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Ken Miller just can’t win

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

FEAT030510_Darwin_main
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.

THE SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN
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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43 Comments / Add Comment

mafarmerga

Perhaps the best article on this subject I have seen in a long time. I'm with Ken on this one, at least in terms of how one interprets Gould's non-overlapping magisteria. But I am left humbled and bewildered if Coyne and others are right. That the creationists will never move towards the center.

And America is moving towards them.
Posted: March 04 2010 at 9:25 PM

Anonymous

I'm as atheistic as they come; I can't imagine any way I could be convinced that there is a god. But I'm an atheist not because of science; I can't see that there is any place in the Universe for a god, I can't see that there has been any real evidence a god has done anything ever at all. But I think that science and religion are two separate things and should never be brought together. So I think that Ken Miller is doing a very good job, promoting science and also showing that a person can be religious too. I read his "Only a Theory" and thought it was excellant.
Posted: March 04 2010 at 11:52 PM

FishyFred

Turns out this article is blatantly dishonest: //scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/03/sins_of_omission.php

Way to go, kid. You wrote the story you had in mind all along.
Posted: March 04 2010 at 11:52 PM

Anonymous

FishyFred, if Myers doesn't want it written, he shouldn't say it. A journalist can print anything that's on the record.

Thinking that someone you like gets painted in a bad light in an article is not the equivalent of being "blatantly dishonest." Learn that - and save us the useless hyperbole, mmkay?
Posted: March 04 2010 at 11:59 PM

Anonymous

Excellent piece. I don't agree with everything Ken Miller says, but he does a great job representing science to a subset of society that is inherently anti-science. Too many well-meaning scientists (like Myers and Coyne) draw a figurative line in the sand and say "here. be religious and deny evolution, or become an atheist and accept it." That may not be their intention, but that's how the public seems to perceive it. And perception is everything when you're dealing with the public.

(By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with New Atheists, you're about to see this comment board get flooded with a lot of hate and juvenility, seeing as how their Grand Poobah dislikes how he was quoted. Let it be a primer to what this article refers.)
Posted: March 05 2010 at 12:03 AM

Anonymous

As stated above by Fishy, the writer of this story did not find the facts and then put them together in a way that he could best explain them. However, he did interviews looking for specific points in the first place, and then molded them into a story he already had in mind.
Posted: March 05 2010 at 12:16 AM

Anonymous

[insert hate and "juvenility" here]

Nah, religious people assume there's an epic battle going on between good and evil when, in reality, the rest of us continue about our lives. And somewhere along the way, science gets done and all of our lives become that much more awesome.
Posted: March 05 2010 at 12:21 AM

Anonymous

"FishyFred, if Myers doesn't want it written, he shouldn't say it. A journalist can print anything that's on the record."

The stupid in this quote is unbelievable. The point IS THAT PZ Myers said a lot more than what the journalist wrote. In other words, the author was 'cherry picking'! Of course, In more reputable newspapers, that would be considered LYING and the so-called journalists would be ass-kicked out of the place in an instant!!
Posted: March 05 2010 at 12:35 AM

Mintman

> But I'm an atheist not because of science; I can't see that there is any place in the Universe for a god, I can't see that there has been any real evidence a god has done anything ever at all.

Those ARE scientific reasons for rejecting god. What else do you think would be science except looking at the evidence?

Well, anyway, if you are going to say that science supports your particular religion, and other scientists say that no, it doesn't, you are just giving ad-hoc justifications for your superstitions, is that an "attack"? Perhaps, in the opinion of the writer of this piece, we should just all sit around mutely and serenely and never discuss anything?
Posted: March 05 2010 at 2:09 AM

Robin Lionheart

In this article Miller is quoted: "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."

In other words, suppose everyone knew Jesus spoke the truth in saying: "Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you." (Mark 11:23-24)

If the Gospels were correct about God granting all prayers, why that would reduce the Almighty to a mere omniponent genie!

o/~ If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a god
Your dreaaaams cooooome truuuuuue...
Posted: March 05 2010 at 2:38 AM
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