Ken Miller just can’t win

Brown biology professor attacked by Darwin-hating fundies and leftie atheists alike
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  March 3, 2010

Photo: Richard McCaffrey (taken at the Providence Athenaeum)
DARWIN’S SPOKESMAN What happens when America’s top evolutionist goes to church?

Brown University biology professor Kenneth R. Miller is, perhaps, the nation's most important Darwinist.

He has spilled considerable ink in defense of evolution. Debated creationists in Rhode Island and Florida. He was the star witness in a high-profile Pennsylvania schools case that put creationism's latest iteration, intelligent design, on trial.

And when President George W. Bush suggested in 2005 that intelligent design make its way into the classroom, everyone from The O'Reilly Report to National Public Radio came calling.

But lately, there has been a curious turn in the tale. Miller has come under heavy attack from Darwin's fiercest acolytes: the New Atheists, a collection of sharp-elbowed intellectuals who have filled the New York Times best seller list in recent years with provocative broadsides against God.

A flush-faced Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, shook his finger at Miller during a tense panel discussion at New York University a few years ago. Christopher Hitchens, who wrote God Is Not Great, accused Miller of doing "damage to the good name of science" — and worse — in a recent on-line debate.

And Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago biology professor who penned Why Evolution Is True, wrote a lengthy essay in The New Republic last year attempting to dismantle Miller and his intellectual ally Karl W. Giberson.

The source of their concern: Miller, a practicing Catholic, has made a very public bid in the last decade or so to square religion and science; to mix church and state, in their view. "It's an effort to reconcile a legitimate discipline," says biology professor and prominent atheist blogger PZ Myers, "with foolishness."

A true scientist, the New Atheists argue, must renounce God. Must acknowledge the fundamental incompatibility of an empirical science and a revelatory faith. Miller couldn't disagree more.

A tall, inviting figure who favors jeans and plaid shirts, Miller hardly seems the type to inspire a furious debate. He is collegial. Generous with his time. He recently won a prize for excellence in teaching from Brown's student body.

And if the New Atheists' attacks get to him, he doesn't let on. Miller says the long hours he has devoted to baseball and softball umpiring have left him immune to even the sharpest digs. "Do you have any idea what people say to an umpire in a ballgame?" he says.

Miller's work as an umpire speaks to the small-town New England life he has built beyond Brown's gates. Darwin's spokesman lives with his family on a farm in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. And on Sundays, he attends Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Seekonk.

Giberson, the other target of Coyne's New Republic piece, says Miller's practice as a "very ordinary Catholic," paired with his stature as a "real, live scientist at a major university," gives him a special authority in the debate over faith and science.

But Miller does not have an entirely easy relationship with the Church. He is a sharp critic of the hierarchy's handling of the sex abuse scandal. And he admits to the same struggles with uncertainty — to the same questions about the Indonesian tsunami or Haitian earthquake — that plague so many of the faithful.

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