Pharyngula

More on that Miller guy

I’ve now listened to a recording of Miller’s talk in Kansas. I like it even less.

Miller is an excellent speaker. He’s persuasive, he’s clear, he knows his science well, and he was an impressive participant in the conflict at Dover…and he was on the correct side. Here’s the problem: he’s wrong now.

What he does is an insightful and lucid analysis of the problems with creationism, and then tries to wrap it up by identifying the source of the problem. Unfortunately, he places the blame in the laps of atheists, which is simply absurd. We’ve got fundamentalists straining to insert religious nonsense in the school curricula, and Miller’s response is turn around and put the fault on those godless secular people who have antagonized good Christian folk, giving them perfectly reasonable cause to fear for their immortal souls. How dare we? It’s only understandable that Kansans would object to godless interpretations of science!

There are so many ways in which this is wrong:

  • There is a reasonable case to be made that creationism is a response to modern (in the sense that they’re less than two centuries old) ideas that threaten traditional beliefs. I’ve made the case myself that what court cases from Scopes to Dover have done is alienated ordinary people by highlighting the failings of strongly held myths. However, who needs to change here? These new ideas are a response to new evidence and new and better frameworks for understanding the world; Miller is making an appeal to the old by blaming the vanguard of the new, and legitimizing creationist biases against those who don’t share their religion.

  • His strategy involves simply throwing a rather large subset of the evolutionary biology community to the wolves; not literally, of course, but let’s redirect the political pressure they’re using to silence evolution to silencing atheists. This is pure demagoguery. Pick a group you know your audience dislikes, put the blame on them, and let the scapegoating begin. And don’t even try to pretend he’s trying to encourage an honest dialog: is that what we get in the debates over evolution with these people?

  • 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?

  • One of the implications of evolutionary biology is that it is a cruel and wasteful and undirected process (and if you think otherwise, trot out the evidence. The Intelligent Design creationists sure are anxious to claim a directing force, and for all their bluster, they’ve failed to support it…as Miller knows full well.) I don’t think we are well-served by trying to hide the inescapable conclusions of the evidence; we’re better off facing the truth and building our lives around the facts. Miller finds his reason to get up in the morning in imagining a little god-shaped bundle of love hiding somewhere out of sight, and belittles Dawkins by wondering how he can get out of bed in the morning without that delusion. I am much more respectful of Dawkins’ views, embracing ‘mere’ reality, and working towards a hopeful vision of the future in our humanity rather than a myth’s whims.

  • To those who disagree with my calling Miller a creationist: tough. I’ve read his book, I’ve listened to several of his talks. He believes that evolution is insufficient to explain our existence, and has to postulate a mysterious intelligent entity that just happens to be the Christian god as an active agent in our history, and further, he believes he can make common cause with more overt creationists by highlighting his religious beliefs. Theistic evolutionists are part of the wide spectrum of creationist beliefs, and that he personally endorses the power of natural processes in 99.99% of all cases does not change what he is, it just means we’re haggling over the degree.