I have been AWOL for some time now, and do not expect to get back into the stream of regular posting here at Choice in Dying, but I have been increasingly annoyed by what seem to me to be serious failures of thinking by the (so-called) New Atheists, which so bring scepticism into disrepute as to make genuine sceptics steer clear of what has become normative amongst too may sceptical, anti-religious “arguments”. While I have not yet read (and have held off ordering, Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact), I have become so familiar with his argument style that I suspect it contains very little that would appeal to me. Indeed, the title of the book is itself a sample of the thinking that goes into the New Atheism, and it is, in fact (not meaning to pun on the title), simply wrong to think of religion in terms of faith vs. fact, as though religion has set itself up in some sense as a rival of empirical investigation of the Umwelt, and comes off a poor second best at the attempt.
Of course, this is not to say that some religious believers do not understand their “faith” in this way, but it is, by and large, a completely mistaken idea of religious belief, and, while it may have its proponents, especially in the United States, and in some of the colonial offshoots of the Christian religion in the so-called “developing” world, it is not, in any sense, normative religion as this has been understood since the Enlightenment. Some hangovers from the past were still, of course, present, just as normative science often outlives new and challenging discoveries and new paradigms (as Thomas Kuhn pointed out), especially amongst those who deplored things like scholarly biblical criticism, or the development of doctrine (in ways never anticipated by the founders of the religion) – and there are still enough of those still around, expressing their dogmatic certainties in the face of facts that undermine them. However, it does not follow that science has successfully answered all the questions that still press upon us as we live our lives teetering on the very edge of a precipice, questions that simply clamour for an answer, and are still asked, and attempts at answers still made, even by those who disparage religious answers to them. The questions are, for the most part, inescapable, when we start thinking about quite fundamental issues about our lives, and the questioning wonder that these issues leave us with, questions which simply have no scientific answers, and, in a real sense, could not provide them.
Some of these questions were addressed in Michael Ruse’s paper, published in Zygon (June 2015), entitled simply: “Why I am an Accommodationist and Proud of It.” Now, I might approach the paper simply by providing a précis of it, and expressing my view as to the soundness of Ruse’s arguments. Instead, I intend to approach it through Jerry Coyne’s lenses, and suggest why those lenses are distorting. While Dr. Coyne is a recognised expert in his field of evolutionary biology and speciation, he is not a philosopher, yet he continues to believe that he can, without any training in philosophy, provide philosophical arguments of great cogency. I think he is terribly mistaken, and that he should, before he addresses philosophical issues — even those related to science — learn some of the basic principles of philosophical argumentation.
I once, rather shamefully, tried to provide a justification for the amateur philosophy in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but I must say that, in the end, this was done out of party spirit, and not because I thought The God Delusion a good example of philosophical reasoning. Indeed, I tend to agree with Micahel Ruse that this book would deserve little more than than a failing grade in either Philosophy 101 or Religion 101. Dawkins is a great populariser of evolutionary biology, as well as some other areas of science, but he is certainly not a philosopher, and, as E.O. Wilson has rather archly pointed out, he is not even a scientist, but rather more in the nature of a science journalist. As to his grasp of theology, one has to say that he simply missed the boat, and had to make do with little snippets of remembered beliefs from his childhood. If he has ever made any concentrated study of religion it is not evident in what he writes.