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'Crazy, Wacko' Rabbi Responds to Biology Professor

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In response to my recent blog, "Why the Universe Obviously Has a Creator (and Why Some Atheists Refuse to Even Consider It)," a biology professor from The University of Chicago, Dr. Jerry Coyne, wrote two blogs on his website, titled: "Wacko Rabbi Tries to pwn Biology and Physics", and "Crazy Rabbi Says that Atheists are Mentally Ill For Not Believing in God."

Now, admittedly, my blog was deliberately provocative, but I was very clear that it was addressed not to all atheists, but only to those who adamantly refuse to even consider the possibility of a Creator and who demean those who do. I wrote that such a stubborn and divisive position seems to be a psychological, not intellectual, issue, but I most certainly did not claim that anyone was "mentally ill." (It's revealing how Coyne implies that anyone who needs therapy is "mentally ill," and he exposes his overt disdain for psychotherapy later in his blog.)

I'd like to publically respond to Dr. Coyne's blogs, not to win or to fight, but to address some of the common misconceptions and stereotypes about religion and faith that his views demonstrate. In this I will be direct and, at times, personal. Being spiritual does not mean that one is always "nice" and gentle; there are times when direct language is needed in order to call harmful things and attitudes as they are.

Below are my responses to excerpts from Coyne's blogs, which are in italics. I also sent this in advance to Dr. Coyne to post on his blog site, if he'd like.

Dr. Coyne writes: Now I'm not going to say that Rabbi Alan Lurie has no business pronouncing on science since he lacks advanced degrees in the field, but his "unique background," as detailed by HuffPo, doesn't give us much confidence that he'll be able to show that all evolutionists and cosmologists are wrong about their trade.

This begins Coyne's approach of writing in absolutes and stereotypes, and using faulty logic. Is he really proposing that ALL evolutionists and cosmologists are atheists? According to the latest Pew study, 51 percent of scientists say that they believe in God, and presumably some of these are evolutionists or cosmologists. It seems that Dr. Coyne assumes that, because I believe in God, I must be a Bible literalist or a strict Creationist who rejects science. But that is one of his many faulty assumptions. If he had read any of my previous blogs he would know how far off the mark that assumption is. Nowhere do I challenge the Big Bang or evolution; in fact, I, like the majority of religious people (again, according to the Pew study) accept both, and I am particularly enthusiastic about both. Secondly, I am not telling them that they are wrong, but just questioning why some -- like Coyne, as we will see -- seem to absolutely refuse to consider a Creator hypothesis in the face of what does seem to be a designed reality. Now, of course, reality may only "seem" to be designed, but why not at least consider that there could be a Designer? I'm not asking anyone to believe this, but only to consider it -- however remotely -- along with other hypotheses. And what does one's background have to do with the validity of their argument?

The fine-tuning argument has become the last weapon in the arsenal of apologists. But although I don't have Marshall McLuhan behind this sign, I do have a smart physicist, Sean Carroll, who, when I sent him Lurie's piece, told me that the good rabbi knows nothing about physics.

Again, Coyne talks in absolutes when he says that I know "nothing" about physics (which I suspect is his opinion, not Mr. Carroll's). I am an architect, and took post-graduate level classes in physics and math. Although challenged by some, Fine Tuning is a well-supported hypothesis, and it is not the "last" argument used by theists; another assertion with no factual support.

... you can be intellectually honest, and take the predictions of your theory seriously. If God made the universe in order to support life on Earth, the skies should be empty. They are not. QED.

QED? First, I never wrote that the only reason for the Universe is to support life on Earth. This is Coyne's child-like vision of religious belief. I assume that the Universe is teeming with very diverse life and holds vast and wonderful mysteries. Second, this is a circular argument that uses the premise, "If I designed the Universe it would look like 'this,' but since it doesn't it must not be designed, or the Designer must be inept." This is, frankly, arrogance and small-mindedness. We know only the tiniest fraction of how the Universe works. The bottom line is that the Universe does exist, that it sustains life, and that we are alive and conscious. The idea of a Creator is not inconsistent with this, no matter how many "flaws" one may find.

Clearly designed? Maybe to Lurie! The rest of us are working on how the hereditary material and the brain evolved. Lurie's creationist explanation would have us stop all this work and just fob it off on Yahweh. ... God is simply a science-stopper, an appeal to ignorance. And, of course, there's not a shred of evidence for Lurie's God, but plenty of evidence for natural selection.

The flat, and completely unsupported, claim that to believe in God is to stop the scientific search is another black and white indulgence that is factually not true (as I addressed earlier) and again logically inconsistent. Where's the connection? Does recognizing that an engineer designed a car dissuade us from understanding how it works? Believing that the Universe is consciously designed actually spurs more curiosity to scientific exploration. Some of the greatest scientists were mystics and deep believers in a Creator: Copernicus, Maimonides, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Mendel, Einstein and Planck, just to name some giants. The idea that faith ends science is an either/or choice that is a fundamentalist position, as are many assertions in Coyne's blog, like his unfounded stereotypes, his calling one he disagrees with "wacko" and "crazy," and his belief that his way is the ONLY way to know anything. (And I'm not sure if the frequent sarcastic reference to "Yahweh" was meant to offend and provoke, but it also shows Coyne's literalistic views, by assuming that I must believe in one specific super-being with a specific name, and that I'd be offended if this name is "used in vain." Please!) As far as the issue of evidence, I often wonder what type of evidence would be deemed adequate. Please see my last blog, "Who Created God?" for further discussion of this issue.

What is striking here is Lurie's arrogance -- as if he knows what God is like, and anybody who thinks He's different from that is immature. Really, Rabbi, who gave you a pipeline to the divine?

First of all, this is logically inconsistent. If Coyne does not believe in the Divine, how can a pipeline exist? Second, there are in fact immature and mature levels of spirituality, just as there are for emotions and intellect. To conceive of God, the Creator and Sustainer of Everything, as only a physical being that is fully described in a human document and that exists completely outside ourselves is in fact immature -- like a child thinking that electrons are little spinning balls. Those who have directly experienced a hint of the spiritual realm (which is all we can glimpse) across many traditions share remarkably similar understandings. I've seen this in numerous interfaith dialogues and by writers from around the world across thousands of years.

I'll thank god when a stack of thousand-dollar bills drops from the heavens into my lap.

The willingness to saying "thank you" only when one gets what one wants is not gratitude, but greed. And notice Coyne's magical thinking. Again, no mature believer carries such a childish wish. Jewish prayers are not for personal material wealth, but for the health of others, and for peace. (And prayer does not mean inaction. Quite the contrary. Prayer requires and leads to positive action.)

And talk about ridicule! Prescribing psychoanalysis -- a technique resembling religion since it's based on wish-thinking rather than evidence, has its own bearded God, and is unable to discover truth -- for atheists? Really? Who is being strident here?

It's truly shocking that one can rally behind writers who call believers "delusional" (by definition, needing therapy), label parents who teach children about God "child abusers" that should be punished, call for an end to religion -- even violently if necessary -- and think, like Coyne, that anyone who believes in God must be anti-science (i.e., stupid/ignorant), yet when I suggest that someone who adamantly refuses to even consider the hypothesis of a Designer in the face of what certainly appears to be deliberate design is in need of psychological help, the same person is offended. It is cowardly to throw a punch and then whine when hit back. Plus, note Coyne's blanket dismissal of psychoanalysis and Freud, ignoring the shelves of evidence that psychoanalysis works.

Finally, again Coyne's vision of a "bearded God" tells us of his literalistic view. I personally do not know a single believer (over the age of 5) who thinks of God in such childish terms. If that's how Coyne thinks that all believers experience God -- and that this is the ONLY way to conceive of God -- then no wonder he cannot see that science and faith are partners. As his blog clearly demonstrates, though, this is his limitation, not religion's or faith's.