Pharyngula

The Ruse-Dennett feud

You may have heard that Michael Ruse has been caught out of school, sharing a private spat between himself and Daniel Dennett with the William Dembski. This isn’t too terribly surprising—Ruse’s reputation has been spiralling downwards rather rapidly, what with all his sucking up to the Intelligent Design crowd in recent years, and I’m half-expecting any day now to hear that he’s become a creationist. In his waning years he’ll be able to replace the legitimate respect of scientists, which he’s been working hard to flush down the sewer, with the fawning and lucrative love of creationists.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Dennett, and I don’t think I even own a copy of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea any more. While I disagree vigorously with many of his ideas about evolution, I think he comes off better in this exchange than Ruse, who spends a lot of time whining about those damned mean atheists.
Jason hits exactly the right note in responding to that, I think.

Now, I happen to share Dennett’s and Dawkins’ contemptuos attitude towards Christianity, but that’s not the part I want to comment on. Rather, 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.

When I encounter people like Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris I say simply that they are right about the science but wrong about the metaphysical stuff. Why can’t religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

Bravo. Ruse is echoing a common tendency, the habit of trying to hide away the atheists on the side of evolution—it’s also represented by that common adjective, “strident”. You can’t be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called “strident”, “dogmatic”, and “fundamentalist” over and over again, as well as being told, in more or less these words, to sit down and shut up and quit scaring away the rubes…while every scientist who makes room in his head for a little credulity towards ancient myths is treated as a special gift to the cause of reason. It’s extraordinarily irritating. Can we get a little consistency, please?

We need more atheists speaking out—that’s how we’re going to get people used to the fact that we exist. The fact that we are content to work with the religious, while many of the religious will not reciprocate that tolerance and even some of our fellow scientists want to hide us away, is a good example of who is holding the moral high ground here, and Ruse’s condemnation is yet another reason why I don’t hold much respect for the guy.

Comments

  1. #1 Socialist Swine
    February 23, 2006

    PZ,

    I actually think that you’re a little harsh towards Ruse. While I don’t particularly agree with him. I think he’s just operating under the mistaken belief that it’s actually possible to reason with the ID/creationism crowd. I think that he’s advocating a more “lets try to reason with them rather than call them names” approach. I would suggest that Ruse is just reacting to the kind of rancour you find from people like Dawkins, rather than trying to hide us atheists in the closet. Though I must admit I don’t know the guy, this is just the sense I get from reading his stuff and hearing him talk about the issue.

  2. #2 Dr. Spinoza
    February 23, 2006

    Two things about this affair stand out: the first is that Ruse acted irresponsibly in putting this private correspondence into the public domain (and into the hands of Dembski, no less!). The second is that he’s right about how to take on the evolution/creation debacle.

    What I mean by this is that there’s a big difference between the scientific issues and the cultural issues. Scientifically, there’s no serious debate, and we need people like Dawkins and Dennett and Myers saying that loud and clear (rinse and repeat).

    But the cultural issues consists of various ways of responding to the question, “what’s the significane or meaning of the theory of evolution? how does it affect our self-understanding? Is it compatible with the picture of what it means to be moral?” etc.

    These are scientific questions, and they cannot be answered just by appealing to the theory itself. These are philosophical questions, and philosophers have a responsbility to explore them. So it’s not enough just to say that creationism is bad science (or “pseudoscience”). One also must show that evolution doesn’t have the aversive cultural consequences that reactionary pastors and preachers are saying it does.

    Part of the problem concerns the quality of science education, esp. at the high school (and earlier) levels. Science has been, and to a large extent probably still is, taught as a doctrine or dogma which must be accepted without question. And this is antithetical to the whole spirit of scientific practice — but this is largely how it’s done in the high school level. (If I hadn’t already been in love with biology when I got to school, school wouldn’t have cultivated it — and I was in the honors program.)

    If I’m right about the climate of science education, creationism and ID take on the emotional force of resistance to domination and indoctrination. I know it sounds bizarre — it is bizarre! — but that’s my take on what’s happening.

    It doesn’t follow from this, of course, that Ruse is pursuing a more effective strategy than Dennett is; I’m not sure about that. But I think that Ruse has seen the stakes more clearly than Dennett has, and that’s worth something.

  3. #3 Alexander Whiteside
    February 23, 2006

    Good point, Scott. Thinking about it some more, it does seem to be problem on the recieving end rather than the transmitting end.

    When religious people see folk like Dawkins explaining the reality of evolution, then leading a TV show which could’ve been called “Relgion, what the heck’s wrong with you? Seriously”, it turns them off to the former message, even though there’s no sensible reason for them to ignore it. The two ideas are independent even though they come from the same person, and that’s not an intuitive thing for most people.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I agree that it isn’t asking Dawkins to choose one idea and keep quiet about the other.

  4. #4 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    From what I’ve read of both Dawkins and Dennett, they aren’t being “strident” at all, just forthright about their views on religion. Both men are about as polite as can be when I’ve heard them speak on the subject as well. BTW, Dennett was a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio this week discussing his latest book, and was quite pleasant to both the host and those calling in on both sides.

  5. #5 cm
    February 23, 2006

    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.

    That’s right.

    Why can’t religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

    Because they’re religious. And insofar as they are religious they are expected to reject evidence and trigger emotionally off Dawkins’s forthright rejection of religion.

  6. #6 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    Who is screaming in anyone’s face? Surely not Dan Dennett or Richard Dawkins. It’s not like we’re talking about rhetoric akin to the likes of Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh here.

  7. #7 Andy Groves
    February 23, 2006

    You can’t be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called “strident”, “dogmatic”, and “fundamentalist” over and over again, as well as being told, in more or less these words, to sit down and shut up and quit scaring away the rubesůwhile every scientist who makes room in his head for a little credulity towards ancient myths is treated as a special gift to the cause of reason. It’s extraordinarily irritating. Can we get a little consistency, please?

    Bravo. Scientists should shut up talking about atheism and religion. Scientists should take the position that science does not speak to the existence or the non-existence of God and leave it at that every time. Atheism and science are different things. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – there is no point in criticizing people like Philip Johnson for conflating philosophical and methodological naturalism if we do it as well. If you want to sell arms to the enemy, fine. But count me out.

    From a previous post of mine a month or two back:

    There are plenty of people who are happy to incorporate every new scientific discovery (including evolution) into their world view, but nevertheless have faith in a supernatural being. More often than not, that faith is important and comforting to them. Those people may find creationism deeply offensive or embarassing, but they will probably also resent the hell out of Dawkins telling them that they are idiots. If I had that sort of religious faith, I know I would. Dawkins is perfectly entitled to call them idiots, but to claim he has scientific justification for his view is wrong-headed.

  8. #8 David Wilford
    February 23, 2006

    And if you haven’t seen PZ and others screaming about the irrationality of religion here, stick around a while.

    I’ve met PZ in person and he’s quite mild-mannered, actually. But I agree that he can be rather pissy at times online… :-)

    I don’t think that Dawkins or Dennett can be accused of that themselves, however.

  9. #9 Mike
    February 24, 2006

    Dale,

    >Mike: I’m not sure where exactly I misrepresented you.

    Well, you see, I’m a Christian and I had been referring to the open contempt of Dawkins and Dennnett for all Christians, which you indicated you share on the basis of a dystopic world you evidently belief Christians are intent on imposing. Since I’m included, as a Christian, in your contempt (and the ‘Mikey’ didn’t exactly dispel the impression), you’re identifying me with that dystopic world and that is a misrepresentation.

  10. #10 gregonomic
    February 24, 2006

    Ruse is entitled to his opinion, but I like it that Dawkins, PZ, et al., are all up in religion’s grill.

    And at this stage, what do we have to lose? The jury’s been in on evolution for quite a while now, yet the religious still, for the most part, aren’t buying it. Is that our fault? No. The problem is that it’s a message that many religious people simply don’t want to hear.

    We can keep pussyfooting around the issue, but the fact remains: evolution and atheism are very comfortable bed-fellows. If religious people can’t handle that, well … tough.

  11. #11 Dale
    February 25, 2006

    Mike;
    “open contempt of Dawkins and Dennnett for all Christians, which you indicated you share on the basis of a dystopic world you evidently belief Christians are intent on imposing.”

    Well, actually my point-not very well made perhaps-is that there is contempt on both sides, and atheists have been on the pointy end of a lot of christian blame over the years, which might explain some of the contempt coming back at them. “Contempt? Nothing but, Mikey. Nothing but.” is refering not to my contempt, but that directed at me as an atheist. I save my contempt for the Discovery Institute and their ilk-you know, the wedge document folks. Or the guy down the hall at work who insists I can’t be moral because I’m not a christian. Do learn to distinguish between my contempt for folks pushing a particular agenda and my feelings towards folks generally. In fact, if you want to know a bit about how I feel about truly righteous christian folks, you might want to read this:

    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrwizard/la/journal01.html (actualy a toned down version of the praise I gave ‘em in person)

    Now, if you happen to believe that non-christians can’t be moral, or that non-christians aren’t fit to hold public office, or that laws should be enacted to punish non-christian behavior, or that non-christians should be taxed to support churches, then I’ll happily lump you into the group I haven’t got much use for. Otherwise, I’ll count you on the side of the, um, angels. But until then, I’ll thank you to assume I can distinguish between theocrats and otherwise, and that my contempt is not for a person’s faith, but for his actions and stated purposes.

    For entertainment, I suggest you go find a copy of the wedge document and substitute the word “Jew” for atheist, secular humanist and so on. Maybe also “Jewish conspiracy” for materialistic agenda, and “Jew science” for scientism, and so on. The document reads very much like the work of this little Austrian guy with a funny mustache-the target changes, but the charges remain the same. The folks not of our religion are responsible for the downfall of civilization. That is the message-and I have nothing but contempt for the messengers.

  12. #12 scooter
    July 15, 2008

    Dennet has good points, but he reminds me of the last generation of ATHEISTS.

    Booring!!

    That’s what happened to the last five hundred Atheist radio shows cancelled on College radio stations over the last 2 decades

    Booring!!

  13. #13 Sven
    October 2, 2008

    I thought this was supposed to be a science blog. All I ever see is the same ranting that is broadcast on the cable’s public access channel. Pathetic.

  14. Great comment Sven.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.