"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Trumping of America

This why I shouldn't go to Religion Dispatches.

"Kristel Clayville is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Eureka College and a fellow at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is also ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)."

No, not that.  I just wanted to start with her bona fides.  Ms. Clayville wrote an interesting article published there as "Why I am not an organ donor."  Predictably, it got a number of responses, so the second article is about those responses.  She starts with the mention of one person in particular:

Of the former, biologist/blogger Jerry Coyne’s stand out, both because of his platform and because they were so over the top. I’m not sure why any religion scholar would take JC seriously. He knows nothing theoretical or practical about religion, yet he continues to write about it, masking his lack of knowledge with unprofessional and unproductive ad hominem attacks.

In fact, I preferred the classic “slut” comment to JC’s shallow engagement with my piece. At least that comment made the point that any woman on the internet is vulnerable to sex shaming even when she’s saying that she doesn’t want to share her body with others. There’s no masking there, just a gut reaction, which is at least more honest than JC’s pretense at engagement.

That is the entirety of what she has to say about Mr. Coyne.  She mentions him again in response to a comment:

I've received plenty of support. This page is not the entirety of the conversation. Religion comes into the conversation because in the original piece, I noted that the understanding of religions as endorsing organ donation and transplantation was too simplistic. JC assumes that all religious people are stupid. He then makes the same structural argument against their claims. I have taught his books; they're good on the science and lacking on the religion. I'm not interested in pretending to have a conversation with someone who assumes I'm stupid and that dialogue between science and religion is not possible.

And Mr. Coyne, rather confusingly and out of order, responded to her, but not in a reply:

Clayville's response that I [sic] "nothing theoretical or practical about religion" is not only an ad hominem on her part—and in fact untrue; I've read extensively in theology, and have also read the entire Bible and Qur'an—but completely irrelevant. She mentions religion only once in her first piece (to say that most pastors approve of organ donation), and the rest of her argument is based on secular ethics. You can certainly adjudicate her argument without being deeply immersed in theology; and many readers here have so judged her claim.

Let's stop right there.  Mr. Coyne has read "the entire Bible."  That's his claim to knowledge?  Wait, there's a Biblical story about that:

And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.--Luke 8:27b-31

How can he understand, unless someone guides him?  You might as well say you don't need to study a subject, you've read a book about it.  There is a difference, you know.  No wonder no religion scholar should take him seriously.  But we interrupted him:

Nor have I said "all religious people are stupid", as she claims. In fact they're not, as I've noted many times. There are many smart believers, like Francis Collins, head of the NIH; my view is that they've compartmentalized two ways of looking at reality. Where Clayville got that quote is beyond me, and I challenge her to give me its source.

Finally, Clayville says this: " I have taught [Coyne's] books; they're good on the science and lacking on the religion." In fact I've written three books, two of which (about speciation and evolution) have NOTHING to do with religion, so OF COURSE they're lacking in religion! The other one, "Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible", does discuss the disparity between empirical and faith-based views of the world. But that's one out of three.

If Clayville thinks my so-called ignorance of religion invalidates my ability to criticize her argument, then her implicit claim is that her argument has something to do with religion. But it doesn't--not as it's presented in her two posts. If her argument IS based on religion, then it would be good if she explained why. As far as any rational reader can see, her argument is based on secular social justice, and that's the argument I criticized.

I don't know much about Mr. Coyne's work, less about his blog (Ms. Clayville links to it, but I don't wish to).  I do know something about religion, and argument, and he doesn't display a grasp of either subject in his comment.  It's not a model of logical reasoning, but that's not the issue here.  The issue is the obfuscation and red herrings and straw men and other attempts to sound reasonable while creating excuses to appeal to emotion rather than reason which pervade the comments at RD (nothing new there).  I will readily admit I don't know much about biology.  I will also readily admit I know more than a bit about theology, among other things; and that the more I learn about a subject, the more I am humbled by my ignorance, by how much I don't and can never know about that subject.  Mr. Coyne doesn't seem to suffer from that problem; after all he's read the Bible and the Q'uran.  He reminds me of a church member I had, who told me he'd read the Bible many years ago and I (then his pastor) didn't need to keep talking about it now.  Expertise based on ignorance is no expertise at all, but that's the internet for you:  lots of people who think attitude substitutes for actual reasoning, even people supposedly trained in how to reason (another subject entirely).

But in the Age of Trump, this kind of useless gibberish is finally becoming dangerous, if only because it spews from the White House on a daily (literally 24/7) basis.  Trump makes sure any argument is, first and foremost, about him.  If it is praise, then he's delighted; if it is not, then he's offended.   Which is what Ms. Clayville means when she says "I’m not sure why any religion scholar would take JC seriously."  In private life, no one would take Trump seriously, either.  No scholar of foreign affairs can countenance his statements on U.S. relationships with other countries; no scholar of the Constitution can give credence to Trump's ideas about government and law.  Mr. Coyne may have read the entire Q'uran and Bible; that doesn't mean he understood them.  It's the equivalent of Trump asserting that he's very smart because of the college he attended.  If all it took to understand religion was to read the scriptures of that religion, we'd have no need of religious studies at all, or priests and mullahs and religious teachers (rabbis, gurus, whatever term applies).  For that matter, who needs art historians and art critics?  I've seen enough art to know what I like and what I don't.  I've been to several museums, surely I know as much as any Ph.D. in art history, right?

That is, in essence, Mr. Coyne's argument; and in that sense, Mr. Coyne is right:  I can adjudicate the place of Picasso's art in art history without any deep knowledge of art or history.  But I can't really reach a very good judgment about it.  He claims Ms. Clayville's argument doesn't require any religious underpinning to be explicable, but that's because what he thinks is "religious" and what she think of as "religious" are as different as what an owner thinks of a pet, and what the pet knows about the owner.  The pet, of course, never understands this difference.

Neither will Donald Trump; and maybe he will finally make us realize how pervasive that problem is, and that just because everybody has access to a public platform, doesn't mean they deserve to be taken seriously.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I think it was the semi-pro atheist, astronomer Phil Platt who once said, "Jerry Coyne, he's 12," one of many of even his allies who have thrown up their hands and walked away from the rent-a-rant which is Coyne. He doesn't only do it within religion, as I've pointed out before, his war with his fellow (and I think more accomplished) U of Chicago geneticist James Shapiro is especially vicious.

I do wish that the atheist blog warriors would learn what is and what isn't "ad hominem" because I doubt one in five-hundred invocations of the phrase gets it right.

The original article was provocative and was obviously intended to provoke addressing the problems of injustice in even the areas of medicine presented as the height of charity. I don't necessarily agree with some of her conclusions but I think her reason for coming to her conclusions are deserving of more consideration than Jerry Coyne ever gives anything on his ranty soap box of a blog.

I stopped reading Religion Dispatches, the chaff to wheat ratio is too high.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I always regret going there. I'll learn that lesson eventually.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And yeah, several people at RD misused ad hominem. It was almost like arguing with Trump.

9:56 AM  

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