The Noble Jerry Coyne

ImageJerry Coyne, a prominent “New Atheist” and author of the popular book Why Evolution is True, is seriously immersing himself in theology by studying Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Coyne is in the vanguard of “evangelizing” Atheists, who are often criticized for not sufficiently understanding the positions of sophisticated, modern theologians. By taking time to study and respond to these ivory tower materials, Coyne shows that he’s a genuine class act. I want to applaud his decision, as it presents a positive contrast to the Courtier’s Reply position — in essence, “I don’t have to study something if I already know it’s false” — that has been creeping like a nasty weed through Atheist circles. It’s nice to see someone taking the high road of intellectual engagement.


I won’t be reading any theology myself, but my Atheism is weaker than that of Coyne or other New Atheists. My Atheism is focused on a few key positions:

  1. It should be socially acceptable to be an Atheist. I should be able to say, “I’m an Atheist” without being accused of something based solely on that label.
  2. Legitimate science and medicine always take precedence over religious opinions.
  3. Secular ethics and individual self-determination always take precedence over religious morality.
  4. Human welfare (especially the health and education of children) always takes precedence over religious preferences.
  5. Interpersonal relationships are usually more important than religious disagreements (except if someone’s attitude about religion makes them abusive or dangerous).

I think the majority of religious people can agree with at least some of these points. As long as we agree on these items, I’m not the least bit concerned if people continue to entertain religious ideas. I’m sure that there are plenty of folks with intellectually sophisticated theories about divinity. If that makes them happy, so be it. I don’t believe those things but it isn’t my personal mission to root them out.

Here’s where I draw the line: when someone thinks their metaphysical views (be they theistic or Atheistic) endow them with some social or moral superiority, or some greater quality of character, that entitles them to treat others in a prejudicial way. Being “sophisticated” doesn’t automatically mean you aren’t a jerk, and it doesn’t automatically protect you from being immoral yourself. [For example, on one occasion a religious friend explained to me his sophisticated belief that “god” is a purely rhetorical device that expresses one’s belief in moral obligations. Therefore, it is natural to say that Atheists are immoral (he explained this to me in my own home, knowing full well that I’m an Atheist). We should usually not feel comfortable walking into a person’s home and calling them immoral based solely on their religious beliefs.]

While Coyne pushes the argument farther than I would, he does so in a way that is usually fair and charitable. On the same day as this post, Coyne also offered some kind words to Massimo Pigliucci, someone with whom he’s had major disagreements. As I’ve said before, I think Coyne sets a good standard for civility and intellectual conduct, and that’s a major reason why he’s one of the few New Atheists that I regularly read.

2 thoughts on “The Noble Jerry Coyne

  1. I’d just take mild issue with a few of the things in your five-fold list. “Secular ethics and individual self-determination always take precedence over religious morality.” Both secular ethics and religious morality have essentially the same source. One just takes place within the framework of a long tradition of interpretations of that source, so that’s a bit of a confused statement.

    “Human welfare (especially the health and education of children) always takes precedence over religious preferences.” Again, this is essentially what most religious traditions prescribe (with some infuriating exceptions). So… unless you specifically carve out Christian Scientists or other “religious” practices that violate this prescription, that’s a bit of a confused statement.

    • I don’t think I understand your critique. Specifically:

      “Both secular ethics and religious morality have essentially the same source.”

      I’m not sure that the “source” is relevant so much as the method by which ethics/morality are developed and improved. Religious morality is usually dominated by some combination of authoritarian codes, emotive intuitions or traditionalism. Secular ethics are developed through a process that emphasizes constant evolution through rational discourse, and is motivated by universal applicability rather than prescribing the traditions or preferences of any particular group.

      As to my statement on human welfare, I don’t see how it can be confusing. You claim that “this is essentially what most religions prescribe.” If that’s the case — if most religions tell their followers to put their religious practice at a lower priority than other needs in their lives — then that’s spiffy. Obviously my statement is aimed at those who place their religious tenets at a higher priority than proper education, medical care, mental health or other basic human needs. Even if these comprise an extremist minority, it is a very sizable minority.

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