To Coyne A Review: Did Jerry Coyne Really Read David Bentley Hart’s Book?

Coyne isn’t happy you’re not as smart as he
It took Jerry Coyne a while, but it appears—or rather, I should say there is weak and not overly convincing evidence—that the man has finally read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. (I still owe readers the fourth and final installment of my review!)

The evidence we have is in the form of a confession. Coyne himself, in what purports to be a review, says, “I’ve just finished Hart’s book…”

Now this is important because this is his third review of the book, the first two coming before he read it. Not reading books is, science has proved, the fastest way to fulfill an obligation, but it rather tends to leave one clueless about their contents.

Coyne says Hart’s book is “hardly a compelling argument for God. It is in fact a series of recycled ‘proofs’ of God couched in fancy and often arrogant language.” Recycled? As in the way calculus textbooks prove its fundamental theorem? That an argument has been used before does not, of course, prove it wrong.

Hart, as even Coyne appears to recognize, says that his book is not a collection of proofs for God. Yes, one or two pop up on the course of things, as do fairly good refutations of scientism, but none of these are pursued rigorously. The best of these is Hart’s demonstration that our minds are not material, that there is more to us than appearances. No: Hart’s stated goal, and the one he accomplished deftly, was to define what the great religious traditions mean by God.

This was not a book of comparative religion, but of the fundamental truths that are accepted by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and so forth. Because there are many definitions in the popular mind, and particularly in the minds of scidolators, some reference was needed to highlight the distinction between what classical theists mean by God and what atheists do.

When atheists like Coyne hear “God” they think of some powerful, far-off being, probably itself the result of evolution, who started the universe going magically, and who then retired to pursue other interests. Hart calls this god the Demiurge, and it is the god of deism, atheism, and, it must be admitted, some Christians who succumbed to the taunts of scientism.

Coyne: “Hart seems to claim that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, a tactic that completely immunizes his views from disproof.” It is completely false that Harts arguments are “immunized” from disproof, unless that is meant in the sense that Hart’s claims are true. Coyne is trying to drag in the discredited notion of falsifiability for metaphysical propositions. Arguments about God are just as “falsifiable” as are arguments about mathematical theorems, which are also metaphysical.

It quotations like Coyne’s that produce skepticism that he actually read Hart’s book. Hart’s claims are scarcely as simple as Coyne says they are. Hart goes to great pains to show that God is the ground of all being, Being Itself: there is thus no mystery why God’s name is I AM. Hart is at his best when he shows naturalism—“the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order”—the philosophy Coyne embraces, and which is “ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking”, is necessarily false.

Hart says, “The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature.” This is true. The key fallacy in naturalism is that it cannot explain being; it is mute on why anything exists. Science can never answer this. Only philosophy can, and when it is considered, the only explanation is that things exist because they were created by a necessary being, which is to say, God.

For existence is more definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.

Coyne ignores all of this. Wisely, too. Because if he confronted it honestly, he’d have to find a new hobby. He instead takes the greater part of his review to make weepy eyes at Ross Douthat. Coyne and Douthat have a long-running feud; at least Coyne thinks they do, so instead of answering Hart he gets mad at Douthat for being unable to produce an argument for God’s existence that is convincing to Coyne. Coyne also doesn’t like that Douthat is sympathetic to mystical visions, a.k.a. revelation, which Coyne dogmatically dismisses—I mean Coyne judges with no evidence whatsoever: if you think he has any, I’d be delighted to see it.

All this from a guy who claims people have no free will. Why is it propounders of this silly doctrine (no free will) are always so angry when people don’t agree with them?


  1. Scotian

    Briggs “Why is it propounders of this silly doctrine (no free will) are always so angry when people don’t agree with them?” As you have consistency suggested in the past: they have no choice.

    How would you respond to this statement in the review “Now, apparently, it’s not sufficient to read and refute a specified book to credibly claim that we’re thoughtful atheists. No, now we must also engage in long-term prayer. Talk about moving the goalposts!”? This and the sentences following was in response to an excerpt from Hart’s book.

  2. Jim S

    “The key fallacy in naturalism is that it cannot explain being; it is mute on why anything exists. Science can never answer this. Only philosophy can, and when it is considered, the only explanation is that things exist because they were created by a necessary being, which is to say, God.”

    Stating the limits of one’s knowledge is not a fallacy. Making unsubstantiated claims based on “necessity” is.

  3. anona

    well, I too read the book, but I skipped one footnote which I suspected was going to be boring. did I really read the book?

    i penned my first review of the book after reading the first chapter. is my review therefore not a review of the book? (I lied about writing the review, btw)

    btw, the emphasis in the phrase `recycled “proofs”‘ is not on the word `recycled’, but on the punctuation marks, i.e. ” ” scary double quotes. It’s just Coyne being snarky – the very thing he accuses Hart of being.

    The scidolator Coyne believes without justification that there do in fact exist unifying principles in Science which make its laws consistent and potentially universal in scope. To doubt this religious tenet of Science would lead to a discovery of Hart’s God. So there you have it – Coyne’s God of Science is Grounded in unjustified belief.

    The Atheist Inquisition is getting silly. There needs to be a better book than Hart’s – one without the snarky attitude, and one without the “proofs” . It would be much shorter then, but it would be better for it.

  4. David Smith

    Coyne’s Wikipedia page is innocent of any mention of formal training in theology or comparative religion. Would I be unfair to pigeonhole him with those Ph.D.s who are dismissive of the opinions of others who lack credentials in their chosen field, but are free to speak without qualification about whatever they will?

    The willingness of otherwise intelligent adults (Stephen Hawking comes to mind) to say the most foolish things about faith is a recurring source of wonder to this mere mortal.

  5. Ye Olde Statisician

    “Talk about moving the goalposts!”

    Perhaps Coyne incidentally encountered the object of inquiry in a new light and saw the elephant not as tree trunk but as a palm leaf, and therefore concluded that the goalpost had been moved.

  6. Scotian

    You are usually clearer than this.

  7. Ye Olde Statisician

    I simply wondered whether Coyne was once more confusing a clarification with the movement of some sort of goal post. Recall that Hart was not trying in his book to prove anything and was not addressing anyone’s efforts to ‘refute’ a book. (It was Coyne who moved the goal post here.) He was simply trying to describe the idea of God possessed by all major world religions. What Hart said was that anyone insisting on empirical experience relative to God really ought to seek that empirical experience honestly and sincerely. This has nothing to do with whether Coyne is trying to rebut Hart’s book (or perhaps Douthat’s review of Hart’s book). It would be as if a physicist said that, like Maxwell or Einstein, one must follow one’s intuitions and another said that one ought to follow the data. And then a non-physicist says Coyningly that the goal posts have been moved.

  8. DFoster

    Excellent response.
    I find the question of what would aid those (like Coyne) who are caught in a loop of misrepresenting the explanations of one’s opponents—to force them mean exactly the thing that was being corrected.

    I suspect that it is a very difficult psychological question, but I think one of both practical and academic interest.

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