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.

Comments

  1. #1 PZ Myers
    September 9, 2006

    Chris, this is an interesting interpretation:

    His hope for a resolution of the wars over science and religion is not about hoping all the atheists will keep silence; but about wanting the ongoing debate to focus on the philosophical question of Gods existence, within the context of a common recognition of the basic material science.

    That’s actually one I would agree with. I entirely agree that the root of the problem is religion, and I also think that the only way to engage creationists in the long run is go straight to that root. However, I have two mental blocks that hinder my acceptance of that charitable interpretation:

    1. For every 10 or 20 creationist rants in my mailbox, I typically get one or two really aggressive complaints from fellow evolutionists who insist that wearing my atheism on my sleeve is hurting the cause. Sometimes they’re even ornerier than the creationists, and they never end by telling me that they’ll pray for me. I will admit that it is my bias, but I have a hard time hearing a Christian biologist telling me to bare my fangs and go straight for the god/godless debate.

    2. The really discombobulating thing about that idea is that it would put Miller on the opposite side from me, and on the same side with Dembski and Wells and Johnson. I’m trying to picture a complete change in the terms of the debate as Miller proposes, but it always results in him consistently arguing on their side. Is that really what he’s suggesting? That he’d be more comfortable in a debate with Dembski, and against Dawkins?

    OK, it’s just a little freaky. If Miller is actually proposing greater militancy by us secular scientists, though, it’s a great and provocative idea.

  2. #2 Chris Ho-Stuart
    September 9, 2006

    I don’t want to see Miller “sheltered”, or “appeased”. I want to see him engaged honestly. He’s not wanting anyone silenced. He’s not throwing anyone to the wolves. And he’s not a creationist. He’s a theist, and a Christian.

    Engage that by all means. He’s not denying any of the material conclusions of science that I have seen; he’s rather trying to express a view of God and God’s activity that is consistent with the material details of science. I think he fails in this. I’ve not read his book, but the reviews tell a common and unsurprising story. Although it presents itself as “Finding Darwin’s God”, the only bits that actually fit that title are towards the end, and they are by far the weakest parts of the book.

    The attempt to link him to witch burning and so on suggests to me that many of my fellow atheists are not being particularly rational in this engagement.

    To think he’s actually helping the creationists is bizarre. He’s the worst nightmare for the creationists; someone who comes in under the radar as a fellow theist and gets a hearing with young Christians who might otherwise see everything as a vast atheist conspiracy. Whether he’s helping Christianity remains to be seen…

    And for Paul – yes. I certainly don’t think you should refrain from holding Miller’s toes to the fire! It’s just that trying to do this by linking him with witch burners, or censors, or creationists, is not a particularly valid way to approach it.

    Miller is not suggesting greater militancy. What he suggests in his talk is “peace” in the evolution wars — that if Christians drop the ridiculous attack on solidly established findings of science, then perhaps we atheists might be willing to say, “oh well, at least you are not in conflict with science, and you have a consistent viewpoint”.

    That won’t happen. The creationists see it as giving up too much; and the fuzzy minded Miller reconciliation simply does not have the capacity to win and retain converts in the psychological games of religion. But even if the creationists dropped out of the picture, there’s still a difference between Miller and Dawkins (and Meiyrs, and Ho-Stuart) and that will continue to be engaged. I’d like to see Miller’s cordial and genial demeanor more widely adopted on all sides, but I don’t propose a spurious respect for all ideas as equally sensible. I think it is perfectly reasonable to point out that the coherence of Miller’s reconciliation of theism with naturalism is dubious, and that the mere fact he gives assent to all the material conclusions of science is not a free pass to saying he’s got a reasonable and consistent position.

    Cheers – Chris

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    September 9, 2006

    He’s the worst nightmare for the creationists; someone who comes in under the radar as a fellow theist and gets a hearing with young Christians who might otherwise see everything as a vast atheist conspiracy.

    Eh. I don’t know about that. I see relatively little criticism of Miller from creationists…certainly nothing comparable to what we see against Dawkins. Not that they couldn’t be trembling in such fear of Miller that they’re afraid to mention his name, it’s just not detectable. Or maybe Dawkins is just a better boogeyman.

    It also flies in the face of Miller’s thesis that it’s the militant atheists driving Christians towards creationism. If that were the case, wouldn’t they instead be relieved to see Miller, a role model who at last gives them an excuse to give up that anti-science nonsense?

  4. #4 David Wilford
    September 10, 2006

    Miller may not be a creationist with a capital “C”, but he certainly does believe in a theistic Creator and I think that is ultimately what leads him astray here. Making atheists out to be bogeymen because they dare to be, in Dawkins’ words, intellectually fullfilled by Darwin’s fundamental insight, isn’t getting at the root of the problem with creationism at all, which is the willful ignorance of reality that doesn’t square with creationist’s religious beliefs. It isn’t the fault of atheists that the science better supports their side of the argument than it does the theist’s side!

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    September 10, 2006

    It strikes me that the problem here is that there are two (connected) debates. The first is the scientific one over evolution. Here PZ and Miller are in agreement, and the Creationists are on the other side. The second debate is the theological one: does a God exist. Obviously Miller lines up with the Creatioists (although he may disagree with them on the finer questions of what this god is like).

    I think the problem is that these two debates get conflated: this is what Dawkins started (inadvertantly, I presume), and the fundies have been doing ever since.

    If I read Miller correctly, his argument is that there are two debates, and that the fundamental one is the theological debate, not the scientific one. The debate should therefore be about theology, not evolution. After all, if one looks at the evidence, there shouldn’t be a debate about evolution.

    Whilst this would make sense, the problem is controlling the agenda. At the moment, the IDers and Creationists have managed to keep the debate on evolution, and it will be difficult to wrest it away.

    What this means (I think) is that we do have to be careful about which debate we are discussing. As long as the fundies control the agenda, and focus on evolution, then I think we have to make sure we stick to that debate, and make it clear that it’s not a theological debate, and that people of different beliefs come to the same scientific conclusions. One the other hand, a different strategy would be to try and move the debate on to theology. The problem is that this will only work if the fundies allow it.

    The thing not to do is to try and debate both points at the same time: that way you’ll divide your own side. If you’re an atheist and pro-evolution, then this is a pretty good way of losing both arguments.

    Bob

  6. #6 PZ Myers
    September 10, 2006

    I think the problem is that these two debates get conflated: this is what Dawkins started (inadvertantly, I presume), and the fundies have been doing ever since.

    No, no, no. Dawkins started publishing in the late 1960s; The Selfish Gene came out in the mid-70s. Unless you want to claim that their prophets were really, really good, I don’t think you can blame him for Price and Morris and Gish. He wasn’t even born at the time of the Scopes trial. His parents didn’t exist yet when 19th century preachers were railing against Darwinism.

    When the Origin was published, it got savaged by the religious despite the fact that its author was extremely reticent about mentioning his religious views, and its advocates were a mix of atheists (Haeckel), agnostics (Huxley), and Christians (Gray).

    I think Miller’s thesis that the atheists can be held responsible for a backlash against evolution is complete bunk.

  7. #7 Andrew Brown
    September 10, 2006

    One tries to stay out of pharyngular threads on religion and science, but I think it is clearly the case that some styles of atheism do nourish fundamentalists. I’ve just finished Dawkins’ God book — it’s dreadful — and one of the effects was to make me feel I should go to church, not because christianity is any more or less likely to be true as a result of anything he says, but out of rage that he fails to understand (where Dennett makes a shot and largely succeeds) what sort of a thing religious belief is, and what roles it might play in people’s lives.

    Put the question on its side for a moment. Ask “should we live as if the universe had purpose and our lives are meaningful?” The answer that lots of atheists and lots of religious people would give is “yes”. What’s more, let’s assume that both groups are sincere, which entails a prolonged moral effort. Getting out of bed in the morning is a whole lot easier if you did it yesterday, and the day before, and so on.

    Now, PZ finds it offensive and ludicrous that anyone should claim that he has no reason to get out of bed except self-deception. Fair enough. But why on earth can’t he see that his and Dawkins’ kind of atheism is read by believers as making exactly the same claim about them?

    I’ve used the example of getting out of bed because I think it is intimately connected to fundamentalism’s appeal to the dispossessed and insecure: the people who know (Hello, Kansas!) that they have no economic justification. The world, quite literally doesn’t need them, in bed or out of it.

    It’s not obviously bunk to say that the whole Mencken/Dawkins tradition of sneering at them hasn’t done a great deal to strengthen their repudiation of everything they believe that pointy-headed atheist scientist bastards stand for.

    PZ, I know that “flood geology” preceded the Selfish Gene, but Dawkins, on religion, is also following a long tradition of sneering atheists. I really honestly believe that he does more to strengthen the religious in their convictions than the atheists in theirs. If being on his side means the constant cheap sneers and creationist-style arguments that he deploys when talking about religion, I, too, would rather be on the other side.

  8. #8 PZ Myers
    September 10, 2006

    If being on his side means the constant cheap sneers and creationist-style arguments that he deploys when talking about religion, I, too, would rather be on the other side.

    I’ve heard that sort of thing quite a few times, and Miller’s argument is the same thing: people giving up on science because they don’t like the company. I don’t get it. It’s not like science is a country club — it’s a set of principles that we hold. I share those principles with people like Miller, but you’ll never hear me saying, “Well, if I’ve got to be in the same room with people that believe in superstitious pap, I’ll give up on the idea of naturalism and become a creationist!”

    Are you on our side because you share our understanding of the evidence, or because it’s fashionable? When people talk about switching because they don’t like Dawkins, it sure sounds like the latter.

  9. #9 frank schmidt
    September 10, 2006

    I hosted Ken at the University of the State East of Kansas last April and spent several hours in conversation with him. I haven’t listened to the KU talk but I don’t imagine that it’s much different from what he said then.

    PZ et al.: Get. A. Grip. This is a political struggle. The Disco Guys have been as successful as they have, not because they have anything to say, but because they used a “big tent” strategy. They agreed not to discuss how old the earth is, where species originated, etc., until they got those nasty materialists out of the schools. Thus, Behe, Dr. Dino and Wells can happily coexist, each secure in his own brand of dishonesty.

    We need to adopt the same strategy, and should be better at it, given that we have science on our side. The metaphysical debates about whether there is a teakettle orbiting Saturn do not obscure the fact that science is the best way to tell how the observable world works. And science tells us that it works by evolution.

    Ken’s comments re Dawkins et al. are appropriate on the political level only: first, to combat the notion (enthusiastically endorsed by the creos) that evolution necessarily implies atheism, and, secondly, to remind our side that unnecessary stridency in support of the notion is counterproductive.

    Both points are valid. In that sense, Ken is a “responsible” evolutionist, which is a tactically valid position, although not the only one. Dawkins has spoken of Miller’s position with great respect, and equally great disagreement. I suggest, PZ, that you do the same.

  10. #10 Andrew Brown
    September 10, 2006

    PZ wrote: “I’ve heard that sort of thing quite a few times, and Miller’s argument is the same thing: people giving up on science because they don’t like the company. I don’t get it. It’s not like science is a country club — it’s a set of principles that we hold.”

    Where did I say I was giving up on science? I said, largely as a joke, that I was tempted by Dawkins to give up public atheism. I’m sure you’ll agree that the two don’t entail each other. There really are forms of religious belief that don’t require one to abandon methodological naturalism. If you want to argue that they are not really religion, that’s fine, but it’s also theology, and we can talk about it somewhere else.

    “Are you on our side because you share our understanding of the evidence, or because it’s fashionable? When people talk about switching because they don’t like Dawkins, it sure sounds like the latter.”

    Sheesh: calm down. Has anything I have ever said suggested that I support the teaching of creationism in schools anywhere? If you mean, “Am I on the side of loudly denouncing believers as criminal halfwits every chance I get?” — No. I’m not. In general, I try to be on the side of reason and evidence. Dawkins’ current book has a lot in it which has nothing to do with either, and, since I am in the middle of a review of it, my irritation bubbled over.

  11. #11 llewelly
    September 10, 2006

    Are you on our side because you share our understanding of the evidence, or because it’s fashionable? When people talk about switching because they don’t like Dawkins, it sure sounds like the latter.

    The overwhelming majority of humanity prefers fashion to evidence.

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