Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jerry Coyne blows it on the Resurrection

Biologist Jerry Coyne, in his recent USA Today editorial, claims that there is what he elsewhere terms a "fundamental distinction" between the truth claims of science and the truth claims of religion. The problem with religious truth claims, he says, is that, unlike scientific truth claims, there is no way to know whether they are true. The claims of science, he argues, are testable--more particularly, falsifiable--while the claims of religion are not. The "biggest problem with religious 'truth,'" he says, is that "[t]here's no way of knowing whether it's true."

But then, unaccountably, he turns around and acknowledges the opposite:
Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study.
How can these two things--that religious belief us unfalsifiable and that is "within the realm of scientific study" both be true? Coyne continues:
But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority.
Now the first thing to say about this is that is shouldn't matter what "faith relies" on. The claims are either falsifiable or they are not--and whether those who claim them think they are within some special realm of "faith" is simply irrelevant. They are in the realm of history (something he himself admits) and can be analyzed according to its principles.

But the second thing to say about it is that it is completely false. It is simply not true to say that Christians do not rely on reason and evidence to support the Resurrection. All Coyne need have done was to conduct a Google search. He could simply have typed the words "evidence for the resurrection" and come up with what Google says is "about 300,000 results."

So whatever we want to say about whether the Resurrection is true or false, we know one thing: Coyne's claim that those who believe in it do not offer reason and evidence for it is demonstrably false. In fact, this is a staple of Christian apologetics (the reasoned defense of the Faith) and has been since the first century. The early Christian writers appealed directly to evidence, talking about how many people had seen the risen Christ. There's no better evidence than a witness.

And Coyne digs himself in deeper by making another claim:
I've never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus.
Coyne must not get out much. Any Christian believer who knew anything about his faith would readily say that, if the Resurrection was conclusively proven wrong, they would have to abandon their faith. They would have to, since that is the central claim upon which their faith is based. If there are some who don't do this, then they are fideists who do not understand the central claim of their religion. In fact, if Coyne is going to make statements like this, he needs to actually do a little research. Not any kind of complicated historical research, just some basic reading. If he had done this, he would have discovered the following statement:
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.
This doesn't come from just any Christian: it's the words of the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. He says that if the Resurrection didn't happen, then it's all over. We can all go home. Did Coyne just miss this? He could have found this by the simple expedient of actually knowing what he was talking about. But he clearly doesn't.

Now I can just hear the peanut gallery on this blog turning out in force and demanding what the evidence for the Resurrection is. "C'mon, Martin, tell us what it is." I'm glad to have that conversation, but let's not confuse it with this point: Coyne is wrong when he says that reason and evidence have not been offered for this claim. It's just false. And whether or not the Resurrection is a historically legitimate claim (it is) is irrelevant to that point.

Coyne blew it.

You can say the claim for the Resurrection is or is not falsifiable, but Coyne's claim is definitely falsifiable. In fact, it's false.


Singring said...

'Now I can just hear the peanut gallery on this blog turning out in force and demanding what the evidence for the Resurrection is. "C'mon, Martin, tell us what it is." I'm glad to have that conversation, but let's not confuse it with this point: Coyne is wrong when he says that reason and evidence have not been offered for this claim. It's just false.'

First of all, I'm glad I've been promoted to the 'peanut' level.

Secondly, I agree with you completely. Coyne is contradicting himself and he is wrong to say that no rational (i.e. inductive, reality-based) reasons to believe in the resurrection have been offered (though it gets a bit touchy when we think about what would actually constitute such reasons).

Thirdly, I don't think we need to engage in a discussion on the resurrection, because quite frankly its been done to death, in my opinion the very best arguments in favour of it do not rise above the level of biased hearsay and therefore, from my perspective at least, its like trying to argue with people who thinks there's good evidence that Elvis is still alive because someone's cousins brother's best friend's sister saw him down on the Bayou.

It simply wouldn't be productive in my opinion.

But I thought I'd just comment on this because Coyne sometimes - like everyone else - can talk talk nonsense and I think you deserve credit for penning the occasional post that is in fact accurate.

KyCobb said...


Actually, studies show eyewitness accounts are lousy evidence. Memories change over time and are easily manipulated. Plus some witnesses lie. That's why Project Innocence is proving with DNA evidence that many people who were convicted on testimony are actually innocent.

Martin Cothran said...


You might want to let our legal system know about this. We may, in fact, be able to clean out our prisons on this basis.

You might also let Coyne and Myers in on this, since both consider it an essential criterion for verifying something.

Martin Cothran said...


The Resurrection may have been "done to death," I don't know. If so, I am resurrecting it.

I am also wondering how much of a factor someone's being tired of discussing an issue is on the relevance of the issue or the strength of an argument based on that issue.

By the way, how many people who say they have seen Elvis have been martyred for making that claim?

Just curious.

Singring said...

Sigh. Here we go then...

If you insist on making claims about the resurrection then I guess we'll have to shoot them down one by one:

'By the way, how many people who say they have seen Elvis have been martyred for making that claim?'

How does that impinge on the validity of the claims? Muslims blow themselves up on a daily basis because they believe Mohammed was Allah's true prophet. So therefore I guess their claims must be true was well?

What is that I hear you saying? That's different because in the case of Christianity, it was the Apostles - in other words eye-witnesses - that were being put to death based on their claims and why would they make up the resurrection if it cost their lives! Well, think about that for a few moments and you can come up with a plethora of arguments why that proves exactly diddley squat:

1.) There is no credible historical evidence on the fate of the apostles or the claims they were making when they died.

2.) They may simply have been honestly mistaken.

3.) They were so fanatical that they were self-deluded.

I find option 3.) to be the most likely. Just a cursory glance across the world will highlight literally dozens of instances where people go to their death nased on obviously false beliefs.

Take the example Sam Harris likes to use: Sai Baba.


Watch this video:


Now, it will be obvious to anyone with half a brain that this guy is a cheap magician, not some godlike guru.

And yet - he has millions of fanatically devoted followers. How is this possible?

Self-delusion. You want to believe something so bad you believe it no matter how obviously false the belief is.

Look at Heaven's Gate: They killed themselves voluntarily for obviously crazy beliefs.

Joseph Smith and his followers by all acounts were prepared to go to their death for their claims. We even have court-attested trestimony from eye-witnesses to teh golden tablets. So does that mean Mormonism is true?

Martin, if you will simply take the word of an anonymous author's report on what someone believed or claimed at their time of death and then think that that is sufficient evidence for the veracity of that belief - then I really am not surprised if science doesn't appear rational to you, because you are quite frankly living in lala-land.

KyCobb said...


"You might want to let our legal system know about this. We may, in fact, be able to clean out our prisons on this basis."

That's the job of Project Innocence, and they have been getting a lot of innocent people sprung. As for Coyne and Myers, I doubt they view eyewitness accounts as worth squat if they are not verifiable. Lots of people claim to have been abducted by aliens.

Thomas said...


In many of the cases you're talking about, there were no eyewitnesses. In the ones that were, the eyewitnesses generally did not know the person and picked them out of a lineup at a later time. Many of these were cross-racial identifications or the alleged sighting was in poor light conditions.

The kind of eyewitness testimony we get from the apostles is not a case of a witness seeing a stranger briefly exiting a house at night, but of seeing a friend who they lived with for some time publicly executed and of seeing that same friend return to them and stay with them for some time. The question turns not on the ability of the apostles to properly identify Jesus, but on the credibility of their testimony.

If a witness were to testify in court that he saw a friend he had known for years leave under traumatic and public circumstances, and then return to stay with the witness for a time, the reliability of his testimony would not be questioned in terms of the witness' ability to properly identify the friend or give a generally accurate account of the circumstance of his leaving and return. The question would be whether the witness is telling the truth. The situation of the apostles is not similar in any way I can think of to the kinds of cases the innocence project gets, other than that an innocent person faced execution.

Singring said...


Those are some good points you make. Indeed, since Jesus' apostles knew him so well, they should have immediately recognized him.

But then we read this:


'20:15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.'

Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for a gardener???


'21:4 But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.
21:5 Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No.
21:6 And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.
21:7 Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.'

The disciples didn't recognize Jesus until he spoke to them???


'24:15 And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.
24:16 But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.'

Another two disciples who didn't recognize Jesus.


So according to their own story, those 'eye-witnesses' were not so reliable after all.

KyCobb said...


The Apostles aren't available to testify. And the earliest versions of the Testaments in existence were written at least decades after the fact, which makes their veracity questionable.

Martin Cothran said...


Are we to accept only those historical events which are attested to by living witnesses? And only those the documentary evidence of which was written within a decade of their occurrence?

That is your position?

KyCobb said...


I didn't say that, did I? However its a fact that as the past recedes, people have a tendency to mythologize about it-I've seen Ronald Reagan mythologized (not to the extent of an apotheosis, of course), and his administration ended barely over 20 years ago.

You also have the problem that if you are going to accept the incredible claims of eyewitnesses at face value, you would have to believe in a lot more than the resurrection of Christ. For example, individuals claimed to have seen the golden plates given to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni, from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Three of them even claimed to have been shown the plates by an angel, and to have heard the voice of God. Somehow, however, I doubt you believe that the Book of Mormon is another Testament of Jesus Christ.