There’s a kerfuffle under way in which Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Richard Hoppe, and a host of others are debating whether NCSE is too nice to theists. Since I work for NCSE, I’m trying to stay out of this, and my comments about NCSE will be based on publicly available information, not any internal discussions; I will also avoid referring to NCSE as “us” to avoid confusion on this point. As the disclaimer to the left says, nothing here reflects NCSE’s official position, and if you disagree, your disagreement is with me, not NCSE.

While I don’t intend any comprehensive or systematic reply to the whole kerfuffle, some statements deserve a reply. For instance, my friend PZ Myers is upset that:

people like Hoppe and [Ken] Miller and the staff at NCSE have also been busily promoting the idea that atheists like me or Dawkins or Coyne are anathema in the public discourse, since we don’t preach the message of compatibility. I was not giving lectures in Kansas because I was not asked.

As someone with a good working knowledge of what the NCSE staff has been saying, I don’t know who he thinks has been claiming he or Coyne or Dawkins is anathema. Whatever.

The more interesting thing is his claim that he wasn’t active in Kansas, etc. “because [he] was not asked” (his emphasis). As someone deeply involved in events in Kansas, I can say that no one invited me, either. I got involved. I emailed people. I spoke to people. I showed up at hearings. I got other people to show up at hearings. Then people started asking me to do this, and that, to attend this other meeting, etc. No one came to me hat in hand, begging for my assistance. Folks in the midst of the fight didn’t have time for that.

It’s harder for someone in Minnesota, naturally. But this idea that PZ and Jerry and Richard are powerless to help defend science education unless they are given engraved invitations is absurd. PZ knows that, too, so I don’t know why he’s repeating this canard. He’s stepped up on many occasions to help defend science education in his own state and beyond; I know he’ll continue doing so.

When I get invited give a talk somewhere, I write to other institutions nearby, including universities and groups of humanists, skeptics, and atheists in the area. I invite myself, because this is important, and I want to get the message out that evolution is important. PZ travels a lot, and nothing stops him from doing the same, nor is anything stopping him from taking more action in any number of other ways. And if he wants tips on how to be most effective, he knows how to reach me and how to reach NCSE. Anyone else interested in helping can find my contact information and NCSE’s without much effort. But games are won by those who show up, and waiting for an invitation means that someone else is going to be taking the field.

Without getting into the weeds of this spat, I’d like to apply this basic principle to a few other claims being bandied about. As Coyne and others have noted, NCSE does have a Faith Project Director, Dr. Peter Hess, a Catholic theologian who certainly takes the view that a proper view of Catholicism would be entirely compatible with science and religion. This is a view going back to St. Augustine at least, and similar statements can be found in the Jewish theology of Maimonides, and others see glimmers of evolutionary reasoning in Kabbalistic teachings (which I find to be a stretch). He is naturally free to state his own views on science and religion in public without committing NCSE to any particular aspect of his theology. NCSE no more endorses his Catholicism than it does the atheism of our executive director.

In his essays describing his take on science and religion, Hess certainly advocates for a view of science and religion as compatible. In personal essays and reviews in NCSE’s newsletter, Reports of the NCSE, a wide range of views on science and religion are presented, with prominent praise for Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and other atheists, as well as for Ken Miller, Keith Miller, and other authors defending the compatibility of science and religion. Note especially that Coyne and Orr’s book on Speciation, not to mention Dawkins’s and Dennett’s writings on science, are featured prominently in NCSE’s list of Further Reading on evolution. This despite Jerry Coyne’s claim that “There are no books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and all those who have criticized the science-faith concordat” in readings recommended by NCSE. We are further criticized for featuring Peter Hess’s book on Catholicism and Science, claiming:

Perhaps most telling, the NCSE markets, as “staff publications,” some books that apparently show how religion and science can live happily together. Take a look at the page on which you?re supposed to sign up as an NCSE member. There you?ll find the ?staff publication? Catholicism and Science, by Peter M. J. Hess (director of the ?Faith Project?). By advertising the book in this way the NCSE is saying, ?here?s our point of view.”

This is, to start off, incredibly silly. Why the scare quotes around “staff publications”? That phrase denotes that these are publications by NCSE staff, hardly a dubious concept. NCSE obviously promotes books by staff, including those by executive director Eugenie C. Scott (an atheist), deputy director Glenn Branch (unspecified religious views) and Faith Project director Peter Hess (a Catholic). The claim that putting Hess’s book in a list of staff publications endorses his beliefs is as silly as claiming that the identical promotion of books by Genie is an endorsement of atheism. It’s an odd double standard at work there. NCSE has also used Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, books by Richard Dawkins, and other books by atheists and agnostics, as rewards for new members. Contrary to Coyne’s complaint, there’s no religious bias in which books NCSE promotes.

Looking elsewhere at NCSE’s handling of religion, we find NCSE’s Voices for Evolution, which features a whole section of religious organizations defending the teaching of evolution. Along with the Clergy Letter Project (11,000 strong and growing!), and statements from most mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups, it also features statements by the American Humanist Association, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, and the Humanist Association of Canada. A statement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is listed in the section on civil liberties groups alongside the ACLU and the Council of Europe. If other atheist, humanist, or secularist groups wanted to issue similar statements, NCSE would surely welcome their inclusion.

But again, this requires them to care enough to actually do the work of creating the statement. NCSE would certainly be happy to help with the statement if asked, but the impetus to issue these statements has to come from within. Just as no one had to invite me to get involved in Kansas, no one had to invite the Methodists to issue a pro-evolution statement. All atheist groups need to do to get similar treatment is to organize themselves, issue statements, and get involved in other ways.

Coyne’s complaint about NCSE’s book recommendations focuses on only one set of books NCSE recommends, the books in our section on Theology and Evolution, and the same principle about the importance of showing up for the game applies there. It’s true that no books denying the compatibility of religion and evolution are listed there, but I don’t know that a scholarly book (comparable to other texts on the list) by an atheist denying that possibility has actually been written. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written a broadside against religion per se, but it doesn’t address the topic of Hess’s bibliography, which is “Theology and Evolution,” specifically “The literature about questions at the interface between religion and evolution” which “NCSE members have found to be enriching and useful.” Coyne has certainly not written such a book, nor have other potential authors listed by Coyne: Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Myers, Pinker, Harris, and Grayling. Perhaps NCSE has missed some compelling entry into this field, and if so, I don’t doubt that suggestions would be welcomed. But complaining that the list is missing books in a category that doesn’t exist hardly seems fair.

I will close by issuing a qualified endorsement of Richard Hoppe’s views. Hoppe recognizes that NCSE is a hybrid, working on the boundary between science, politics, religion, and policy, and that there’s no way to avoid discussion of religion in that context, and no way to win battles in defense of evolution without explaining that one need not choose between religion (especially Christianity) and evolution. As Hoppe knows from his work in the trenches, defending Ohio science standards and helping a child whose creationist teacher burned a cross in his arm, many people simply will not hear any scientific evidence for evolution until one addresses religion. And Hoppe recognizes that (most of) NCSE’s statements about religion consist of observations that some people really do find a compatibility between science and religion, and do not endorse religion per se or any particular way of reconciling religion with evolution.

He does complain that:

In its Faith Project, then, I think that NCSE has gone beyond its remit and past where it can be effective. I now think ? in agreement with Coyne, PZ, and others ? that it should back off from describing particular ways of reconciling science and religion. Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake. NCSE ought not wade into theological swamps.

Peter Hess is a trained theologian with lots of experience in this issue. It strikes me as silly to expect him to remain silent on his area of specialization so long as he remains in NCSE’s employment. NCSE should not and does not endorse any particular view on religion, but Peter Hess, as an NCSE employee, clearly can express his own views on these matters or keep them private, just as I do, just as Genie does, just as Glenn does, and so forth. Individually, we all wade into theological swamps in our own ways. Organizationally, I do not think NCSE does so. If that’s the impression Hess’s essays give, it’s certainly problematic. I think a fair reading of the situation is that these essays represent the view of one staff member, as do other webpages on the NCSE site signed by their author. Perhaps that distinction is not clear on the website, but perhaps (speaking as I am from the perspective of an NCSE outsider) some additional steps could be taken to clarify matters.


On that topic we might ask whether (in some cases) tendentious, (in some cases) inaccurate, and (in some cases) insulting blog posts are the best way to raise such concerns. I leave that question to the collective wisdom of blogtopia to resolve. It might be that a polite email or a quick phone call would have been more effective. All of NCSE’s critics agree that they “enormously admire” NCSE’s work, that NCSE is “an indispensable element in protecting our classrooms,” and that they “support NCSE all the way,” and that they are, in general, NCSE’s friend. In my experience, that’s not how friends behave. Friends certainly warn their friends away from harmful or counterproductive behavior, but they don’t do it over the PA at a Superbowl party. They do it privately and politely, only resorting to an intervention if that has no effect.

Comments

  1. #1 Badger3k
    April 28, 2009

    On the PZ “lecture in Kansas” bit, where did you get the idea that he was not involved in Kansas’ fight over evolution? Perhaps that is true, but his comment was directed at Ken Miller giving talks in Kansas. Do you go around soliciting schools, asking to give talks to people? Or do you get invited to speak by particular organizations that want to hear what you are saying? Whatever else you say, this point seems to be off target from what is quoted – (hope this works) the whole paragraph is:

    A while back, I got the same attitude from Ken Miller in a podcast we did together. At one point he accused me of doing nothing to help science education, and bragged that he was busy criss-crossing Kansas doing talks while I was sitting at my little blog (and also teaching college biology courses, although he didn’t mention that). It was remarkably condescending, and it also ignored the facts: people like Hoppe and Miller and the staff at NCSE have also been busily promoting the idea that atheists like me or Dawkins or Coyne are anathema in the public discourse, since we don’t preach the message of compatibility. I was not giving lectures in Kansas because I was not asked. It was not because I somehow think I am above the fray, or do not value public education as much as Ken Miller; I would enthusiastically take on the foot-soldier role if voices of my kind were not squeezed out of the forum by our own allies. This is why some of us are beginning to express our resentment of the approach taken by the NCSE and its friends: they have chosen as their preferred face of science spokespeople who are not representative of the majority of scientists, and who are definitely not at all representative of the significant fraction of even more militant atheists among us.

    I just can’t see how you connect one with the other in that post. He clearly refers to the “going back and forth across Kansas giving talks” – should he have gone driving around begging to give talks to people? Can you explain how you do it please?

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    April 28, 2009

    Badger, I’m not sure what your point is. Yes, PZ addressed that remark to Ken Miller, but he generalized it to NCSE and all sorts of other people, so I replied.

    Do I invite myself to various places? Yes. As I said. Implying that “voices of my kind were [] squeezed out of the forum” because he wasn’t invited to speak is a bogus argument. You make your opportunities.

    How I do it is: I write to someone I know at a place I know I’m going to be near and ask if there’s a spot in their seminar schedule. And they often say yes. Not hard.

  3. #3 RBH
    April 28, 2009

    Josh, you wrote

    Peter Hess is a trained theologian with lots of experience in this issue. It strikes me as silly to expect him to remain silent on his area of specialization so long as he remains in NCSE’s employment. NCSE should not and does not endorse any particular view on religion, but Peter Hess, as an NCSE employee, clearly can express his own views on these matters or keep them private, just as I do, just as Genie does, just as Glenn does, and so forth. Individually, we all wade into theological swamps in our own ways. Organizationally, I do not think NCSE does so. If that’s the impression Hess’s essays give, it’s certainly problematic. I think a fair reading of the situation is that these essays represent the view of one staff member, …

    That’s not at all how I read those essays under the umbrella of the “Faith Project.” They sure looked to me like NCSE positions, and as noted, I find that problematic.

    This morning I lectured in a philosophy of religion class and sketched several different ways that Christian theists have handled the relationship between science, specifically evolution, and their religious beliefs. Hess’s approach is just one of them, and it’s real easy to get the impression that’s the one that’s in some sense an NCSE position. I think some more clarity on their status would be real helpful.

  4. #4 RBH
    April 28, 2009

    Badger3K asked

    just can’t see how you connect one with the other in that post. He clearly refers to the “going back and forth across Kansas giving talks” – should he have gone driving around begging to give talks to people? Can you explain how you do it please?

    I mentioned in my PT post that I’d given a 3-Sunday series on evolution, Christianity, and morality at a church earlier this year. Know how it came about? I sought out the pastor and asked if he’d like me to do it, giving him an outline to take to his governing council (or whatever it is) to get their approval for it. I did so because part of my effort here is to get more than the fundamentalist churches involved in the discussion. I want the moderate Christians to see what the issues are and how they’re being represented by the fundamentalists.

    I’m currently in talks to do another series of public discussions of similar subject matter in a secular venue, also in my conservative rural county. Know how it’ll come about? It’ll happen because I’m volunteering to do it and making the necessary arrangements with a religion prof to participate along with me.

    I’m advising students in the public school on science fair projects, I judge local and regional science fairs, and I do public talks at Science Cafes. This stuff doesn’t happen by magic: People get off their butts and do it. Easy for me, I know, because I’m semi-retired (I just teach one course per semester), but the most active guy in community science advocacy I know — more active than me — in central Ohio is a full-time professor.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    April 29, 2009

    RBH, while my inclination is to read those essays differently, I’m not the most unbiased observer, and it’s good to know how independent observers see these things. Clearly there’s a problem and we need to address it.

  6. #6 Ron Hager
    April 29, 2009

    Josh, I am not a trained anything, well except at 74 years I am a self-trained observer of stuff. My only observation is that it appears to me that you are defending a trained theologian (and believer I assume) and attacking a trained scientist. Consequently it also appears that you see some value to including the irrational hocus pocus of several specific religious beliefs into the rational discipline of science.

    For someone that is “trying to stay out of it”, you certainly appear to have taken a very well defined position.

  7. #7 gillt
    April 29, 2009

    Small point but important.

    Rosenau: “my comments about NCSE will be based on publicly available information, not any internal discussions”

    Following paragraph

    Rosenau: “As someone with a good working knowledge of what the NCSE staff has been saying, I don’t know who he thinks has been claiming he or Coyne or Dawkins is anathema.”

    So which is it? Are you or are you not commenting with an insiders perspective?

    Another point I’d like to address is the strange idea that the NCSE is patiently waiting around for atheists to organize themselves, then they’ll award them with a platform. Maybe I’m being cynical but isn’t that just the same as saying the NCSE isn’t interested in neutrality or fairness, but instead resigned to simply playing politics?

    It also rings hollow. Christians historically have the squeakiest wheel in the land, and now that some atheists are demanding to be heard, how are the compatiblists responding? With open arms? No. With a condescending frown and patronizing wag of finger.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    April 29, 2009

    In your observing, you might have noted that the issue at hand is how to discuss religion. You will note, I’m sure, that this is a topic on which theologians have greater expertise and relevance than (most) scientists do. Yes, I take a position in favor of relevant expertise. This does not mean that I’m wading into the broader kerfuffle, which hinges on broad tactical questions about how to improve science literacy. On that topic, I think the proof will be in how people spend their time outside of these squabbles.

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    April 29, 2009

    gillt, the second sentence relies on public comments and information readily available to most if not all of the bloggers involved, not on inside knowledge related to NCSE. PZ, RBH, Coyne, and others have the same “good working knowledge” about what has and hasn’t been said.

    I don’t see the “condescending frown and patronizing wag of finger.” I see people complaining that they weren’t invited to participate, as if that was how everyone else got involved. It isn’t, and the same rules apply to atheists as to anyone else. Furthermore, this isn’t a conflict between atheists and compatibilists. NCSE’s executive director is an atheist and a compatibilist, to point out one rather significant counterexample. Nor does this require some coordination between members of the Coyne/Myers/Moran axis. Each could individually undertake those same efforts.

    I simply think it’s unfair to insist that everyone else must stop what they are doing to adopt a tactic whose proponents do not seem to have the inclination to actually implement themselves. When Coyne wrote a book about “Why Evolution is True,” he didn’t cap it with a discussion of the incompatibility of evolution and religion. When PZ speaks to religious groups, he doesn’t do that either. Neither does Dawkins. They know that advancing a claim of incompatibility would be counterproductive. So why do they want others to do what they know won’t work?

  10. #10 gillt
    April 29, 2009

    In the article you endorse how is what Hoppe says anything but patronizing and condescending rhetoric? I’d say his analogy is awesomely close to a Hitler zombie.

    “I have a hell of a lot better view of what’s pragmatically necessary and what is effective at the level of the local school board and the local church than Coyne can even imagine. Coyne (and Myers and Moran and Dawkins) are not engaged at that level on anything approaching a regular basis. They lead their congregations from high pulpits. They sit above the choir preaching a message that is disconnected from – indeed, sometimes antithetical to – the reality on the ground. They’re the generals who argued against air power, courtmartialed Billy Mitchell, and then watched ships sink at Pearl Harbor.”

  11. #11 Duae Quartunciae
    April 29, 2009

    Jason, #9 you say:

    When PZ speaks to religious groups, he doesn’t do that either. Neither does Dawkins. They know that advancing a claim of incompatibility would be counterproductive. So why do they want others to do what they know won’t work?

    I can’t follow the last sentence. Who is “they”? I don’t see anyone at all in this discussion advocating advancing the claim of incompatibility in contexts where it is counterproductive.

    You acknowledge that Dawkins and Myers don’t talk about incompatibility of evolution and religion when they are talking to a religious group (and I presume, in a context of talking about science education). But they don’t encourage anyone else to do that either, of course.

    But the only reference for “they” I can find is still Dawkins and Myers, which doesn’t make sense. They are not encouraging people to do anything they won’t do also themselves!

    I am genuinely uncertain as to what you mean. Can you clarify?

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    April 29, 2009

    gillt: The Hitler Zombie? Really? I think not. And no, I don’t see what Hoppe said as patronizing or condescending. Nor do I find invocations of the Hitler Zombie to be patronizing or condescending. I find it offensive, and I find attempts to wrongly invoke the Zombie counterproductive.

    Duae: Maybe I’m misunderstanding the objections to what NCSE does, but I thought the beef among Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, etc. was that NCSE does not advocate for atheism, and does not make enough of a point to emphasize that some atheists find religion and evolution incompatible.

    You say that “I don’t see anyone at all in this discussion advocating advancing the claim of incompatibility in contexts where it is counterproductive.” Perhaps, but I wonder whether you, I, PZ, Jerry, Richard (Dawkins), Richard (Hoppe), etc. would agree on which contexts that approach would be counterproductive. That might be a useful discussion to have, but I don’t see it underway in blogtopia. I see a discussion about whether groups like NCSE, NAS, and AAAS should be talking about the compatibility of evolution and religion at all. And I note people complaining that those groups don’t advocate against that compatibility, which tactic I don’t see embraced in critical contexts by those same people complaining.

    I think those groups should be talking about the compatibility of science and religion, and when they do, it will almost always be more productive to emphasize (without excluding other views, natch) the many ways people find a compatibility, since most people assume there are no such ways.

  13. #13 gillt
    April 30, 2009

    Hoppe overextended his criticism into hyperbole. He’s even admitted as much as he’s backed-off his wholesale rejection of Coyne’s argument in regards to the NCSE Faith Project.

    Dawkins, Moran, Myers and Coyne’s beef with NCSE is that it isn’t neutral.

    PZ: “I shall repeat myself: no one is demanding that the NCSE and NAS go all rabidly atheist, and we can even agree that a neutral position is more productive towards achieving their goals.”

    Coyne: “My view on the NCSE, AAAS, and NAS remains the same: leave all religion, atheism, and issues of compatibility out of it.”

    You have it exactly backwards.

  14. #14 Paul M
    April 30, 2009

    Josh,

    An excellent post. You hit the nail on the head.

  15. #15 Thomas Lee Elifritz
    May 2, 2009

    “An excellent post. You hit the nail on the head.”

    ditto … head.

    I heard it on Rush.

    Do you even understand how stupid you sound?

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