Do Dawkins and Dennett Hurt the Cause?
Yes, this subject again. P.Z. Myers offers some excellent commentary on a poorly reasoned op-ed by Madeleine Bunting, published in the British newspaper The Guardian. Bunting writes:
The curious thing is that among those celebrating the prominence of these two Darwinians on both sides of the Atlantic is an unexpected constituency - the American creationist/intelligent-design lobby. Huh? Dawkins, in particular, has become their top pin-up.
How so? William Dembski (one of the leading lights of the US intelligent-design lobby) put it like this in an email to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don't believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement. So please, keep at it!”
But while Dembski, Dawkins and Dennett are sipping the champagne for their very different reasons, there is a party pooper. Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse's argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can't be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”
As Myers also points out, neither Dawkins nor Dennett believes that evolution leads ineluctably to atheism. They are both quite explicit about that. Dawkins has written that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, by which he means that minus a viable theory of evolution there's a major fact of everyday life, namely the existence of complex organisms, that would be awfully hard to explain without referring to God. Dennett has similarly written that evolution effectively destroys the argument from design, thereby removing the underpinnings from the best argument theists have ever offered.
Bunting uncritically accepts Ruse's argument on this subject:
But Ruse has got a point. Across the US, the battle over evolution in science teaching goes on. Just in the past month there have been bills in state legislatures in New York, Mississippi, Nevada and Arkansas promoting intelligent design. Last November the Kansas education board promulgated a new definition of science that allowed for supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. A school district in Kansas rebelled last month, accusing their board of “an utterly false belief that evolutionary science and the scientific method is based on atheistic philosophy. Promoting this false conflict between science and faith erects unnecessary barriers.” At the heart of many of these local controversies is the firmly held belief that Darwinism leads to atheism, indeed that it is atheism. Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion.
I suspect that to British intellectuals like Bunting, places like Kansas are something of an abstraction. Prior to actually moving to Kansas in 2000, I would probably have made a similar argument. But after you've actually spent some time living in socially conservative areas, you begin to understand the absurdity of laying opposition to evolution at the feet of Dawkins and Dennett.
The only thing your typical Kansas anti-evolutionist knows about Dawkins or Dennett is that their preacher told them they are very bad men. It is almost a sure thing that none of them have read The Selfish Gene or Darwin's Dangerous Idea. It's a common mistake to think, when you're on the outside looking in, that the people promoting the anti-evolution legislation in states like Kansas base their opposition on high-minded arguments and plausible reasoning.
But when you live there for a while you get a very different picture. Turn on the local Christian radio station and listen to the irrational, groundless vitriol that gets hurled at evolution on nearly a daily basis. Then ponder the fact that similar venom is getting spewed every Sunday from the pulpits of the dozen or so churches you drive past on your daily commute. Ponder the fact that the fundamentalist Christian bookstore is the largest bookstore in town. Consider walking into a mainstream bookstore like WaldenBooks and having the first thing you see be not Stephen King or John Grisham, but Tim LeHaye and James Dobson.
While living in Kansas I once had a conversation with a para-educator in a local elementary school. We had just met and we were both observing a first-grade mathematics classroom. Our conversation was ostensibly about what we had observed. Suddenly she goes off for several paragraphs about the importance of doing God's will and looking to the Bible for guidance when you encounter difficult situations in life. From the casual and entirely non-confrontational tone with which she said it I'm sure she was simply taking it for granted that I agreed with her view of life.
Another time I was listening to a call-in show for parents on the Christian radio station. One obviously distraught parent called in and casually likened the trauma of learning that her college-aged son had become an atheist to the trauma of a previous caller whose child had been killed in a car accident.
I could rattle off many other stories just like this. These sorts of things were daily occurrences for me, and they entirely changed the way I look at this issue.
In other words, spend some time immersed in the culture of someplace like Kansas, see the extent to which the most irrational sort of religion is the dominant social force, and then try to argue that Dawkins and Dennett are the problem. If they and every other outspoken atheist disappeared off the face of the Earth how much difference would that make to the attempts to teach creationism in public schools? Answer: Zero. There would just be fewer people fighting against it.
What does hurt the cause, however, are people like Ruse. He's not the dominant source of the problem, but he is a source. How can we explain to people that there is no serious scientific controversy on this subject when Ruse is willing to use his considerable clout to get Cambridge University Press to say that there is one. And then, as if it's not bad enough that he's collaborating with the enemy on such a project, he does a lousy job of assembling essays to represent the evolutionary side of things (but that's a separate blog entry). Ruse is hurting the cause far more than Dawkins and Dennett are.
Let me close with an excellent statement from Myers:
Scientists will never be the close, reassuring father figures that Americans see every week. We will always be threats to the backwards-looking flocks of the majority of the religious, and we will always be railed against from the pulpits—science is an alternative and better way to approach the truth, so we are the competition. The only religion that we can coexist with is one that abandons dogma and scriptural authority, that concedes all explanations of the natural world to the scientific process rather than ancient writ, and to short-circuit the inevitable whining that will follow in the comments thread: those faiths and those individuals are in the minority just as much as we atheists are, and are regarded by the Baptists and the Catholics and the Lutherans and the Mormons and other established sects as just as much of an evil. (Emphasis in original)