Jerry Coyne’s Sense of Superiority is Tingling …

So, Jerry Coyne recently pondered the question of whether religious people are stupid (or “a bit thick”). Or, perhaps, to be totally charitable, more the question of whether someone can be religious and still be called “smart”, as that’s really the question he talks about, but his summary talks about them being in some sense stupid or a bit thick. His answer is, of course, that the religious are at least not smart, are at least partially stupid, and are a bit thick. And as you might imagine, the comments on that post are full of atheists basking in their presumed intellectual and mental superiority, talking about how flawed the reasoning of religious people is and even bringing up the old “It’s a mental illness” and “brainwashed” canards … all of which is based on, at best, them happening to get one answer — albeit potentially an important one — right. Sure, some are pointing out that everyone has potential irrational blind spots, but that hasn’t really made an impact on the atheists there.

So, why does Jerry Coyne think that theists are “a bit thick”?

And many public intellectuals—and virtually all accomplished scientists—are atheists. Why? Because there’s no credible evidence for God. It’s palpably and painfully obvious that religion is a human construct and that the tenets of different faiths are not reconcilable. The things that the faithful say they believe are simply ludicrous. I cringe, for example, when I hear a “smart” person like Rabbi Sacks or the Archbishop of Canterbury profess such stuff.

To me, this means that someone, regardless of how “smart” they seem, is at the very least irrational if they believe in God or the attendant superstitions. It is as if their brain is a jigsaw puzzle with one crucial piece missing: the piece that accepts important propositions in proportion to the evidence supporting them. And to me that kind of irrationality is a form of stupidity, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.” It’s not that they’re totally stupid; just partially stupid.

Hoo boy.

1) That public intellectuals and scientists — presumably, people that Coyne thinks are smart — are atheists is not evidence that therefore smart people are or tend to be atheists and that that fact is related to their intelligence. There might be something specific in the nature science that makes it so that those people tend towards atheism just from that that has no relation to the purported evidence or lack thereof. Like, I don’t know, naturalism? Coyne’s comment here is like saying that if we discovered that most computer scientists were introverts, and computer scientists are smart people, therefore extroverts aren’t or can’t be smart people. So that first sentence is at best meaningless, and at worst should lead us to wonder if the scientific worldview might be unduly biasing people against theism. So we’d need to look at the evidence.

2) That there’s “no credible evidence” is a claim Coyne needs to support, starting by pointing out what counts as “credible evidence”. And since theism just means “belief in god(s)”, he can’t appeal to the idea that it isn’t convincing to him; that would require it to be a knowledge claim, which I at least don’t make.

3) To say that it is obvious that religion is a human construct implies that he has sufficient evidence of that to demonstrate it to the point of knowledge. But since atheists have made a virtue over never having to prove that God doesn’t exist, colour me skeptical that he actually has that evidence. I certainly haven’t seen evidence that rises to that level.

4) He also — as is his wont — misses that just because it is obvious to him doesn’t mean that it is obvious to everyone. If someone merely doesn’t accept that naturalism is true then they are not going to find it “obvious” that a supernatural entity like a god can’t exist, while a naturalist will.

5) Since most religious people don’t hold that the tenets of faiths other than their own are true, that you can’t reconcile different faiths is not a problem because they aren’t trying to. They think theirs is right and the others are wrong. This might get into an argument over whether the evidence is stronger for their faith than for others, but the idea that the different faiths are reconcilable is utterly irrelevant to that claim.

6) In order to claim that theists are irrational, Coyne would have to know and examine why they maintain that belief, understand their reasons, and address their reasons. Since Coyne has both spent an entire many hours long car ride with Dan Dennett and has compatibilists like Coel constantly try to correct him about what compatibilism wrt free will means and still can’t get it right, this does not seem like something Coyne is capable of doing.

7) Coyne concludes that because theists don’t agree with him on one proposition, that they must therefore be missing the entire faculty that proportions beliefs to evidence … despite the fact that psychologically it would be more likely that in that case if Coyne is right they most likely have some sort of cognitive bias that is interfering here. This would especially be the case if, in other areas, they seem to have no problem apportioning belief to evidence … which would obviously be true for those that Coyne thinks might be smart but who have this odd attachement to religion or theism.

Look at it this way: if someone spent much of their lives worshiping Santa, elves, fairies, or even Zeus, and maintained in all seriousness that Santa delivers presents to Western children at nearly the speed of light each Christmas, you’d think they weren’t playing with a full deck. But somehow it’s okay if they do the same with Allah, Jesus, Muhammad, God, Vishnu, and the like. They can profess such stuff and still be considered “smart.”

But, again, most people don’t believe that, and their cultures consider those things to be false, and so it’s not reasonable to believe them unless you have good reason to. When your culture believes that religion is true, then it’s certainly more reasonable to believe that it is true unless you have good reason not to. Can Coyne offer good reasons not to? The idea that atheists have no burden of proof suggests “No”.

Coyne, essentially, considers theists to be in some sense stupid because we, at best, are wrong about something that Coyne thinks is obviously true. Well, then if we take any position that Coyne holds that others disagree with — free will, scientism, etc — then they would be justified in believing that about him. Thus, we can all get a nice sense of superiority from considering that everyone who does not believe precisely as we do is “a little thick” while we, of course, are not. Alternatively, we can instead consider that maybe they’re wrong, and try to find out where they went wrong, and work with that. We might discover that we are, in fact, wrong. Or they might learn that they are. Or we might discover that the answers aren’t as obvious as we thought they were. At the end, someone might well learn something.

And we obviously can’t have that, right?

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