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The Sciences

Why Evolution is True, But Coyne is Wrong About Religion, Part I: The "Shut Up" Canard

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So--I have recently reread Jerry Coyne's lengthy New Republic piece, which is at the source of some of our debates; and let me say, it is a very good, extensive, thoughtful article. I have not read Coyne's book, although time willing, I would like to. However, I also feel myself pretty conversant with the many persuasive reasons why evolution is true, and I know I am in full agreement with Coyne about this. Still, for those who like good reads in defense of science, let me say that everyone ought to buy a copy of Coyne's book if you haven't already--I am quite sure, based on the strength of the New Republic piece, that it will be worth it. In the arena of throat clearing, I also want to add something else. And that is that in my experience, the science blogosphere is a hard place to really debate matters relating to science and religion, due to the polemicism that tends to occur. So let me also say to Coyne at the outset that I would challenge him to a public debate about how, as two atheists and supporters of evolution, we ought to approach the crucial and also highly divisive subject of religion. A debate in person would be the most thoughtful format, and one in which I suspect we could achieve real progress. In the form of an olive branch I'd also like to offer Coyne a concession and apology. While there are some things I disagree with in Coyne's New Republic article--and even more in his blog response to me--I am not arguing that Coyne is guilty of incivility, unthoughtful argument, ad hominems, or anything else along these general lines. There is much incivility in this general area, much unthinking polemicism, much extremism--all of it regrettable. However, this is not my issue with Coyne in particular; and I think the title of one of my posts, "Civility and the New Atheists," was unfortunate in that it suggested I find Coyne uncivil, when I don't. In that post, I was really talking more about something like Forrest’s concept of “civic friendship” rather than "civility" anyway, and the word civility does not recur save in the title. So it was a poor choice of words. [Another choice of words on my part that has been challenged, “flailing indiscriminately against religion,” was not meant to refer to Coyne, and as far as I can see, did not. His New Republic article is certainly perceptive and discriminate.] So my issue with Coyne is not about manners. It is rather that I think he's wrong, with very important consequences, about the alleged incompatibility of science and religion, and what we should do about it. So I am going to try in a series of posts to explain why. It will take several because there are a lot of issues rolling around here, and I want to break them up to deal with them more adequately. (It will also take some time--these posts won't necessarily all appear today or even this week.) At the outset there is a pressing need to deal with one misconception that, unfortunately, I find in Coyne's blog post in response to me, and that I have heard before. Coyne says I am being “anti-intellectual” and even that “In their desire to cozy up to Christians, [Mooney and Forrest] are trying to impose a form of intellectual censorship on the rest of us. This is what you do when you’ve lost the argument about the compatibility of faith and science.” We haven’t lost the argument—on the contrary, the argument has barely begun. There are many issues to address, and the case against incompatibility and for accommodationism, or reconciliationism, is actually quite strong. Indeed, to be truly "intellectual" about it we need to draw upon bodies of knowledge--philosophical, say, or historical--that I believe Coyne does not adequately address in the New Republic piece. But we won’t get off the ground if there are charges flying that somebody wants to squelch debate or dialogue in some way. So although I shouldn't have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong. Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc. But while Coyne and the New Atheists deserve (and quite obviously enjoy) freedom of speech, I and others have every right to point out the severe consequences of the divisiveness that is being fueled over science and religion these days. And we have every right to challenge the accuracy of their arguments about the alleged incompatibility that Coyne cites. I myself would challenge aspects of Coyne's approach on at least four counts—on philosophical, historical, legal, and strategic grounds. We can try to get to all of that (though it will take a while). But first, we must get past the idea that anybody is telling anybody to shut up. It's simply not the case. So what do you say, Dr. Coyne? If I agree that you’re not uncivil, and you agree that I’m not telling you to shut up, then we can start talking, no?

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