Atheism is not a “controversial position” for a scientist

May 12, 2013

I’ve been intending to write something about this for ages, but I was never quite sure how to approach it.  Happily the theologian John Haught has solved that problem for me, by saying something which succinctly reveals a very common misunderstanding both about science, and about the recent popular outbreak of atheism.

John Haught, like many people, thinks that scientists who publicly proclaim their atheism must be pushing their own radical and hubristic science-flavored ideology. They are not. People like Richard Dawkins and (as we shall see) the biologist and author Jerry Coyne* (see footnote), are presenting a position that is entirely consistent with well established science. The only “radical” — or better put, unusual — thing they are doing is speaking about it publicly, without obscuring  the obvious conclusions of established scientific knowledge from the public.

Haught had the following to say:

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, whose faith in evolutionary naturalism has no limits, will continue to remind us that the high degree of accident and blind necessity in biological evolution renders the emergence of mind nothing but a fluke of nature. (Why he puts so much trust in his own mind, therefore, remains a mystery.) [Emphasis added]

I will pass over his disgracefully (for an academic) ignorant implication that natural selection is random, and focus on the parenthesized statement. As if Professor Coyne himself dreamed up the whole idea that evolutionary theory functions perfectly well without the need of resorting to a creator to drive it.

Coyne is not overstating or overestimating the strength of the science behind his position in this matter. Evolutionary science is extremely well equipped for tracing and conceptualizing the origins and development of the world’s 10 million or so different species, and is just as good for the billions of other species that have gone extinct. It has been confirmed, strengthened and refined since 1859 by advances in genetics, plate tectonics, biochemistry…… and every other relevant field of science. Certainly there’s an immense amount we don’t know and probably never will, but there are no glaring holes in the theoretical foundation which are so blank that one could credibly postulate divine activity taking place there. And it’s not for lack of looking.**

If Professor Haught wants to argue that Coyne has overstepped scientific prudence he will have to do more than merely assert it. Not only is there no evidence for God’s involvement in evolution, but to the contrary, there is in fact vast evidence precluding such activity. Haught would need to identify a fundamental flaw (or even potential flaw) in evolutionary theory. He hasn’t done that, and doesn’t even seem to be aware that this is what would be required of him.

And the fact that Haught thinks Coyne’s views rest on “faith” in biology and “faith” in his own hubristic mind, demonstrates how little Haught has troubled his own mind with the science he is so, um, haughtily criticizing. Instead, he appears to think that he is criticizing Coyne in isolation, when in fact he is unwittingly taking on an extremely well established field of science.

An example from Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True illustrates this point vividly. Scientists hypothesized that, starting about 80 million years ago, marsupials migrated from North America, down to the southern tip of South America. Around 30 to 40 million years ago they suddenly start appearing in the fossil record in Australia. At that time, it is now known, Australia and South America were connected by Antarctica. They have, of course, drifted apart since then by tectonic movement.

antarctica-4.2-w12Southern Hemisphere geography about 70 million years ago: [Source]

So it was hypothesized that marsupials must have migrated over Antarctica to Australia. Paleontologists then went to Antarctica, examined 30-40 million year old rock, and indeed found the fossils that confirmed their hypothesis.

…..So if your theory predicts you’ll find 30 million year old kangaroo fossils in Antarctica, for heaven’s sake, and you go there and find them, well, okay you call that faith if you want I guess….. Fully earned, fully deserved faith in the findings and methods of science. This is not a case of Jerry Coyne having faith in his own mind “for some reason”.

Can Haught or any other theologian offer science anything comparable?


On the other hand, science and even atheism has plenty to offer theology. Above all they offer a clear boundary. They indicate exactly when and where theologians should immediately shut up if they don’t want to waste their own time and everyone else’s.

That’s also a general point for whatever it is that the term “spirituality” refers to. There’s only one thing that makes a scientist talk rubbish, and that’s if he or she has done bad science. Feel free to call them on it, but first, at least try to grasp the basics of whatever it is you are criticizing.

Message to John Haught and anyone else who criticizes science without understanding it: if you think that scientists are too goddam certain, read them again and this time, notice that they have a sliding scale for degrees of certainty, and that they clearly distinguish between well founded knowledge and speculation…. No, I’m not surprised that you overlooked all that on that first reading…. Yes that kind of language does seem rather alien for some reason, doesn’t it….


* John Haught and Jerry Coyne engaged in a public debate a while ago, with the result being that Haught wrote to the institute organizing the debate and requested(/demanded) that the debate not be released publicly on the internet as was the custom. Clearly he was shocked at the way that Coyne calmly and at times hilariously demolished not just Haught’s arguments but the entire profession of theology within 25 minutes. Eventually the debate was released and can be viewed below. Highly recommended!

(The Q & A is here.)

Professor Coyne has spent several years plowing through hundreds of the most highly respected theological texts, in response to the oft-repeated criticism of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion that Dawkins’ criticisms don’t apply to “sophisticated theology”. Sophisticated theology is beginning to pay the price for this hubris.

** Intelligent Design Creationism, for example has, I believe, located the most likely loophole in evolutionary theory: the possibility of irreducible complexity. If they could find a credible example, they could postulate a hitherto unknown process. So far every postulated example has been both utterly trivial, and completely blown out of the water, once investigated. 

In fairness to Professor Haught, it should be noted that he testified against the teaching of ID Creationism in US schools in the Dover Trial.

Posted by Yakaru


  1. The hubris really is on the theologians. Science isn’t faith in any one human mind, it’s a probability-based trust in a consensus formed from many independent minds working with objective evidence and coming to the same conclusions despite their independence and varying backgrounds. If evolution were wrong, it’d be very, very strange because it’d require that so many scientists perform or observe almost exactly the same errors, and that those errors meshed so well together that they formed an intricate tapestry of understanding with pragmatic applications. It’s possible, but it looks pretty damn unlikely. Evolution is likely true because it has a very consistent, very detailed consensus. Lies and errors cause inconsistency as you get into finer details.

    Meanwhile, Creationism is in a state of chaos. Creationists who try to develop highly detailed hypotheses come up with wildly divergent explanations, and many Creationists will change explanations for rhetorical convenience. Funnily enough, many simply choose to gloss over details (or they simply don’t care about them) to try to form a big tent. This only makes Creationism look that much weaker as an explanation and highlights a lack of curiosity and a lack of progress that follows.

    On irreducible complexity: It depends on which definition you’re referring to. Behe’s original definition was actually a prediction of evolution since 1928, IIRC, when a biologist termed it “interlocking complexity.” It was a big enough yawn from laypeople like me who recognize an argument from personal incredulity, and then science lovers started providing explanations for how evolution can produce IC features. Later definitions I’ve heard get vaguer and still generally relied on argument from personal incredulity. Creationist goal posts continue their eternal movement.

  2. I guess I was referring to Behe’s version of ID, which is of course as invalid as any other. I’d never heard of Müller or interlocking complexity which, if I understand it correctly, pre-emptively demolished the idea of IC in 1928.


    I don’t know of any other even remotely possible hypothetical ways that evolutionary theory could have failed at this point. I know Darwin dealt with it specifically in The Origin of Species, but was necessarily limited to noting that at that point specific details were missing, but that it was entirely plausible that something as complex as the eye could evolve in small incremental steps.

    That’s the famous quote on the evolution of the eye which Creationists love cutting off half way after he says that he freely admits the idea of such a complex thing evolving “is absurd.”


    He continues to explain how reason can easily deal with this apparent absurdity, but Creationists never quote that part.

    It is a Law of Nature: For every quote used by a creationist, there is an equal and opposite rest of the quote!

  3. As I misunderstand Dr Haught from the two Youtube presentations, God is a metaphor for science, and this stems from an explicit recognition of the tacit existence of a many layered understanding of making tea.

    So I think I made a fatal mistake by not drinking tea, that explains where I went wrong. It is clear to me now.

    I wonder if I started drinking tea…

    Isn´t there some place in Korea or Malaysia where they worship a giant teapot ?

  4. That’s probably a fair summing up of Haught’s views, although it it would still need to be stretched out to fill up six books and and an academic career.

  5. I can stretch it out a little bit:

    this glorious blossoming of the divine presence is a non-literal expression that stems from an explicit recognition of the tacit existence of a many layered understanding of the ritual of making tea as practiced by many developed societies noted for their rhetorical elegance, not excluding Japan.

    But how will I ever know if I have misunderstood Dr Haught correctly or incorrectly ?

    Incidentally I checked whether his university (Catholic University of America) is a diploma mill or not, the name of the university excites suspicion. Apparently it is not a diploma mall, it sits on about 300 acres somewhere in Washington, and has about 6000 students (or a student density of about 20 per acre and a class size of about 20 – I am more accustomed to universities with a density of about 500 per acre and class sizes of about 100.)

  6. Ah yes, the I-want-tea level. And then there’s a higher level again, of course, what does Dr Haught want tea for: 1) to have something to put in Russel’s Teapot (its mass must be critical to keep it in orbit, I suppose); 2) to make a really fresh cup to power an Infinite Improbibility Drive spaceship; or 3) to have something to serve at a party for a dormouse and a little girl?

  7. “A theologian is a person who does not make much money but knows why.” (quotation from Dr Haught, who was being facetious)

    It could be some reasons the theologians do not make much money are that:

    a) The theologian thinks or pretends s/he knows why, but is erring, and has not figured that out yet, (and is falsely pretending to be interested in truth if s/he seeks to suppress recorded debates).

    b) Not enough advertising revenue.

    c) No guest appearances on Oprah.

    d) Not writing & publishing enough books.

    e) Natural/economic selection, the theologians (or at least the Catholic clergy) are an endangered profession (although not so endangered in developing poorer countries as in modern richer ones).

    f) The Mormons

    g) A Cheshire cat possessed their tele-prompter.

    h) Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

    I would be interested to know whether any – or how many – scientists make more money than some televangelists. Or how much does a theology professor (Dr Haught ?) get paid by comparison with a professor of music or a professor of engineering or a professor of chemistry ? I suspect if you look at university pay scales professors get remunerated similarly, but most universities do not entertain a faculty of theology as a suitable component of their establishment.

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