In the spirit of science as a process of constructive disagreement, TVOL is pleased to feature Jerry Coyne’s response to my article titled The New Atheism and Evolutionary Religious Studies: Clarifying their Relationship. I will briefly discuss the most substantive aspects of Coyne’s critique.

Here is Coyne’s own description of the New Atheist agenda.

1) Testing whether the tenets of religion are true. The New Atheist answer is “no.”

2) Assessing the effects of ungrounded religious belief on the world. The New Atheist conclusion is that, seen as a whole, religions have inflicted far more harm than good on the world.

3) Getting rid of the unwarranted authority and privilege that religion, established churches, and religious officials have garnered for themselves over the centuries.

Let’s focus on (2). The question is whether the New Atheist conclusion is based on good evidence or is an article of faith. Moreover, it’s not a matter of how much, but how. Anything as complex and diverse as religion will have many consequences, both positive and negative. If you don’t know the nature of the beast, you’re unlikely to know how to deal with it effectively.

My concern about the New Atheism movement is that they might be misrepresenting the nature of the beast. I’m not talking about the origin of religion, but the way it currently exists. Of course, there is continuity between religion in its current manifestations, how it has operated throughout history, and ultimately its origin.

Coyne seems to think that the only concern of ERS is to understand the origin of religion, which in his mind will always be an obscure and speculative enterprise that is peripheral to the New Atheism movement. On the contrary, the point of ERS is to understand the nature of religion, in the present as well as the past, which makes it central to point (2) of the New Atheist agenda.

I was careful to make two points in my previous article. First, the question of whether New Atheists base point (2) of their agenda on good science is an empirical issue that can be addressed systematically. I did not claim that my article was itself a systematic assessment. Second, point (2) of their agenda needs to be based on the best science and scholarship about religion, not ERS per se. ERS becomes relevant only insofar as it contributes to our understanding of religion as a human construction.

In a previous TVOL article titled Pugilistic Science, I discuss how scientific discourse is a process of constructive disagreement, in contrast to less productive forms of disagreement. Readers can decide for themselves, but in my opinion, Coyne’s style of hitting below the belt is his, his, his.

Published On: May 21, 2012

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Michael Blume says:

    @Charles Goodnight

    I couldn’t agree more with your comment. I did a post on my blog concerning Jerry Coyne’s “reply”:


  • Celia Grace Murnock says:

    Thank you for posting this.  I read your essay earlier this afternoon, and Coyne’s response a few minutes ago.  I will never understand how someone who appears to hold himself up as an intellectual and a free, unbiased thinker could post something as petty and downright obnoxious as Coyne did…never mind the fact that he seems to completely miss the point or ERS in favor of what smells a lot like a knee-jerk distaste for religion (or should I maybe say Abrahamic monotheism?) Kudos to you for not sinking to his level.

  • Charles Goodnight says:

    The scientific study of religion always struck me as a bit of a conundrum.  On the one hand, it is quite clear that religious knowing and scientific knowing are very different things.  Gods are not subject to hypothesis testing and falsification.  In general, faith based concepts are by definition not subject to the objectivist scrutiny of the scientific method.  In short, the existence of a god or gods will never be confirmed or refuted by science. 

    On the other hand, religion is a human institution that exists in many forms throughout the world.  It seems to me that religion is very much something that can be studied scientifically.  It also seems we can form a null hypothesis that, say religion is not adaptive.  This could be studied, and perhaps rejected in favor of an hypothesis that it was adaptive. 

    The bottom line is that we need to distinguish between the scientific study of god (which we cannot do) and the scientific study of religion (which we can do).  I fear that some evolutionary biologists miss this point.


    I should explain what I understand by the word ‘retrodictive’. A retrodictive argument for an hypothesis is one that argues that an empirical observation is best explained by that particular prior hypothesis. No alternative naturalistic hypothesis comes close. When there are several such observations from rather different areas that are all best explained by that hypothesis, then you have, what I have called, ‘evidential consilience’.

    Evolutionary theory has masses of such consilience as well as masses of hypothetico-deductive evidence. This latter type of evidence is the gold standard in science and involves making a prediction based on the assumption that the hypothesis is true and then showing empirically that the prediction is indeed the case.

    A good example of evidential consilience is sexual behaviour in Homo sapiens. The evolutionary hypothesis can explain these different empirical observations:-

    Males tend to be more jealous than females.

    Males tend to show-off in the presence of females

    Females tend to be more sexually selective than males. (The wide availability of contraception has modified this)

    Males are more attracted by looks while females tend to be attracted by status.

    And there is much more!

    I predict that we will be hearing much more about the concepts ‘retrodictive evidence’and ‘evidential consilience’ as evolutionary theory proceeds.


    My general view of the David v. Jerry ‘debate’ is as follows:-

    1. It appears to be a discussion liberally laced with ad hominem side-swipes. This, itself, mitigates against both good philosophy and good science.

    2. The agendas of the new-atheists, on one hand, and those of us involved in ERS, on the other, are very different. The main thrust of the new-atheism is political/social whereas ERS is – or at its best should be – a scientific truth-search. A political/ social agenda will always be liable to stray into the selective use of evidence.

    3. ERS is a very young endeavour and firm, robust evidence for its theories will take a while to crystallize-out. This presents a promising pick-and-mix opportunity for those seeking to ‘make a case’.

    4. Jerry is wrong to be dismissive of ERS. It’s methods/ arguments are no more unscientific than the retrodictive arguments that he employs when laying out the evidence for the truth of evolution.

    Can new-atheists that are also scientists be criticized when their expressed anti-religious views are less than scientific? I think David is saying yes and I agree that we need to call them out when they stray into biased evidence-selection. It is, admittedly, difficult for a new-atheists that are also scientists to remain completely scientific when making their case. But this is the field they have chosen to furrow.


    DSW wrote on the last thread:-

    “The question is, when Dawkins was asked to comment on religion as a product of evolution, how well did his answer reflect what is currently known, based on the hard work of Dawkins’ evolutionist colleagues?”

    David. Do you not think it’s unrealistic to expect Richard Dawkins to have given a comprehensive answer to this question from the floor? Such an answer would have needed a very long answer if not another full lecture and I am sure there were others waiting to ask their own questions.

  • Hank says:

    Jerry Coyne consistently disrespects the work of David Sloan Wilson and I think to the detriment of constructive disagreement, or healthy discourse if you like.

    To say “Wilson’s entire oeuvre over the last two decades can be summed up in three words: “I’ve been neglected!” is pithy but blithe. When these two decades include very diverse work, from microbial ecosystems to gossip in regulating human cooperation, from insects to prosociality on a citywide scale, to a book on evolution for the laymen, one has to wonder whether DSL’s next blogpost will be:

    “Jerry Coyne on my career: What does he know” which were similar titles on group selection, and cultural evolution.

    My disappointment with Jerry Coyne is sweeping disregard he shows for a theory, or in this case a person’s contributions to science, and how this does not reflect the way things really are. I’ve read much of DSL’s work over the last 20 years, and I have to say, I wonder if Jerry Coyne has himself. 

    On evolutionary hypotheses for religion, Coyne mentions a by-product example with the Moth analogy, and likens the other 5 possible explanations to obscure theologians who no-one pays attention to anyway. This is inaccurate. Richard Sosis, one of the leading researchers in the evolution of religion, has written on religion in terms of costly signaling, and in terms of being an adaptive system. It is true that the dominant position has been a by-product argument, but this does not ipso facto render others obscure, and it has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating the idea that one explanation alone accounts for all possible facets in the emergence of all religions. But the point for others reading Jerry Coyne’s blogpost (I don’t expect he’ll read this, as he deleted comments I left on his blog which disagreed with him, despite not being offensive in any way) is that indeed, evolutionary scientists are questioning the by-product argument of cognitive scientists in quite large numbers, with research that is both varied and fascinating. To take Coyne’s lead on this, would once again be to close off a set of doors that lead to scientifically fertile ground, just as he would have you do with cultural evolution, despite his considerable non-expertease in that arena as well.

    Amusingly, and now predictably, Jerry Coyne puts self-conscious quote marks around the word prosocial: “prosocial”, despite it being well established in social and developmental psychology and in the discourse arguably one of the least problematic categories of other-regarding behaviour. But is Jerry Coyne aware of this? If this is a subject of interest for you, you should be. Start with The Handbook of Social Psychology (1998). Jerry Coyne does speciation and a lot of good work with fruit flies.

    He did of course use the term “butt-hurt” in his blog, which reminds me that academics, and being raised by one I am aware, can be soooooo lame.

    And of course I think with Jerry Coyne, for him the juice is in the fight, not the subject. I don’t think he is interested in cultural evolution, not particularly jazzed about the human behavioural and evolutionary science out there, and clearly not turned on by religion from an evolutionary perspective:

    “The audience didn’t come to hear Richard discourse on the many ways religion might have originally come into being.  That would be a long and boring lecture.”

    Really? For me it would a long and fascinating lecture. Which is why I read the work of Sosis, and wrote to him with follow up questions. That’s because for me, as with DSL, the juice is in the subject, the emerging science. For Jerry Coyne, it is most definitely not.

    “the agenda of New Atheism is concerned not so much with the origins of religion (though Dan Dennett dealt with it in Breaking the Spell), but with the truth of religious teachings and the effect of those teachings on the world.”

    Here is where I certainly agree with Jerry. I myself am interested in BOTH, in fact: the evolution of religion, as well as the evolutionary psychology of mechanisms that are associated, behaviorally and experientially, and secondly I am interested in a healthy ‘breaking of the spell’ as Dennett described. So I don’t personally wish to force a dichotomy, and perhaps this is where I critique both Jerry and David on this. We can study religion from a scientific perspective, even an evolutionary one, and still engage in the kind of frank critique OF religion, faith and so on like Sam Harris.

  • Part 2 says:

    But David is right: you start making sweeping statements about religion that have scientific implications (such as how it came about, or in Jerry’s case, that we will never know how it came about) and expect scientists who engage in this as an enterprise to critique and correct you, and do so some more, and then some more, until you are EXQUISITELY aware of what you are dealing with. Jerry Coyne is not, but he certainly is the agenda of the ‘New Atheists’ from whom I personally have learned a great deal.

    This is to be dealt with in the court of science, not the crucible of tit-for-tat blogs.

    Coyne also says: “it’s dubious whether it’s even useful to use knowledge gleaned from ERS to deal with social problems. Wilson’s own Neighborhood Project in Binghamton, which tries to reform his town by using principles of “prosociality” and group selection, hasn’t exactly been a shining success.”

    First, the Binghamton Neighborhood Project is not derived from ERS, and while Coyne isn’t saying this, he’s prematurely associating the two. Second, it’s best to take the self-conscious quote marks from the words prosocial and prosociality. See previous remark as to why. Thirdly, to say “it hasn’t been a shinning success” is broad and misleading. (a) It’s in very early stages and such sweeping summations are not even appropriate yet, and (b) in what sense has it not been successful? In terms of the data it has provided, it has been successful thus far. In terms of meeting certain predictions, and providing a much deeper insight into prosociality in his city, it has been successful too. In terms of developing an ongoing going global consortium of researchers interested in human prosocial behaviour from an evolutionary perspective, and taking the model of the Bingamton Project to other locales, it is clearly becoming a success. Does Jerry Coyne know this?

    Is he aware of Danielle Nettle’s reaction to the catalyst of the BNP by creating the Tyneside Neighbourhood Project? Or the work of Dan O’Brien, his former student. Yet this is work that appears in journals he doesn’t even read, so why on earth should a student of such subject matter defer to the likes of Jerry Coyne?

    No seriously, why?

    The closing remarks of his blog point once again to the need for anyone interested in group selection, as just one example, to study not just the literature, but the trend in the literature.

    “You don’t see many of the New Atheists telling Wilson to drop his crusade for group selection and join them in their fight against religion.  We’re content to leave him alone to pursue his lonely agenda, with some of us occasionally pointing out its futility.”

    I’m afraid it is not a lonely agenda, Jerry.

    “ERS is a speculative enterprise, and the harms of religion are real.”

    Here’s the thing: I agree that there are harms associated with religion. But when you are in an academic arena that deals with human sociality, you have to try and shed the looming, ever-present shadow of remarkable over-generalized simulacra. Anthropologists are very unforgiving of this. You are now on their turf. And you sound like a fruit fly scientist.

  • Final comment says:

    “Readers can decide for themselves, but in my opinion, Coyne’s style of hitting below the belt is his, his, his.”

    Yes, after reading the articles, it’s quite clear. I’m fascinated by psychological ploys many people use perhaps often without realizing, in the process of presenting a logical argument.

    To put down someone’s career, and use certain below-the-belt expressions and describe them as ‘lonely’ and so on, are quite effective sanctions of the tongue. They work quite well in making the person feel a sense of shame and self-doubt, and to hence defer to the authority of the arguer. In this case it is made all the more fascinating by the fact that he is not an authority in the evolution of religion, evo psych, human behavioural ecology, group selection, cultural evolution, prosocial behaviour, and on…

    But after reading much of these blogs now, I think I’ve identified why this is the case, that for Jerry it is the fight and not the study of the subject, that provides any reward whatsoever in this case. He finds it boring, and even too invalid to crack open the journals and books.

    In an interview, he also pointed to his friendship with Steven Pinker in coming around only slightly on evolutionary psychology. I found this interesting. For me, what made me come around was child-like intrigue, and breaking open the books and articles that talked about how cooperation, language, and so on could have evolved. For Jerry, it was the currency of friendship. Perhaps you should try and, I dunno, invite him over and consume some kind of beverage that is conducive to prosociality. In Fiji, that would be kava smile

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  • […] real scandal is not that these New Atheists don’t believe in God — regrettably, disbelief in God is fairly common in our willfully […]

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