Monday, February 27, 2006


The Dennett-Ruse Feud: What's a Skeptic to Do?

Last week, intelligent design activist William Dembski published a remarkable exchange of letters between Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett and Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University.

The testy exchange of letters, between two high-profile defenders of evolution, on the blog of one of the best known exponents of intelligent design has ignited a firestorm of commentary around the blogosphere.

For his part, Ruse decried Dennett's very public atheism – some describe Dennett as both a militant atheist and a Darwinian fundamentalist – and accused both Dennett and Richard Dawkins of being "absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design."

Dennett responded in kind saying he's afraid Ruse is "being enlisted on the side of the forces of darkness." The fact that Ruse had turned the correspondence over to Dembski lent a degree of credence to that view.

As usual, Red State Rabble is coming late to the game. Last week:

PZ Myers, at Pharygula, wrote that while he disagrees vigorously with many of Dennett's ideas about evolution, he nevertheless comes off better in the exchange than Ruse. Myers doesn't believe "atheists on the side of evolution" should be hidden away like some crazy aunt in the attic.

Chris Mooney, writing on his blog, The Intersection, is concerned that people are being told that they must choose between evolution and their faith in God. That's the real hurdle, Mooney believes, and the publicly expressed views of Dawkins and Dennett don't help much in that respect.

Over at Evolutionblog, Jason Rosenhouse, is upset that Ruse gave the correspondence to Dembski, and writes that he shares both Dennett and Dawkins' "contemptuous attitude towards Christianity." Like Myers, he doesn't believe their atheism hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.

Already this week, there's been a further exchange between Myers, our old friend Josh at Thoughts from Kansas, and Mike the Mad Biologist over what role, if any, atheists and other skeptics should play in the battle to defend evolution.

Myers writes that Josh perpetuates "the usual misrepresentation of atheists in this debate," and he goes on to note "[a]theists reject religion, so we aren't at all worried that the targets of our criticism dislike our criticism. We aren't going to stop."

Red State Rabble unequivocally supports the right of atheists to defend both their beliefs and evolution in the public square. As a practical matter, we don't see men like PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett hiding their light under a bushel anytime soon.

Moreover, Myers is quite correct, for example, to point out that the metaphysical conclusions drawn from the science of evolution in Ken Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution haven't come in for quite the same criticism as books by Richard Dawkins that draw the opposite conclusion from an examination of the same evidence.

However, the strategy of the intelligent design movement is to claim that teaching evolution in public schools is the same as teaching the metaphysical claims of atheism.

"In our greatest universities, naturalism -- the doctrine that nature is 'all there is' -- is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds," says ID strategist Phillip Johnson.

All intelligent design activists want, they say, is equal time to present their beliefs, too.

That's why, as advocates for science, those of us who are non-believers must be quite careful to keep separate the real science we want taught in public schools from the metaphysical conclusions we tend to draw from the evidence.

Some of us secular types have an unfortunate tendency, at times, to conflate Christian fundamentalism with the full range of Christian belief. Recently, we've read complaints from members of Kansas Citizens for Science, who are active and articulate defenders of evolution and believers, about the tendency among nonbelievers to crudely lump all Christians together.

There is a range of Christian thinking that extends from people like Pat Robertson and Sam Brownback on one end of the scale to Ken Miller, Karen Armstrong, and Jimmy Carter on the other.

Christianity inspired the crusades, the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the anti-Semitism of Hitler, but it also kindled the imagination of Kepler, Gallileo, Mozart, and Michelangelo.

Western thought is a product of the creative tension between the mysticism of Jerusalem and the rational thought of Athens.

Since nonbelievers make up an infinitesimally small portion of the population, we'll have to make allies among the faithful if we are to successfully defend science education from attacks by right-wing religious fundamentalists. The ability to make fine distinctions between biblical literalists and rational religious thinkers will be the key to building those alliances.

Red State Rabble also thinks it unwise to allow ourselves to be painted in the public imagination as nothing more than a shrill mirror image of Christian fundamentalism. Defense of public science education and the rights of nonbelievers will be more effective in the long run if we are seen, not as unthinking militants, but as the seekers after truth that we are.

Let's leave self-righteous certitude to the Christian fundamentalists and wear our doubt -- our skepticism about even our own beliefs -- proudly on our sleeves.

Those among us who want to promote reason. Who want to convince others – and for the most part that means convincing believers – that our own metaphysical beliefs are superior to religious faith would also do well, we think, to follow the advice of Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to Edward Aveling (often mistakenly thought to have been written to Karl Marx):

… I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds…


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