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Euthanasia Reveals Atheism’s Moral Confusion


Jerry Coyne has responded to our criticisms (here, here, here and here) of his endorsement of euthanasia for handicapped children. Coyne seems a bit perplexed at the strong criticism he has received for his advocacy for killing babies with birth defects because they would suffer if allowed to live.

For example, he is surprised at the outrage that atheist ethicist Peter Singer has received for advocacy of infant euthanasia:

For these views Singer has been demonized by disability rights advocates, who have called for his firing and disrupted his talks (see my post about that here). All for just raising a reasonable ethical question that should be considered and discussed!

Coyne’s message: Don’t get all worked up about killing handicapped babies, even if you’re one of the class of people he proposes to kill. Can’t we discuss this dispassionately, like adults?

But Coyne’s equanimity has limits.

In 2013, Ball State University professor Eric Hedin taught a course on astronomy that included suggested readings on the possibility that the cosmos manifests evidence of design. Coyne was fit to be tied. He threatened the president of Ball State with legal action:

It’s religion taught as science in a public university, and it’s not only wrong but illegal.  I have tried approaching the University administration, and have been rebuffed. This will now go to the lawyers.

Coyne enlisted the Freedom from Religion Foundation to issue a cease-and-desist letter to Ball State.


Hedin’s classes are not only unconstitutional, but an embarrassment to your university. Even if you disagree with the freedom-from-religion argument, Hedin’s courses are a discredit to BSU and he should be removed from them or forced to eliminate the religious indoctrination.

Note to others: it appears to be settled law that “academic freedom” cannot, in a public university, be an excuse to teach any damn thing you want.

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote to the chairman of Hedin’s department expressing some of the sentiments above, but he blew me off, arguing that his courses had been deemed satisfactory by University officials. We’ll see if they start singing a different tune now!

Coyne is enflamed not only by courses in public universities, but by signs in museums. He objected to a plaque in the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History given by a donor that credited creation to God. Coyne wrote a threatening letter to the museum director:

A friend of mine who recently visited the new Nature Lab at your Museum forwarded me the attached sign, which ascribes the existence of animals to God.

As an evolutionary biologist, I object to the invocation of God… the invocation of God in a public museum could be seen as be a violation of the First Amendment.

Regardless of what the donor wanted, I think it abrogates our scientific principles to “celebrate all of God’s creatures” when that statement is, by scientific lights, palpably wrong.  Would you have taken the money from someone who insisted that the gift celebrates “all of Wotan’s creatures,” or “all the creatures created by space aliens”? Those signs are just as scientifically supportable as what appears on the sign now… I needn’t remind you that science is done by ignoring God, and has never given the slightest bit of evidence for the intercession of God in the origin, evolution, and diversification of life.

Consider the irony. When Peter Singer endorsed killing handicapped babies in the crib, at a public lecture in front of the very people he advocated killing, Coyne defended his academic freedom and pleaded: Can’t we all just get along?

When a professor raises the question of design in an astronomy class, or a museum puts up a donor’s plaque crediting God for nature, Coyne erupts in rage and calls in the lawyers.

For Coyne, killing babies is a topic for reasoned discussion. Invoking God, or considering scientific evidence of design, is an outrage.

William Fleming had it right: Atheism is a disease of the soul, before it is an error of the understanding.

Photo: Peter Singer, by Mal Vickers via Flickr.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



atheismBall State UniversityEric Hedineuthanasiafreedom from religion foundationintelligent designJerry CoyneLos Angeles County Museum of Natural HistorymoralityPeter Singer