Friday, February 24, 2006

Ruse vs. Dennett vs. Everyone

A couple of weeks ago, for our local Darwin Day celebrations, I had the chance to meet Michael Ruse. Not just shake his hand and have a few words, but actually sit down with him over beer and pizza and talk about stuff. Of course I had to share the table with 4 other people and Ruse seemed mostly interested in watching female gymnasts on the overhead TV, but it was still a cool experience.

Now Ruse has gone and done something that seems hard to explain. He's sent an email correspondance between him and Daniel Dennett to William Dembski, and Dembski has gone and posted the whole thing on his blog (or what passes for a blog these days). Unless Dennett gave express permission, that's not exactly an ethical thing for Ruse to do.

Now friendly bloggers PZ Myeriszh, Jason Rosenhouse, and Chris Mooney have weighed in. Jason and PZ are basically fed-up with Ruse's attacks on Dennett et al because of their unabashed atheism. Chris, while not agreeing with Ruse wholesale, basically makes the point that the public does react to their mixing of evolution and atheism, right or wrong. I tend to agree more or less with Chris here, but I have my own take.

The thing that annoys me about people wagging their fingers at the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett is that these guys are not the main culprits when it comes to claiming that evolution implies atheism. As a matter of fact, what they say on the matter is relatively mild and muted. The people who insist most forcefully that evolution and theism are impossible to reconcile are the likes of Ken Ham, Duane Gish, and Phillip Johnson. These guys don't stop short at saying that evolution allows one to be an atheist -- no, if you accept evolution, you must be an atheist. And they say it all the time, without compromise or qualification. It is in fact what drives their very movement. If they couldn't convince their followers that the evolutionists are out to destroy their religion, they wouldn't have followers.

Given that this is the way things stand, Dawkins and Dennett and their ilk are committing one sin and one sin only: They're giving ammo to the creationist who say, "See, the evolutionists agree!" But this is dishonest on the part of the creationists. They know good and well that the viewpoints of Dennett et al are minority viewpoints among evolutionists, that most evolutionists think that theism and evolution can be reconciled, and more importantly, that the majority of Christian denominations hold that evolution is compatible with faith. But they're not about to tell their followers that. They'll keep pretending as if Dennett and Dawkins speak for everyone who accepts evolution.

So whose fault is this really? Those on our side who say that evolution and faith can't be reconciled may be wrong (I'm not taking a position on that for the purposes of this post), but it's a legitimate viewpoint nonetheless, and they should be free to express it. Sure, when Dawkins does his religion-bashing, it may be politically harmful, but that is primarily because the creationists imply, dishonestly, that he speaks for the average biologist. Just because the creationists are unwilling to place his remarks in context (or more on point, willing to practice gross misrepresentation), doesn't mean that we should seek to hide those who provide anecdotal evidence for the creationists' incompatability thesis. To suggest that they should keep a lid on it is to allow the creationists to dictate our standards of discourse -- to be reactive rather than proactive.

In the end, trying to sideline the Dennetts of the world because they constitute a political liability, even if it's wrong for other reasons, may be helpful in the short term. But in the long term, I don't think it matters. The creationists aren't going to represent us fairly no matter who says what. We have to get out in front and point out what the actual truth of the matter is. And that's on everything, including the science.