A few weeks ago both P.Z. Myers and I were interviewed by David Sharfenberg, a journalist for the Boston Phoenix. Sharfenberg said he was working on a piece about Kenneth Miller, had read my website, and wanted to discuss my views on Miller, on his faith, and on how he reconciled science and his Roman Catholicism. I talked to him a while, taking care to mention both the good things that Miller does (namely his anti-creationist activities and his widely-used biology textbooks) as well as my disagreements with his conflation of science and faith. I remember telling Sharfenberg that I thought that, along with Eugenie Scott, Ken Miller was America’s most valuable asset in fighting creationism.
So what did Mr. Sharfenberg do? He publishes a piece that completely omits the praise that both P.Z. and I had for Miller, concentrating entirely on our problems with Miller’s blurring faith and science. And he calls the piece “Ken Miller Just Can’t Win.”
Well, journalists can slant a piece any way they want, and of course P.Z. and I have been vocal critics of Miller’s accommodationism (see P.Z.’s take on this here), but it would have been nice had Sharfenberger mentioned briefly that both P.Z. and I had nothing but plaudits for Miller’s battle against Intelligent Design. I think it would only have been fair for a journalist to add that, in one very important respect, we’re on his side. But you won’t find a single mention of that in his piece. Like many journalists, Sharfenberg has a hook for his story, and anything that blunts that hook is bad.
But: Ken Miller can’t win? LOL! What can’t he win? He’s a primo fighter for evolution, a professor at Brown, an author of several widely used textbooks, which I assume has made him fairly well off, and also an author of two popular anti-creationist books, Finding Darwin’s God and Only a Theory. The only thing he hasn’t “won” is the unstinting respect of certain atheists. That’s not very much to lose!
Nor does he deserve that respect. If Miller kept his faith to himself, neither P.Z. nor I would say a word about it. If he wants to go to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church every Sunday, more power to him. But when he decides to write books about his faith, and, more important, about how he sees a way to reconcile that faith with science, then he lays himself open to public criticism. Why should that reconciliation, which after all involves religion, science, and philosophy, be immune to scrutiny? Why should those of us who feel differently have to keep silent?
And it’s the reconciliation itself, not Miller or his personal religious views, that I’ve gone after. Miller is, after all, a nice guy, and his ideas are far, far less of a problem than those of, say, William Dembski. So when Sharfenberg says that I “wrote a lengthy essay in The New Republic last year attempting to dismantle Miller and his intellectual ally Karl W. Giberson,” that’s not precisely true. The point of the essay was not to take apart Miller and Giberson themselves (to whom I offer encomiums in my piece), but to critically examine their views, and related views, that try to forge a harmony between faith and science.
Those who say that I should mute even that non-personal form of criticism don’t understand that my goal (and presumably the goal of P.Z. and other “new atheists”) is not just to defend evolution, but to stick up for science in its purest form, unsullied by superstition, and to defend rationality, of which science is only one branch. Mixing science and faith can confuse people.
Sharfenberg himself is a good example of how Miller’s finding-God-in-science arguments promotes that confusion:
But the cell biologist [Miller] also makes explicitly scientific arguments: maintaining, for instance, that quantum indeterminacy — the ultimately unpredictable outcome of physical events — could allow God to intervene in subtle, undetectable ways.
If that’s an “explicitly scientific argument,” then the King James Bible is a biology textbook! How many others have come away from Miller’s books or lectures buying his arguments that the “fine-tuning” of physical constants, or the inevitability of human evolution, are scientific indicators of the divine? (One of the chapters of Only a Theory is called “The World that Knew we Were Coming.”)
I do have one beef with a statement by Miller appearing in the Phoenix piece:
This sort of sly intervention [God acting through quantum indeterminacy], he [Miller] argues, is vital to the Creator’s project: if God were to re-grow limbs for amputees, for instance — if God were to perform the sort of miracles demanded by atheists as proof of his existence — the consequences would be disastrous.
“Suppose that it was common knowledge that if you were a righteous person and of great faith and prayed deeply, all of a sudden, your limb would grow back,” he says. “That would reduce God to a kind of supranatural force . . . and by pushing the button labeled ‘prayer,’ you could accomplish anything you wanted. What would that do to moral independence?”
So let me get this straight. Some miracles are ok (Miller apparently believes in the Resurrection and the divinity of Jesus), but they can’t be too numerous? Or too obvious? It’s ok for Jesus to heal the lame, or get rid of Parkinson’s disease (see here), but growing back a limb? No, no, that’s WAY too obvious. Unlike healing the lame, regrowing a limb would completely ruin moral independence? How, exactly, is that supposed to happen? And what about the alternative explanation for why prayer can apparently cure paralysis, deafness and cancer but not excised limbs (no, it’s not that God hates amputees)? Could Miller’s ideas about amputation be making a virtue out of necessity?
Only a theologian could buy Miller’s argument. Any smart twelve-year old could see right through it.
And that’s what’s so ironic about accommodationists and their religious allies. They’re always accusing atheists of having an unsophisticated understanding of theology. But when religious scientists like Miller, Giberson, or Francis Collins spout the most juvenile and transparently self-serving kind of apologetics, well, that’s just fine.