Jerry Coyne at BHA 2016—Part 1: YES!

In February Jerry Coyne delivered the British Humanist Association’s annual Darwin Day Lecture in London. For those unfamiliar, Coyne is an evolutionary biologist, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, and the author of Why Evolution is True (which I have read) and Faith vs Fact (which I have not). He is a fierce critic of creationism and a fiery proponent of atheism; he blogs prolifically about these and other topics at Why Evolution Is True.

I genuinely like Jerry Coyne. He comes across as knowledgeable and affable, the kind of person I’d really enjoy sitting next to at a dinner party. Of course that doesn’t mean I agree with him all of the time, and in fact his annoying propensity to shit all over straw feminists is fucking exasperating (more on that in Part 2), as is his comical obliviousness to his own privilege (more on that later too).

But hey, nobody’s perfect. We can all decide for ourselves who we will expose ourselves to, on which topic(s) and under what circumstances. For example, Richard Dawkins is dead to me, barring his (highly unlikely) resurrection into a state of semi-self-awareness minimally capable of basic human decency and rationality. On the other hand, when a good friend recommends Jerry Coyne’s Darwin Day Lecture to me, I might be inclined to put on my (metaphorical) biohazard suit so as not to get splattered with (metaphorical) shit, and check it out. Those with less privilege are always making such calls: suit up and wade into the muck, or maybe sit this one out. Otherwise we would consistently miss out on some interesting and useful knowledge, and worse, we would hardly ever go to any dinner parties at all.

I get the Spidey-Sense that anyone reading this who is in some marginalized group(s)—i.e., not white, male, straight, cis-, able, etc.—is nodding along with me, because microaggressions are A Thing to which those privileged along these axes tend to remain haplessly oblivious. So I completely respect your making a different call about paying any attention whatsoever to Coyne (or Dawkins or anyone else).

But I found (some of) Coyne’s lecture, entitled Evolution and atheism: best friends forever?, fascinating. Moreover, he provides support for my point in this post, namely that:

there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that a robust welfare state (especially quality universal single-payer health care) decreases religiosity, while economic insecurity (with respect to wages, housing, food, etc.) increases it. See, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s book “Society Without God.” Fiscal conservatism in the form of [American Atheists president] Dave Silverman’s “small government, low taxes, a free market” is entirely antithetical to taking the path most likely to get us to the very outcome he seeks: the death of religion.

I transcribed portions of Coyne’s lecture because I think readers may be genuinely infotained by it, but mainly because I’d like to have an easy link to it in order to help shut down the font of incoherent nonsense that is conservative movement atheism. In case it helps you decide whether to continue reading: I do not allow Coyne’s aforementioned (metaphorical) poo flinging in these portions of the transcript to stand unrebutted, and in any case no poo is flung in Part 1.


(especially Part 2.)

The first part of Coyne’s presentation Evolution and atheism: best friends forever? mainly details the overwhelming evidence that there is a very strong correlation between religiosity and rejecting evolution. No surprises there. He then proceeds to make the case that religiosity is also very strongly correlated with dysfunctional societies.

@25:56: Coyne puts up a slide entitled “Belief in God highly correlated with social dysfunction in 17 first-world nations.”


This screen capture is not very clear—I dug up the graph he presents from the original research paper:


The graph plots each country’s percentage of absolute believers in god on the x-axis and its Successful Societies Scale* score on the y-axis. The US is an outlier among these nations, scoring the highest on this measure of religiosity and lowest on societal functioning—by far. Here’s the key to the letters on the graph:

W = Sweden
J = Japan
D = Denmark
F = France
G = Germany
E = Great Britain
N = Norway
H = Holland
A = Australia
Z = New Zealand
C = Canada
S = Spain
L = Switzerland
R = Austria
= Italy
I = Ireland
U = United States


So here’s a graph of seventeen first world countries in which their religiosity, and I’ll show you, Britain is on this slide, on the x axis is a plot of percentage of people who believe in god, on the y axis the Successful Society Scale, which runs from 0, unsuccessful dysfunctional societies, to 10, very functional societies. And that’s a sociological methodology which incorporates things like incarceration, teenage pregnancies, child mortality, corruption, whether or not you have free medical care, and so on and so on. And you can see that the most successful societies are the least religious…and the most religious societies are the the least successful.

Coyne then adds a steep diagonal line to the slide, and highlights the US position (bottom right) and the UK’s (toward the top left).

That’s the plot of the graph. There’s the United States [audience laughter]. Not so good, right? Everybody asks, why is the US so religious? And the answer is, because the US is so dysfunctional. We don’t have national health, we have high income inequality, we have high rates of child mortality and teenage pregnancies, and all the factors that make our society dysfunctional. So you can take some pride, and that’s being England right there, where about 25-30% absolutely believe in god. More believe in god, but only 30% absolutely believe in god.

Why do we have this correlation? Could it be that societies that have a higher belief in god are those that tend to be more dysfunctional? That is, if you’re a religious society, for some reason that makes your society bad? I don’t believe that, because I can’t really see an inherent reason for that to be true.

The other explanation, if these two factors are the only things at play here, is that, is Karl Marx’s explanation. That is, if you have a successful society where people feel taken care of, where they get meals when they’re old, where they have free medical care, when you don’t have half of their population in prison, they don’t need a god.

And we have independent sociological evidence for that which I can talk about if we get to the question period, that indeed, that is the correct explanation. When Marx said that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the opium of the people, that’s exactly what he was referring to. That religion is what you hold onto when your society is not giving you what you want.

If we plotted the sub-Saharan African countries and the Middle Eastern countries this graph would be even more strongly tilted downwards. Down here [points to lower right], we’d have all those countries here, high belief in god and high social dysfunction.

This is where the humanism comes in as I’ll talk about later. So again, if we want to teach evolution or if we want everyone to accept evolution, we need to get rid of religion in general. How do we get rid of religion in general? We can write books like The God Delusion, but we can also make societies better in a way where religion will go away. And this is what I think has happened in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, which absolutely proves that you don’t need god to have a good, moral, well-functioning society.

Muy interesante, amigos. No?

Later [1:08:48]:

What are the two things I would I do to make the world more accepting of evolution? My answer would be universal healthcare, and get rid of income inequality. Because when you do that, you change society in such a way that religion becomes less needed by people. And when religion becomes less necessary for people because their societies are more functional, then they don’t need to believe in [creationism] anymore.

So we’ve gone full circle now. If you can promote social change in a way that causes equality, gives people a feeling of security, gives them a feeling that they’re being taken care of by their fellow humans instead of by some deity which by and large seems to ignore them, then they don’t need religion anymore. When that goes away—and this is a very roundabout way, it will take a long time—then people will accept evolution. But not until that happens. And so…the way to get people to accept evolution, ultimately, is to promote the values of humanism.

And that’s the end.

Well done, sir!

One of the things that strikes me is whether “absolute belief in god” is a useful proxy for conservatism. Anecdotally, I can say that liberal Christians, Muslims and Jews I have known tend to eschew this kind of absolutism, and not just with respect to their religious beliefs but in other areas as well. Indeed, an obvious (and well documented) hallmark of the conservative mind is a very low tolerance for ambiguity and cognitive dissonance, along with the corresponding need for epistemic closure. This naturally results in the conservative’s characteristically simplistic and binary thinking, frequently untethered to anything remotely resembling reality, when faced with complex, real-world problems. What should we do about immigration? “Build a yuuuuuuge wall along our Southern border! And we’ll make Mexico pay for it!” Never mind that most immigrants arrive in the country legally and simply overstay their visas—or that if this wall is, say, 20 feet high, the Mexican manufacturing sector will immediately reach full employment mass-producing 21 foot ladders. Or consider the equally absurd conservative notion that making abortion illegal will end it. Hahaha no.

If I’m right about absolute belief in god as a proxy for conservatism, the good news is that the cure for religiosity is also the cure for conservatism: a robust welfare state. The bad news is that we’re stuck in a Catch-22: the country’s two major parties are already so far down the right-wing rabbit hole it’s become a self-perpetuating cycle. Economic inequality has been soaring for decades under both Democratic and Republican governments—hell, our Democratic president has long been on board with cutting Social Security benefits. Thus the more we see conservative economic policies enacted (“small government, low taxes, a free market”), the more income inequality and financial distress will inevitably increase, and the more conservative (and religious) people will become. This dynamic would seem to explain, at least partially, the observation that perpetually baffles liberals: conservatives voting “against their own interests.” And much of the rest of that explanation likely springs from structural racism and sexism, which are also self-perpetuating.

Just my $0.02.

Alas, it turns out that’s not the end—Coyne isn’t quite finished. And this is where things take a turn for the worse.

Suit up, and stay tuned for Part 2.

[h/t SJ]


*The Successful Societies Scale assigns values to the following factors: “homicide, incarceration, juvenile mortality, lifespan, adolescent and all age gonorrhea and syphilis infections, adolescent abortion, adolescent births, youth and all age suicide, fertility, marriage, marriage duration, divorce, life satisfaction, alcohol consumption, corruption, income, income disparity, poverty, employment, work hours and resource exploitation base.” A more detailed discussion of these measures and data sources can be found in the cited paper beginning at p. 402.

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