But we have already seen two problems with thesis. The first is that, if reason has anything to do with logic, the claim that religion is not rational simply doesn't hold up. The Christian Middle Ages were not only rational, they were, as Alfred North Whitehead, "an orgy of rationality." It was, in a way that no other age was, the Age of Logic. Commentaries on Aristotle, treatises on logical topics, and summas on theology that are filled to the brim with syllogisms. If we ignored the explicit Christianity of the age, we would have to say that deduction was the religion of the Middle Ages.
The second is that, despite its pretensions to rationality, science itself is based on a faith that the future will be like the past. The rational process of induction, the method of logic upon which all scientific generalization is based, involves the premise that the observations scientists make about the past can be extrapolated into the future. But this assumption, as David Hume famously pointed out in the 18th century, is based not on reason, since it can be established neither by induction nor deduction, but on custom and tradition--things that atheists like Coyne claim characterize religion, not science.
So in what respect can atheists say that science is rational in a way that religion is not? The only way they can do this is by redefining rationality. And, indeed, when we look at what atheists say, this is exactly what we find them doing. Our object lesson in atheist pretensions this week has been Jerry Coyne, so let's see what Coyne does with the term "rationality" that allows him to use it in the way he does.
Here is Coyne, in a New Republic article last year:
So the most important conflict ... is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe.That's right: "secular rationality." What does this mean? It's not exactly a term you will find in, say, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, let alone a scientific manual. It's nice that he included logic in his list, but in what sense are these fields rational in a way that the religion that produced thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are not? One quickly gets the impression that there is no particular reason he includes these disciplines in the category of "rational" other than the fact that he happens to agree with them. Do they really employ arguments in these fields in these fields, but don't employ them in theology? Has Coyne ever actually read an academic paper in theology? In fact, looking through Coyne's list of rational disciplines, the reader will note that philosophy, the discipline of which logic is a branch, does not even appear.
It's hard not to conclude that Coyne has simply botched this whole point. In fact, it starts to become apparent pretty quickly that Coyne himself is hardly a paragon of rationality (as the rest of us define that term. His reasoning, in fact, reaches laughable proportions when he tries to articulate a hierarchy of religions according to their friendliness to science:
Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason--only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful--those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths--fall into the "incompatible" category.Coyne apparently failed to notice that the religions he points to as the least contradictory to science--Pantheism and Buddhism--are the ones that produced the least scientific progress. And the religions he cites as least friendly to it--including Christianity and Judaism--are the ones that most informed the cultures that brought about the scientific revolution.
When you hear atheistic scientists making arguments like these, just ask them to produce a list for you of the great scientists produced by pantheist and Buddhist cultures. If they can uncover some names, hand them the list of Jewish and Christian scientists--and make sure to draw their special attention to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Then do it again, just for fun.
The irony is that if the average theologian wrote a paper with as little awareness of the distinction between assertions and actual argumentation as Coyne displays in his discourses on these subjects, he would be considered an embarrassment.
But, apparently, the standards of rationality among scientific rationalists is high as they seem to think.