that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict, you were content simply to ridicule rather than refute several of my own ideas, as you interpreted them. On the other hand, my own presentation, as those who watch the video will see, was a dispassionate attempt to have the audience understand some of the reasons why the new scientific picture of the universe is so troubling to many traditionally religious people. I don’t believe that at any point in that presentation I resorted to ridicule, or that I focused on, much less misrepresented, anything you have written. Instead, I argued in a purely academic way that scientism is simply unreasonable. This was clearly my main point, and I was expecting you to respond to it in an academic manner as well.

Rather than answering my point that scientism is logically incoherent–which is really the main issue–and instead of addressing my argument that the encounter with religious truth requires personal transformation, or for that matter instead of responding to any of the other points I made, you were content to use most of your time to ridicule several isolated quotes from my books. I was absolutely astounded by your woeful lack of insight into, or willingness to grapple with, the real meaning of these passages. Sophisticated argument requires as an essential condition that you have the good manners to understand before you criticize. Your approach, on the other hand was simply one of “caricature and then crush.” Citation of a few isolated sentences or paragraphs, the meaning of which requires reading and understanding many chapters, is hardly useful criticism. You grossly distorted every quotation you used, and then you coated over your [mis]understanding of these statements with your own uncritical creationist and literalist set of assumptions about the Bible and theology. There was no room for real conversation, as impartial viewers will notice.

Instead of trying to convince the audience of the logical coherence and philosophical finality of your belief that science is the only reliable guide to truth, you began by arbitrarily announcing to the audience that John Haught is the chief representative of theology in the conversation of science with religion. You gave no evidence for that, and in fact it is by no means evidently true. I am but one of a great number of theologians involved in the discussion, and many others do not share my views. But your strategy was to show that if the principal figure is stupid, then you need not take his subordinates seriously either. This is a convenient method for shrinking the territory that needs to be covered, but it is hardly a fair way of dealing with all the other theological alternatives to your own belief system.

But let me come to the main reason why I have been reluctant to give permission to release the video. It is not for anything that I said during our encounter, but for a reason that I have never witnessed in public academic discussion before.

I’m still in shock at how your presentation ended up. I was so offended both personally and as an academic by the vulgarity of it all that I did not want other people to have to share what I witnessed that night in October. I still don’t.

I’m referring to the fact that your whole presentation ended up with a monstrous, not to mention tasteless, non sequitur, to give it the kindest possible characterization. You put on the screen a list of all the “evils” you associate with Catholicism: its stance regarding divorce, contraception, priest pedophilia, homosexuality–and I can’t remember what all–as though these have anything at all to do with the topic of the panel or with my own personal views on the relationship of science to theology. The whole focus of your presentation was on me, but when you came to your conclusion you never bothered to find out what my own position regarding your list of Catholic evils might be. I have never witnessed such a blatant smear or malicious attempt to impute guilt by association in all my years in university life.

Your list of Catholic evils, contrary to what you were suggesting, has absolutely nothing logically to contribute to your argument that science is opposed to religion. But even if it did, you never asked me whether I dissent from some or all the items on your list of “evils,” as many Catholics do, and whether such dissent might, in your twisted way of arguing, perhaps make my own position more credible. Your insinuation could only have been that somehow the priest sexual abuse crisis, for example, discredits my views on science and theology. You should be grateful that I have tried to protect the public from such a preposterous and logic-offending way of bringing your presentation to a close.

There is much more to be said, but this is all I will have to say to you or others on this matter. If you are willing to post this letter on your blog, go ahead and ask the Gaines Center to release the video as well. I have no objections now that I have had the opportunity to present my reservations to possible viewers.
Since reading this, I've watched the video.

Okay, before I go too far I'll admit a bias. Jerry Coyne is a personal friend of mine - but that doesn't mean we never have disagreements. Again, my views are much closer to his than to Haught's - though that doesn't mean we agree on all issues of substance. We don't, and we sometimes exchange jibes over points of disagreement (such as in our approaches to the problem of free will). I do agree with most of what Jerry says in the video, but I could probably find some points to quibble about. Be all that as it may, I have a bias and you might, by all means, try to discount for that.

On the other hand, you can watch the video for yourself and see how much it matches Haught's description. I submit that Haught did not put much in the way of an argument against what he calls "scientism". He said a fair bit about why we should take seriously the question of the compatibility or otherwise of religion and science, he said something about how they were reconciled historically, and he briefly sketched his own position about how they can be reconciled today. However, he developed no concerted argument as to why so-called "scientism" is intellectually untenable or "simply unreasonable".

In fairness to Haught, he had only about 25 minutes. That allows for only about 3000 words, so of course there was no way he could have developed the actual arguments in the way he does in his books (most of which I've read). I accept that there was little he could do in that time to dig deep into the arguments pro and con - though I'm sure that some of his speech, as delivered, could have been cut to make room for argumentative meat. There could have been less ingratiation with the audience, less provision of historical context, etc. The bottom line is that, while his approach and balance were reasonable ones to choose, the downside for him is that his speech did not contain a sustained argument for his position.

Reading the long quote from Haught above, you'd expect, prior to viewing it, to find that Jerry Coyne's presentation was uncivil or even abusive. In fact, it was not. There was a touch of aggression and certainly some satire, but it was all quite good-humoured and certainly well within the normal bounds of civility for a debate or even an academic disagreement falling well short of a formal debate. It was most certainly not an exercise in "sneering and condescending ad hominem" - that is a massive distortion of how Jerry went about developing his position.

Admittedly, Jerry's speech did not contain a blow-by-blow refutation of Haught's. That would have been inappropriate for a number of reasons. One is that there really wasn't that much in Haught's speech to refute. Once again, it contained little of the detailed argument that appears in his books, and did little more than contextualise and then sketch out a position. Second, Jerry had every right to concentrate on his own positive reasons for considering religion and science to be incompatible. He needed time to explain what he really means by that - he does not mean something crude or even straightforward, despite Haught's assertions to the contrary - and to say why he considers the issue to be important.

There may be a third reason. In public debates there is often a problem with the participants attempting to refute each other in detail, all the way down. Often they are developing their arguments from different underlying premises, and there is just no time to dig into what these may be, how the deep disagreements can be settled, etc. That can be done to some extent in books, where more words are available, but in oral argument it is often (not always, but often) most useful if the participants concentrate on stating their positive cases, making clear as they go along what sort of presumptions they are relying on. The audience can judge for itself which of these are most reasonable.

In developing his case, Jerry quoted from Haught's books, but he did so to illustrate points about theology and the sorts of claims that (according to Jerry) it makes about reality. While there could be a further debate as to whether the quotes demonstrated what he said they did, and as to whether the conclusions drawn about theology were correct, this tactic was fair and reasonable. There were no obvious cases of words being taken out of context to suggest that Haught holds views which he actually rejects. Nor were there obvious misrepresentations of their meaning. Even if errors were made (and if so they were not obvious to me ... someone who has read most of Haught's books and thought about them carefully), they were surely made in good faith. I should add that Haught is not the clearest writer; if his words are sometimes misunderstood, he should direct some of the blame at himself and perhaps modify his style.

Even the criticism of Catholic moral teachings was fair in context - it was clearly advanced to illustrate Jerry's point about how theological thinking can lead to (or tend to preserve) cruel teachings that have real-world consequences. Again, there could be further debate about whether that argument was made well, whether the conclusion is actually true, and so on. But it was neither a gratuitous attack on the Catholic Church nor an ad hominem attack on Haught himself. It played a legitimate role in Jerry's overall argument.

Haught says (once again):
Your insinuation could only have been that somehow the priest sexual abuse crisis, for example, discredits my views on science and theology. You should be grateful that I have tried to protect the public from such a preposterous and logic-offending way of bringing your presentation to a close.
But that is itself a preposterous thing to say. It was quite clear how Jerry's argument fitted together and what role this conclusion was playing, whether you agree with it or not. It is false - preposterously false - for Haught to say: "[the] insinuation could only have been that somehow the priest sexual abuse crisis, for example, discredits my views on science and theology."

I emphasise that you don't have to agree with any of Jerry's conclusions, even though I more or less do agree with them. I've said nothing in this post to defend them. Nor need you think that his arguments were cogent, even though I more or less do - I've said nothing here to reconstruct and support them. That isn't the point. The point is that Jerry's speech was absolutely fine. It was fine in the sense of taking a legitimate approach to the topic; in staying well within the normal bounds of civility for this kind of public discussion; and in avoiding ad hominem arguments and unfair tactics such as quote mining.

Again, watch the video for yourself. You'll see that Jerry's speech was actually rather mild, despite being painted by Haught as if it were extreme ("sneering", "monstrous", "vulgarity", "preposterous", "blatant smear or malicious attempt to impute guilt by association", etc.). I can only conclude that this is a case where an absurdly high standard of civility is being demanded of anyone who criticises religious or theological viewpoints. It is a standard required of no one else involved in public debate over issues of importance.

The comments directed at Haught were far more genteel than what we typically see from Christian debaters such as William Lane Craig. I've seen Craig far more openly mocking than that in the way he deals with his opponents. However, you might say that Haught did not use any mockery or even any direct criticism of Jerry's views as expressed elsewhere (such as in articles and posts at Why Evolution Is True). That's correct. Haught chose to concentrate on sketching his general worldview, putting it in historical perspective, and so on. Still, I've seen him, in his books, engage in forms of condescension, mockery, and outright abuse that go far beyond anything we can see Jerry Coyne doing in the video. Haught is not Mr Nice Guy, even if he played that role on the day. He can be as nasty as any nasty "New Atheist". Indeed, his open letter, with its continual use of emotive, angry language, is nastier (and far more obviously unfair) than anything in the speech that it denounces.

This incident reminds me of the earlier fracas over Jerry's New Republic review of a couple of books by, respectively, Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Though the review contained some strong criticisms of the books, it was well within the proper bounds of civility for a book review.

And yet, it led to claims (notably from Chris Mooney and apparently Barbara Forrest) that such books should not be reviewed in such a manner - that doing so is uncivil. Once again, the proposal seems to be that religion, or at least "nice" non-fundamentalist religion, should be treated with a special deference that would not be given to, say, economic theories or political ideologies. Anything less than a solicitous attitude to religion counts as incivility.

Finally, none of what I've written here is meant to support the idea that actual incivility and bullying are fine in public debate. Nor is to deny any claims that some atheists, some of the time, engage in actual incivility - some doubtless do, and indeed I have been known, myself to say things in anger that I've later regretted. That's an issue of some importance, no doubt, but tangential to what I'm on about here.

The point is that people like Jerry Coyne are likely to encounter over-the-top reactions even when they engage in thoughtful, and appropriately civil, critiques of theological or religious views. Perhaps some of the reaction to that, in turn, then becomes hurtful or unseemly (Haught claims to have received very abusive emails over the current fracas, for example), and I don't condone that. But let's be blunt: Haught needs to get out more if he thinks there was anything remotely inappropriate about the way Jerry conducted himself at the University of Kentucky. It is Haught's outraged and outrageous open letter that merits our condemnation.


Felix said...


another discussion which occurred whilst you were travelling was over the Templeton funding for a philosopher discussed here:


Did you see this discussion? Did you perhaps find it interesting enough to share some thoughts with your readers? :-)

For my part, I am starting to think that theology is just pretend philosophy and anyone who wants to be considered a serious philosopher should eschew god(s).

Russell Blackford said...

No, haven't seen it. Will have a look, but it might be a bit stale if it happened while I was away.

NewEnglandBob said...

Thank you Russell for an excellent analysis of the debate and its aftermath.

Pompotous Herdman said...

I've heard comments such as Haught's for more than 3 decades, ever since I was a 14 year old undergraduate, and while their sophistication has varied over the years and through different contexts, they all boil down to "mean" or "unfair."

One common trait amongst all the people who have called me "mean" during debates or critiques is that they are unwilling or unable to change their positions. For whatever reason, being entrenched in a specific position tends to lead people to identify their selves with their propositions, and so attacks on their ideas are personal attacks.

Once a proposition is held so closely, anything that seems to successfully argue against it must be unfair in some fashion, there must be some external factor causing the trouble. The person clinging to his idea wasn't prepared, or thought the format would be different, or simply discounts as mean or uncivil anything casting doubt on his proposition. It is certainly not strictly a question of religious privilege, although, given the nature of religious beliefs, that privilege is certainly a large subset of the "not here to be persuaded" phenomenon.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, I think you're overlooking something that would be salient to any one at all sympathetic to Haught. JC laughs through his entire presentation-- from beginning to end. He is constantly chuckling. What this non-verbal communication conveys is the message that his opponent is laughably wrong, and not worth taking seriously. Would that be offensive to Haught? Of course it would!

Another problem Haught could legitimately have is that he's the one who suggested JC as an opponent, and JC stipulated that this would not be a debate. So Haught had a reasonable expectation that Coyne would just be making the case for incompatibility, not going on the attack. Because Haught went first, and had no opportunity for rebuttal after Coyne, the fact that Coyne did attack would understandably seem unfair to him.

So I think this is not a case of a new atheist being perfectly civil, and then being slandered as uncivil.

As far as the content goes, I think Haught presents a world view, and not any sort of robust argument for it. He's better in the Q&A, though--says something kind of fun about how atheists are implicit believers, without knowing it, just because they aspire to truth and moral rightness. (I'm not convinced....) This might be seen as counterpoint to the Georges Rey argument that theists are implicit non-believers.

Finally: JC makes the same mistake he did in his USA Today article last summer (on how science and religion are not friends). First he says the large number of atheist scientists is evidence FOR the incompatibility of science and religion. Then he says the small number of religious scientists shouldn't be seen as evidence AGAINST incompatibility. Logically, I don't think you can have it both ways.

Mark Jones said...

Jean Kazez

re what you say about JAC's 'chuckling' and the offence it may have caused, this I think is a fair conclusion from Haught's open letter - that he found Jerry's presentation sneering and ad hominem, and that he was 'content simply to ridicule rather than refute several of my own ideas.' And I think it's fair to say that Coyne went about presenting his argument with a view to ridiculing Haught's beliefs; because, presumably he finds them ridiculous. I don't think Haught is fair, though, when he says Coyne *simply* ridicules; Coyne puts forward a case for ways in which science and religion are incompatible and illustrates this with Haught's own writing - an excellent tactic, I would say. Further, Haught says that Coyne criticises him *personally*, but in fact Coyne criticises Haught's *views*, as part of his argument. If we aren't allowed to criticise the views of others without accusations of ad hominem, then academic life is at an end. Russell is right, incidentally, and you allude to this, that Haught didn't present a sustained argument in his talk.

Is it then the case that ridicule is not a weapon in the armoury of the academic? Not being one, I don't know, but certainly if there was an agreement that purely dispassionate academic arguments would be presented, without ridicule, then JAC has clearly broken that agreement. Haught thinks this was the case, presumably, but I'm guessing Coyne thinks otherwise.

Certainly from my *experience* of public discourse, both academic and otherwise, I've not been aware of the inadmissibility of ridicule; it's a perfectly respectable approach in political and cultural conversations, for example. If your contention is that academia is a ridicule free zone, then I bow to your greater knowledge. It would be interesting to hear from other academics about this.

"So Haught had a reasonable expectation that Coyne would just be making the case for incompatibility, not going on the attack."

I'm not sure what going on the attack is supposed to imply here; clearly Coyne made his case, and illustrated it with quotes from Haught himself. I'm puzzled what else Coyne could have done better to bolster his case, but any counter to Haught's view is bound to be seen as an attack, isn't it? Why is this wrong?

"So I think this is not a case of a new atheist being perfectly civil, and then being slandered as uncivil."

But no-one expects anyone to be perfectly civil - Haught wasn't perfectly civil. We expect people to be appropriately civil, and certainly Coyne was, to my mind. It's difficult to see how anyone could be any more civil than Coyne was, when they are setting out to expose what they think are ridiculous ideas. If he had kept a straight face, accommodationists and theists would have accused him of coldly assassinating with ill humour the smiling, good natured theist. There appears to be no way faitheists will be satisfied with *anyone* attacking theistic ideas.

I agree with your final point and wrote as much in my review of Coyne's talk; his opening really adds nothing to his argument.

flies said...


while i think you made several fair comments, one thing stuck out, which was your closing remark regarding the tendency of scientists toward atheism.

The mere existence of a few religious scientists isn't evidence for much - they are exceptions. The rule is otherwise. The tendency of scientists to reject religion is evidence for the tendency of science to erode religious belief.

Jerry Coyne said...

Re what Jean says.

I was not laughing: my tendency is to smile when I get nervous, which I was during this talk, since I'd never given one like it before. I was deadly serious and certainly not sneering. If you doubt that, check out my AAI talk on the web, in which I also do a bit of smiling.

And I did not STIPULATE that this wouldn't be debate: that was stipulated by Robert Rabel, who said that there would be two 25-minute talks and then Q&A. I said I was "glad to participate BECAUSE it wasn't a debate," since I'd never debated before. The format has been the same for all three Bale-Boone talks in this series.

And if Haught was so offended by my smiling, why didn't he say that? The reason he gave was mostly that I presented a monstrous attack on Catholicism (and also misquoted him).

Go ahead, Jean--keep defending the indefensible.

Bruce S. Springsteen said...

Russell's usually laudible temperance and desire for balance is misapplied on this occasion. JC simply came to the argument (call it it debate, symposium or whatever, but it is an argument in any case) with clear, complete, passionate and well-researched and prepared ideas, presenting them in an efficient, orderly, pleasant and persuasive fashion. Haught burbled and bluffed and lamely ingratiated. It was not "advantage" Coyne. It was "no contest." If Haught wants a rematch, give him one, and this time make it clear we are not playing pattycake, so he'd best come with his stongest presentation in hand, or send a qualified champion in his stead who will not get a case of the petulant woozies. We have any number of combatants ready to pop his theological bubbles if Jerry has had enough of such snipe-hunting for now.

Simon Hayward said...

I didn't have time to see the video until this morning, and after all the fuss, was expecting to see some fireworks. Instead this seemed to me to be a very polite and restrained exchange. I don't know what theological meetings are like but I've attended a number of scientific conferences where things got quite heated, with aspersions cast on the quality of data and/or the circumstances of their collection (or on one memorable occasion on the marital status of the speaker's parents). Nothing like this apparently happened at UK, I may be tone deaf here, but Coyne never really attacked Haught (although I guess he could be offended by the final summary slide - which seemed to me to be fair comment).

Thanny said...

"First he says the large number of atheist scientists is evidence FOR the incompatibility of science and religion. Then he says the small number of religious scientists shouldn't be seen as evidence AGAINST incompatibility. Logically, I don't think you can have it both ways."

Your argument isn't very logical.

Saying that a huge percentage of scientists are atheistic is an epidemiological statement - religion and science tend not to go together. Showing that an increase in scientific accomplishment (membership in the NAS) is accompanied by a rise in atheism only amplifies the apparent connection.

Consider another category. Epidemiology shows a huge correlation between smoking and lung cancer. As smoking has become less and less popular, lung cancer rates have gone down, further supporting the conclusion that the correlation is one of causation.

Now, you contend that the existence of a few religious scientists logically obviates the power of an epidemiological argument against the compatibility of science and religion. To be consistent, you would also have to say that the existence of heavy smokers who die of old age instead of lung cancer contradicts the epidemiological conclusion that the one causes the other.

I'm not up on the latest medical science, but I get the impression that we don't have a good grasp on the actual mechanism by which the inhalation of tobacco combustion products causes cancer. No non-crank cites that as evidence that there's no connection.

But we don't have that same problem in the argument against the compatibility of science and religion. There is no shortage of non-epidemiological arguments in support of that conclusion, and Jerry Coyne uses a number of them.

If Coyne were to always and only say that we know science and religion are incompatible because most scientists aren't religious, you might have a point. But he doesn't, and you don't.

Ophelia Benson said...

In contrast to Bruce, I don't think Haught "lamely" ingratiated - I think he did it quite well. That's one reason I'm surprised he wanted to suppress the video: I think in terms of presentation he comes across very well. If you like the kind of thing he says and don't wonder how he knows any of it (and presumably he fits that description), you would think he'd done brilliantly.

Bruce S. Springsteen said...

Okay, I'll concede to Ophelia. Haught vigorously and capably ingratiated. He just lamely debated. Fair enough.

David said...

I only watched Coyne's half, because I couldn't bear to watch Haught.

Coyne is correct when he points out that the existence of religious scientists proves nothing. However he then goes on to make equally bad arguments.

He uses the "40% of Americans don't believe in evolution" argument, which is as specious. I could just as easily postulate that the reason 40% of Americans deny evolution is simply because we have a lousy education system.

He uses the 7% number from the NAS membership. But I could postulate many reasons for that, such as: it may be that members of the NAS are confident enough to come out of the atheist closet. That is, maybe 7% is a more accurately reflects the percentage of believers than the usual numbers quoted, which are inflated because of family, peer, and cultural pressure. NAS members, because of intelligence and stature, are mostly immune to such pressures. I could think of other reasons as well--which would be on equal footing, speculation-wise, to the postulate that 7% reflects an incompatibility.

The bottom line is that Coyne once again failed to demonstrate the incompatibility scientifically. After arguing that science is how we know things, he failed, miserably, to give a scientific basis for the claim of incompatibility. He, like IDers, proposes no experiment that could falsify his claim. The "fact" of incompatibility between science and religion receives, from Coyne, a unique exemption from having to be demonstrated through the scientific method. It just is, because he says so.

In short, he draws from exactly the same kind of "correlation is not causation" family of bad arguments that he properly criticizes when they are turned around.

Finally, in a pet peeve, he uses "cognitive dissonance" incorrectly. He uses it to mean when Person X holds to two beliefs (religion & science) that he, Jerry Coyne finds to be in tension. That is incorrect. For Person X to be experiencing cognitive dissonance it has to be that Person X is holding to two beliefs that Person X himself finds to be in tension. What Jerry Coyne thinks about the two beliefs is irrelevant.

I'm willing to grant that Coyne won the debate. But if so, Haught must have been really, really awful.

Jean Kazez said...

Jerry, It didn't cross my mind that your demeanor had to do with nervousness, and perhaps Haught wouldn't have picked up on that either. Obviously, my hypothesis does not mean I accept all the points in his letter as valid or think he was entitled to block the video. In fact, I protested his blocking the video on Twitter, the day of your first post.

Thanny, You're not getting the point. Suppose scientists are 70% atheists and 30% theists, just to simplify. Coyne seems to see the 70% as at least some evidence for the incompatibility of science and religion. Surely not decisive evidence, but some evidence. (I don't find that unreasonable, I will add.)

The question then is whether he should also think of the 30% who are theists as some evidence (though less, of course, since the ratio is 70/30) against incompatibility, or for compatibility. Logically, I think he has to, but when a theist scientist like Collins is mentioned, he is immediately discounted as having no relevance at all to the question of how science and religion are related.

This would make sense if you really had grounds to suspect the theist 30% was more prone to wishful thinking and other cognitive defects. Then you could just ignore them all, but take the atheist 70% as evidential. I think this would obviously not be even handed, as there are no doubt cognitive defects that can affect atheist scientists as well.

Even admitting there might be more cognitive defects among religious scientists--more wishful thinking and the like--you still don't get to discount to the point that the atheist scientists tell you something about religion-science compatibility, and the theist scientists are no evidence at all.

Bruce S. Springsteen said...

JC wasn't making a "scientific" case for the incompatibility 'twixt S & R. He was making a philosophical and circumstantial case, describing the irreconcilable differences in the two pursuits' assumptions about reality and methods of testing truth, while denying there is some special realm of knowledge in which religion has expertise - a burden, BTW, it lies with religion to bear in the affirmative, which it has reliably and abjectly failed to do. Religion merely asserts that such special super-truths exist, and that theology is uniquely equipped to discover them. It's not up to Coyne to "scientifically" disprove their unsupported and largely unintelligible claims. He needs only show that whenever they have made intelligible, testable claims, science has routinely blown those out of the water. His message is "Will we get a clue, at long last, that there is nothing there, when the arguments and demonstration of religious truths are so bereft of meaning and validation?"

The fact that scientists of higher achievement so overwhelmingly reject the hypotheses of religion is not a rigorous proof, but a powerful implication of the consequence of subjecting religious claims to the scrutiny of evidence-and-reason-based minds. We could certainly interview those top scientists in detail, to see if their scientific outlook is a primary reason for their unbelief. I have a hunch they would confirm a cause in the correlation, sharing JC's view of complete incompatibility between S & R re justified belief.

The "cognitive dissonance" point is the simple observation that a subset of capable scientists, those with a strong emotional commitment to some religious tradition, will suddenly lose their coherence and become peevish and unreasonable when challenged - partitioning their faith in a reason-free zone their scientific mind agrees to stay out of - and the evidence of this ability (or disability) is found in the books of people like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, and John Haught. I personally watched Miller give a powerful science lecture on the evidence for evolution, worthy of Coyne, then spin his head in a complete circle to deliver the most incoherent, annoyed and uncomprehending diatribe against the New Atheists while utterly failing to either specify or defend the substance of his religious faith. If that ain't textbook cognitive dissonance on display, I'd like to see a sample for comparison.

The Picard said...

JC was only saying that the fact that it's possible for a person to be a scientist and a theist doesn't count as evidence of compatibility. But, when you look at the entire field of scientists (especially elite scientists) and see such a sharp trend toward atheism at odds with the general population - that counts as evidence for incompatibility. Not conclusive but still evidence for his position.

The Picard said...

Or at least it's evidence against the notion that - because one can be both a scientist and a theist - that doesn't count as an argument for compatibility.

Tim Harris said...

'...just making the case for incompatibiliy, not going on the attack' (Jean Kazez): What an infantile remark: does JK think that Haught, in his heavy-handed, lazy-minded and misrepresenting way, wasn't attacking something ('monistic whatever' or 'explanatory monism' - I can't remember the exact words and don't want to - that he thought was a disease that afflicted scientists or scientismists like Jerry Coyne)? I found his approach far more offensive (in the proper sense of the word) than Jerry Coyne's, although that smooth, gentlemanly exterior may have disguised that offensiveness for those who are unable to look beyond obvious demeanour.

Ophelia Benson said...

I found his approach far more offensive (in the proper sense of the word) than Jerry Coyne's, although that smooth, gentlemanly exterior may have disguised that offensiveness for those who are unable to look beyond obvious demeanour.

Good point. I've been giving him high marks for the smooth gentlemanly exterior but it's true that it works to veil his aggression a good deal. As many people have been pointing out, his books can be strikingly aggressive.

Marella said...

It was obvious to me that Jerry's laughter was nervous in origin. I assumed he was embarrassed at the ridiculousness of Haught's talk and nervous about exposing it too brutally, not everyone enjoys that sort of confrontation. So I misinterpreted the reason for the nervousness, but not the nervousness.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, for what it's worth I saw a certain amount of satire but also a certain amount of nervous smiling. If I'd been in Jerry's position I'd have been especially nervous after there was an AV problem right at the beginning (horrors!).

A presentation that betrays some nerves isn't necessarily a bad one, but it's what it is. I'm sure that my own presentations usually betray some nerves, and there's nothing much I can do about it so I now accept it to some extent.

I thought Jerry presented well, and the slight sense of nervousness about him made it seem that much more human and attractive, as opposed to the slick, apparently nerveless performance we see from Haught in the video. (Of course, Haught may have been as nervous as hell and just covering it up effectively ... some people are better at this than others.)

Russell Blackford said...

Try to avoid comments like "infantile". Admittedly, I've set a bad example in using "preposterous". But it would be good to have a collegial atmosphere here rather than a hostile one.

Tim Harris said...


Vaxa said...


In the video (41:40) it's clear that Jerry was addressing the common argument which goes like this: religious scientists exist, therefore science and religion are compatible. This argument fails because people can hold contradictory notions -- pedophile priests, for example (his analogy).

If I claim that all crows are black, my claim is refuted the moment someone produces a white crow. The people who say that the existence of religious scientists refutes science/religion incompatibility seem to think they have found a white crow. But the claim is not that all crows are black. The claim is that crowness and blackness are correlated. Jerry cites these numbers:

16% of Americans are agnostic or atheist

70% of scientists from "elite universities" are agnostic or atheist

93% of NAS members are agnostic or atheist

If X% of scientists are religious, does that count for evidence against incompatibility? Sure, but that does not contradict Jerry's point. He is talking about correlation: he shows these numbers and remarks, "I think this says something." He's not passing it off as some absolute proof.

Suppose the opposite were true: that only 7% of NAS members were agnostic or atheist. Would that imply religion and science are compatible? No, but it would make the argument against compatibility more difficult.

Anonymous said...

Russell, I totally agree with you but could have said the same in a tenth of the space. You are clearly a philosopher. There's an awful lot to learn in this world and time spent reading one article is time not spent reading another. There was nothing complex in your opinion that warranted such a long and laboured setting out. Could you make it shorter in future?

Russell Blackford said...

No, I'm afraid not.

I mean, really, I say things as tersely as possible given the distinctions that I want to make, the concessions I think are fair, the way I think they should be dealt with, etc.

I realise that some people don't care for this and would rather have a short version that doesn't do these things, but I happen to think that it's important that someone actually do this stuff.

It's disappointing to me that not everyone likes it, but that's life and I accept it. Likewise, if you don't want the kind of thing that I do then my style of analysis isn't for you.

Jean Kazez said...

Vexa, I take it people cite surveys (how many scientists are theists, how many are atheists?) when they're trying to convince an audience that doesn't already have a position on whether science and religion are compatible. If that's the case, then you can't dismiss religious scientists as evidence on grounds that they're compartmentalizing, since to regard them that way, you have to take for granted that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, it's question begging to discount the religious scientists as benighted, but take the atheist scientists as genuine evidence of incompatibility.

Matti K. said...

Ms. Kazez, Dr. Coyne does not use the (low) percentage of regligious scientists as a primary argument for the incompatibility of religion and science. His main point is elsewhere, and I think he makes it well.

BTW: is the existence of a fit 90-year old life-long smoker valid evidence for the general compatibility of health and smoking? Is it unfair to argue against this compatibility with statistical data?

Vexa said...

Jean, don't you hate it when someone just repeats a previous talking point seemingly without interacting with what others are saying? Well it happens so much that I don't really care (people in general are hard-headed online), but I do care when the person addresses me as if he or she is interacting with me.

I said, "If X% of scientists are religious, does that count for evidence against incompatibility? Sure,..."

If you read that, how could you possibly respond with, "...you can't dismiss religious scientists as evidence on grounds that they're compartmentalizing..."

I just got through explaining that I'm not doing that. That's the "Sure,...".

To restate, the point is not to prove something (which is not possible here), but to disprove something (which is easy).

It is not possible to "prove" that science and religion are incompatible, but it is easy to prove that compatibility is not a necessity following from the existence of religious scientists.

Again, if you listen @41:40 it is clear that this is the simple point being made.

Peter Beattie said...

» Jean Kazez:
JC laughs through his entire presentation—from beginning to end. He is constantly chuckling. What this non-verbal communication conveys is the message that his opponent is laughably wrong, and not worth taking seriously. Would that be offensive to Haught? Of course it would!

Even if it didn’t cross your mind that the smiling might be due to nervousness—jumping to the one conclusion that did (without even considering possible external evidence to back it up) is, to put it extremely mildly, not a nice thing to do.

Put to one side even the flagrant flouting of the principle of charity. What this reaction shows is nothing more than that you (in Haught’s position) are concerned that what you said might look ridiculous and that other people are ‘out to get you’. Not even considering, let alone inquiring after, the possibilities that the former might be true and the latter paranoid—i.e. that whatever you think might be wrong—is a serious oversight in and of itself. And, btw, another example of a violation of the Must Not Fool Yourself rule.

Jean Kazez said...

Vexa, Don't be so bewildered. Just reread your own comment, and you'll see what I was responding to. Here's your first paragraph--

"In the video (41:40) it's clear that Jerry was addressing the common argument which goes like this: religious scientists exist, therefore science and religion are compatible. This argument fails because people can hold contradictory notions -- pedophile priests, for example (his analogy)."

That's what I responded to. You don't say the argument fails because the religious scientists are in the minority, and there's a correlation between being an atheist between being a scientist. You say it fails in a way that invites *throwing out* the religious scientists as any evidence at all.

My impression is that Jerry does throw them out. He thinks they don't count even a little bit, like a few pedophile priests don't even in the slightest show that pedophilia is compatible with Catholicism. I think that's question begging, because we know for sure that pedophilia is incompatible with Catholicism, but he's trying to make an *argument* that science is incompatible with religion.

Then, below that, you said this--

"If X% of scientists are religious, does that count for evidence against incompatibility? Sure, but that does not contradict Jerry's point. He is talking about correlation: he shows these numbers and remarks, "I think this says something." He's not passing it off as some absolute proof."

Now you/Jerry are prepared to admit that religious scientists are *some* evidence, but we have to look at the entire pattern. That does not fit the tone of dismissal with which he talks about Collins, the point about pedophile priests, etc. So I didn't respond to that part of your comment.

But OK--if he's just saying religious scientists aren't absolute proof of anything, fine. It would be completely foolish for anyone to take a few religious scientists as proving compatibility, and ignore the evidence provided by the fact that scientists lose religion more and more, as they climb to higher levels of science. But it's all evidence, if you take psychological evidence as any evidence at all.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"I wish to emphasize that I do not exempt myself from criticism."

A lie.

I never eat sweets, said the man with a mouth full of chocolate. Or in this case a mouth full of praise.
Let's not sugarcoat it, too.

Patrick said...

Dr. Kazez- I think you're reading is a bit unfair. Its not like Coyne claimed that all scientists are non religious. He explicitly discussed percentages. If someone's evidence is "there are more X than Y" I don't think you can say that they're completely disallowing consideration of Y.

I took the comments being discussed as referring to what sort of compatibility we're discussing- its often argued that the existence of religious scientists is a sort of QED demonstration of compatibility, and Coyne was justified in pointing out that this sort of compatibility wasn't the form of compatibility he was interested in discussing.

...which is really where the debate seems to exist, actually. What does it mean to say that science and religion are or are not incompatible? It seems like its really a debate over whether they each have a valid epistemic role to play in our lives... and given that Haught seems to insist that religion doesn't play an epistemic role at all, the conversation is largely conceded.

Russell Blackford said...

Tim, it's no big deal - especially since you were good enough to apologise.

However, let me say that I think we should all see Jean as making a valuable contribution especially if she says something that criticises my views. I.e., I think that we should all value, and even seek out, intelligent, reasoned criticism of our views ... or intelligent, reasoned views that may not strictly contradict ours but may add information or insights that could potentially deepen our understanding or get us to modify our opinions.

The one thing I'd not want to see is someone who comes here doing that getting piled on, when they are actually bringing something valuable. Well, some piling on may be inevitable ... but if that's the case the one thing I really don't want to see is someone being piled on in a way that tends to silence them.

It's a matter of judgment, of course, when a critic is actually bringing something valuable to the table. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to be dismissive if someone turns up and anonymously puts a view, expressed in dogmatic, take-it-or-leave-it terms, that has been criticised here many times. And sometimes people are just plain trolling.

But Jean is a clear-cut case of somebody whose contribution I want to listen to and not try to silence, even if I don't always agree. She puts reasoned, intelligent views, is open to discussion, offers thoughts that might not otherwise occur to me or be expressed on the threads here, and has the courage to come here with her real identity. All of that means that the rest of us get to disagree with particular things she says, but her perspective is a valuable one that we should positively want to hear and think about.

More generally, thoughtful,intelligent disagreement is something we should all want to receive. It's good for the life of the mind. :)

The last thing we should want is to have people who offer it to us feeling bullied into silence. Hence my admonition that we try to maintain a collegial atmosphere rather than one which somebody who brings thoughtful, intelligent disagreement is likely to experience as hostile.

Vaxa said...

"You say it fails in a way that invites *throwing out* the religious scientists as any evidence at all."

But I didn't say that. I presented a different position.

I guess you were just fisking. In that case you have to give the quote to which you are referring. Do you blame me for reacting with "?? Did you even read...?" How was I supposed to know that you ignored the essential part of my comment on purpose?

"It would be completely foolish for anyone to take a few religious scientists as proving compatibility..."

It is very common for a science vs. religion article targeted at the general public to make that very point. It is the source of some exasperation, and that's exactly what I assumed Coyne was referring to.

It's even worse than that. Mooney presents this foolish argument and adds that scientists don't get it because of cognitive dissonance. It's a total inversion of all that is sane. Mooney's interpretation of negative reaction: "must have struck a nerve". And the Universe doth weep.

Jean Kazez said...

Russell, I need to be brief because real life is calling, but I much appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

@Jean Kazez:

I'm having trouble making sense of what you're saying. Surely if the fact that a majority of scientists are not religious is evidence that "science and religion are incompatible" then the fact that a minority of scientists are religious -- which is exactly logically equivalent to the former proposition -- must also be evidence for that incompatibility.

The alternative is that you can argue that the proportion of religious scientists has nothing to do with compatibility arguments (in which case the existence of religious scientists is not evidence for compatibility any more than the existence of non-religious scientists is evidence for incompatibility). But it's simply invalid to say that two logically equivalent propositions are each evidence for mutually contradictory hypotheses. This isn't an argument about compatibility, it's a simple fact about logical consistency.

Incidentally, are you claiming the accomodationist camp doesn't also try to have it both ways? Treating the existence of religious scientists as evidence for compatibility while waving away the notion that the majority of non-religious scientists is an argument against compatibility? Can't tell you how many times I've seen that chestnut.

-Dan L.

Jean Kazez said...

Dan, Yes, I think the other side (like Chris Mooney, in fact) is prone to doing the same thing. They will say Collins is evidence that religion and science are compatible, then dismiss the atheist scientists as non-evidence. You might dismiss the atheists scientists in some fashion like this--"Most scientists are democrats. In fact, it might even be that at higher and higher levels of science, you get more democrats. Does that mean science and Republican politics are incompatible? Of course not!"

So there are discounting maneuvers that can be used to throw out religious scientists as any kind of evidence of compatibility (the pedophile priest maneuver) and discounting maneuvers that can be used to throw out atheist scientists as evidence of incompatibility (the politics maneuver). I say: don't be guilty of either maneuver.

Yes, of course, as you say, if it's significant that the majority of scientists are atheists, it's significant that the minority of scientists are religious. Either the ratio counts, or it doesn't--if it counts, then both "sides" count, both the atheist and the religious scientists.

p.s. I'm curious (have been for a while)--have we intersected just a little in the philosophy world? You might be a different Dan L than the one I'm thinking of.

Anonymous said...


I am (almost certainly) not that Dan L. -- my involvement in philosophy is strictly amateur. Though you've reminded me of a funny Dan Dennett anecdote.

FWIW, I don't think the proportion of religious scientists has any bearing on the question of the compatibility of religion and science, at least according to the sense in which "compatibility" is discussed by those on the "incompatible" side. From my perspective, this particular back-and-forth has been a rear-guard action against the argument that any religious scientist, even just one, is not just evidence but proof for compatibility.

I think it would be a little more interesting to start digging into what we mean by "compatibility." It's hard to do that, though, when you're constantly just trying to rebut misrepresentations of atheist/naturalist/materialist thought. It would be wonderful to have some deeper conversations about the actual premises at work in a naturalistic perspective, whether the supernatural really is excluded by assumption, etc (I think no) but it's just about impossible when we have to keep running back to square one to fight against Mooney's PR campaign.

Anyway, thanks for responding and thanks even more for keeping us new atheists honest. =D

-Dan L.

Peter Beattie said...

Seriously? You cannot see the difference between “there are religious scientists, ergo religion and science are compatible” and “the fact that the more serious you are about science (e.g. as measured by your academic credentials) the less you tend to be religious is indicative of a systematic incompatibility”?

One is a purely quantitative argument, hence completely unconvincing because it gives no explanation; the other contains a qualitative component and an attempt at an explanation for the conjectured causality. Surely, this shouldn’t be controversial?