This is the third installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.
The second straw man I want to dismantle is the naïve “believer” that Coyne insists represents religion. Like Dawkins in The God Delusion and other New Atheists in their various screeds Coyne seems to think that the “majority view” held by uninformed believers with a haphazard collection of ideas from Sunday School is the true definition of religion. The religious ideas of these believers are then contrasted with the scientific beliefs of well-educated scientists. And—big surprise—they don’t fare too well in the comparison.
Coyne speaks dismissively of "theologians with a deistic bent" who he thinks have no business speaking for religious believers in general, for they do not share the naïve theology of the “faithful," who pray for nice weather for their picnics, or parking spots when they are in a hurry. The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration.
This is a straw man comparison for several reasons. Rank-and-file believers are not one-dimensional caricatures whose entire existence is summed up in their religious commitments. They are also bankers, teachers, lawyers, carpenters, and Wal-Mart clerks who hold a variety of beliefs on many subjects. Only a small fraction of their time has been spent learning about religion and only a small part of their lives is focused on their religion.
Let us suppose by analogy that we attached the label “science believer” to everyone who passes the standard roster of science courses in high school and affirms that, in general, they accepted what was taught in those courses. Now we have a group that is genuinely analogous to “religious believers.” Suppose now that a well-educated theologian was describing the beliefs of these “science believers,” and using the results to evaluate the credibility of science. The theologian would note that these people really were “believers.” They loved their iPhones and thought highly of the engineers and scientists who made them possible. They are excited about space travel and encountering aliens some day. When they get sick, they look to medical science for help. Sometimes they watch the Discovery Channel and they all loved Avatar.
But what would "science" look like, were it defined by these "believers"? From actual polls and other sources we know that the physics would be an incoherent mix of Aristotelian and Newtonian ideas; most of them would accept astrology and think that a “dowser” with a stick should be consulted before you drilled a well. UFOs and aliens would be accepted as real; some would report having been abducted by aliens. General Relativity, the most important theory in cosmology, would be completely unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind and the scientific proof of free will.
Suppose that Keith Ward or Alister McGrath critiqued the scientific community for the collection of irresponsible things accepted by their followers, the “science believers.” Suppose they wrote books with titles like “The Science Delusion,” “Science is Not Great,” and “How Science Ruins Everything”? Coyne and company would cry foul immediately and say that the “science believers” were not authentic representatives of science, because they didn’t understand it very well.
And yet all of the “science believers” would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals like Coyne and Dawkins.
When the intellectual leaders of the religious community complain that the New Atheists are working with caricatures, their concerns are dismissed. Watch the video of my USA Today conversation with Coyne and you will see exactly what I mean. But this is because they prefer to do battle against an army of straw men, rather than real soldiers.