Kenneth Miller Gets it All Wrong
The Huffington Post featured an online debate the other day between Michael Shermer and Kenneth Miller. The question at hand was “Are science and religion compatible?” To me, this question has been settled definitively—numerous times. They are not. Yet this conversation persists. In this debate, Miller argued that reason and faith are compatible. I found his essay hard to read—not for its technicality, but rather for his refusal to acknowledge key aspects to this debate, his attacking of straw men, and his blatant ignorance of history. Ivy League professor or not, the essay was embarrassing. I would have expected more from a high school student in a religious school’s theology class.
Miller begins his essay with the following sentence, “Any suggestion that science and religion are incompatible flies in the face of history, logic, and common sense.” One must note the bombastic nature of this statement, then ask the question, is Miller serious? From the start, he attacks any notion that he is wrong. He has made no argument and yet anyone who disagrees with him is guilty of poor history, logic, and lacking common sense. This is a typical debate technique for someone who has no basis for what they believe—work to discredit others rather than making your own claims.
In the second sentence of his essay, Miller misleads his reader, blatantly distorts, or is ignorant of the same history he just lauded in the first sentence. He writes, “Modern science developed in the context of western religious thought, was nurtured in universities first established for religious reasons, and owes some of its greatest discoveries and advances to scientists who themselves were deeply religious.” This is a half-truth at best and grossly inaccurate at worst. While it is true that much of modern science developed in the west, not all of it did. Second, modern scientific advancements, while perhaps occurring at Universities that were first established for religious reasons, came at the expense of those same religions. Religion, stood in the way of just about every major scientific advancement we have known. Many of those same scientists were not strict followers of Christianity. To imply that religion, in any way, helped to foster in scientific advancement is laughable. When Christian thought was dominant in the west, when it controlled education, we had the period known as the Dark Ages. Hardly a time of great learning. It was not until academics broke the chains of Christian thought that we began to see scientific and philosophical advancements. Miller goes on to cite George Lemaître as an example of a great religious scientist. This too is a bit dishonest, at least in my opinion. While true that Lemaître was a priest who contributed much to the science of the Twentieth Century, he is also the same man who cautioned the Pope not label Catholic theological opinions on Creation as “infallible”—hardly the type of idea that is harmonious with religion. In simpler terms, he may have been a priest, but also knew his discovery could spell the end of his own religion. Miller certainly misleads when implying that the “Big Bang” has its foundations in Catholicism.
The next section of Miller’s essay is quite honest, and in agreement with Shermer (and me) that religion is often identified as being anti-science. Further that this reputation is well earned through the various pseudosciences that have arisen out of it. He points out that he has attacked these views.
He then asks the question, “So, if religious faith seems to go hand-in-hand with science denial, why not admit that Science and God just don’t mix? Because it simply isn’t true”. One must ask if Miller was feeling okay when writing this piece. He has so far lauded religion’s contribution to science, derided religion for being anti-science, and then re-asserts that Science and God naturally mix. For an esteemed scholar, this is shoddy and disjointed work. It also appears to be the work of a man who is grasping at straws and living in cognitive dissonance (more on that later).
His next argument is just plain wrong. Wrong in the same blatant way that if I told a red traffic light means “Go” kind of way. He writes “Look carefully at modern anti-science movements and you’ll see that many of the most important cases of science denial have nothing to do with religion”. Is Miller living in the same country as the rest of us? The folks who are arduously working to have evolution replaced in schools are not motivated by religion? The anti-climate change groups basing their objection on the idea that humans cannot wreck what god has made are not motivated by religion? The homosexuality is not natural people are not motivated by religion? The blastocyst is a human being and cannot be aborted people are not motivated by religion? Miller should be ashamed to even write that sentence and no thinking person should take is seriously.
To be fair, we must look at what Miller does see as the motivating force behind the anti-science movement. He shamelessly claims that the anti-science movement is being driven by big business and elected officials. He cites tobacco and pharmaceutical companies past deceptions as evidence to support his claim. This is a straw man argument. Of course those companies manipulated their own scientific studies and attempted to discredit studies opposing their views. However, and let us be clear on this, they lost. Nobody bought their lies over legitimate science in the end. If anything, his arguments can be used against him. The failure of those industries to successfully win in the court of public opinion may be seen to have strengthened science. Not to mention, he does not address any of the front line issues I highlighted in the previous paragraph between reason and faith. Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies? Really?
His next paragraph is as offensive as it is moronic. Miller argues that many times people have a difficult time accepting scientific truths as they often fly in the face of current models of thought. People can find this threatening. I have no idea why he inserts this line of thinking into his argument, there is really no place for it. Oh wait, Miller goes on to write that his can lead to restricting science, which sometimes can be a good thing because science has given us “eugenics, the atomic bomb, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments”. What a foolish statement for a biologist to make. Science did not give us these things—people gave us those things. One may presume that people, following one of the western religions he is so fond of, in their moral failings, gave us those things. Science like anything can be used for good or evil. Unless Miller is attempting to discredit science, I see no rational reason for a biologist to write this paragraph. Miller either does not understand the simple concept that just because some people have used science for nefarious purposes is not a reason to abandon or restrict it. Furthermore, how does this paragraph in any way further his argument that science and faith are compatible? It does not. Seriously, I wrote more coherent essays in junior high.
At this point in the essay I was quite frustrated. Other than writing nonsense, I was found myself frustrated by the fact that Miller has still not tackled any of the real or tough questions that exist between reason and faith. His next paragraph opens with a statement claiming it is time to do just that. Phew. Miller blows it. His tough question is seeking an answer does “a genuine incompatibility between science and the concept of God” exist? He answers this by saying that science tells us that “our own existence is woven into the very fabric of the natural world”. Miller takes this and makes a leap to the idea that “human presence is not a mistake of nature or random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of our universe.” Miller is a biologist. Does he not understand that many of his own colleagues disagree with the leap he has made? There is much to imply that the creation of our universe was in fact completely random and accidental. He is implying the existence of a creative force to prevent the accidents and randomness. This is a huge error on his part. He goes on to write that theists will see idea as the mark of god and that atheists will seek another reason for “rationality” of creation. This is another huge error. He assumes that “rationality” exists in the creation of the universe. There is nothing to indicate that this is so. We could be here by sheer dumb luck—no rationality needed. Miller credulously goes on to say that the “systematic study of nature in the project we call science” can be embraced by both theists and atheists. That in fact, “That is the ultimate source of compatibility between science and religion.” I must pause to ask, what the hell is he talking about? Is he not familiar with the notion that each of the western religions claims to have a definitive answer for the creation of the universe? They are not still looking, they are not part of the “systematic study”—in fact they are rejecting the very notion he is advocating for. Ask any priest, pastor, bishop, pope, imam, or rabbi if they are interesting in supporting a study to determine the creation of the universe through non-divine means and see how far you get. They believe they have the answers already. They are not part of the scientific process. Miller seems to acknowledge this when he writes, “it seems to me that any faith that might require the rejection of scientific reason is not a faith worth having.” Again, we must ask, what the hell is he talking about?
This is where it becomes abundantly clear that he is not qualified to write this piece. He does not seem to understand the definition of faith. Faith demands that one believes a premise with little, non-existent, or faulty evidence. The main focus of this essay should be trying to reconcile that idea with the fact that science is the polar opposite of faith. Science accepts nothing on little, no, or faulty evidence. How can one, believe as Miller does, that faith can do anything but reject scientific reason? Once we have an answer, through scientific reason, faith ceases to be useful and must be discarded. They cannot co-exist. If I was religious and could not explain how occurrence “X” came to be, I can attribute this lack of understanding to god—that is what religions do. However, if I later learn, through scientific reason that occurrence “X” happened because of “Y” I no longer need faith or god to explain it. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. Not only does Miller fail to address it directly, he is advocating for faith and reason to live side by side. He has missed the entire point of the essay that he was charged to write. He offers no argument for why faith and reason are compatible. I would posit this is for two reasons. First, Miller is either a theist who is afraid to let his faith go, is dishonest, or is content to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. I do not know him so I do not know which of three best applies. Second, he has not offered anything new because, as I said in my opening paragraph, there is nothing new to offer. This debate is settled.
The last point I want to address regards the following statement by Miller in trying to defend the many scientists who are still religious, he states, “Science and religion are different ways of thinking”. This is his last large error. Science demands reason and thinking. Faith demands the cessation of thinking. Religion is not a “different way of thinking”. None of the monotheistic religions want you to think at all. The “good” Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and Muslim do not question the dogma/doctrine of their religion. They are to accept them as truths. Not only is thinking not required, it is actively discouraged, and in many cases and times throughout history, punishable by death.
In closing, Miller, as a scholar, should be embarrassed to have written such an essay. He has failed to address the salient points of this debate. Further, the points that he has chosen to address are done so in a biased and poor fashion. Miller has offered nothing to further this debate. Please recall my comment in the second paragraph regarding Miller’s bombastic attack on those who disagree with him. It turns out that he just proved me correct, he had nothing to worthwhile to say, or at least nothing worth reading and considering, he knew it and attempted to use his opening statement as a shield or distraction from that fact. It failed. My grade for your essay Professor is “F”.
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