Meaning, Morality and Jerry Coyne’s World

Saints and Sceptics

After Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne seems to be the most likely candidate to inherit Richard Dawkins’ status as patron saint of New Atheism. He certainly has the qualifications – he is respected scientist who communicates complicated ideas with enviable ease. His recent dispute with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat reveals that he has none of the disqualifications: his worldview is far from coherent, and he is not above concealing an unconvincing argument behind bluff and bluster. Douthat, quite correctly, drew attention to Coyne’s overconfidence; Coyne, he noted, works under the lazy assumption that his “worldview has no weak points whatsoever, no internal contradictions or ragged edges, no cracks through which a critic’s wedge could end up driven.”

Criticising New Atheism presents a writer with a target rich environment,  so Douthat focused his fire on three points. First, he contended that there is little room for meaning or morality in a “purposeless, purely physical universe, in which human life is accidental, human history directionless, and human consciousness probably an illusion”. Second, he pointed out that the scientific picture of the world is far from complete, so Coyne’s confidence that it will justify atheism is misplaced. Finally, he pointed out that

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…for a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up.”

In a future post we’ll examine secularist myths about history. For now, we’ll content ourselves to critiquing Coyne responses to Douthat’s deconstruction of atheist morality(which can be read here and here.)

Coyne argues that he would rather base ethics on science and reason than “the dictates of an imaginary being”. This rather misunderstands Douthat’s point. When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that a revelation from God –the Bible, for example – is necessary to ground morality. Nor are they arguing that in the absence of a reliable secular moral code we should bet on religion.

Rather, the theist is pointing out that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power and moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing. Coyne seems to understand the challenge and makes an attempt to justify his belief in moral value…

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Meaning, Morality and Jerry Coyne’s World – Saints and Sceptics