Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 4

Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 4

Dr. Craig continues his commentary on an interview between Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne as free speech, morality, and free will are discussed


Transcript Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne: Science vs. Religion Part 4

KEVIN HARRIS: We are going to continue this series with Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne. We are at part 4 now as Dr. Craig is interacting with this recent interview between Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne on science and religion.[1] Let’s continue with that interview. Here is Dr. Jerry Coyne.

DR. COYNE: It’s not so hard to see that people can go wrong when they take to be true what they want to be true. We face this everyday, but it is only religion where we actually have respect for that as opposed to thinking that it’s nuts. I personally don’t get it. I guess a lot of people don’t. But there is something about religion and I don’t know what it is that leads to this double standard on so many levels. The last chapter of my book is about sort of this. What’s the harm in thinking that science and religion are compatible or that faith and reason are compatible?

DR. CRAIG: Do you see how the ground has shifted here? What we were originally talking about was what’s the harm in seeing that science and religion are overlapping domains. That’s what they were attacking – the view that they are non-overlapping domains. But now they are saying what’s the harm in thinking that there’s no conflict. That’s very different. They haven’t demonstrated yet that there is inherently a conflict even if we agree with them that there are areas of overlap.

DR. HARRIS: One other problem you and I have run into is we meet people who deny that Islam plays any role in manufacturing the phenomenon of jihadism and Islamic terrorism. And most frustratingly we see someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali treated terribly by people on the political left and attacked by liberal “feminists” and not recognized to be the feminist icon she really should be championed as. You and I both reacted to some of the derision she received when she published her new book Heretic. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that phenomenon. Why is someone like Ayaan not seen to be a true champion of the emancipation of women in the developing . . .

DR. COYNE: That is a puzzling problem. One would think that she would be, given her horrible background and her mistreatment by Muslims, the fact that she is a woman of color, the fact that she’s a woman, that she would be that feminist icon. And yet she is vilified by the left. I think it’s the ultimate reason, though they use a lot of other reasons – they have excuses, we will go into those in a minute. It is because she’s going after Islam, and Islam is off limits these days to the left. It is OK to make fun of the Jews – what’s the institute? Amnesty International, sorry. They just turned down a resolution to condemn anti-Semitic acts in Great Britain. They just had their international meeting. They voted every resolution up except for the one that said we condemn anti-Semitism in Great Britain; we should investigate the problem. It was voted down by Amnesty International. It that had been Muslims, that would have been no problem. That act would have sailed through. It is basically the kind of world now where it is OK to be anti-Semitic in the left (at least for many people) but not to be anti-Muslim because – and you know this as well as I do – Muslims are perceived as oppressed people.

KEVIN HARRIS: This is really fascinating here just as political commentary. They are taking on their own camp – the liberal, the left – and saying that despite 9/11, despite everything else in the world, and the jihadists, the Taliban, the horrible things that are going on, that Muslims are still seen as oppressed by the left.

DR. CRAIG: I think that most of this interview, apart from the snide jabs at incompatibility of religion and science, is aimed at their own camp – at people who are agnostic or atheistic but are afraid to criticize religion and are willing to let religion run its course because they think it is irrelevant and doesn’t impact people at all.[2] Really, most of this interview is something that we would largely agree with. It is the sort of offhand remarks that are made all the way through that one disagrees with, particularly the double standard whereby they will criticize religious belief but fail to apply that same critique to atheistic belief.

DR. HARRIS: It is fascinating which wins the tug of war there. It is true that a respect for religion is trumping a concern for the human rights of women and gays and intellectuals and free thinkers throughout the world. This is true even among irreligious people. Another data point for me is the brain of Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist whose whole thing is a concern for the rights of women – or ostensibly his whole thing is that –, and yet when he turns his moral genius upon Ayaan Hirsi Ali he takes the wrong side of every issue. He actually denigrates her as a bigot. It really is just lacerating to see.

DR. CRAIG: One of the interesting things here is that we hear these two affirming Enlightenment values and human rights. I wonder to myself, where do those come from? Are those established scientifically? No! Look at the debate that I had with Sam Harris at Notre Dame on “Is the Foundation of Moral Values Natural or Supernatural?”[3] I think you’ll see the vacuity, frankly, of a naturalistic attempt to establish these Enlightenment values that these fellows want to hold dear. This is a great example of inconsistency, I think, on their part.

DR. COYNE: Fortunately there are some what I would call right-thinking people. We are not alone, that’s for sure. Most of the people that read my website know that Enlightenment values should trump respect for religion that damns those values. You can always ask these people: if you really think that Islam is such a great system of values, would you prefer to live in America or in Saudi Arabia or in Yemen? Especially if you are a woman, I don’t think there is any question about which way those people would answer. I find it all very puzzling.

DR. HARRIS: In a few of those conversations I’ve said to my interlocutor I actually think what you are saying about Islam and about multiculturalism is probably true so I’m just wondering what you think about my current plan to send my six-year old daughter to live with a Taliban family for a couple of years to get a closer appreciation of their culture. No one with a straight face can say that is responsible parenting on my side. Yet, it is implicit on their view that there is nothing wrong with radical diversity of attitudes towards the treatment of women and girls.

DR. COYNE: That’s part of the whole left dilemma. Besides the oppressed, it’s a respect for multiculturalism. I guess you were alive in the 60s but you aren’t old enough to remember it. Multiculturalism was the watchword back then. Everybody was to be respected. We were to gain from every culture. I think that the bad parts of that view, because I’m a big fan of the view of multiculturalism in terms of music and food and ways at looking at the world, but in terms of how you treat other people especially women and minorities and how you run a society, I don’t respect any culture that violates what I see as the right way to believe.

DR. CRAIG: OK, again, do you notice again and again the enunciation of moral judgments on Coyne’s part – about the “right way” to behave, Enlightenment values, the rights of women, and so forth. I just wonder where does he get these values? Given his scientism, does he think there is an objective realm of moral values that are not mere human conventions – the spinoffs of biology and social conditioning? Are these just conventional or are they objective? If they are objective, how does he know them? These are really difficult questions for someone who holds to the kind of scientism that we heard enunciated earlier in this interview.

KEVIN HARRIS: What did you think about his statement that religion is in opposition to Enlightenment values?

DR. CRAIG: I think that Enlightenment humanism is parasitic upon Western Christianity. Where do you think the Enlightenment got its values? They came from the Christian worldview that emphasized the worth and value of every human being created in the image of God and therefore a person of intrinsic moral value.[4] Now, sadly, the Christian church did not always act consistently with its ethic, but it had the right ethic. Enlightenment humanism is parasitic upon Western Christianity. You don’t find humanistic values in Buddhism or Marxism or these worldviews that reject the kind of grounding that you have in Christianity and theism.

DR. COYNE: This whole wave of hurt feelings stuff – if we keep catering to that it is a road to totalitarianism and censorship of everything because everybody can be offended. Once you learn the lesson that Islam is teaching us now, which is if you protest that you are personally offended when somebody says something you don’t like and maybe if you riot and kill you’ll win, other people are going to learn that lesson and do the same thing. Then what kind of society would we have then? America is still the land of the free in terms of where speech is concerned, and I’d much prefer to keep things the way they are here. It is unfortunate, by the way, that college campuses seem to be the one place in this country where free speech is not greatly respected or practiced.

DR. HARRIS: Have you noticed a change in the culture on college campuses yourself?

DR. COYNE: Oh, yes. Yes. Even here at the University of Chicago. I put some of that up on my website. There was the woman – I can’t remember her name – who worked with Charlie Hebdo and survived the massacre. She came here and talked. By the virtue of her talking she offended a number of students – Muslim students, but also their sympathizers. There were letters to the newspaper about how she shouldn’t have been allowed to speak without somebody at least balancing her viewpoint. That happens on my very own campus.

KEVIN HARRIS: I want to say something here. This has really been proven to be true. Not only are some students going to be very offended by even the presence of a speech or a lecturer, but you will get shouted down on college campuses.

DR. CRAIG: Coyne is absolutely right about what he is saying here. If he thinks Islam is a good example of these hurt feelings, stifling free speech, he ought to see what happens to someone who speaks out against same-sex marriage or homosexual activity. I have been precluded from speaking on certain college university campuses in Canada because I have opposed same-sex marriage and said that I think that homosexual behavior is immoral. That is not politically correct, and therefore actually – I won’t say banned, but – prevented from speaking on certain university campuses.

DR. COYNE: I think Chicago is a lot better than some places like Columbia or Stanford or even Berkeley these days, which is odd because Berkeley is where the free speech movement began.

DR. HARRIS: Yeah, but it skews so far left that you would expect that this political correctness and victimology would be peaking there, I would think.

DR. COYNE: Yeah. It is interesting that the left has really come full circle to the right. Now people like you and I are in league in some ways with Bill O’Reilly and the Fox News commentators that condemn Islam. I hate that. I hate it to have to voice some of the same sentiments. We do it for different reasons, I think, or I would hope, but it doesn’t feel good to be in bed with people whose ideology is so completely opposed to yours. That is what these students are becoming basically – right-wingers.

DR. CRAIG: I like the way Coyne puts it about coming full circle. I remember very well in my high school civics class the teacher saying that the continuum between left and right is not a line; it is a circle. The extreme left and the extreme right actually approach each other. He was comparing Nazism and Communism. Nazis and Communists hated each other. You know how Hitler blamed the Communists for the burning of the Reichstag and things of that sort in Germany. They were bitter, bitter enemies. Yet they were equally oppressive, tyrannical, dictatorial systems of government that were actually very close to each other even though the one was extreme left and the other extreme right. So it is really a kind of circle here. You do have these leftists on the college campuses now that are very illiberal and stifling of free speech even though they claim to be representatives of the forces of tolerance and liberality.

KEVIN HARRIS: It is crazy. It really is. It is almost schizophrenic.[5]

DR. HARRIS: I want to touch one other issue which I don’t think arises in the current book but it is an issue that you and I have both sounded off on much to the consternation of our mutual friend Dan Dennett: the issue of free will and whether it makes sense scientifically or philosophically. To my continued surprise, the topic of free will is incredibly interesting to people; in some cases unnerving to them when you begin to deny its existence and it’s, say, something that really goes to the core of what they find relevant philosophically and scientifically. Tell me what you think about the notion of free will or its illusoriness in scientific terms.

DR. COYNE: That is a big question. I am going to give a talk about this for the first time at the Imagine No Religion meetings in Vancouver in June. First you have to define free will if you want to talk about it. My definition is basically that you have free will if your decisions reflect anything more than the laws of physics that impinge on your mind as reflected through your genetic endowment and the environments you’ve experienced. In other words, I consider free will as a form of dualistic free will. That I reject. So I am a determinist. I basically believe, and I think you agree with me because I’ve read your book, that at any one point in time it is completely the configuration of molecules in the universe and in particular in your brain that mandates what you do and you could not have done anything other than what you did. In other words you don’t have any choices. You think you do, and it looks like you do, but you don’t really. I am a determinist in that sense.

DR. CRAIG: It is very difficult for me to understand how they can espouse determinism and yet at the same time make these assertions condemning those who would abridge freedom of speech, those who are overly sensitive to Muslim claims, those who don’t espouse liberal values, someone who believes in religion, or someone who would send his daughter to live with the Taliban if everything you do is determined by the laws of physics and you have no choice to do otherwise. I simply can’t understand how they can make these sorts of judgments, these judgmental statements, consistently with their deterministic view.

KEVIN HARRIS: We are out of time but we’ll continue right there on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[6]



[1] See http://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/faith-vs.-fact (accessed November 30, 2015).

[2] 5:13

[3] A transcript of that debate can be found at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-the-foundation-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-harris and a video can be found at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-harris-notre-dame (links accessed December 16, 2015).

[4] 10:02

[5] 15:02

[6] Total Running Time: 19:07 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)