Coyne vs. Wright, Reader’s Digest version

September 24, 2009 • 2:15 pm

As I promised a while back, I  provided a long answer to Robert Wright, who criticized me on his website for supposedly misrepresenting his views in my review of his book, The Evolution of God, in The New Republic.

A much shorter give-and-take has just been published in The New Republic itself, which you can find here (n.b.: there are two pages).  Note that Wright threatens further “corrective comment,” but I am done.

13 thoughts on “Coyne vs. Wright, Reader’s Digest version

  1. I can’t judge the comments there very well, having not read Wright’s book.

    Wright seems obtuse, however, when he tries to argue against Coyne’s point that Muslims believe salvation is through the Muslims’ god through Muhammed’s statement that their god is the same as the Jewish and Christian one. Considering that there is no observable entity corresponding to the god proclaimed in Judaism, Islam, and Xianity, it is thereby an infinitely malleable concept, and each religion considers its conception of said “god” to be superior to the others.

    Even within Xianity one not infrequently hears about the “Protestant god” or the like, for even the believers recognize that the “what” of their god differs from sect to sect, and from person to person.

    Cheap shot from Wright in that instance.

    Glen Davidson

    1. In my World Religions class I’m constantly reminding students that, say, Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians. Of course, when they say “Catholics and Christians,” what they really mean is “Catholics and Protestant Christians.” The distinction between the two is very real to them.

      1. That is too bad because what you had room to say on this point:

        “2. Although Wright denies claiming that Paul extended Christian love to those of other faiths, his book states this several times. One example: “Actually, though Paul doesn’t say ‘Love your enemies,’ he comes pretty close. So close, in fact, as to suggest that he did sense the logic behind it–that, in fact, he may be the one who injected the idea into Christian literature.” ”

        could make one wonder if Wright is simply interpreting “Love your enemies” as love-your-fellow-Christians-from-enemy-nations. The longer version clears this up for one, like me, who has not read Wright’s book.

  2. “In the theological arguments Muhammad had with Jews or Christians, there’s no evident disagreement over the identity of God himself. In fact, contrary to the popular accounts of Islamic history with which Coyne may be familiar, chances are good that Arab Christians and Jews referred to God as Allah.”–Wright.

    Yeah, except the monotheistic contrast concerning the divinity of Jesus makes Wright very, very wrong.

  3. My colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at my university (most of whom are atheists, but not all, as is the case with most such departments at most universities) seem to feel, as Coyne does, that they MUST respond to the likes of Robert Wright. I have advised them to just hold their fire. Although Robert Wright may, ultimately, receive the Templeton prize, he has already lost whatever respect he may have had in the scientific community. Indeed, he bleeds it away with each passing comment, blog post, and interview. As I suspect Richard Dawkins would also argue: Robert Wright is not *worth* debating; indeed, the mere pretence at debate lends his (seeming: what is it exactly?) position more credence than it deserves. My attempts at such suasion have, for the most part not been heeded, with the expected results (i.e., now, it is a REAL debate, as opposed to crazed nonsense). So, my advice (like anyone would heed it): is just stop, as Coyne has now declared. It just isn’t worth it: these are NOT intellectual, scientific, or even reasonable debates. So, why bother? Just declare them that and move on.

  4. Jerry,

    RE: “there is no evidence for his idea that natural selection and evolution could have been set up by God to produce not only the evolution of our own species, but also the social development of our species towards increasing morality.”

    FYI, the possibility of Wright’s thesis was considered and dismissed using the obvious argument by none other than R.A. Fisher in his essay “Creative Aspects of Natural Law” (1950):

    “If we imagine, then, some extra-natural agency endeavouring to influence the organic evolution of mammals and birds by the production, on millions of different occasions, of this single mutation, we can recognise that its efforts were futile and inoperative. …

    “There is a prejudice, easily aroused by the mere mention of moral and emotional considerations, from which I must now endeavour to disentangle myself. We attempt, so far as our powers allow, to understand the world, by reasoning, by experimentation, and again by reasoning. In this process moral or emotional grounds for preferring one conclusion to another are completely out of place. Scientific findings must be based entirely on the scientific evidence. …

    “If we are prepared to learn from the facts, it may sometimes be that they will teach us terrible things.”

  5. “nd if you read not just chapters 6 and 7, but also chapters 4 and 5, you’ll see that although Wright agrees that the transition from monolatry to monotheism involved short-term Jewish separatism and identity politics rather than inclusiveness, he also asserts repeatedly that the transition to monotheism was a big moral improvement in the long run —precisely what I claimed.”

    No: what you claimed is that Wright presents a “relentless” progress of religion. Not religion having progressed (rather contingently, if you read the passage–he seems to be setting the stage for something else to be the actual driver here, not anything inherent in religion itself) over the long run.

    What Wright is doing is attempting to harness the teleological elements inherent in Dawkins’s view of the world (see for example D’s review of Full House) for a much broader-based kind of appeal. He’s fully expressing the quasi-religiosity inherent in a lot of strong selectionist literature which has already put to the service of insupportable totalizing ideologies (memes, Daniel Dennett) and is put to the service of a more explicitly religious outlook.

    What I find interesting about Wright is how indiscreetly he drags these hidden tendencies into the light.

  6. Robert Wright responds: “The title of my book refers not to biological evolution but to the evolution of the human conception of God.”

    If the title of the book refers to the evolution of the human conception of God, then why does the title not reflect this distinction?

    I started reading Wright’s book because I hoped (despite the title) that it would discuss the evolution of the belief in God. Instead, the book (or what little I read) is about religion, God and morality, which appear to be, for Wright, synonyms. Thank you for reading and critiquing Wright’s book; you confirmed my conviction that I didn’t need to read it.

    1. So, let me get this right. You are willing to rely on someone else reading the book and telling you what to think rather than reading it yourself and using your own brain to make your own opinion. I have not read the book, so I wouldn’t presume to voice an opinion yet.

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