Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution?
No, I don’t think they’re incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God–to name only Francis Collins [the geneticist and Christian believer recently chosen to head the National Institutes of Health] as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind.
I wonder whether you might be more successful in your arguments if you didn’t convey irritation and a sense that the people who believe in God are not as smart as you are.
I think there is a certain justified irritation with young-earth creationists who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Those are the people that I’m really talking about. I do sometimes accuse people of ignorance, but that is not intended to be an insult. I’m ignorant of lots of things. Ignorance is something that can be remedied by education. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
This, for what it’s worth, looks like the position NCSE has taken, and is, to the best of my knowledge, the sort of rhetoric Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have been calling for from folks like Dawkins. It matches my own views, too, though I’ve been less vocal in these debates than many others.
It will be interesting to see whether the usual suspects go after Dawkins with quite the same vehemence that has met others advancing similar lines of argument.
I’ll note that it’s also a shift from his previously stated views. In The God Delusion, he is careful not to limit his criticism just to young earth creationists, but to anyone who believes in some form of god, that is “a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation.” That’s a description which surely includes young earth creationists, but it also the apparently praiseworthy Francis Collins, among the deluded. And those who advocated treating science and religion as potentially compatible came in for their own opprobrium. NCSE was listed among the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists,” Stephen Jay Gould was accused of dishonesty for writing about how he thought science and religion might be reconciled, and so forth.
Maybe he’s changed his mind, or maybe he’s drawing a nuanced line between a humility about what might be possible and his certainty about what he himself believes. If the latter, TGD could have been a bit clearer about drawing a line between his personal beliefs and his understanding of what other views might be correct, and I may have to re-read the book with that sentence in mind to see if I react to it differently.
The interview is fairly brief, and doesn’t give a lot of chances to delve into his views, but the second page gives an interesting exchange where he also seems to walk back the implications of his most memorable line from the book, the opening sentence in which the Old Testament God is described as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
In the interview, he says that this isn’t really alienating or insulting to the general public since “I’m only talking about the God of the Old Testament, so the only people who will be offended are the people who believe in the God of the Old Testament,” adding immediately, “which by the way is most of the people you’re referring to [the American public].” When pressed, he allows that Christians would insist that they believe not in the Old Testament God, but in the God of the New Testament, and that Jews confronted with that statement would say “OK, we’ve moved on since that time.” To which Dawkins adds, “Thank goodness they have.”
Thank goodness, indeed. One of the criticisms, arguably the most common, of TGD, was that it ignored this sort of adaptation and adjustment of religious views over time. The criticism was so common that PZ Myers coined a mocking reply, comparing claims that Dawkins is hardly knocking down the nuanced views that many religious believers have by attacking these rigid and literalist approaches to the Bible to The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this Courtier’s Reply, PZ mocks the notion that such nuanced views are any better than the views Dawkins treats, but I wonder if Dawkins hasn’t taken this criticism seriously, and perhaps even deepened his appreciation for the varieties of religious experience and belief.
He’s clearly still an atheist, comfortable in his non-belief. It’s hard to know from one brief interview whether we see a shift under way, and I’ll be interested in blogospheric responses, and in seeing how Dawkins’s rhetoric, and perhaps beliefs, continue to evolve.
Updated 10/4/2009 8:33 PDT: Jerry Coyne has a response from Dawkins, describing either this post and Chris’s or at least Jerry Coyne’s as “utterly ridiculous,” and comparing himself to a politician who must worry about his words will be “misused by somebody with an agenda.” My intent was not to misuse his words, nor to bring ridicule or ridiculousness to him, and I’ve written Dawkins a note apologizing and asking for additional clarification, so that the needed correction is ? correct.
I note in passing that I dispute various things about Jerry’s characterization of my views, but I’ve got to finish an article that is way past deadline before I return to blog drama. Thanks to Jerry for getting some answers from the horse’s mouth, though.