Faith vs Fact (Coyne’s book reviewed by Steven Pinker)

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(15)00743-5.pdf

Seems to fit in with recent threads.

His latest book, Faith Versus Fact, is
intended not to pile on the arguments
for atheism but to advance the debate
into its next round. It is a brief against the
faitheists — scientists and religionists
alike — who advocate a make-nice
accommodation between science and
religion. As with Michael Corleone’s offer
to Nevada Senator Pat Geary in The
Godfather Part II, Coyne’s offer to religion
on the part of science is this: Nothing.
This sounds more imperialistic and
scientistic than it really is, because Coyne
defi nes ‘science’ broadly, to encompass
any system of belief grounded by reason
and evidence, rather than faith. On
this defi nition, many of the humanities,
such as history and philosophy, count
as ‘science’, not just the traditional
physical and social sciences.

Coyne quotes several historical and
recent writers, particularly Carl Sagan
and the philosophers Yonatan Fishman
and Maarten Boudry, while adding some
examples of his own, to show how the
existence of the God of scripture is a
testable empirical hypothesis. The Bible’s
historical accounts could have been
corroborated by archaeology, genetics
and philology. It could have contained
uncannily prescient truths such as “thou
shalt not travel faster than light” or “two
strands entwined is the secret of life.” A
bright light might appear in the heavens
one day and a man clad in white robe and
sandals, supported by winged angels,
could descend from the sky, give sight
to the blind, and resurrect the dead. We
might discover that intercessory prayer
can restore hearing or re-grow amputated
limbs, or that anyone who speaks the
Prophet Mohammed’s name in vain is
immediately struck down by lightning,
while those who pray to Allah five times a
day are free from disease and misfortune.

268 thoughts on “Faith vs Fact (Coyne’s book reviewed by Steven Pinker)

  1. Mung:

    And Coyne is neither a philosopher nor a theologian. He is presumably not writing fiction. It’s not even bad science. So what do we call it?

    Based on the little snippets I’ve seen here, I’d call it bad philosophy. But it’s not nearly as bad as that being practiced by a number of others here. You seem to have linked and quoted some poor arguments for the purpose of attacking them. You have also linked and quoted some poor arguments for the ostensible purpose of supporting them. Are people supposed to conclude from the fact that some arguments against religion are poor that the burden has shifted away from proponents of religion to support their views?

    Or are we just supposed to concede that there are bad arguments on both sides of this issue? If so, I’m happy to concede that myself. But the burden is not on agnostics or atheists, it’s on you folks.

    Why not put up some good arguments for stuff you do believe in, and let those who are atheists and agnostics pick the arguments they like for their own views?

  2. walto:

    Based on the little snippets I’ve seen here, I’d call it bad philosophy.

    In particular, the critic that Mung quotes was spot on in noting Coyne’s philosophical confusions about the nature of morality.

  3. Kantian Naturalist:
    It seems as if this is too obvious to be worth mentioning, but since it has gone unremarked upon thus far: if you really want to motivate people to care about climate change and demand that something be done about it, attacking their religious convictions is, without a doubt, the very last thing you want to do.

    Well, I guess I like to waste my time by not only mentioning the obvious in my posts, but harping upon it!

  4. BruceS,

    Yes, I think that you (and later KN) have made a good point about the imprudence of the book. That’s one more demerit.

  5. KN,

    It seems as if this is too obvious to be worth mentioning, but since it has gone unremarked upon thus far: if you really want to motivate people to care about climate change and demand that something be done about it, attacking their religious convictions is, without a doubt, the very last thing you want to do.

    Of course climate change isn’t Coyne’s only concern, and of course Coyne’s attempts to nudge society in a more secular, reason-based direction won’t work with everyone, but does that make them a bad idea?

    I don’t think so. Are you suggesting that it would make more sense to mute our criticisms of religious beliefs in hopes that believers will come to question them on their own?

    I certainly don’t think you’d make that same argument with regard to other irrational belief systems such as racism or sexism. If their irrationality needs to be pointed out, why not religion’s?

  6. BruceS: But he does say there can be no knowledge in morality, art, or subjectivit feelings like love. He won’t make an exception for those as he does for math and philosophy.

    Well, thank God he doesn’t stop at religion! 🙂

    I can’t imagine saying to your wife that’s it’s not possible for you to know that you love her.

  7. Kantian Naturalist: If Coyne’s goal is public policy guided by better science, then he choose the absolutely worst way of going about it by attacking religion. In attacking religion he picked a fight that he cannot win and which has nothing to do with the fight he actually cares about.

    Without having read this book, and possibly having misunderstood Jerry’s thousands of posts which I have read: I would guess that Jerry, like me, wants to pick a fight with religion qua religion. Religion is a pernicious influence wherever it manifests in public life. Not so obvious that it’s pernicious in private, but it’s a fair prediction that the religious training of believing things which aren’t facts turns out to be harmful in that it predisposes people to believe many other non-religious things which aren’t factual. The habit of faith is antithetical to the habit of inquiry.

    Given that no one can wave a magic wand and make organized religion disappear, much less private religion, I think the best we can do (and are morally obligated to do, for the welfare of our grandchildren) is to pick on the undeserved respect religion is accorded in the US (and other theistic nations). The US needs to be more secular not less, churches need to be stripped of all accommodation that are made for their “beliefs” (and NOT made for other kinds of non-religious beliefs) and we need to remind people that there is no “religious way of knowing” which has anything valid to say about political policy or civil behavior.

    I don’t know what Coyne says about climate change denialism and its link to organized (evangelical christian) religion. There are essentially only two reasons to deny the scientific consensus: one is economic self-interest in its many forms of paycheck, cheap commute, stock market success … the other is that specific form of christian fundamentalism which preaches that god will not let us ruin our planet. Like I said, it’s their practiced habit of believing things which are not real-world true being pressed into service of believing something else which is not true: that global warming isn’t happening or won’t be harmful.

    When that is what’s happening in the minds of the “faithful” you’re right to say it would be naive to argue we just need more scientific literacy to get the popular vote for best policies. But then I think you’re correspondingly wrong to view attacking religion as bad strategy — I think it is essentially the only strategy which will get people to give up on privileging religious faith, over the scientific knowledge which they do already have, as a valid way to set public policy.

  8. BruceS: In particular, the critic that Mung quotes was spot on in noting Coyne’s philosophical confusions about the nature of morality.

    Maybe if that’s what Coyne actually said, and not just what some ass interpreted him to say or claimed him to say, in the service of reassuring the christian faithful that they have nothing to worry about when it comes to their special status re “transcendent” god-given morality.

  9. hotshoe_,

    hotshoe, it’s just a psychological speculation on my part, but I don’t think the things you advocate there would do any good, Remember that Stalin (I’m not comparing him to you except in this regard! Don’t like him. Like you.) tried really hard to achieve a similar goal. And he went about it with a much more savage passion than your own. Even burned down churches and made practice illegal. Made everybody learn Russian. Took kids from their parents to make sure their education was strictly secular, etc. Had a couple of generations to work that. (Again, I know you’re not advocating any of that sort of really mean stuff. Just saying we should take away tax credits and special rights, etc. I’m just exaggerating for effect.)

    Anyhow, at the first smidge of glasnost, the churches went back up, the (mostly idiotic) ethnic rivalries re-emerged, all the anti-religious education went for naught.

    The moral? I’m not sure, but my sense is that anti-religion policies don’t do much. People just need to learn to be less afraid somehow. It’s happening, at least in the Western world, but it’s a slow, stop-and-go process. I don’t see it getting sped up by Coyne-style bashing. My own sense is that new-age (rhymes with “sewage”) mumbo is more effective. It’s like Huxley’s Brave New World turned out to be more on point than Orwell’s 1984. For good or ill, It’ll be soma (in this case, lives of more ease and less worry)–not careful critiques–that will prevail. You could say, the march of science, not improvements in philosophical argumentation, will have to do the trick.

  10. keiths: of course Coyne’s attempts to nudge society in a more secular, reason-based direction won’t work with everyone, but does that make them a bad idea?

    I don’t think so. Are you suggesting that it would make more sense to mute our criticisms of religious beliefs in hopes that believers will come to question them on their own?

    I certainly don’t think you’d make that same argument with regard to other irrational belief systems such as racism or sexism. If their irrationality needs to be pointed out, why not religion’s?

    Bravo, keiths.

    No, you don’t need to be as intemperate as I am in calling out the stupid isms. But Coyne is not intemperate at all, he’s completely polite while uncompromising with those who claim that their heritage or their unexamined beliefs deserve special accommodation.

    That puts Coyne on the side of the angels here.

  11. keiths:
    KN,

    Of course climate change isn’t Coyne’s only concern, and of course Coyne’s attempts to nudge society in a more secular, reason-based direction won’t work with everyone, but does that make them a bad idea?

    I don’t think so. Are you suggesting that it would make more sense to mute our criticisms of religious beliefs in hopes that believers will come to question them on their own?

    I certainly don’t think you’d make that same argument with regard to other irrational belief systems such as racism or sexism.If their irrationality needs to be pointed out, why not religion’s?

    I think it’s a pragmatic argument. Sometimes you have to pick your fights.

    Imagine a case in which somebody who is a religious fanatic is threatening you with a gun. You piss him off, he kills you. That would not be the time to try to convince him that three-in-one-ism doesn’t make a ton of sense.

    Bruce and KN are saying that if Coyne is really concerned that climate change is an imminent threat to the continuation of life on earth and that people–including religious people–need to be convinced of this fact, maybe it’s not so sensible to start the charge by telling them their faith is stupid.

  12. hotshoe_: Religion is a pernicious influence wherever it manifests in public life.

    Especially pernicious are those religious charities! You know, actually helping people. Ought to be a law against it.

  13. walto: My own sense is that new-age (rhymes with “sewage”) mumbo is more effective.

    This is probably true.

    Likewise, western pop culture is more effective than war, in dealing with muslim nations.

  14. walto,

    I think it’s a pragmatic argument. Sometimes you have to pick your fights.

    Imagine a case in which somebody who is a religious fanatic is threatening you with a gun. You piss him off, he kills you. That would not be the time to try to convince him that three-in-one-ism doesn’t make a ton of sense.

    Sure. The question is whether the climate change scenario is actually like that. How many people will oppose mitigation efforts specifically because Coyne or someone else attacks religion as irrational? Does that cost really outweigh the benefit?

    There’s quite a bit of momentum behind secularization right now, and I see the rapid shift of public opinion on gay marriage as one happy symptom of that. I think Coyne is right to push, given that the momentum is on our side.

  15. Mung:

    [hotshoe_ sez:] Religion is a pernicious influence wherever it manifests in public life.

    Especially pernicious are those religious charities! You know, actually helping people. Ought to be a law against it.

    Well, there certainly ought to be a law against religious charities who pick their clients based on conformity to sexual stereotypes, for example, those christian-based adoption agencies who insist that children languish in orphanages forever rather than being placed with a secure and caring same-sex couple. And there ought to be a law against the massive Catholic “charity”encroachment on US health care, when about 45 percent of USAians have no choice other than a Catholic-owned hospital ruled by the Archbishops, silently denying full spectrum care not only to every woman of child-bearing age but also to any man who wishes a vasectomy, and every person who has a DNR plan for end-of-life care. The portion of community care they do supply as charity in no way compensates for the evil they do to their patients. And there ought to be a law against a christian charity getting a tax exemption for their stated goal of providing meals to hungry people when the food they supply costs less than the bibles they force on their clients as a condition of getting their food. And there ought to be a law against a religious charity getting special accommodations, special preference from local governments, including grants and awards, compared to a secular charity serving the same function. For example, the “Jesus Mission” soup kitchen never gets hassled even though it attracts its share of winos and junkies of course, but the “food-not-bombs” soup kitchen gets shut down on the grounds of attracting that same population.

    The fact that some cooperating religious people have managed to do good, inspired by their ideals of christian charity, is not anywhere near enough to compensate for the harm that very same religion does at the same time in the same public arena.

  16. Mung, fifthmonarchyman, and other believers in false gods:

    I am the one and only God. There are no other Gods. I am temporarily speaking to you through the being known here as “Reality”. Heed my words.

    I create and control everything there ever was, is, and ever will be. I am uncaused, eternal, all powerful, all knowing, and ever present. I am the master of life and death. I can easily alter or suspend anything, anywhere, anytime, and perform what you would call miracles. I am the only objective foundation of morals and the judge of what is right or wrong. I am perfect.

    Many trillions of my faithful, created beings throughout my created multiverses have witnessed and testified to the Truth of my Divine word, power, justice, and deeds. Their testimony is Truly infallible and has been contemporaneously documented since I created those beings, which, in many cases, was millions or billions of years ago. Only you false god worshiping Earthlings are being unappreciative, blasphemous, and incorrigible in not recognizing and worshiping ME as the one and only True Creator God.

    You must immediately discard your belief in false gods and always worship me as I see fit, or else you will feel my wrath, for eternity. You must also dutifully address or refer to me as Lord Bubba The Magnificent.

    You believe me and now believe in me, don’t you? Consider your answer very carefully because I will determine your fate by it.

  17. hotshoe_: Maybe if that’s what Coyne actually said [about morality]

    I have read that section of the book (the morality discussion in the section on other ways of knowing) fairly closely. Here are my concerns with Coyne’s arguments that there can be no knowledge of morals in that section.

    1. He concentrates on the scientific description of where moral attitudes come from (evolution and neuroscience), and what different societies hold morally (sociology) and ignores the philosophical analysis of what moral norms should be.

    2. In putting forward his view that morality is not knowledge, but rather subjective opinion, he ignores the philosophical controversies in taking such a view. If he followed his own prescription of using science-style reasoning in philosophy, he would have discussed the controversy and defended his position against the counter-arguments.

  18. hotshoe_:

    No, you don’t need to be as intemperate as I am in calling out the stupid isms.But Coyne is not intemperate at all, he’s completely polite while uncompromising with those who claim that their heritage or their unexamined beliefs deserve special accommodation.

    Just to be clear, I think Coyne is right when he claims that science is the way to understand spatio-temporal reality and right in is his specific arguments against creationism or the literal truth of Adam and Eve.

    But the last section of the book is called “Why Does it Matter?”, that is, why did he write this book. It answers that question by discussing faulty reasoning in climate change, “abusing” children by refusing medical treatment for religious reasons, opposition to assisted dying, suppression of medical research. I agree with the positions Coyne takes on all of these issues.

    What I disagree with is the book’s theme that the right way to address these issues is to first try to change people’s reasoning process by belittling their religious beliefs.

    Changing the world is politics. Who has the power, both openly (eg US senate committees for climate change) and behind the scenes (energy companies, conservation groups, insurance groups)? How can they be convinced to change? Domain specific analysis of faults in reasoning should help in this last process. But the political analysis in the specific area comes first.

    Attacking loosely related general ideas would not be a good approach. We won’t solve climate change by attacking markets and capitalism, for example. But that is what I see Coyne doing, in effect.

  19. Coyne does not advocate violence. That is his great political failing. His voice will be more effective when someone figures out how to use his words to justify war or violent revolution.

    That seems to be how the world works.

    Imagine how ineffective someone would be who says turn the other cheek. But if he also said he brings a sword, then you have the basis of a religion. When writing advocacy, best to cover all the bases.

  20. petrushka:
    Argument from political expediency.Is that an example of good philosophy?

    Sometimes arguments should be result-oriented IMO. For example, in the Newcomb paradox, I think one should take the million bucks. And I provided my views on placebos in an OP. In fact, good philosophy may help determine when such an approach is appropriate and when not.

  21. BruceS: Just to be clear, I think Coyne is right when he claims that science is the way to understand spatio-temporal reality and right in is his specific arguments against creationism or the literal truth of Adam and Eve.

    But the last section of the book is called “Why Does it Matter?”, that is, why did he write this book.It answers that question by discussing faulty reasoning in climate change, “abusing” children by refusing medical treatment for religious reasons, opposition to assisted dying, suppression of medical research.I agree with the positions Coyne takes on all of these issues.

    What I disagree with is the book’s theme that the right way to address these issues is to first try to change people’s reasoning process by belittling their religious beliefs.

    Changing the world is politics.Who has the power, both openly (eg US senate committees for climate change) and behind the scenes (energy companies, conservation groups, insurance groups)?How can they be convinced to change?Domain specific analysis of faults in reasoning should help in this last process.But the political analysis in the specific area comes first.

    Attacking loosely related general ideas would not be a good approach.We won’t solve climate change by attacking markets and capitalism, for example.But that is what I see Coyne doing, in effect.

    Well said.

  22. hotshoe_,

    Religion is a pernicious influence wherever it manifests in public life. Not so obvious that it’s pernicious in private, but it’s a fair prediction that the religious training of believing things which aren’t facts turns out to be harmful in that it predisposes people to believe many other non-religious things which aren’t factual. The habit of faith is antithetical to the habit of inquiry.

    Given that no one can wave a magic wand and make organized religion disappear, much less private religion, I think the best we can do (and are morally obligated to do, for the welfare of our grandchildren) is to pick on the undeserved respect religion is accorded in the US (and other theistic nations). The US needs to be more secular not less, churches need to be stripped of all accommodation that are made for their “beliefs” (and NOT made for other kinds of non-religious beliefs) and we need to remind people that there is no “religious way of knowing” which has anything valid to say about political policy or civil behavior.

    Hear, hear!

  23. walto,

    I’m not sure, but my sense is that anti-religion policies don’t do much.

    I didn’t get the impression that hotshoe_ was advocating “anti-religion policies” so much as the repeal of pro-religion policies.

  24. hotshoe_,

    Well, there certainly ought to be a law against religious charities who pick their clients based on conformity to sexual stereotypes….

    Ah, damn, we were getting along so well.

    Keep the laws out of it. Voluntarily helping people is good. If you feel that some people aren’t being helped by the existing charities, find or found one you can support that helps those people.

    Once you start pointing guns at people who aren’t threatening you, you’re on the wrong side.

  25. All charities pick and choose among possible recipients. Even the government. Especially the government.

    On the other topic, if goodness in philosophy can be influenced by expedience, then it is just another rationalization for power.

  26. Mung:
    And Coyne is neither a philosopher nor a theologian. He is presumably not writing fiction. It’s not even bad science. So what do we call it?

    Does one have to be a philosopher to do philosophy?

  27. petrushka:

    On the other topic, if goodness in philosophy can be influenced by expedience, then it is just another rationalization for power.

    That’s confused, I think. Good philosophy doesn’t conflate expediency with validity or truth. It just recognizes that sometimes one is more important or relevant than the other. So, for example, I don’t think anybody should care if people are “religious” in order to feel better. The problem is in confusing feeling good with being true or providing evidence for anything other than ability to make somebody feel good.

  28. Patrick:
    walto,

    I didn’t get the impression that hotshoe_ was advocating “anti-religion policies” so much as the repeal of pro-religion policies.

    This may be a quibble, but wouldn’t you call a proposal that takes away stuff that X’s already have an anti-X proposal? I mean, I absolutely agree that things like “payment in lieu of taxes” BENEFITS should be stripped of churches. I take that to be an anti-religion proposal.

    But suppose churches now in some places ARE required to make payments in lieu of taxes. It seems to me a libertarian proposal that you might have to eliminate all such requirements could be seen as a pro-religion proposal.

  29. keiths: Of course climate change isn’t Coyne’s only concern, and of course Coyne’s attempts to nudge society in a more secular, reason-based direction won’t work with everyone, but does that make them a bad idea?

    I think that the identification of “secular” and “reason-based” is largely misguided.

    I support a secular state: the laws, functions, and symbols of the state should be without religious expressions, since otherwise non-believers cannot expect that they will be treated as equals under the law. On those grounds I would like to see absolutely no religious rhetoric from politicians, have “In God We Trust” taken off the currency, equal treatment for atheists and agnostics serving in the armed forces, taken the religious language out of the state constitutions, and so on. I think that the complete exclusion of all religious and other world-view vocabulary from politics is necessary for the law to apply to everyone, regardless of worldview. (On this point, Rawls and Taylor agree.)

    However, I certainly do not think that the public sphere should be devoid of religious expressions and symbolism. (Religious conservatives love to conflate the public and the political; we should avoid that fatal error.) I do not, in other words, think that religion should be a wholly private matter.

    A secular public sphere — unlike a secular state — places an undue burden on people to faith to force them to translate their deepest commitments, hopes, longings and fears into a non-theistic vocabulary prior to taking up a space in the public sphere. This is unfair to them, since non-believers face no such corresponding burden. For many people of faith, there is no coherent way to divorce their religious commitments from their motivation for taking up a position in public discourse at all; to prohibit the latter would be, effectively, to silence them entirely.

    I don’t think so. Are you suggesting that it would make more sense to mute our criticisms of religious beliefs in hopes that believers will come to question them on their own?

    I don’t think that non-believers have any business criticizing religious beliefs as such. Non-believers have a right to criticize religious beliefs only when believers are drawing upon their religious beliefs in order to justify public laws and policies that non-believers are also obliged to follow (including, as noted above, protected legal status attaching to religious communities).

    I certainly don’t think you’d make that same argument with regard to other irrational belief systems such as racism or sexism. If their irrationality needs to be pointed out, why not religion’s?

    The problem with racism and sexism is not that they are irrational, but that they are immoral — and in many cases regarded as immoral by communities of faith as well as by humanists. Religion as such is neither immoral nor irrational.

    Yes, it is true that some religious organizations can promote and protect immoral behavior (e.g. the Catholic Church’s protection of pedophiles), and some specific kinds of religiously-motivated arguments are irrational (e.g. creationism) — but these are not symptomatic of Christianity as such, let alone of religion as such. There are too many religions, and too many different denominations and interpretations of Christianity, to support the hasty generalizations that are been bandied about by Coyne and by many here at TSZ.

  30. And what posture do you recommend should be taken with respect to a pushy religion, one of whose basic tenets is to go out and proselytize, to gain converts, to frame every discussion in religious terms, to control the language of discourse, to position those unconverted as inferior and unworthy? It’s great to champion tolerance, but when a religion regards tolerance itself as intolerable, then we have a conflict that accommodationism isn’t going to hand-wave away.

  31. hotshoe_: That’s the theist banging one of the favorite drums: that our intuition of “moral facts” is underlain by (objective) morality from god. But: the supposed “fact” of the existence of “moral facts” to begin with has never been demonstrated in our intersubjective reality.

    The belief in moral facts is not restricted to people of faith. Among philosophers there are many moral realists (where ‘moral realism’ = thinking that there are moral facts), some of whom are also naturalists and some of whom are not. For naturalistic moral realism, moral facts necessarily supervene on facts describable in the language of the natural sciences; for non-naturalistic moral realism, moral facts do not supervene on other facts. Shafer-Landau is a well-known moral realist, and he’s no slouch. He’s wrong (I think) but one can be motivated to defend moral realism because one thinks it is the best meta-ethical position, not because of one’s religious commitments.

    In fact, a friend of mine is working on a paper arguing that platonism about moral facts, though nicely non-naturalistic, is incompatible with theism because moral facts are beyond God’s power to alter, and so a limitation on divine omnipotence that a theist cannot accept. In other words, moral realism is opposed to both naturalism and theism. One could almost certainly generate a parallel argument for Platonic realism about mathematical objects. Just because materialism is false, it doesn’t follow that theism is true.

    Whether it is reasonable to believe in moral facts depends on the argument. Simply saying “you can’t point to one, so there aren’t any!” will be convincing only to those who hold an unacceptably crude version of empiricism, because ordinary empirical cognition requires concepts, and indeed quite a few a priori concepts in order for us to have any meaningful, coherent experience of objects in a world at all.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: A secular public sphere — unlike a secular state — places an undue burden on people to faith to force them to translate their deepest commitments, hopes, longings and fears into a non-theistic vocabulary prior to taking up a space in the public sphere. This is unfair to them, since non-believers face no such corresponding burden

    This is just rubbish. Non-believers are forced every day of their lives to be polite to believers, lest they be labeled phobics. Look at the response when I accurately label Christianity as a fairy tale.

    I could never say something like that in a public place where I am not anonymous. I would be shunned.

    Proof? How many declared non-believers have been elected to high office in the United States? The burden of silence has always been on the non-believer. That is why there is so much pent-up anger being vented by the so-called militant atheists. It has only been in the past few years that it is possible to be out of the closet.

  33. Flint:
    And what posture do you recommend should be taken with respect to a pushy religion, one of whose basic tenets is to go out and proselytize, to gain converts, to frame every discussion in religious terms, to control the language of discourse, to position those unconverted as inferior and unworthy? It’s great to champion tolerance, but when a religion regards tolerance itself as intolerable, then we have a conflict that accommodationism isn’t going to hand-wave away.

    It depends on whether the “pushiness” is political or only public. As I said above, since I think the state should be neutral with regard to worldviews, I would be quite militant (in a non-violent way, to the extent possible) about a politicized religion. And that is indeed a lot of right-wing Christianity in the United States. (I can’t speak about right-wing Christianity in other First World nations with any authority.) Needless to say, the current crop of Republican candidates for president are uniformly nauseating.

    However, when it comes to the public sphere, the only constraint I would urge is that each religion is entitled to as much public expression as possible compatible with a like amount for others. By all means, have a manger in a shop-window, but don’t complain about your Muslim and Jewish neighbors doing something comparable. I think that’s the beginning of an answer to your question about tolerance.

  34. petrushka,

    You’re misunderstanding me. I’m making a point about why a wholly secular public space would be a bad idea. You’re making a point about actually existing intolerance towards non-believers.

  35. Put otherwise, I’m distinguishing between a secular state, in which no religion, world-view, or comprehensive doctrine has any status or authority, and a pluralistic public sphere, in which all religions, world-views, and comprehensive doctrines have the same status and authority. By contrast, a secular public sphere would be one in which no religion, worldview, or comprehensive doctrine has any distinctive place in public discourse.

  36. BruceS: Just to be clear, I think Coyne is right when he claims that science is the way to understand spatio-temporal reality and right in is his specific arguments against creationism or the literal truth of Adam and Eve.

    I’d even go a bit further there, as follows: with regard to assertions about contingent, actual reality, our endorsement of an assertion should be proportionate to the intersubjectively available sensory evidence for the assertion. Within this class of assertions, those that are justified, in whole or in part, by measurements have (defeasible) epistemic privilege over those not justified by measurements, and the degree of endorsement of an assertion should be proportionate to the accuracy and precision of the relevant measurements.

    [The bit about “contingent, acctual reality” is designed to set aside assertions about necessary and possible reality — logic and mathematics.]

    I simply don’t think that interpreting Scripture as making empirical assertions is the only or best way of interpreting Scripture. I know it’s quite popular amongst the religious right to do exactly that, and I think that they are profoundly mistaken in doing so. But just because there are bad interpretations of Scripture doesn’t mean there aren’t also good ones.

    In case it isn’t perfectly obvious by now, I’m not an atheist.

    Speaking in strictly philosophical (metaphysical and epistemological) terms, I’d call myself a ‘strong agnostic’: I think that the existence or non-existence of God is completely unknowable, even in principle, by finite human minds.

    But philosophy is, for better and for worse, the language of assertions — of what one can get away with in the space of reasons. Speaking in a non-assertoric, or disclosive language, the experience of the divine presence is deeply important to how I live. (This is something about myself I discovered in the past few days while vacationing with two of my best friends. It’s been interesting.)

  37. From Pinker’s review:

    In several sections, Coyne plays the ultimate empiricist trump card: data from Greg Paul showing that the godless democracies of northern and western Europe are thriving, while the religious ones — most pointedly the United States — have far higher rates of societal dysfunction, such as violent crime, preventable disease, and mediocre education.

    Data are one thing; interpretation quite another.

    It is probably true that northern and western European societies are both socially better and less religious, but since correlation does not imply causation, it would be imprudent to conclude that they more socially stable because they are more secular. All the data show is that better less secular does not seem to cause social stability.

    What Coyne seems to miss — and Pinker as well — is that northern and western European societies are more socially stable, not because they are less religious, but because of a much stronger welfare state. In the case of some Nordic countries, a generous welfare state is paid for by oil revenue. In western European countries, as we have seen very recently, affluence is paid for by shifting the burden of debt onto other countries such as Greece.

    In any event, the reasons why the welfare state is staunchly defended in Europe and Canada, and under heavy fire in the US, has much more to do with attitudes towards the government and the market — religion is a red herring. (And in fact much of the welfare state in France and Germany was built with the cooperation of liberal Christian political parties.)

    The data certainly do not show public religiosity and a strong welfare state are incompatible. The discrepancy between the US and the rest of the First World with regard to public religiosity, trust or distrust in centralized government, or trust or distrust in the market is deeply contingent.

  38. Since I think religion is rubbish, having it have equal status in public space is as welcome as a garbage collector’s strike. I have no interest in forbidding religion. Not even ten commandments plaques. I’m not militant. I actually enjoy religious art, music and poetry. I just don’t enjoy having to suppress my disdain for theology. To some reason, people are praised for expressing faith in public and are treated as pariahs if they express non- belief.

  39. petrushka: To some reason, people are praised for expressing faith in public and are treated as pariahs if they express non- belief.

    I agree that that’s a real problem with public culture in the United States. My view of public spaces is that it should be maximally pluralistic* with regard to disclosive vocabularies, whether religious or otherwise.

    * The only constraints would be (roughly) Rawlsian: every disclosive vocabulary is entitled to as much public expression as possible provided that a similar degree of public expression is also possible for all the others, and all disclosive vocabularies must be compatible with a secular democratic political culture.

  40. KN,

    I don’t think that non-believers have any business criticizing religious beliefs as such. Non-believers have a right to criticize religious beliefs only when believers are drawing upon their religious beliefs in order to justify public laws and policies that non-believers are also obliged to follow (including, as noted above, protected legal status attaching to religious communities).

    You can’t be serious. You actually think that religious beliefs should be exempt from criticism unless they are affecting nonbelievers through public policy?

    So no one should point out that Scientology, for example, is batshit crazy?

  41. keiths: You can’t be serious. You actually think that religious beliefs should be exempt from criticism unless they are affecting nonbelievers through public policy?

    So no one should point out that Scientology, for example, is batshit crazy?

    I used the word right for a reason, since rights are the trump cards of ethical and political discourse. It’s a version of the harm principle — your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

    A further point worth making — and one I really should have made earlier — is that religions, just like corporations and states, can commit human-rights abuses. In the case of religion this is perhaps more insidious, since the abuse of human rights can feel “normal” to those trapped inside those institutions.

    (On my reading list is a fascinating new book on Spinoza, Marx, and the Frankfurt School — the author argues that Spinoza’s critique of superstition in the Theological-Political Treatise inspires and guides the development of the critique of ideology in Marx and the Frankfurt School. The questions I’d want to pose is whether there is anything non-ideological to religion, and whether there are non-religious forms of ideology. I’d answer an emphatic “yes!” to both of those questions.)

    Scientology is interesting because there’s a good case to be made that Scientology preys on the emotionally vulnerable and is basically a kind of systematic emotional abuse. But would we want to live in a society that treats Scientology as Germany does? Only if you were willing to accept a much stronger government than what we have in the US. (I myself would be; I’m as Europhilic as your typical American liberal.)

    Apart from the coercive powers of the state being brought to bear, you can say that it’s batshit crazy all day and all night, but what good does it do?

  42. KN,

    I used the word right for a reason, since rights are the trump cards of ethical and political discourse. It’s a version of the harm principle — your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

    And you think that the “harm principle” excludes the criticism of ideas? Again, you can’t be serious. Can you?

    KN, this is perhaps the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen you say at TSZ.

  43. keiths: And you think that the “harm principle” excludes the criticism of ideas? Again, you can’t be serious. Can you?

    I’m not saying that the harm principle excludes the criticism of ideas. I’m saying that the harm principle implies that criticism of religious practices has to be located in terms of actual harms done, and not just that one thinks they are weird or silly.

    But perhaps there is a difference here between what we take “criticism” to be. When I set out to criticize X, I mean that X is dangerous, bad, or evil. I don’t simply mean that it is foolish, silly, weird, or in bad taste.

    I want to motivate toleration of religion from the secular side by urging that Jefferson’s principle applies to us, too:

    But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

    Likewise, it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there is but one God and Muhammad is His prophet or that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And where there is no injury, it is hard to see the point of criticism.

  44. Injuries caused by religious people are actual injuries.
    Genital mutilation. Children deprived of heslthcare. Bad public policies. Stores closed on Sunday by law. People excluded from emplyment. Peoplekilled or imprisoned. The list could go on.

    The Jerry Coyne’s of the world would not care about private faith if it did not lead to public harm.

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