In the spirit of science as a process of constructive disagreement, TVOL is pleased to feature Jerry Coyne’s response to my article titled The New Atheism and Evolutionary Religious Studies: Clarifying their Relationship. I will briefly discuss the most substantive aspects of Coyne’s critique.
Here is Coyne’s own description of the New Atheist agenda.
1) Testing whether the tenets of religion are true. The New Atheist answer is “no.”
2) Assessing the effects of ungrounded religious belief on the world. The New Atheist conclusion is that, seen as a whole, religions have inflicted far more harm than good on the world.
3) Getting rid of the unwarranted authority and privilege that religion, established churches, and religious officials have garnered for themselves over the centuries.
Let’s focus on (2). The question is whether the New Atheist conclusion is based on good evidence or is an article of faith. Moreover, it’s not a matter of how much, but how. Anything as complex and diverse as religion will have many consequences, both positive and negative. If you don’t know the nature of the beast, you’re unlikely to know how to deal with it effectively.
My concern about the New Atheism movement is that they might be misrepresenting the nature of the beast. I’m not talking about the origin of religion, but the way it currently exists. Of course, there is continuity between religion in its current manifestations, how it has operated throughout history, and ultimately its origin.
Coyne seems to think that the only concern of ERS is to understand the origin of religion, which in his mind will always be an obscure and speculative enterprise that is peripheral to the New Atheism movement. On the contrary, the point of ERS is to understand the nature of religion, in the present as well as the past, which makes it central to point (2) of the New Atheist agenda.
I was careful to make two points in my previous article. First, the question of whether New Atheists base point (2) of their agenda on good science is an empirical issue that can be addressed systematically. I did not claim that my article was itself a systematic assessment. Second, point (2) of their agenda needs to be based on the best science and scholarship about religion, not ERS per se. ERS becomes relevant only insofar as it contributes to our understanding of religion as a human construction.
In a previous TVOL article titled Pugilistic Science, I discuss how scientific discourse is a process of constructive disagreement, in contrast to less productive forms of disagreement. Readers can decide for themselves, but in my opinion, Coyne’s style of hitting below the belt is his, his, his.