The controversy seems to center mostly on the section of his talk described like this by the Journal World:
Miller said the root of the portrayal of religion and evolution as opposites may come from scientists who have an “anti-theistic interpretation of evolution,” a stance he disagrees with.
“People of faith are shooting at the wrong target. They should not be shooting at evolution itself,” he said.
Miller, a Catholic, said evolution has been remarkably robust in answering criticism through fossil records, the fusing of human chromosomes and other examples.
Instead of attacking evolutionary theory, the argument should be against the anti-theistic interpretation of evolution, he said.
As Dr. Myers agrees, “Miller is not trying to redirect creationists to fight atheists, and he’s very clear that all of us need to stand together in our opposition to bad science.” I think that was fairly clear from what he said, but I don’t blame Dr. Myers for raising a ruckus.
Pete Seeger tells a story about sensitivity. It’s easy to look at someone who seems to be over-reacting to something and say “Oh, you’re too sensitive.” But someone who’s been poked in the same spot over and over again will be sensitive for very good cause. Don’t judge someone without knowing that background.
Atheists in America certainly have been poked again and again. They are right to be sensitive. It may be that Dr. Myers should have sent Ken Miller an email before he posted his first angry comments, as he probably should have checked with Dr. Collins a couple weeks back. I don’t blame him for reacting quickly and forcefully though.
Miller’s point is best summarized by his claim that “what makes science special is that it provides intellectual common ground that can unite people.” It does that by restricting its focus, addressing only the shared reality, the testable part of the world. To borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, we can say that science studies “mere reality.” Some people argue that that is the entirety of the universe, others see much more in the universe. Science gives a common language for discussing those shared experiences, and doesn’t address the rest.
That’s what we need to talk about. It isn’t about eradicating this or that, it’s about promoting something vital and important. Yes, the religious authoritarians are out there and their goal is certainly to attack atheism and anything they see as smacking of atheism. But to fight them on the same ground is to give away the battle.
The authoritarians want to force divides between people, to force Ken Miller to denounce Richard Dawkins, and vice versa. Bring religious conflict into the discussion of science, and use that division as a weapon against both. The way out is to refuse that battle.
Miller is right in identifying the underlying problem in the creationism battles. People don’t care about the evidence for evolution or against a young earth. Their concern is that they don’t know how to attach meaning to their lives, to moral judgments, to social order, without the knowledge that humans are some sort of goal. The sense that evolution is unguided and random bugs them at some deep level, and we can’t address that without talking theology and ethics. In the mean time, the key thing to talk about in terms of science is how science works, how we know what we do. Forcing fellow scientists into an auto da fé isn’t productive, and only hurts the cause of promoting science.