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The (Ir)religious Theory of Evolution – A Darwinist Gets Called Out

Jerry Coyne

University of Chicago evolutionist Jerry Coyne suffers from cognitive dissonance. He frequently (and to his credit) speaks up for academic freedom for the expression of diverse political opinions. Yet as he demonstrated in the Eric Hedin affair, he is implacably opposed to academic freedom when it comes to teaching evolution. He was recently called out on this.

Adam Laats, a professor at SUNY Binghamton, points out the inconsistency in Coyne’s position. I note that Laats does not criticize Coyne for restricting academic freedom, but for not sufficiently restricting academic freedom. But he does (accurately) identify Coyne’s hypocrisy.

Coyne replies:

… I do not recognize creationists’ desire to teach goddy stuff in the classroom as a “free speech” claim. The courts have, in fact, repeatedly recognized that teaching creationism in schools violates the very amendment that protects free speech: the First Amendment. Besides protecting public speech, that Amendment also prohibits the entanglement of government with religion. Creationism has been banned in public school classes time after time, and for the same reason: it’s the unconstitutional promulgation of particular religious views in an arm of the government (the schools). When I went after Eric Hedin, who taught Christian views in a science seminar at Ball State University (a pubic [sic] school), it was on First Amendment grounds. And, indeed, he was eventually prohibited from teaching any more creationism — a result that won me the Discovery Institute’s “Censor of the Year” award.

Hedin did not “teach creationism” though he did point out to students some readings about intelligent design, which is not a religious but a scientific idea. That said, does Coyne really believe that “it’s [unconstitutional to promulgate] particular religious views in an arm of the government (the schools)”?

In a post from 2011, “Natural selection and evolution: material, blind, mindless and purposeless,” Coyne describes what he teaches his own undergraduates:

[T]his is what I teach — that natural selection, and evolution in general, are material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless. In my classes… I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision. Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth. Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity — especially one who is omnipotent and benevolent.  And, more important, the completely material nature of selection is of great historical and intellectual importance.  After all, Darwin’s greatest achievement was the explanation of organismal “design” by a completely naturalistic process, replacing the mindful, purposeful, and god-directed theory that preceded it.  That was a revolution in human thought, and students should know about it.  (This achievement is also why Dawkins claimed, in The Blind Watchmaker, that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”  Perhaps Darwin did not mandate that evolution ineluctably proves the absence of God, but he kicked out the last prop supporting the action of a deity in nature.)

Coyne is emphatic that atheism is the only logical framework for evolutionary theory:

Evolution and selection lack any sign of divine guidance… In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution is evidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show precisely the characteristics they would have if they were purely material, mindless, and purposeless processes…. To withhold from students the evidence that natural selection is purposeless — lacking direction, guidance, or goals — is to cheat them of the very essence of that process. It is part of the wonder and beauty of selection that this purely material process can produce species so exquisitely attuned to their environments.  That is why Futuyma — and I — emphasize the undirected, material, and blind nature of selection and evolution.

Coyne quotes himself from his book Why Evolution Is True:

In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

So Coyne exempts his own atheist teaching from his general prohibition on teaching religion as science, or would if he taught at a public university (the University of Chicago is private). Obviously, Coyne has a long history of teaching an (ir)religious perspective in his undergraduate classes. Coyne believes that he is scientifically and philosophically justified in doing so, but of course, he denies theist scholars who wish to teach that intelligent agency is manifest in evolutionary change the same academic freedom that he demands for himself.

Given that Coyne undoubtedly believes that it is legal and appropriate to teach his atheist view of evolution in a public university, such as Ball State, it seems in Coyne’s view that the First Amendment “prohibition” on teaching religion in state institutions applies only to theists, but not to atheists.

Coyne would no doubt argue that in teaching atheism he is teaching a scientific, not religious, viewpoint. But even if Coyne’s atheism were a purely scientific inference (which it isn’t), as a “scientific” viewpoint atheism must be open to scientific debate and verification or refutation, which requires academic freedom to discuss atheism, theism, and evolution. But Coyne is not interested in an open classroom discussion of the theist and atheist implications of science. Coyne asserts his own complete freedom to teach students his atheist beliefs, and calls in the authorities on scientists who entertain beliefs favorable to theism in the classroom.

So let’s get back to our question: Does Jerry Coyne really believe that “it’s [unconstitutional to promulgate] particular religious views in an arm of the government (the schools)”?

Coyne answers the question himself. In his opinion, if you believe that evolution is guided, the First Amendment prohibits you from teaching that view in a public university. If you believe that evolution is unguided, the First Amendment protects your freedom.

In Coyne’s view, there’s one Bill of Rights for theists, and another for atheists.

Photo: University of Chicago campus, by Leefon at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.