PZ and Jason Rosenhouse are blogging about this testy email exchange between two of evolution’s top defenders, Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett. I don’t fully grasp how or why these emails got out–it doesn’t seem like something that should have happened (although frankly, they’re not actually all that salacious anyway). But I would like to wade through a few of the issues they raise.
PZ and Rosenhouse have an interesting reaction to one argument by Michael Ruse that I find fairly persuasive (although it’s stated rather hyperbolically here): that Dennett and Richard Dawkins are “absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design…we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.” Here’s how Rosenhouse reacts:
I want to challenge this idea that the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.
This assertion is frequently made but it is never backed up with anything. Is it really true that the strident atheism of people like Dennett and Dawkins negatively influences the way people look at evolution? If that’s true, it certainly paints a bleak picture of many religious people. If I argued that I would be symapthetic to evolution, except that I see people like Ken Miller, John Haught and Simon Conway Morris drawing theistic conclusions from it, I don’t think Ruse would show me much respect. After all, evolution should sink or swim on the basis of the relevant evidence. If that evidence is strong, it should not matter what Dawkins or Dennett (or Haught or Miller or Morris) thinks.
Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It’s saying that those people can’t be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.
First, let’s tackle the assertion that there’s no evidence that attacking religion hurts the pro-evolution cause. Hmm…let’s just say that Rosenhouse is perhaps not thinking creatively enough. Maybe such evidence does exist, but there are good reasons for keeping it out of the public arena, no? Or, maybe such evidence doesn’t exist but that’s because it isn’t needed–i.e., it’s obvious that attacking religion is divisive and not helpful to the cause of promoting the teaching of evolution.
More interesting is the second argument here: Those who claim that attacks on religion undermine science education are demeaning the intelligence of religious folk, says Rosenhouse, by suggesting they can’t look dispassionately at scientific evidence when their faith is under fire. Not exactly: If anything, we’re demeaning the intelligence of everyone, whether religious or otherwise. What we’re saying is that people rarely make up their minds solely on the basis of evidence; all sorts of subtle cues, prejudices, and societal factors condition their responses to political issues (an assertion, by the way, which is backed by loads of evidence).
In this situation, one of the strongest societal cues we have to deal with–a cue coming out of countless churches–is the contention that evolution kills God, therefore evolution can’t be right. I don’t care if it’s rational or not, it’s strongly believed. If people are told they must choose between evolution and their faith, guess which one is going to get pitched in the garbage?
That’s the real hurdle here, and that’s precisely what Dawkins and Dennett don’t help us to overcome.