It all started when Pat Hayes, of Red State Rabble, posted this blog entry describing a recent talk given by Ken Miller at the University of Kansas. Miller, you will recall, is the author of Finding Darwin’s God. The first half of this book is brilliant in explaining some of the evidence for evolution, and explaining why the major arguments made by creationists and ID folks are wrong. Sadly, in the second half of the book Miller makes an argument defending the compatibility of Christian faith and science. Personally, I found his argument so weak and easily refuted that I found myself wondering if maybe the fundamentalists were right to see evolution as a threat to their faith. Myers himself summed up the book perfectly in this post:
Personally, I find it a strange book: pages 1-164 are excellent, among the best and plainest and most direct critiques of Intelligent Design creationism you’ll find; pages 165-292, eh, not so much. It’s like mild-mannered, sensible Dr Miller wrote the first half, then he drank the potion that turned him into the wartily odious Mr Theologian, with his temporal lobe unshackled and the mystical caudate nucleus unleashed, and we get page after page of unearthly prolix rationalizations for superstition. Oh, well…165 pages of first rate biology makes the book worth buying, and you can always read the rest as an exercise in facing down religious apologists.
But that’s not what started the dust-up. Myers took offense at this statement, quoted in Hayes’ blog entry:
“Creationists,” biologist Ken Miller, told a large, receptive audience at the University of Kansas last night, “are shooting at the wrong target.”
If that account is accurate (I trust Pat Hayes to be accurate, and I also have independent confirmation*), then that was a shot at the majority of biologists, and a declaration of common cause with creationists. They are “shooting at the wrong target,” but who is the right target? Why, those humanists, people like Richard Dawkins and anyone who challenges the role of religion. Go get ’em, Kansans! Hound those wicked atheists–they aren’t the real scientists, after all. Real scientists believe in God and spirits and magic and etheric essences infused into souls by a phantasmal hominid, just like you do.
Exactly right and well said. If only Myers had stopped there.
The trouble is the above statement appeared in a blog entry entitled “Ken Miller, creationist.” That is simply an abuse of language. The term “creationist” should be reserved for people who oppose the theory of evolution for religious reasons, and who make scientific arguments so ignorant that you reasonably wonder about their motives for making them. In the fight against creationism it is hard to imagine a better ally then Miller. Through his writing, his willingness to serve as an expert witness for the good guys in court cases (without any financial reward for doing so), and his excellent performances in public debates on this subject, he has done enormous good for the cause of good science education. For that, I, for one, will be eternally grateful.
But that’s not the end of the story. In a subsequent blog entry, linked to above, Myers drew a distinction between big C and small c creationism:
There is a distinction to be made between small “c” creationists who believe in a creator god, and big “C” Creationists who wage a culture war against good science. Miller may be a believer in a creator god, but he’s a staunch opponent of the Creationists–despite disagreement on matters philosophical, I should be clear in saying that he is on our side.
An important clarification, though it was still a mistake to use the term “creationist” the way he did.
I fault Myers for two things. The first is simply that his writing is often a bit too venomous for my taste. Some of his remarks about Miller were, indeed, overwrought. The second, and more important point, is that I think that at times he is not sufficiently clear that there are two separate battles going on. One is the fight against the creationist assault on good science education. In that fight people like Ken Miller (and Joan Roughgarden and Francis Collins and countless other religious scientists) are welcome allies. The other fight is against religious irrationality and superstition generally. That fight is also important, and it is one in which Miller et al are opponents.
It is because of this second fight, however, that whatever faults I find in Myers pale in comparison to the faults I find in his critics. You see, on the merits of monotheistic religion I am firmly in the same camp as Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Myers. I regard all of the major monotheistic religions as foolish and delusional. I believe that religious belief deserves all the contempt it generally gets among thoughtful people. I think it is important to rebut flabby and incorrect apologetic arguments whether they come from fundamentalists or from moderates. I believe that atheism is the position best justified by the facts of nature as we currently understand them, and I believe that the Christian conception of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God is decisively refuted by those same facts. Finally, I believe that people who are content to throw up their hands and say it’s all just a matter of faith, or that such arguments are tiresome and unresolvable, are simply being intellectually lazy.
And that brings me to Ed Brayton.
I’m a big fan of Ed’s blog. It is one of the few I make a point of checking on a daily basis. He has posted two entries on this subject: the first one here and the second one here. It is unusual for me to disagree with Ed, but he gets a lot wrong in these two entries.
First he takes issue with the statement from Myers that I quoted previously – the one I described as exactly right and well said. Brayton demurs:
But this is a rather obvious misrepresentation of Miller’s argument. Yes, it’s true that the majority of biologists are atheists, according to surveys of the field, but while Miller would disagree with them, his statement that their atheism amounts to “non-scientific philosophical interpretations” is hardly a “shot at biologists.” I have no doubt that he would label the theistic inferences that he draws from science also as non-scientific and philosophical rather than scientific.
Sorry, but Myers is right and Brayton is wrong.
According to the account given by Hayes, Miller did not say simply that conclusions about God are non-scientific and philosophical. He also informed his audience that creationists are “shooting at the wrong target.” The clear implication is that there is a correct target to be shooting at, and it is clear from the rest of Miller’s remarks that that target comprises atheists and humanists. His further implication is that the energy creationists currently devote to science education would be better directed towards fighting against people like Dawkins. When you add to the mix that atheists are already a despised minority, and that this speech was given in Kansas, such sentiments represent a serious chumming of the waters. Myers was right to be offended by that remark, and Brayton is wrong to gloss over it.
Now, it is possible that Miller was simply careless with his choice of words. In this blog entry Myers describes his conclusions from an e-mail correspondence he carried on with Miller:
Miller is not trying to redirect creationists to fight atheists, and he’s very clear that all of us need to stand together in our opposition to bad science (I also agree the religious and the non-religious should be united on this issue.) Krebs mentions that this was a new section of his talk, so I suspect this is one where he’ll be reworking some of the wording. I hope.
I’m sure this is right, and I trust that Miller will be more careful about his phrasing in the future. The fact remains, however, that Myers was right to criticize him for his remarks in Kansas.
Ed natters on for many more paragraphs in this regard, praising Miller for his calm and careful separation of the scientific from the philosophical, and lambasting Myers for his strongly worded response. There is much to reply to here, but I’m more interested in Ed’s second post. Where he says things like this:
Over the course of a few years, I met several people who, merely by virtue of knowing them (not because they ever tried to convince me of it), changed my views and helped me grow up and out of that stage in my life. Henry Neufeld, who comments here once in a while, was one of them. He was one of the first Christians I encountered who was not a fundamentalist (broadly defined, which I know is not entirely accurate). I remember we would have these conversations where I would pull out my handy dandy list of Biblical contradictions or falsehoods, pick one and throw it out there as a gauntlet. And Henry wouldn’t pick it up, he’d say something like, “Yep, you’re right. The guy who wrote that got it wrong.” And it would initially leave me a bit taken aback.
You see, I knew how this argument went. I’d had them before, and I had it all planned out in my head. You’re not supposed to say that, I’d think. You’re supposed to come up with some fanciful explanation to rationalize it away, and then I tell you how absurd that is and how you’re engaging in special pleading to insulate your faiith from rational argument, and then you’ll tell me that I need Jesus, and I’ll tell you that it’s ridiculous to believe in invisible leprauchans, and then you’ll tell me that you’re praying for me, and then finally I’ll tell you that you’re an idiot. And damn it, you’re deviating from the script in my head.
This comes after an introduction in which Ed describes his history as an obnoxious atheist who thought all theists were stupid.
If you point out to a Christian that the Bible is full of errors and inconsistencies, and he concedes the point, you don’t respond by being impressed by his moderation and reasonableness. Instead, you ask him why, in the face of all those errors, he persists in believing the Bible is the word of God. You ask him for the basis on which he decides which parts of the Bible are accurate and which can be discarded. You ask him if the story about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was another of those instances where the guy who wrote it got it wrong.
Ed’s statement is precisely the sort of flabbiness I had in mind when talking about intellectual laziness previously. It is precisely the attitude I was arguing against in last Friday’s post. There is a commonly held myth that you have dumbass fundamentalists on the one hand, and more sensible Christians on the other. That attitude is well represented by Ed’s comments here, but it is a fantasy. The fact is when you examine the arguments made by people like Miller, or Francis Collins, or Joan Roughgarden to defend their more moderate faith, you quickly find that they make little sense. And the very fact that they raise them really does provide cover for the fundamentalists. It is perfectly reasonable for Myers, Dawkins and others to point that out.
It is not that there is the crazy sort of faith on the one hand and the sensible sort of faith on the other. All monotheistic religious faith is equally irrational and equally deserving of criticism. The important distinction is simply between those whose faith leads them to violence, and those who are content to live with differences of opinion.
Another example of flab was this statement:
The fact that I do not accept Christianity does not mean that I must think that all Christians are deluding themselves.
For some reason I’m reminded of Stephen Colbert saying, “I know the Pope is infallible but that doesn’t mean he can’t make mistakes.” It takes a pretty imaginative notion of what it means to “accept Christianity” for this remark to make sense.
Most of the remainder of the post is about the perils of drawing lines in the wrong places:
But you know what? Here is the absolutely key point, so I’m going to put it in bold so no one misses it:In every one of those circumstances, standing by my side in those battles will also be a good many Christians. I work with them everyday in the battle to protect science education and, in many cases, I could only dream of contributing as much as they have in that regard. There will be Christians and Jews and probably people from every other religion standing shoulder to shoulder with me next to our gay brothers and sisters, marching for equality. And they will stand with me in opposing the imposition of authoritarian laws as well.
Soaring rhetoric, but none of this is really at issue. It’s not as if Myers or anyone else is suggesting that Christians should not be allowed to join the fight for good science education. No one said we shouldn’t let Miller testify for our side since he is a Christian.
But atheists are routinely admonished to keep their views to themselves out of fear that potential religious allies will be scared away. When Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett point out that evolution kills the biological argument from design, thereby removing the strongest argument ever devised for the existence of God, they are lectured about non-scientific inferences and philosophical speculation. But when Ken Miller and John Polkinghorne argue that evolution has deepened thier Christian faith they don’t receive similar lectures. It’s not atheists who are drawing lines in the sand, or declaring certain viewpoints unwelcome in the fight for quality science education.
People like Myers and Dawkins point to specific arguments made by religious people and bluntly explain why those arguments are wrong. Meanwhile, according to a recent poll, sixty-three percent of Americans categorically refuse to vote for an atheist for public office. And Ed thinks it’s atheists who are engaging in tribalism?
There’s plenty more to say, as usual, but this entry has gone on long enough. I’ll simply close by pointing out that Myers does not merely hurl invective at religious people. He responds, usually with great cogency and eloquence, to the arguments they make. While it’s common and lazy to find people objecting to his tone, you rarely find people responding to his arguments. I’ll close by directing you to to this entry, in which Myers provides very convincing refutations to some of Miller’s arguments. I especially liked this:
I think he’s missing what should be the ultimate goal: getting people to recognize atheists as normal human beings, and making it clear that it is not OK to treat them as the amoral degenerates you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry. What we should be doing is saying, “Yes, many biologists are atheists (as are many non-biologists), they have different ideas than you do, but they aren’t threatening you, so get used to them.” Instead, it’s singling atheists out as the reprehensible Other, held to account for creationists’ dislike of evolution. If the source of the problem is widely held bigotry against atheists and atheism, shouldn’t we be trying to educate people to end that, rather than pandering to it?
The idea is hopelessly naive. As Miller pointed out, many scientists already are real, live, active Christians, and many of them have been very influential. Mendel, Dobzhansky, Ayala, Miller himself…it’s been a tactic by the NCSE and others to actively promote these Christian biologists as role models, and heck, even I hand out Miller’s book to students who are struggling with the issues. Does it work? No. Does anyone say, “Well, the evolution by Dawkins and Mayr is bad, but the evolution by Conway Morris and Ayala is good”? The whole premise that the complaint is solely with the atheism of many of the proponents rather than with the implications and evidence of evolution itself is ludicrous. Is it only atheists who oppose the idea of a worldwide flood and promote the descent of humans from other primates? Shouldn’t Miller be aware that even his tame version of Catholicism is seen as a damnable hellbound doctrine by many creationists?
Keep up the good work, P.Z!