Monday, March 27, 2006

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)



At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.Z. Myers doesn't understand the extent to which Dawkins in particular hurts the cause, because Myers is part of the problem himself. I've read Pharyngula, and I've read Dawkins and heard his comments in the news media. Bluntly put, Dawkins and Myers both strengthen creationism because they don't bother to hide their contempt for religious believers. As pro-evolutionists, our goal has to be to convince the moderates, the ones who hold the balance of political power, that we're right and the creationists are wrong. There's no way we're going to be able to do that with anti-religion buffoons like Myers and Dawkins running around sneering at religion and religious people every time they open their mouths. Very few people respond favorably to having their deepest, strongest beliefs casually insulted and denigrated.

As you point out, the creationists already have an enormous advantage in this fight. Why do our "best and brightest" minds insist on giving them additional weapons to aim at us?

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Brian said...

"Why do our "best and brightest" minds insist on giving them additional weapons to aim at us?" Could it be that when you say that we should use evidence and reasoning to make our best attempts at determining the truth we should not try to hide our conclusions for fear of offending those that partially agree with us? Where would you draw the line in regards to this. It is like saying that a free press is necessary for democracy unless, of course, it undermines democracy.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Jason said: 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.

In all the years of my Christian life, I have never heard any venom spewed from the pulpit. There is always venom being spewed from this anti-religion blog. This blog is not about explaining why you believe in evolution, but in criticizing those that don’t. If we are just ignorant when it comes to evolution then explain it. Or change the name of this blog to anti-religionblog.


At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian asked: "Could it be that when you say that we should use evidence and reasoning to make our best attempts at determining the truth we should not try to hide our conclusions for fear of offending those that partially agree with us? Where would you draw the line in regards to this?"

Personally, I draw the line between what is provable fact and what is only my opinion.

It's fact that in a hundred and fifty years no one has successfully falsified Darwin's theory of evolution. It's fact that every piece of relevant evidence currently known to science supports evolution and old-Earth geology. It's fact that the primary opposition to evolution comes from religion. It's fact that creationists routinely lie and cheat and otherwise express the worst aspects of humanity. I'll even grant you it's fact that religion has been the root cause of a lot of misery in human history.

But it's only opinion that there's no god(s), religion is all fraud and fakery, religion has no redeeming value and should be abolished, and there's an inverse relationship between intelligence and level of religious belief. And yes, I've seen Dawkins, Myers, and many others insinuate exactly that in print. Their contempt for religious people is so blatant that even some non-religious people find it offensive. Like me.

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Jason said...


The majority of posts I do at this blog are about my reasons for accepting evolution and for rejecting the arguments made by its opponents. But this blog is also about the cultural environment that allows anti-evolution efforts to thrive, and an especially irrational sort of religious belief is a major part of that environment.


I've blogged previously about precisely the argument you are making. All I can say is that if it's true that theologically moderate people are siding with the creationists because they don't like people like Myers and Dawkins, then that reflects very badly on those people. If Myers and Dawkins aren't to their liking, then let them listen to Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris.

The fcat is that both of those gentlemen have made snide remarks about atheism and nonbelief. That doesn't stop me from listening very carefully when they talk about science.

And the fact is that the fundamentlaist groups like Answers in Genesis spew just as much venom at theological “compromisers” as they do at atheists. Why aren't the moderates you are referring to so repelled by that that they abandon creationism?

The fact is that the moderates, like everyone else, should be basing their opinion on a basic understanding of the facts of biology, not on the religious beliefs of the people defending one side or the other.

At 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't believe there are any theologically moderate people who are siding with the creationists because of Myers and Dawkins. However, I do think there are probably a lot of moderates out there who look at the creationists (whom they know to be frauds and cheats), look at the militant-atheist wing on our side (who from their point of view are also frauds and cheats, not to mention hypocrites because they trade on their reputation as scientists, objective thinkers, then abandon scientific thinking when religion is the topic), and say "a plague a' both your houses!" because neither side seems to deserve their support.

"The fact is that both of those gentlemen have made snide remarks about atheism and nonbelief. That doesn't stop me from listening very carefully when they talk about science."

Me neither -- but right now we aren't talking about science. We're talking about how to convince people that science is not a threat to them, and that's a whole different topic. Victory in politics doesn't go to the side that's right. It goes to the side that's more effective in getting its message out. People like Myers and Dawkins make our side less effective and the creationist side more effective, because they give truth to the creationists' lies. "A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies," Tennyson said, and he was right. What he didn't add is that a lie which is half a truth is also the most effective of lies, because most people don't have the ability to tell where the truth ends and the lie begins. They're more likely than not to assume that it's all truth -- and in this case, that means they're more likely than not to assume the creationists are right, and evolutionary theory is an attack on religion. Not just rigid fundamentalist religion, but all religion. Including their own.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger JasonJ said...

I am glad to find such arguments as this one in the blogosphere but I can't help feeling that what is happening here is that we are offoering up the messengers here as a sacrificial lamb to the very gods we do not believe in and as such do ourselves even more disservice than the one you accuse them of. Perhaps this is just my take as one of those rabid atheistic types that cannot see the value of pretending to believe in an imaginary ghost friend/father figure diety. There I go again......

Look, I don't pretend to have all the answers as to how to deal with the irrational types who cling to the hopes that there is a supernatural power that is going to right all wrongs in their temporal lives. I'm not sure that there is a solution to that problem. I do believe that pandering to their whims is not in fact the answer. What I do know is that I am in agreement that in 147 years since "On the Origin of Species" was published, there has not been any argument that has successfully refuted it and that any attempt at such has only strengthened our theory. Given that this is truly the state of affairs, and given that at least in the forseeable future the federal courts stand behind us in the debate about teaching ID, the truth of the matter is that life began without an architect and without an audience. To borrow from Dennett, evolutionary theory is the 'universal acid' that eats through all hopes of creating an intelligent creator of life.

I am not so naive as to not understand that there are political contentions to deal with and these entities use religiosity as a tool to contol the masses, but education is the key. It has always been the key and it has always been applied less than ideally.

At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does there have to be such strife? I figure evolution is God's way of doing things; He just didn't set it down in a book for us to read. He left it for us to puzzle out, as we grew and became able to do so. I also figure that the actual word "God" is outdated; there's no old male homo sapiens with a white beard sitting on a throne somewhere. But what other word would I use to denote the intelligence which designed the biosphere of which I am a part?

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