Why would anyone ask Jerry Coyne anything about religion?

I recently upset Jerry Coyne with some remarks I made on his blog. Long story short, I challenged his theological erudition and encouraged one of his readers to direct questions about religious belief toward those who actually study and practice it. (Coyne posted and replied to my full comment here, and followed up further, with another post, here.) At one point in my comment, I wrote the following:

In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.

And all that said, I’d encourage you (though I’m sure Mr Coyne won’t actually send my words your way) to not trust Mr Coyne and others like him when it comes to the subject of religion. He has not spent any serious degree of time studying theology, or philosophy, or really anything relevant to your question. If you want to understand what the word “God” means, ask theologians (or monks). If you want to understand why people believe “God” exists, ask philosophers of religions, psychologists, sociologists, and historians — don’t ask a evolutionary biologist who specializes in fruit-fly research.

I grant that my tone was harsh, but I honestly thought this a fair (and relatively inoffensive) suggestion. Coyne thinks otherwise:

Frankly, I’m tired of people claiming that those of us who have read considerable theology and philosophy, or were believers in our earlier lives, aren’t qualified to say anything about religion because we’re neither priests nor monks. One thing that we do have is evidence—the evidence that supports scientific contentions—and one thing that theists have is NO EVIDENCE: no evidence supporting the existence or nature of any god. That should be the end of the discussion.

I’m continually amazed at how believers are able to be so vehement in their attacks on atheists when, after all, we’re simply pointing out this lack of evidence. The more I see of theists, the more I see them as a group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics. And so they grow angry and dismissive, and attack the credentials of anyone who dares comment on God or religion.

And then, to make matters worse for me, I was conclusively “pwned,” as several of Coyne’s readers triumphantly announced, by an anonymous “credentialed theologian” and reader of Coyne’s:

I am a credentialed theologian! At least, that is what I was told after graduating with my BA in theology from St. Gregory University, a Benedictine school in Shawnee, Oklahoma […] I can tell you that my few years at the undergraduate level was enough to divest me rather completely of the notion that theology was the study of anything solid, that there was an object to this subject. […]

My study of theology made me aware of the fact that there was no objective, empirical underpinning to the field. Nothing on which you could hang your hat. Just the promise of some hint at the divine through the contemplation of “mysteries”–or absurdities lent an air of sanctity by dint of tradition […]

We can only solve problems we experience in this world by reference to the world, not to otherworldly spirits whose existence has never been verified.

I’m not sure what this theologian’s point was (since I didn’t write a single word about the legitimacy or veracity of religious belief in my comment); nor am I sure why Coyne furiously digressed into a rant about why religion is false and has “NO EVIDENCE” to support itself (since, again, I said absolutely nothing about whether “religion” was supported at all, evidentially or otherwise). And I’m even less sure how Coyne managed to rationally or “evidentially” deduce from my comment that I’m a member of a “group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics.” As a couple of his readers helpfully noted, I didn’t even take a stance in my post — I only recommended that a reader ask religious questions of individuals with some degree of real religious knowledge. And for what it’s worth, my conviction that Coyne is not one such person actually has nothing to do with his lack of BAs in theology and other external “credentials” and everything to do with what I’ve seen him say regarding David Bentley Hart and classical theism.

Most other bits of Coyne’s response wobble haphazardly in similarly irrelevant directions: he points out that he didn’t personally try to answer the religious question at hand (he didn’t, but that has no bearing on my advice to the inquirer), he condescendingly notes that there are multiple factors motivating religious belief (who would ever suggest otherwise? I certainly didn’t), he exhorts me to “get out of the seminary and monastery” (I live in Los Angeles, have never attended seminary, and have never set foot in a monastery), and concludes — most forcefully of all — by pointing out that, “as any fool knows,” various theologians, rabbis, and imams will give various answers to religious questions (I will personally buy Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact if he can find me a single human [without severe mental disabilities and with a junior high diploma] who thinks otherwise).

All this to say: the entirety of the theologian’s response and the vast majority of Coyne’s response were completely irrelevant to what I actually wrote. Even so, Coyne did raise one point that pertained to my comment:

[W]hy is it only monks and theologians who are qualified to say what the word “God” means? What about what the word means to the regular believers, who make up the vast bulk of religionists? (Note the denigration of my qualifications by saying I do “fruit-fly research.”)

(For what it’s worth, I actually meant no disrespect to Coyne’s research. The study of fruit-flies is obviously helpful and worthwhile, I appreciate Coyne’s commitment to and achievements in the field. My point in mentioning it here was simply that Coyne’s specific area of study has almost literally nothing to do with theology, or philosophy, or sociology, or any other relevant discipline. It’s not even as though he studies the emergence of consciousness in rational creatures, or some other scientific subject that has some degree of substantial overlap with God-related questions. But I guess this is all beside the point.)

So why can’t “religionists” define the word “God,” instead of theologians and monks? This question would be fair if we were speaking in purely sociological or cultural terms. But we’re not. In the original post on which I commented, a reader was fairly earnestly asking what motivates so many people to believe in “God,” despite the impressive advances of modern science. My point in suggesting that Coyne’s reader ask theologians and monks what the word “God” means was simply that the vast majority of religious believers throughout history — be they Christian, Jewish, Neoplatonic, Sikh, Hindu, etc. — have understood the word “God” to have almost nothing directly to do with the inquiry or discoveries of the natural sciences. Theologians and monks spend their lives studying (and, in the latter case, devoting themselves to) these religious and philosophical traditions, and are, by and large, in no way adherent to the crass creationist, “God-of-the-gaps” form of religiosity Coyne’s reader describes.

But whatever. Coyne knows all this — or at least, he has absolutely no excuse to not know this if he has actually ever read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. I personally suspect that he only furiously skimmed it, since his critiques of the book (at least two of which were written before even he claims to have read it in full) no less than completely misunderstand almost every single point Hart makes. But I guess there’s no point in going on here either, since all this has been said before (here, for example) by writers incomparably better than both myself and Coyne. After all, if Hart, Douthat, and Feser can’t stop Coyne from claiming that the God of classical theism is a God-of-the-gaps, what could I or anyone else possibly do to help him?

For the sake of Coyne’s readers, though, who may not have had the fortune of reading Hart’s book, here’s what Hart has already said, and what Coyne has already read, in response to the above question about popular “religionists”:

[T]he more persistent sort of skeptic will often then assert that … it hardly matters what the philosophers and theologians may think, because the “common believer” has only a hazy notion of any of that, and “most people” think of God in a much more primitive way. On the one hand, this is an entirely irrelevant argument. It is always true, for any shared body of knowledge, conviction, and belief, that the principles and logic of the whole “system” are more fully known only to a few individuals who have gone to the trouble to study them. As a rule, for instance, most persons have only a vague, metaphorical, and largely pictorial understanding of the findings of the sciences … That would hardly make it intellectually responsible for, say, a young earth creationist to reject the evolution of species or the vast antiquity of the earth based solely on the crude, indistinct, popular misconceptions that “most people” have about such matters … An honest and honorable critic of any idea will always seek out and try to understand the strongest possible formulations of that idea, as well as the most persuasive arguments in its favor, before attempting its refutation.

On the other hand, however, I have to note that in this case the skeptic’s complaint is not really true anyway, or at least not nearly as true as he or she imagines. Certainly the average believer may have very little knowledge of the history of metaphysics or the technical language of philosophy, and might not be able to formulate propositions regarding the logic of divine transcendence with the practiced ease of some saturnine old Jesuit in some Midwestern Catholic college’s philosophy faculty … Nevertheless, if one asks that average believer certain questions about what he or she understands God to be, the answers will often be in principle perfectly concordant with the more arcane formulae of the metaphysicians: that God is Spirit, incorporeal, not an object located somewhere in space, not subject to the limitations of time, not a product of cosmic nature, not simply some craftsman who creates by manipulating materials external to himself, not composed of parts, but rather residing in all things while remaining perfectly one, present to us in the depths of our own beings … (and so forth). As a practical reality, the God of faith and the God of the philosophers are in many crucial respects recognizably one and the same.

And, as anyone who has so much as furiously skimmed Hart’s book knows, this general picture of God — however noteworthy and important the diverse particular theological claims about this “God’s” nature, actions, and character may be — is common to practically all major religious and philosophical traditions. So yes, if one asks a priest and a rabbi whether God was ever born of a virgin in human history, one will receive two different answers. And of course this is theologically and philosophically important. But it in no way invalidates my advice to the young reader; nor does it somehow lend any credibility to Coyne’s religious learnedness, since the vast majority of reasons that even “religionists” believe in God are common to all theological traditions: they have seen “God” transform human lives in inexplicable ways, they have experienced “God” in private devotion, they have recognized that there is no coherent atheistic way to explain why something exists rather than nothing, they are committed to the intuitive conviction that their moral sensibility has some objective grounding (and thus that there is always something really wrong with, say, rape regardless of whether the majority of present humans find it tolerable or not), they perceive a natural but naturalistically inexplicable need in themselves for a transcendent “God” (and thus infer “God’s” existence in much the same way that Coyne infers the efficacy of his own rationality), they recognize that only “God” can account for the fundamental intelligibility of reality and structure of intentional consciousness, they don’t much feel like dismissing the experience of almost all humans (and especially of the most interesting and brilliant humans) throughout history as purely “delusional” and “primitive” in comparison to their own … and so on and so on.

Theologians and monks are superlatively aware of these and countless other motivating reasons for religious belief. They have experienced many such reasons first-hand. Of course theology is not a precise, objectively “empirical” discipline in the vein of the natural sciences. But even a passing glance at religious history indicates that it’s also not a wholly arbitrary or haphazard discipline, and that — cultural, dogmatic, and linguistic differences notwithstanding — a legion of the same moral, experiential, spiritual, and metaphysical conclusions have been drawn by the majority of major traditions of religious thought, practice, and inquiry in civilized human history.

And, I’ll ask in closing, what possible incentive could anybody (intelligent but misinformed 13-year-old blog-readers excluded) have to ask Jerry Coyne about them? I don’t think Coyne is a dumb man; I just don’t think he’s a reliable source of religious knowledge. Why would anyone dispute this? And why is this even an offensive thing to say? I’d sincerely like to know.


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