There’s a kerfuffle under way in which Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Richard Hoppe, and a host of others are debating whether NCSE is too nice to theists. Since I work for NCSE, I’m trying to stay out of this, and my comments about NCSE will be based on publicly available information, not any internal discussions; I will also avoid referring to NCSE as “us” to avoid confusion on this point. As the disclaimer to the left says, nothing here reflects NCSE’s official position, and if you disagree, your disagreement is with me, not NCSE.
While I don’t intend any comprehensive or systematic reply to the whole kerfuffle, some statements deserve a reply. For instance, my friend PZ Myers is upset that:
people like Hoppe and [Ken] Miller and the staff at NCSE have also been busily promoting the idea that atheists like me or Dawkins or Coyne are anathema in the public discourse, since we don’t preach the message of compatibility. I was not giving lectures in Kansas because I was not asked.
As someone with a good working knowledge of what the NCSE staff has been saying, I don’t know who he thinks has been claiming he or Coyne or Dawkins is anathema. Whatever.
The more interesting thing is his claim that he wasn’t active in Kansas, etc. “because [he] was not asked” (his emphasis). As someone deeply involved in events in Kansas, I can say that no one invited me, either. I got involved. I emailed people. I spoke to people. I showed up at hearings. I got other people to show up at hearings. Then people started asking me to do this, and that, to attend this other meeting, etc. No one came to me hat in hand, begging for my assistance. Folks in the midst of the fight didn’t have time for that.
It’s harder for someone in Minnesota, naturally. But this idea that PZ and Jerry and Richard are powerless to help defend science education unless they are given engraved invitations is absurd. PZ knows that, too, so I don’t know why he’s repeating this canard. He’s stepped up on many occasions to help defend science education in his own state and beyond; I know he’ll continue doing so.
When I get invited give a talk somewhere, I write to other institutions nearby, including universities and groups of humanists, skeptics, and atheists in the area. I invite myself, because this is important, and I want to get the message out that evolution is important. PZ travels a lot, and nothing stops him from doing the same, nor is anything stopping him from taking more action in any number of other ways. And if he wants tips on how to be most effective, he knows how to reach me and how to reach NCSE. Anyone else interested in helping can find my contact information and NCSE’s without much effort. But games are won by those who show up, and waiting for an invitation means that someone else is going to be taking the field.
Without getting into the weeds of this spat, I’d like to apply this basic principle to a few other claims being bandied about. As Coyne and others have noted, NCSE does have a Faith Project Director, Dr. Peter Hess, a Catholic theologian who certainly takes the view that a proper view of Catholicism would be entirely compatible with science and religion. This is a view going back to St. Augustine at least, and similar statements can be found in the Jewish theology of Maimonides, and others see glimmers of evolutionary reasoning in Kabbalistic teachings (which I find to be a stretch). He is naturally free to state his own views on science and religion in public without committing NCSE to any particular aspect of his theology. NCSE no more endorses his Catholicism than it does the atheism of our executive director.
In his essays describing his take on science and religion, Hess certainly advocates for a view of science and religion as compatible. In personal essays and reviews in NCSE’s newsletter, Reports of the NCSE, a wide range of views on science and religion are presented, with prominent praise for Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and other atheists, as well as for Ken Miller, Keith Miller, and other authors defending the compatibility of science and religion. Note especially that Coyne and Orr’s book on Speciation, not to mention Dawkins’s and Dennett’s writings on science, are featured prominently in NCSE’s list of Further Reading on evolution. This despite Jerry Coyne’s claim that “There are no books by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, and all those who have criticized the science-faith concordat” in readings recommended by NCSE. We are further criticized for featuring Peter Hess’s book on Catholicism and Science, claiming:
Perhaps most telling, the NCSE markets, as “staff publications,” some books that apparently show how religion and science can live happily together. Take a look at the page on which you’re supposed to sign up as an NCSE member. There you’ll find the “staff publication” Catholicism and Science, by Peter M. J. Hess (director of the “Faith Project”). By advertising the book in this way the NCSE is saying, “here’s our point of view.”
This is, to start off, incredibly silly. Why the scare quotes around “staff publications”? That phrase denotes that these are publications by NCSE staff, hardly a dubious concept. NCSE obviously promotes books by staff, including those by executive director Eugenie C. Scott (an atheist), deputy director Glenn Branch (unspecified religious views) and Faith Project director Peter Hess (a Catholic). The claim that putting Hess’s book in a list of staff publications endorses his beliefs is as silly as claiming that the identical promotion of books by Genie is an endorsement of atheism. It’s an odd double standard at work there. NCSE has also used Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, books by Richard Dawkins, and other books by atheists and agnostics, as rewards for new members. Contrary to Coyne’s complaint, there’s no religious bias in which books NCSE promotes.
Looking elsewhere at NCSE’s handling of religion, we find NCSE’s Voices for Evolution, which features a whole section of religious organizations defending the teaching of evolution. Along with the Clergy Letter Project (11,000 strong and growing!), and statements from most mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups, it also features statements by the American Humanist Association, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, and the Humanist Association of Canada. A statement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is listed in the section on civil liberties groups alongside the ACLU and the Council of Europe. If other atheist, humanist, or secularist groups wanted to issue similar statements, NCSE would surely welcome their inclusion.
But again, this requires them to care enough to actually do the work of creating the statement. NCSE would certainly be happy to help with the statement if asked, but the impetus to issue these statements has to come from within. Just as no one had to invite me to get involved in Kansas, no one had to invite the Methodists to issue a pro-evolution statement. All atheist groups need to do to get similar treatment is to organize themselves, issue statements, and get involved in other ways.
Coyne’s complaint about NCSE’s book recommendations focuses on only one set of books NCSE recommends, the books in our section on Theology and Evolution, and the same principle about the importance of showing up for the game applies there. It’s true that no books denying the compatibility of religion and evolution are listed there, but I don’t know that a scholarly book (comparable to other texts on the list) by an atheist denying that possibility has actually been written. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have written a broadside against religion per se, but it doesn’t address the topic of Hess’s bibliography, which is “Theology and Evolution,” specifically “The literature about questions at the interface between religion and evolution” which “NCSE members have found to be enriching and useful.” Coyne has certainly not written such a book, nor have other potential authors listed by Coyne: Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Myers, Pinker, Harris, and Grayling. Perhaps NCSE has missed some compelling entry into this field, and if so, I don’t doubt that suggestions would be welcomed. But complaining that the list is missing books in a category that doesn’t exist hardly seems fair.
I will close by issuing a qualified endorsement of Richard Hoppe’s views. Hoppe recognizes that NCSE is a hybrid, working on the boundary between science, politics, religion, and policy, and that there’s no way to avoid discussion of religion in that context, and no way to win battles in defense of evolution without explaining that one need not choose between religion (especially Christianity) and evolution. As Hoppe knows from his work in the trenches, defending Ohio science standards and helping a child whose creationist teacher burned a cross in his arm, many people simply will not hear any scientific evidence for evolution until one addresses religion. And Hoppe recognizes that (most of) NCSE’s statements about religion consist of observations that some people really do find a compatibility between science and religion, and do not endorse religion per se or any particular way of reconciling religion with evolution.
In its Faith Project, then, I think that NCSE has gone beyond its remit and past where it can be effective. I now think – in agreement with Coyne, PZ, and others – that it should back off from describing particular ways of reconciling science and religion. Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake. NCSE ought not wade into theological swamps.
Peter Hess is a trained theologian with lots of experience in this issue. It strikes me as silly to expect him to remain silent on his area of specialization so long as he remains in NCSE’s employment. NCSE should not and does not endorse any particular view on religion, but Peter Hess, as an NCSE employee, clearly can express his own views on these matters or keep them private, just as I do, just as Genie does, just as Glenn does, and so forth. Individually, we all wade into theological swamps in our own ways. Organizationally, I do not think NCSE does so. If that’s the impression Hess’s essays give, it’s certainly problematic. I think a fair reading of the situation is that these essays represent the view of one staff member, as do other webpages on the NCSE site signed by their author. Perhaps that distinction is not clear on the website, but perhaps (speaking as I am from the perspective of an NCSE outsider) some additional steps could be taken to clarify matters.
On that topic we might ask whether (in some cases) tendentious, (in some cases) inaccurate, and (in some cases) insulting blog posts are the best way to raise such concerns. I leave that question to the collective wisdom of blogtopia to resolve. It might be that a polite email or a quick phone call would have been more effective. All of NCSE’s critics agree that they “enormously admire” NCSE’s work, that NCSE is “an indispensable element in protecting our classrooms,” and that they “support NCSE all the way,” and that they are, in general, NCSE’s friend. In my experience, that’s not how friends behave. Friends certainly warn their friends away from harmful or counterproductive behavior, but they don’t do it over the PA at a Superbowl party. They do it privately and politely, only resorting to an intervention if that has no effect.