"Fundamentally Atheist"

by Timothy Beal, originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2015.


Jerry A. Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible (Viking, 2015), is fighting words. Lamenting the "nice guy syndrome" he sees motivating many fellow scientists, refuting any form of accommodation that might suggest science and religion can get along, and scorning any scientist who even makes eye contact with the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research at the intersections of science and religion, Coyne argues that science is fundamentally incompatible with religion — not just young-earth creationism, not just intelligent design, not just Christianity, not just theism, but all forms of religion.

That said, the original bone of contention for Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is with one particular form of religious thought, namely biblical creationism. As a young professor at the University of Maryland, he recalls students dutifully learning evolutionary theory while openly admitting that they didn’t believe any of it, and a preacher in the plaza below his classroom "holding forth loudly about how evolution was a tool of Satan."

Although I’m sure he’s right that "there’s no surer route to immersion in the conflict between science and religion than becoming an evolutionary biologist," I have to say that, surprising as it may sound to some, becoming a biblical scholar can get you into those conflicts almost as quickly. The difference is that most college students who take a course in the Bible have no idea that such conflicts even exist vis-à-vis biblical studies.

Most people inside and outside the academy don’t realize that Christian fundamentalism’s war against evolution began as a war against academic biblical studies, especially the rise of Bibelwissenschaft, which emerged prominently in German universities in the second half of the 19th century and quickly migrated to Britain and North America as Higher Criticism. Coyne sees Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) as the original death knell for biblical authority, "the greatest scripture-killer ever penned." But defenders of the Bible in the late 19th century probably would have pointed instead to Julius Wellhausen’s Ge­schichte Israels (1878; published in English as Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel in 1885). There Wellhausen developed his Documentary Hypothesis, arguing that the first five books of the Bible (the Torah, or Pentateuch) had been compiled from four different literary strands, or source documents. He dated each of those sources to a different period of Israelite and Judean history, and argued that they had been edited together to form the narratives of Genesis through Deuteronomy at a later time, after the Babylonian exile.

Wellhausen’s source-critical, scientific approach, examining the Bible in light of history rather than history in light of the Bible, was in many ways the culmination of research going back at least to Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) and Spinoza’s anonymously published Tractatus Theologico-­Politicus (1670), both of which presented arguments against Mosaic authorship of the Torah and raised questions concerning the Bible’s composite nature. Much as Darwin found in the different finches of the Galápagos Islands data for developing his theory of evolution through natural selection, Wellhausen treated biblical texts as archaeological data for reconstructing the history and evolution of ancient Israelite and Judean religion.

It was against this kind of dissecting and historicizing of the Bible that Christian fundamentalism first began to gird its loins, claiming as one of its "fundamentals" the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, literally, and therefore is entirely without error or contradiction. The Bible, fundamentalists asserted, must not be subjected to modern science or historical research; on the contrary, scholars in those disciplines must be subjected to the Bible.

And that’s exactly what fundamentalists tried to do. Well before there was much stir about Darwin and evolution, Bible defenders in Britain and North America drew battle lines against biblical scholars. The two most influential early proponents of Higher Criticism in the English-speaking world were William Robertson Smith, a linguist and a minister of the Free Church of Scotland who wrote the preface to the English edition of Wellhausen’s book, and Charles A. Briggs, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Presbyterian minister. Both were accused of heresy in highly publicized trials (Smith in 1878-81 and Briggs in 1889-93). Smith was removed from his academic post in Aberdeen, and Briggs was defrocked. In one of Union’s proudest moments, it left the Presbyterian Church along with Professor Briggs.

It was in the context of this already well heated debate that fundamentalist reactions to Darwinism came to the fore as another potential threat to biblical authority, which was rapidly hardening into a fierce ideology of inerrancy. By the early 20th century, Darwinism and Higher Criticism were the twin enemies of biblical fundamentalism, a key feature of which was creationism.


Acentury later, Darwin is a household name while pretty much nobody outside biblical studies has heard of Wellhausen, let alone Smith, Briggs, or almost any other biblical scholar, past or present, who represents that critical academic tradition. Imagine if every introductory course in evolutionary biology had to start with several weeks on Origin because even its basic approach and ideas were completely unknown to everyone in the class. That’s essentially what most of us in biblical studies have to do every time we teach an introduction to biblical literature. No matter how irrefutable the evidence is that the Bible is a highly complex composition representing the work of literally thousands of hands over thousands of years in innumerable social and cultural-historical contexts, we must concede that the presumptions of biblical inerrancy still carry the day — even among those who reject Christianity and its Bible outright. Indeed, like Biblicist defenders, most critics in the God debates presume that the argument is about whether the Bible is or is not the book that God wrote, a tome of answers without error or contradiction.

Given how entirely invisible academic biblical studies has become to the public, Coyne may be forgiven for showing no awareness of it and its role, alongside evolution, as the enemy against which biblical fundamentalism defined itself. Less forgivable, however, is his apparent refusal to engage the field of academic religious studies at all, especially when a quick walk across campus for a conversation with someone like Jonathan Z. Smith, a historian of religion at the University of Chicago and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, could have done Coyne’s book a world of good, even if it would also have complicated his bold argument.

Unfortunately, Coyne’s impressive ability to explain evolutionary biology and other scientific research and theory contrasts dramatically with his unacceptably simplistic understandings of religion generally and theology specifically, especially as it relates to what really is at the heart of the religion-science debate, namely the Bible and biblical authority.

Coyne dismisses the entire academic discourse of religious studies as unhelpful with breathtaking swiftness: "Defining ‘religion’ is a thankless task, for no single definition will satisfy everyone." So, "Rather than arguing semantics, I’ll choose a definition that fits most people’s intuitive conception of religion." That definition, like so many others in the book, comes from the Oxford English Dictionary: "action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances." Elsewhere, he makes clear that he understands religion to be "but a single brand of superstition." Indeed, although Coyne also includes the second part of that OED definition, "the performance of religious rites or observances," he never discusses religion as practice or performance. The parallelism in his title and subtitle suggests that, as far as he is concerned, religion is synonymous with faith, and is a positivistic belief system that makes "empirical claims about the existence of a deity, the nature of that deity, and how it interacts with the world."

If religion is about making delusional truth claims about the universe, it follows that religious scripture, especially the Bible of Christianity, must be a document that states those claims. And that, it seems to me, is what Faith Versus Fact really wants to fight about. Despite Coyne’s desire to argue that all religion is incompatible with science, the opponent he is equipped to battle is conservative Christian theology, especially those forms of it that have inherited the early-20th-­century fundamentalist battle for biblical authority.

In fact, any form of religious thought, experience, or practice that doesn’t follow his dogmatic conception of religion as a way of empirical knowing about the universe is ruled out of the discussion as so weirdly obscure as to be irrelevant. This includes theological discourses such as negative or apophatic theology (focused on the ineffability of God and proceeding via negativa, denying any positive assertion about the divine), Christian atheism and death-of-God theologies (some asserting that God literally died, imparting the divine spirit in human community, others asserting that a certain idea of God is dead), process theology (emphasizing generative creativity over passive belief and becoming over being), metaphorical theology (insisting that all theology is metaphorical and exploring the generation of new metaphorical languages of the divine) and, most recently, speculative and object-oriented theologies (non-anthrocentric understandings of the world as immanent materiality in which God is a nontranscendent object among other objects).

Indeed, those and several other theological movements have emerged and developed in response and relation to research in evolutionary biology and other fields of science. With sweeping generalizations, Coyne dismisses any such discourses as "waffling," "elaborate storytelling," and "watered down" retreats from the literal to the metaphorical that are so "vague" and "terminally obscure" that few if any people of faith could ever take them seriously.

Ironically, Coyne’s distaste for such progressive theological discourses is something he has in common with his real opponents, Christian fundamentalists, who share his operative theory of faith as dogmatic certitude and his understanding of the Bible as the source document for empirical knowledge of the universe. At several points in his lambasting generalizations about "vociferous and liberal theologies" that don’t fit his understanding of religion as dogmatic faith, I could as easily have been reading a Christian fundamentalist apologist like Josh McDowell (Evidence That Demands a Verdict) or Norman Geisler (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, written with Frank Turek). For them as for Coyne, any theology that doesn’t perceive science generally and evolutionary biology specifically as its enemy doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously as theology.


Yet if Coyne really wants to insist that any attempt to make religion, let alone theology, compatible with science must fail, then it’s not enough simply to pooh-pooh such emergent, adaptive theologies and move on. He must either deny their status as religion or show how they are actually incompatible with science. Perhaps he doesn’t because, at least subconsciously, he realizes that taking them seriously would most likely call into question the very terms of the debate in which he and his publisher are so deeply invested.

Given Coyne’s impatience with religiosities that take any kind of metaphorical or poetic orientation toward mystery and alterity, it shouldn’t be surprising that he sees art as a similarly poor way of knowing. Although he appreciates books and paintings "for their emotional resonance, for the depiction of other points of view, and for sheer aesthetics," he insists "that art cannot ascertain truth or knowledge of the universe, simply because it lacks the tools for such inquiry. The artist’s revelations … tell us about the artist herself rather than the realities beyond her mind." Art, then, is to be appreciated "not as a way of knowing, but as a way of feeling." To William Blake’s question, "How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?," I imagine Coyne would answer, "Because it isn’t; because it looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes like a bird. But thanks for sharing your way of feeling."

Still, if we restrict the issue to evolutionary biology’s incompatibility with mainstream Christian understandings of the Bible — and that really is what we’re talking about here — then Coyne is right on. As he repeatedly makes clear, the kind of delusional Biblicism that understands the Bible as God’s infallible truth about the universe is shockingly pervasive in popular culture, especially in the United States. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 78 percent of all Americans believe the Bible is the "word of God," and nearly half of those say it is "to be taken literally, word for word." The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found that roughly half of all Americans agree that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings." Similarly, Gallup polling consistently finds that over 75 percent of Americans believe that the Bible is either the "actual word of God, to be taken literally" or the "inspired word of God." Gallup also found in 2000 that 65 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible "answers all or most of the basic questions of life." Assuming many such "basic questions of life" have to do with biology, that’s a problem.

Yet, despite the prevalence of such ideas about the Bible, and despite booming Bible sales, biblical literacy is at an all-time low. Recent polls indicate that less than half of all adult Americans can name the first book of the Bible or the four Gospels of the New Testament, that more than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that "God helps those who help themselves" is a Bible verse, that two-thirds of Americans can’t name at least five of the Ten Commandments, and that more than half of graduating high-school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. Interestingly, a Pew poll suggests that atheists are more biblically literate than are most Christians!

If so many people have such high reverence for the Bible as God’s own answer book for life’s most basic questions, why are they not reading it? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that so many atheists do read it. That is, there’s a huge disconnect between what they believe the Bible is supposed to be and what they actually find when they read it. What does one do, for example, when one reads far enough to realize that there are actually multiple biblical stories of cosmic creation and that they don’t match up at all? Suddenly it’s no longer a question of Bible versus science or creation versus evolution. Reading the Bible closely may in fact be the most effective way to help people understand the incompatibility between Biblicism and science.

That said, I suspect understanding is not the goal of Faith Versus Fact. Its aim appears to be more polarizing, and that makes good market sense. Righteous refutations from the religious right will create buzz, and the growing choir to whom Coyne is preaching will rush to buy the book. After all, it’s been a while since Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Twelve, 2007).

If Coyne’s book succeeds, and I believe it will, it will prove that not only academic biblical studies but also the academic study of religion generally can safely be ignored. Those of us in those fields are used to being dismissed as irrelevant by mainstream popular culture, as well as by fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. But by a highly acclaimed university scholar and public intellectual? That’s depressing.