The Agenda: Science vs. religion

The Agenda television show broadcast yesterday on TVO is now archived at this site, but you can see the individual segments in order by clicking on the screenshots below. The theme of Steve Paikin’s show was “Science, Religion, and Atheism.”

I went first, with the segment described like this:

Since Galileo’s lifetime house arrest in 1632 for his claim of a sun-centered solar system, the question has remained: are science and religion compatible? Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is unequivocal. “Absolutely not,” he says. He discusses his book, “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”

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I won’t comment on my own statements here; readers will be familiar with them, and I said what I thought.

The second segment featured Andrew Newberg, described as “the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital [it’s in Philadelphia]. He is also the author of How God Changes Your Brain.” The segment is described like this:

Why do we believe what we believe? Are the brains of atheists and religious people different? What happens to a person’s brain when they are praying or meditating or communing with God? Andrew Newberg has been studying these questions for years. He calls it Neurotheology, a discipline that “seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology.” He joins Steve Paikin to discuss the neuroscience of religion.

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Although he says he disagrees with me about the compatibility of science and religion, Newberg clearly didn’t listen to what I said, for he claims that the existence of religious scientists demonstrates that compatibility, a form of compatibility that I discussed and dismissed. Further, he claims that the compatibility is evidenced by the fact that scientists like him can study the religious beliefs of billions of people. This is a view I find completely bizarre. Science can study beliefs in ESP and Bigfoot, but that doesn’t mean that beliefs in those phenomena are compatible with science.

He then makes a deeply tautological argument, saying that people with brains that reject the supernatural tend not to be religious, and vice versa. This has nothing to do with his claim that there are differences between the faithful and the non-religious in how the brain works.

He also argues that meditation and other “spiritual” activities affect brain function, but of course, as Diane MacPherson noted yesterday, he doesn’t discuss whether meditating atheists show brain patterns different from those of meditating religionists. The fact that meditating or thinking about matters numinous affects brain activity is not a justification for the existence of the numinous, though Newberg does not make that explicit. Nor does he deal effectively with Paikin’s very good question that perhaps those folks prone to such brain patterns are a priori likely to become more religious.

In the end, Newberg argues that our brain is somehow wired, through either God or evolution, to have a propensity for religious or spiritual experiences. Perhaps he’s right, but if that’s the case, I must have bad wiring. At 15:47, he argues that we all have “faith”, a conflation of different meanings of “faith.”

On the whole, Newberg was articulate and didn’t argue strongly for the truth of religious claims; his main point was apparently that humans seem to be hardwired for some kind of spiritual experiences, and those experiences correlate with brain activity. His main problem, I think, was failing to disentangle the many meanings of the world “spiritual.”

Finally, Paikin interviewed Pamela Klassen, “a professor in the department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto” and Amarnath Amarangam, editor of Religion and the New Atheism. The segment is this:

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens are all known as the “New Atheists,” authors of best-selling anti-God and anti-religion books. But, what exactly is New Atheism? What are its goals? How do they rightly or wrongly view religion? And has it succeeded in selling atheism, or simply angering religious people? The Agenda explores the New Atheism movement.

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Klassen faults New Atheism for being strident and unproductive of thought, largely because, as she says, it is a movement dominanted by white males. In contrast the less strident women “New Atheists”, like Jennifer Hecht and Susan Jacoby, have promoted genuinely thoughtful discussion. (She seems to neglect Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and the like). Amarangam then agrees with Reza Aslan that New Atheists caricature religion, neglecting faiths like Buddhism and Jainism.

Both panelists, however, completely fail to consider whether religious claims are true. To them, the question, which at least Amarangam sees as the focus of New Atheism, is unimportant. Instead, they concentrate more on the “little people” argument: that religion is, in the main, good regardless of its truth. Klassen also emphasizes the “communal” aspect of religion, further neglecting whether the claims on which religious practices rest are true. Does she think it matters? Amarangam correctly notes that New Atheists ask for evidence for the claims of faith, but argues that such evidence drops into insignificance when one sees religion as a “lived practice.”

Klassen has an obvious aversion to the word “faith,” preferring to discuss practice, yet theologians have no problem with the word “faith.”  She needs to get out more, and to look at the statistics about what religionists really do believe. I am of course biased on this issue, but I saw this segment largely as an exercise in atheist-bashing rather than a discussion of a). are the claims of religion really true?; b). To what extent do believers base their actions and “communality” on those claims?; and c).  If the truth claims are wrong, and yet buttress an entire system of belief, action, and morality, what does that mean for society?

As one commenter noted about this pair:

I can’t help but feel that the people in the program are mainly trying to get their little place in the limelight by vaguely attacking, not what the “New Atheists” say and stand for, but what these people claim the New Atheists say and stand for, i.e. they are pulling out the old straw man.

I fully agree with Amarnath Amarasingam that the New Atheists see the god debate as an intellectual exercise. It is, and it is a simple one at that. The Bible is a fictional book and if you claim otherwise, you have not read it, you are lying, or you are mentally deficient. When a “university” such as Biola *requires* its staff to accept the inerrancy of the Bible, then you know you are dealing with charlatans. It is no more difficult than that.

It is, to some degree, a valid criticism to say that the main god of the Bible is their favourite target, but how would that be wrong? The god of the Bible happens to be a fairly important subject in Western society, since this god (or its promoters) has had some influence on the culture, and still does. I would say that this god is therefore more than just marginally more interesting a topic for our culture than, say, Jainism and Buddishm, which do not have gods.

. . . Pamela Klaassen pulls out the old “I am offended” chestnut, and essentially excludes herself from the debate. “I am offended” is not a valid discussion point in this context.

My final comment is that Paikin is a very good interviewer: he knows what he’s about and asks the right questions. Even when he asks challenging questions, he asks them in a non-confrontational way, i.e., he seems to want to get at the truth, not just create controversy. It was a pleasure to be on his show.



  1. Posted June 17, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink


  2. steve oberski
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    And has it succeeded in selling atheism, or simply angering religious people?

    I don’t see those as mutually exclusive objectives.

    • eric
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Given the historical uptick in nones, it seems reasonably safe to say that it hasn’t hurt the selling of atheism, regardless of who it angers.

      • steve oberski
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Looking back, anytime I have changed my position on a social issue (I was raised as a catholic so you can imagine what some of those were) there was a certain amount of anger on my part as I tried to refute evidence that was in conflict with my currently held position.

        If you can make them angry them perhaps you can make them think.

        • gunnerkee19
          Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          Exactly. I love your insight here.

  3. merilee
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Saw your TVO segment last night and thought it came across very well.

    • Kevin
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Ditto. I really enjoyed it.

  4. Posted June 17, 2015 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    “(She seems to neglect Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and the like).”

    Or Madalyn Murray O’Hair or Ayn Rand. Non-strident women.

    • Frank
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      To me, it is a pity that even the best segments of the media seem to want to focus on distracting or trivial side-issues, such as the degree of “stridency” and personalities of the most prominent secular proponents, the characteristics and goals(!) of the New Atheism “movement” (when I abandoned faith at age 13, 47 years ago, I had no idea I was joining a movement).
      Perhaps it would be too intellectually challenging to spend more time on the actual, specific claims of the “New Atheists” and their relative merits, as grounded in science and logic. Everything doesn’t have to be a “movement”, and the “new atheists” are not a monolithic voice (e.g., Harris and Coyne vs. Dennett on free will).

      • Pali
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        I think they’re trying to avoid the incredibly risky act of taking a stance on the issue, because no matter how they’d go about it, it could cost them a lot of viewers (as a network or as individual anchors). Even a stance as “moderate” as stating that religion is good but we know some things in the Bible, like age of the Earth, are wrong risks pissing off half the country – and other networks will milk it to increase their own viewership and decrease their competitor’s as much as they can – so it is just much safer to “discuss” New Atheism by focusing on tone. Because you will annoy far, far fewer Americans if you say that religion is good and atheists are being mean than you will by criticizing religion in the slightest.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Ayn Rand was non-strident???

  5. Barry Lyons
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Steve Paikin is a new name to me. Jerry, you’re right: he’s an excellent interviewer.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    A difficulty with the word “spiritual” is that some religious and philosophical traditions see “spirit” or “soul” as deeply married to the body so much that they cannot be separated. Others see “spirit” as something ethereal yet substantive that can be easily detached from the body like a caboose from a train.

    In the second category are Platonism, the Bhagavad-Gita, and classical Christianity. In the first are Aristotelianism, Buddhism, and to some degree, Judaism.
    For Aristotle, the soul is what !*animates*! the body, but unlike Plato he did NOT believe it survived death, because it can NOT be separated from the body. It is mortal.
    Likewise, in Buddhism, the “soul” is at most simply a process and pattern of movements of thought, but the “self” is interdependent with the body and the world, and is NOT a self-subsistent entity as it is in the Bhagavad-Gita.

    This can have an impact on what one means by “spirituality”. Also the word spirituality has more recently been hijacked by the New Age movement. Sam Harris is brave indeed to continue to use it, though older generations of rationalists like Bertrand Russell and Percy Shelley were fine with it as well.

    Newberg may be right insofar as there are cultural experiences which easily catalyze a belief in God. Thus there may be a hard-wired !*predisposition*! to certain forms of religiosity, but I suspect it might not be triggered without certain cultural experiences.

    • Marella
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:42 am | Permalink

      Huh, thanks that will be useful when believers take me up on the use of the word “soul”. I can just say “in the Aristotelian sense of the word”, which they won’t know anything about, and sound clever, and get out of jail free!

    • Robert Bray
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      My understanding of Platonic metaphysics is that the detachment of the soul from the body is one of the *hardest* tasks a right-minded person faces. That’s because from birth the flesh (appearance) dominates the spirit (reality) and will not be tamed without its own mortification. Hence Socrates’ advice to ‘lead a dying life.’ If one wants ultimate, eternal freedom for the soul, that is, a final separation from materiality, one must become
      a philosopher. There aren’t many such and never can be. And the great majority of humankind, the huge ‘rest of us,’ must endure metempsychosis–mainly the devolution of the reembodied soul downward on the great chain of being.

  7. Mark R.
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only watched your interview thus far. Superb. You were poised, confident and convincing. Paikin asked some really good questions, and you handled them as if you had a week to prepare. (I’m assuming you didn’t know the questions before the interview.) “You are winning the argument.” Well, for me, you already won, but I liked that statement.

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the kind words. I had NO idea what questions I’d be asked. That’s the great fun of interviews–the spontaneity and unknowns about “what comes next?”, which is almost jazzlike in promoting improvisation. That’s why I like the Q&A bits of my talks much better than I like the talks themselves, particularly when I’ve given the talk before.

      • gunnerkee19
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        While you may not have known what questions he was going to ask, you answered each as if you had diligently prepared, which, in effect, you had done during the research for FvF. Adding to the effect I would be willing to bet most of the WEIT Commentariat watching the interview anticipated your answers to various degrees due to our learning those reasons through you on this site. Yes, we are atheist or anti-theist, but we’ve learned the answers to why we are so in large part from WEIT as much as from anywhere else. This is not to discount other sources such as the great books by Dr. Dawkins, Sam Harris, et al. or, for me personally, watching Christopher Hitchens over and over again on YouTube. But, when you post on religion it is typically in response to something that has happened in the world that requires a rational viewpoint, and from that I’ve learned quite a bit.

    • Posted June 18, 2015 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      I second that. Dr. C was excellent.

  8. Scientifik
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    “She seems to neglect Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and the like”

    And Sarah Haider — another brilliant new voice on the new atheist scene.

  9. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    … his main point was apparently that humans seem to be hardwired for some kind of spiritual experiences…

    …and so teleology sneaks into the assumptions. ‘Hardwired for’ indeed.

    From observation some humans seem to experience feelings which are ‘spiritual’ or ‘transcendent’ – but this may be merely a by-product of some other social instinct, like seeking group identity. As long as it isn’t harmful it won’t be selected against.

    I wonder if the intensity of such experiences follow a Normal distribution? That might support a natural hypothesis.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if Newberg would also agree that, given his criteria, humans are also hardwired for superstition, violence, cheating, and demonizing the opposition. I don’t know. He might.

      The childish “if it’s natural then it must be good” argument is unlikely to come out of anyone who seriously studies human behavior and the brain.

      • bobkillian
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        We seem to be hardwired for wishful thinking.

        • Scientifik
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          Are cult members who commit mass suicides hardwired to kill themselves, or rather manipulated and brainwashed?

      • daniel bertini
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        ThNamed a Top Hospital in Integrative Medicine by Philadelphia magazine, the Center providers see approximately 900 patients a month. The physicians treat adults and children and are able to address common health problems as well as complex medical conditions. In addition to being leaders in conventional medicine, they have expertise in diet and nutritional supplements, micro-nutrient infusions, mind-body interventions, and herbal and homeopathic medicines. The Center staff also includes acupuncturists, nurses, psychologists, mindfulness instructors, body workers, and exercise physiologists, all of whom support the treatment plans constructed by the Center physiciansis is where mr. Newburg works:

        Can you spot the bull shit?

        • Posted June 18, 2015 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          BS MUCH easier to spot than nightjars💩

      • Scientifik
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Soon we will hear about neuro-antisemitism , or neuro-racism, or neuro-tribalism. I have nothing against studying the underlying causes of our behavior, so long as we don’t try to legitimize those behaviors using fancy-sounding sciency names!

  10. Randy Schenck
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    After listening to Newberg for any length of time you get the idea he would find God in a blank piece of paper. Just strikes me as a religion person looking for more religion.

    If the serious question of why do so many people become religious is to be answered it seems likely that indoctrination from birth would be looked at. Just scanning a lot of adult brains seems an odd way to go.

  11. Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Great interview. God just got the smackdown his non-existence has been begging for.

  12. CJ
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Well done Jerry!

    Of all the Horsemen, i think your methods are the most foolproof of them all. And you’re just as quick-witted as any of the others… although no one’s wit is as entertaining as Hitchens’.

    FvF is a classic.


    • Frank
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      I just finished FvF. Many of the arguments will be very familiar to visitors of the WEIT site, but it is SO nice to have so many of the relevant issues addressed cogently and thoroughly in one place.
      If I had a nickel for every student who has told me, “I see no conflict at all between science and religion” (further probing on my part always reveals that they haven’t even considered the most important issues), I could gather up all those nickels and buy these folks their own copies of FvF.

  13. Quiscalus
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Neurotheology? More like rectaltheology. So desperate to shore up their precious belifs against the tides of reason and logic, they have to invent new terms for the same old crap!

    • Scientifik
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Aside from the horrible name for study of beliefs in gods, devils, and other superstitions, this whole endeavor strikes me highly dubious. Does Andrew Newberg want to tell me that when someone is coming to conclusion to leave his or her faith, that person’s brain somehow morphs to an atheistic brain?

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Pamela Klassen especially annoyed me. I think partly it’s because she’s a woman and she isn’t making it easier for other women when she appears so obviously clueless. Also, she seemed like she had a huge chip on her shoulder, which also doesn’t help other women.

  15. Mike65
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    On the subject of scientists who claim there’s no conflict between science & religion.

    It amazes me to hear and read otherwise intelligent people claiming this.

    Of course there’s a conflict between science and religion (notice I say between science and religion, not gods).
    If your religion makes claims about a deity interfering with nature – stirring the particles in some way, i.e, immaculate conception, answered prayers, miracles, rising from the dead, and an origin story, these are claims about occurrences within nature. Science is the study of nature. Whenever religions make these sorts of claims, they’re stepping on the toes of science. Especially so if they makes these claims as ‘certainties’, and not just admitted opinions based on blind faith.

    The subject of god(s) is a separate question. When you start claiming to know things about this deity, you’re making scientific claims, because there would be no other way of basing this proclaimed knowledge.

  16. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    You were excellent Jerry.

    I thought Newburg spent the first five minutes speaking a load of incoherent rubbish, then settled down to be simply unconvincing. At one point I could hear Reza Aslan, down to the way he phrases things.

    There were some interesting comments from the man in the third interview, but not so much from the woman, although they both did an good job.

    As for Atheism+, it hasn’t gone anywhere because it’s too extreme and prescriptive. Imo they’re US college snowflakes from the extreme left who happen to be atheists. If there are any in colleges, they probably go around with Trigger Warning signs around their necks so the religious won’t be shocked by their views. They treat any atheist who doesn’t share their views appallingly. They have a page of atheist Twitter handles they oppose, where transgressors are divided into three categories depending on how bad they judge you, and it’s very easy to be condemned.

  17. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    It is no surprise that someone from the University of Toronto would go to the white males argument. If you want to try and give a talk there that doesn’t agree with feminist thought you can except to protested and shouted out.
    Those ‘New Atheists’ aren’t there because thy are white males but because they have significant work behind them.
    In fact Ayan Hirsi Ali was the nominal replacement for Hitch although that 4 horseman thing has faded now.
    Atheism+ went nowhere because they almost immediately went to you are with us or against us and if you are not with us you are a wrong kind of atheist.
    Many of have been around thinking and fighting for progressive issues long before these blow ins decided to mould what ‘should’ be. Then they consumed their own, as they do.

    If others want to take a lead, they have to do the work.

  18. Posted June 17, 2015 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Neurotheology. LOL

  19. Posted June 17, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    What the Andrew Newberg segment told me was that religious people’s brains might be more *susceptible* to bogus things like religion.

    (Btw, ‘credulity’ is such a polite/swanky word for gullibility. 😉 )

    • Posted June 18, 2015 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I wish Paikin had invited Sam Harris instead. Anyway, I found this 2011 paper by Aaron Burgess which talks about separate research projects done by Newberg and Harris:
      “What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Religious Consciousness? A Complex Adaptive Systems Framework for Understanding the Religious Brain ”

      I couldn’t understand the abstract, haven’t finished reading the thing and am hoping someone out there can comment on it.

      • Aaron Burgess
        Posted June 30, 2015 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        If you have questions about the paper please email me. I’d love to talk about the issue.

        Aaron Burgess

    • Posted June 18, 2015 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      +1 credulity vs gullibility:-)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        Credulous always sounds like a good thing but it’s a bad thing. It’s the opposite of sufferage which seems terrible but it’s good.

  20. Bob
    Posted July 5, 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Another home run hit by PCC!

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