Coyne on the hidden God …

Jerry Coyne posted a couple of days ago on the hidden God, and mostly seems to be using his post to claim that theists should be laughed at.   The problem is that Coyne seems to be continuing the trend of not reading or understanding what people are saying, and misrepresenting what’s going on … to an extent that at least one of his comments is going to be as “unintentionally funny” as anything he criticizes.

So let’s look at what he says, shall we?

Let’s start with the comment he dragged out of another post into the light of day to comment on:


“Already this week we’ve had a minister come to this website and patiently explain that, yes, religion is predicated on real truths like the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, but, you know, these aren’t really the kind of truths that are true, at least not in the way that scientists and nonreligious folks think of truth, but truths that meet the religious community’s understanding of truth.”


As I’m now forced to do, I have to look to see what the comment actually said, so here it is:


“Truthspeaker–I’m neither an atheist nor a con man. I believe my faith, and wear my pastor hat comfortably. But I also wear my university professor hat quite easily too, and, far from letting people stay naive, spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to teach people how to look at religion with methodological sophistication, i.e. to look at it from behind the curtain. Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and by true I don’t mean scientifically true, but true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth, which is a kind of truth that is thousands of years older than scientific truth.”


And, again, it really does look like Coyne is basically reading things into it that aren’t there.  But Coyne’s example here is far more subtle than what P.Z. did; Coyne’s not actually ignoring what the comment says, but reading into it with his own worldview.  Note that when Simpson talks about community, he doesn’t make any claims about it being a religious community, nor does he talk about truth as being different than how scientists and non-religious people think of it.  He simply says that the truth of religion is not a scientific truth, but a community truth.

Now, I’ll admit I’m not sure I understand his point either, and Simpson doesn’t clarify it much in later comments.  But I’ll take a stab at it from a more neutral perspective, and claim this: Simpson is referring to the truth of God as a community truth, or a shared belief of a community.  Any community.   Or, more accurately, I think that Simpson sees religion as a cultural belief.   A cultural belief is a belief that people have because they are part of a certain culture, and a belief that has been passed down through the generations.  Dawkins would probably call it a “cultural meme”.

So, what about that?  Well, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that most cultural beliefs are held not for scientific reasons, and that some of them might not be amenable to scientific study.  A lot of our morality, for example, isn’t of that sort.  If we take the famous argument of the Greeks who burned their dead and the other culture who ate them, and the disagreement between them, it isn’t likely that which is better can be settled scientifically.  It’s part of the culture to consider one or the other better, and that’s what people do.  And trying to prove which is “better” is unlikely to move many people.

Like it or not, most if not all cultures do have a religious component as part of it.  Western society, for better or for worse, has been shaped by Christianity and Judaism.  Many Middle Eastern societies really do have an attachment to Islam.  These may have more or less importance, but they are there.

Now, are these sorts of beliefs good, and should the belief in God give way to scientific and philosophical skepticism about religion?  I’m not going to say.  I will say that this has been raised philosophically a number of times, and is an interesting and useful question.  Not something whose ” … proper response … is derisive laughter.”  Coyne can try to make that point only by interpreting it in light of what Coyne thinks of religion and not what Simpson thinks of religion, but when reading someone you have to aim to see what they believe, and you can’t just stick to what you believe.

Anyway, let’s move on to the next section, where Coyne talks about why he makes an exception to his own rule to not link to the Huffington Post:


Now I know that Pharyngula has sworn not to link to HuffPo, and I think I’ve said the same, but it’s hard not to because its pieces on religion are so unintentionally funny.

A normal response to a question like “why don’t we see that invisible, pink six-foot tall rabbit?” is “because it doesn’t exist”.  But when the rabbit is God, that answer is just far too simple. ”


And here is where he is unintentionally hilarious himself.  See, the normal response to “Why don’t we see that invisible X?” is not “Because it doesn’t exist” but is, in fact “Um, because it’s invisible? [smack]”.  See, that word “invisible” means “can’t be seen”.  If the thing really is invisible, you can’t see it, and so that explains why you, well, can’t see it.  The question here is like someone asking “So, if that thing’s solid, how come I can’t walk through it?”  Well, because it’s solid.

One really should not challenge analytic truths and expect to get anything other than — at best — eye rolling.

Now, this might be just Coyne typing too fast and adding things in, and I’d give him more slack if he didn’t have a propensity to simplify points down and then, well, essentially act as if the simplifications were right and didn’t have nasty consequences if you don’t qualify them.  Here, I suspect Coyne is after the far more detailed case where this is what happens:

Someone says “There’s a six foot pink rabbit in my garage”.

The other person looks and says “I don’t see it.”

So the first person then says “Oh, well, it’s invisible.”

This is something that we rightfully are skeptical about because the invisibility seems tacked on to explain something that they expected to see happen that didn’t.  And sometimes, religion does this.  But science does this sometimes, too, so it’s not like it’s completely invalid; sometimes you do take the consequences of your views, beliefs, or theories as stronger than they have to be.  But, yes, it should engender some skepticism.

That being said, though, a lot of the “hidden God” complaints are about completely invented necessary consequences of God.  A lot of atheists — and Coyne is indeed among them — toss out things that they think should be the case if God exists, and then accuse theists of hiding God when they point out that there’s no real reason to think that that has to be the case if God exists.  The Problem of Evil is probably the classic example, but that’s actually a decent argument that deserves attention.  The comment from Dave in my post on what would convince me that God doesn’t exist where he asks why God had Moses do things instead of doing it Himself is a prime example of an argument that should be answered with: “And why should we think that if God existed He wouldn’t have done that?”.  And a number of arguments in-between.

So, no, these sorts of issues aren’t just fit to be met with laughter … well, except for Coyne’s simplification, which I hope was just a mistake.

And the last, about the post itself:


Witness the tortuous logic of the sophisticated religious mind as the good Rabbi Lurie gives not one but four reasons why we can’t see God.  Here’s the first:

1) A Misunderstanding of the Nature of God

The notion that God can “appear” as a visible entity demonstrates a belief in the nature of God as a being, separate from ourselves, and living somewhere “out there”: a person, perhaps like ourselves, only much, much bigger, smarter, etc. If this is our vision of God, then we will certainly be frustrated at “his” hiding. This image of God, though, is frankly a childish one that we must all agree does not exist. The great theologians, mystics, and spiritual guides have all recognized that what we call “God” is not a limited being. What, then, is God? Well, not to be evasive, but this is not a simple answer that can be written in a short blog, and whatever I write will be inaccurate, misunderstood, and radically incomplete. I can say this, though: God’s presence is experienced, not quantified, measured, or recorded. The first step, then, is to let go of a literal vision of God, and to begin to know that the search for God is more akin to the search for love and connection than the search for a graviton or Big Foot.

He’s pulling a Fermat!  I have a marvelous explanation for why we can’t see God, but it’s too big to be contained on this website.  And what about those ancient and wonderful times when God did appear—sending his son to Earth to perform miracles, and supposedly performing miracles and interceding on Earth ever since?  Why did he withdraw, like a snail into its shell, when science came on the scene?”


The above quoted reason deserves better than this response, and again Coyne is being subtle in his misinterpretation.  He is again interpreting the reason in light of what he cares about and thinks is the case, and not by what the author is trying to get at.   And so he misses it completely.  The above argument seems — to me anyway — to be aimed at arguments like “I went and looked for God, didn’t find Him, so He doesn’t exist.”   Lurie’s reply seems to be that scientific measurement and the like isn’t how you look for God.  It’s an experience, like love, not something that we study with a microscope.  And to that extent his analogy to love is very good, since no one looks to a scientist to determine if they love someone.

I can also relate to the analogy personally.  I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced love, or really loved someone.  I also don’t seem to have that experience of God either.  I don’t believe based on some connection or major experience or some sense of wonder.   And so, in both cases, it’s very hard for me to imagine what those experiences really are, and how I’d distinguish love from just intense physical attraction (or a crush) or a God experience from a simply sense of intellectual wonder.   And, not having that, I can see the issue with the proof.  How can someone tell me when I’ve really experienced love or God?  Have I experienced them and just dismissed it because I didn’t find it impressive enough?  Have I really not experienced it?  If I had acted in a manner appropriate for these experiences with these doubts, would I be selling myself short?

So, yeah, tough questions … and things that dismissing with laughter is an utterly inappropriate reaction.

Now, we can see that Coyne’s reply of “MIRACLES!” is bad because that isn’t what Lurie is after.  And looking at the reports of specific experiences, we can see that that “feeling” and experience of God is indeed relevant there as well; you’ll only accept it as a miracle representing God if you accept that your experience proves it.  And naturalistic science really can’t study miracles well.  To take a safer example, Coyne could have asked the same thing about ghosts.  Why have ghosts gone away as science advanced?  And the answer is: they haven’t.  Science has found some frauds, but ghost experiences still happen and people still claim to see ghosts.  Just like they do for the intervention of God.  Science has just wandered into those places, said “Some are fake and some don’t have enough evidence”, and our more skeptical society has just given them less importance.  Hardly the overwhelming rebuttal that Coyne seems to think it is.

And, BTW, the issues I talked about above?  They are too big to talk about in one section of a short blog post.  I gave it a shot because, well, I’m verbose.  But there have been lots of philosophical books written on those topics.  I’d like to see how Lurie does flesh this out, because I think it would be an interesting discussion and something to look at, even if I may not agree with it.  You can’t boil that down to a simple sentence.

And Coyne’s mistakes here are a prime example of what happens when you try.

3 Responses to “Coyne on the hidden God …”

  1. Kirth Gersen Says:

    Without getting too much into the rest of your post, VS, I’ll mention that you’ve correctly threaded the Invisible Pink Bunny/Unicorn analogy. Among atheists, it’s well-used, in exactly the detailed sense you reconstructed, as a substitute for Russell’s Teapot/Flying Spaghetti Monster/Whatever. Dr Coyne is simply speaking to his audience, assuming all readers are “in the know,” because so few people who don’t already agree with him actually take the time to read his blog.

    This also feeds into why he blithely dismisses matters that merit a detailed discussion in a 30-second post: because that discussion has largely taken place elsewhere, and Coyne sees no need to rehash it for the benefit of an audience primarily consisting of people already familiar with it. When he mentions these sorts of things, it’s along the lines of a shorthand reminder, not a proper philosophical discussion.

    P.S. You mentioned Russell Blackford’s blog earlier; I agree that that’s a better place to get a more complete view of what’s being referred to — because Russell, as a committed philosopher, never tires of going over the same old discussions looking for new pearls of wisdom.

  2. verbosestoic Says:


    As I said in the article, I’d have given him a pass if he hadn’t shown a tendency in the past to oversimplify points and then work as if the simplification was itself actually true. In this case, this would be made worse by the fact that he seems to be claiming that those arguments should be met with laughter, but if he did expand the argument and took it seriously he should be able to see why it might be taken as a serious argument that may have some issues, even if they don’t work.

    In short, I’m not convinced that he knows the argument that you claim he isn’t bothering to rehash.

    As for Russell Blackford, I like him better because even when he does simplify or shorten arguments, it’s generally clear that he knows about the full details, and that comes out in his discussions. He doesn’t generally make a claim that the longer argument would contradict. And in general he’s far better at interpreting what people he’s replying to are saying (but not always).

  3. Kirth Gersen Says:

    Dunno — I can’t read his mind, but from what I’ve read of his longer arguments, I think Jerry Coyne usually has a pretty good grasp of these things. Yeah, he’s admittedly not as socially adroit as Russell Blackford — he sometimes works too hard playing to the audience, for example, and isn’t always quick to see the implications of another person’s viewpoint (as you point out)… but then again, he’s often better at cutting through stuff that, while intellectually interesting, is largely irrelevant in the scope of real life. Overall, I usually don’t feel that time at either venue is wasted.

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