Exposing the Straw men of New Atheism: Part 1

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September 16, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Exposing the Straw men of New Atheism: Part 1

In the past several months I have been sparring a bit with Jerry Coyne, in The Huffington Post, on USA Today, and here on The BioLogos Forum. Jerry is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, author of a great book titled Why Evolution is True and an uneven blog of the same name. He is also a leading New Atheist and vigorous champion of science as a guide to real truth.

I am not sure how much energy Coyne is putting into being a “New Atheist.” He doesn’t appear to be reading widely in this role, and has recently been lampooning the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci for scolding him for being philosophically uninformed. His interactions with ideas seem to be generated by dropping in here and there on BioLogos, the Discovery Institute, or The Huffington Post and then reacting to the brief popular comments he encounters there.

Somewhere along the way Coyne got some really simplistic ideas about religion—perhaps from the same Sunday School pamphlet as Richard Dawkins—and he seems perturbed when he is challenged on these ideas. He is a champion of science, to be sure, but it often appears that he also has a simplistic view of science—not in the sense that he is not a good scientist but in the sense that he has a parochial insider’s view of science that does not seem adequately informed by its history, philosophy, and an awareness of how science works in investigations far from the kind of science he does.

Because Coyne’s arguments are so universal I want to address some of them in my next blog series. In addressing these ideas, my goal is not to “win” the argument about whether God exists. I think belief in God is incredibly complicated and that there are solid and defensible reasons to reject belief in God. I am turned off by simplistic apologetics arguments that presume that any open-minded thinker, when confronted with the evidence, will certainly have to accept belief in God, if not fundamentalist Christianity. I lost interest in the “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” genre of apologetics partway through my first philosophy course.

I am also put off, however, by the endless straw men arguments that populate this conversation. If we want to engage the conversation, then we need to put some effort into understanding the issues. And the New Atheists rarely do that. Dawkins is the most famous offender. His book, “The God Delusion,” was so riddled with adolescent confusion about philosophy and “village atheist” commentary that the world’s leading philosopher of biology, Michael Ruse, commented that “’The God Delusion’ made me ashamed to be an atheist.”

This series of blogs will address the army of straw men with which Jerry Coyne and the other New Atheist generals wage their war on religion. The phrase “straw man,” for those who are interested in such things, probably originated with the mockup “enemy soldiers” made of straw that were commonly used for practice. Who would not prefer to fight an army of straw men than real men? (Women have happily managed to escape this unflattering metaphor.)

If we compare a physical battle to a logical battle—an argument—then the “soldiers” of the logical battle are the “claims” or the “positions” in the argument. A verbal war against an enemy with strong claims and defensible positions is harder to win. So we often choose to wage such wars against a different army—one with weak claims and easily dismantled positions, but one that might be confused with the real army. We wage our war against straw men, rather than real men, and hope that nobody notices.

The straw man is an example of what is known as a logical fallacy, studied in introductory logic courses. The straw man fallacy is closely related to a number of similar fallacies, which have various names, including some ponderous Latin ones. Here are some examples of the sort that I want to look at in this series:

  1. Cherry picking: the act of choosing examples, as if they were typical, ignoring equally valid examples that contradict your position.

  2. False analogy: making an error in the substance of an argument—the content of your analogy—even though its structure seems acceptable.

  3. Hasty generalization: when you use a few inadequate examples and then generalize about the whole.

  4. Spotlight fallacy: This is a specific form of hasty generalization that occurs when we assume that all the examples are like the most famous ones getting media attention.

These fallacies are related to each other and are all examples of the straw man style of argumentation. I am frustrated that Jerry Coyne and the New Atheists spend too much of their time on straw man arguments, instead of engaging with the “enemy” where they are strongest.

The most profound thinkers always engage opposing arguments where they are strongest. Charles Darwin, to take one famous example, scrupulously avoided straw man arguments in “The Origin of Species.” He would carefully lay out the objections to his new theory as strongly as possible. He knew that his radical new ideas would be subjected to intense scrutiny and that there was simply no point in pretending that the counterarguments were made of straw.

Some of the arguments I want to examine include:

  1. The tendency of the New Atheists to lambast laypeople who acquired some wrong ideas in Sunday School studying religion, but to let them off the hook for the wrong ideas about science they acquired in the public schools. Most Americans spend way more time studying science in school than they do studying religion in church. So why is “religion” to blame for bad religious ideas but science gets off the hook for dumb science ideas?

  2. In our debate on USA Today, Jerry Coyne contrasted the complicated theological doctrine of the incarnation—the most mysterious idea in all of theology—to the function of penicillin—one of the best-understood ideas in biology. This is not an appropriate juxtaposition at all.

  3. The phrase “philosophical consistency” is tossed around like it represents some simple set of rules that allow us to see how religion is cheating. If only it were that simple. Science all by itself has issues with philosophical consistency that Coyne apparently doesn’t see because, if I may hazard a guess, he hasn’t spent a lot of time wrestling with the deeper issues of science.

As I take a hard look at Coyne’s army of straw men, I will do my best to not prop up a set of countering straw men. I am sure, however, that he will call me out on his blog if I do.

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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John VanZwieten - #30375

September 16th 2010

Sounds great!  Looking forward to it.

Cal - #30446

September 16th 2010

Mr. Giberson:

I have a problem with this part of the article:

“...and that there are solid and defensible reasons to reject belief in God. I am turned off by simplistic apologetics arguments that presume that any open-minded thinker, when confronted with the evidence, will certainly have to accept belief in God”

I would find that there is more than enough evidence that there is something beyond working to have create the existence we live in. Without a predisposition to position the evidence against the argument that there is God/gods/“force”, most (and nearly all) peoples have and would accept the idea there is something bigger than them. Even some atheists posit the idea of panspermia, or extraterrestrial assistance in the construction of life or a matter creating multiverse. All three qualify the idea of some “creator”.

When using the word God, we can not be so narrow in our definition to only use the truth we know to be “YHWH” but rather understand the word god to mean anything from invisible power, to idols, to ideas or even great peoples. Cont.

Kirk Jordan - #30447

September 16th 2010

I have been to Jerry Coyne’s blog several times, but find that any thoughts I might drop on the conversation are not welcome.  Dr. Coyne does not allow people who hold creationists views (of any hue) to post comment.  (It’s in his rules.)
I do not know if that restriction applies to those who hold to the theistic-evolutionary framework of BioLogos, but it makes it a little easier to build straw-men, when you don’t allow a significant part of your opposition to speak.

Cal - #30448

September 16th 2010

The reason I play semantics is to ensure we understand the verse: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

We have to be clear that the evidence for something beyond us, a creator if you will, is on the scene in some form (listed above). And that there is no excuse to deny one. Thus while some atheists have a sometimes defensible position, it is only because they posit a creator (be it a multiverse or extraterrestrials). Yet they fail because: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him”.

Alan Fox - #30471

September 16th 2010

Dr Giberson

Just re-reading the thread “Jerry Coyne’s Insufferable Argument3 you mention above and I noticed Jerry Coyne left a comment:

- #14976
May 25th 2010

Dr. Giberson, as Barney points out, you have attributed to me a quote that actually comes from Avise.  What you call my “caricature” of theodicy is in fact Avise’s own position, one that you seem to defend.

Don’t you check your sources?  Please fix this.

I wonder if you missed it or maybe you responded elsewhere and I missed it.

Alan Fox - #30472

September 16th 2010


I see you did respond with an apology and a correction. Not that I doubted you!

Alan Fox - #30473

September 16th 2010

I am not sure how much energy Coyne is putting into being a “New Atheist.”

Not much, judging by his comment on your forthcoming series.I have always been puzzled by the term “New Atheist”. Are you using it in the sense described in Wikipedia? I am not sure Coyne qualifies, not having written the required anti-religious book.

CW - #30475

September 16th 2010

“So why is “religion” to blame for bad religious ideas but science gets off the hook for dumb science ideas?”

Dumb science gets corrected by good science.  That dumb science goes completely away or becomes marginalized in a fringe and discredited area of pseudoscience (where good science ignores it and/or ridicules it).

Dumb religion gets corrected by good science and/or new societal values/morals. 

Good religion is the part that science or societal values just hasn’t gotten too yet.

mike - #30478

September 16th 2010

A good straw man shouldn’t have a bird 20 feet away.

creationism is not as complicated as you think


Steve Ruble - #30479

September 16th 2010

Dr. Giberson, I think your argument that Dr. Coyne is attacking straw men is refuted by the comment by Cal, above. The fact that you don’t put forth a particular flavor of (pathetic) argument does not have anything to do with the fact that other people do - and it is to those real people (not imaginary straw men) that Dr. Coyne is responding.

If you think so little of Dr. Coyne’s arguments, yet intend to spend a lot of words refuting him, don’t you stand in exactly the same relation to Dr. Coyne as he stands in to the amatuer apologists he critiques? And if Dr. Coyne is truly attacking straw men, aren’t you as guilty as he? It’s not as if there’s a dearth of sophisticated atheologians you could be engaging instead - why spend your time attacking an amatuer?

Justin Poe - #30480

September 16th 2010

I agree with you Cal.  I appreciate Karl’s dialogues in “battling” it out with the current leading atheist on the scene but the statement you quoted is awful.  If Karl really believes that, then why is he debating Jerry to begin with…..according to that statement, Jerry just might be right in the end and the whole exercise is pointless.

Doc Bill - #30481

September 16th 2010


Nice picture of your own position.  There is something of substance coming, yes?

David Leech - #30482

September 16th 2010

Comment removed by moderator.

Nick B. - #30483

September 16th 2010

On argument # 1 that he wants to examine:

This is very strange indeed. First of all, science education doesn’t get off the hook. Many of the so-called “New Atheists” would and are, the first to say that science education in the U.S. is abysmal. Larry Krauss and Richard Dawkins have publicly said such things. In light of this, Mr. Giberson seems to have no point at all. Religion is blamed, justly, for the bad ideas that it promulgates. Ironically, it is religious “bad ideas” such as creationism (which are mainstream/majority) that are probably the greatest impediment to the teaching science. And these bad ideas are coming from the religious in the classroom, as well as the church. And parenthetically I’d just like to point out that people do not “study religion” in church. That is a flat-out stupid thing to say.

But how does one sift “bad” religious ideas from good ones? It is obvious how one can distinguish good ideas from bad in science. It doesn’t seem so clear in the case of religion. This is one of the principle problems with religion. It does not have a reliable mechanism to distinguish truth from falsity.

Nick B. - #30486

September 16th 2010

@Kirk Jordan:

You just contradicted yourself man: “Dr. Coyne does not allow people who hold creationists views (of any hue) to post comment.”/“I do not know if that restriction applies to those who hold to the theistic-evolutionary framework of BioLogos…”

I think what he doesn’t allow are creationist trolls. People who just recite creationist canards and propaganda all day long. Brain-dead people who aren’t valued participants in a conversation. And sorry to break the news to you but BioLogos is not strictly of the view that you mention. I have seen frank creationism espoused and condoned on this website several times.

Eric Reitan - #30490

September 16th 2010

Steve: You are right that Coyne is not guilty of the straw man fallacy so long as (a) there are those who promulgate the arguments Coyne attacks, and (b) Coyne does not attribute these arguments to anyone other than those who promulgate them (e.g., so long as he doesn’t reduce more careful and defensible scholarly arguments to the crass arguments they might superficially resemble). Now (a) clearly holds. Does (b)? If Giberson can make the case that it does not, then he can still make the case that Coyne is guilty of the straw man fallacy. We’ll have to see.

As for Giberson taking on Coyne (who, by hypothesis, is taken to be an unsophisticate apologist for atheism), this is not the straw man fallacy so long as Giberson gets Coyne right and doesn’t treat Coyne’s less compelling arguments as characteristic of more sophisticated defenders of atheism. And there certainly IS a place for taking on and exposing the inadequacies of poor arguments when those arguments are potentially influential—again, so long as one doesn’t turn around and treat these arguments as THE case for view in question, or the best case, etc.

Neil - #30493

September 16th 2010

Here is “a really simplistic” idea about religion.  It is bunk (PERIOD)  Explain to me why that is wrong.

Jackson - #30494

September 16th 2010

The arguments 1-2-3 need to be carefully done or they come across as a “Tu quoque” fallacy

It is not an appropriate defense to the argument that religion is philosophically inconsistent to counter than science has the same problem—if you agree it is important to be consistent, then make an argument that religion is consistent. 

Ditto for other points Coyne makes.

Personal - #30499

September 16th 2010

HAH!  Good luck taking on Coyne.  You’re going to need more than just assertions to back up those claims.  You know, like some examples of Coyne committing these fallacies.  Evidence is always a good thing.

Jack B - #30500

September 16th 2010

So, let’s see:
Jerry Coyne is a poopyhead, so, therefore, gods?

Let’s say we just grant you the first part, so we can see how you flesh out the middle there. Right now it’s looking a little weak.

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