Scientism and Religious Literalism


I don't make a practice of reading atheist blogger Jerry Coyne's sneering attacks against religion, but sometimes I do web searches of blogs for references to theologians who interest me, and his blog unfortunately sometimes comes up. When I peek at his blog, I find it to be a fascinating case study in denial, since he seems to understand at some level that his generalizations about religion are clearly undercut by counterexamples that he must then vigorously belittle and attack. Interestingly, part of his strategy of asserting that theologies that don't conform to his counterexamples are irrelevant is by dismissing certain individuals as "academic" theologians--a strange insult indeed considering that it comes from someone who himself is an academic. He recently wrote this just the other day in his blog:

how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.
Sarcasm is thus for Coyne what passes for serious dialogue about these issues. The need to dismiss such theologians in this way is clear. There are clearly many theologians whose conceptions of God don't correspond to the kind of deity that the entire militant atheist critique of religion per se rests upon. But if one makes a sweeping generalization about the inherent nature of religion, then counterexamples which contradict such a universal characterization clearly pose a huge problem since they render the generalization patently false.

In other words, if you can't pretend that John Haught or process theologians don't exist--deligitimize them, and pretend that somehow even though they exist as counterexamples, they don't really count! (The fact that such authors actually sell books outside of academia and are actually read and followed by lay people of faith is a bit inconvenient, but there you have it.) This is a variant of the "most people" argument--the idea that the mythical "most people" get to decide what is and isn't legitimately religious.

Coyne attacks the poetic language of myth and meaning that is found among the theologians he dismisses, and I would suggest that this is a symptom of a certain kind of mindset that seeks to apply literalism to everything in life--an unfortunate symptom of the scientism that he embraces. We saw this in Dawkins, who was quoted as objecting to teaching children stories that involved fantasy. This is where I stand apart from both the scientism of Dawkins and Coyne and from those who embrace religious myths literally. Both mindsets embrace literalism in different ways--scientism detests mythic language because it doesn't conform to the literalist mindset, and religious literalism embraces mythic language as if it were literal truth because not to do so would deny the literalist mindset. In other words, both scientism and religious literalism are twin sides of the same literalist coin.

Scientists like Coyne who think that everything must be an expression of empirical truth and who lack the poetic imagination to see things in other ways ultimately have to end up concluding that many expressions of philosophical and poetic inquiry, when ripped out of context, are merely "fatuous lucubrations", as he describes it in his blog. My guess is that Coyne would probably say the same things about Kant or Wittgenstein that he says about Karen Armstrong, since philosophers also frequently use language that lies beyond the rigid and literal empiricism that Coyne seems to think applies to everything in the universe, and when taken out of context the words of the great Western philosophers could be as easily mocked by people like Coyne as the words of progressive Christian theologians are.

Some of this may just be a matter of personality--some people get it, and others do not. The problem lies in that some of those who don't get it make a career out of attacking those who do, and then end up looking like fools in the process.


Marmalade said...

Religious literalism, whether of atheists or apologists, just drives me bonkers. Many of these people who drive me bonkers are even relatively intelligent and well educated, but their view is so narrow because they begin with specific assumptions that they don't wish to question. Even though this seems intellectually dishonest to me, some of these types of people are academics who teach and a few are even highly admired by their followers.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think it is a little scary that some of these people are academics, because their own close mindedness and the religious fervor with which they pursue their anti-religious agenda strikes me as totally at odds with the ostensible idea of academic impartiality that they supposedly embrace.

Marmalade said...

To me, it doesn't matter if the fervor is anti-religious or pro-religious. I prefer my academics to be rationally objective no matter what are their personal beliefs. I've met some apologists who are academics and use their scholarly position to pursue their religious agenda. I'm just not a fan of ulterior motives, religious or otherwise.

However, academics are just people with their normal assumptions and biases. Fortunately, at least in the scientific fields, the peer review helps to lessen the influence of personal agendas.

Mystical Seeker said...

Marmalade, those are all good points. Scientists are, of course, human beings, and they are marked by human foibles as much as anyone else.