Letter: Richard Dawkins about Reiss Creationism controversy
Before Michael Reiss stepped down as director of education for the Royal Society, Dawkins sent New Scientist his thoughts on the creationism row that blew up last week
The Reverend Michael Reiss, the Royal Society’s Director of Education, is in trouble because of his views on the teaching of creationism.
Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take.
Scientists divide into two camps over this issue: the accommodationists, who ‘respect’ creationists while disagreeing with them; and the rest of us, who see no reason to respect ignorance or stupidity.
The accommodationists include such godless luminaries as Eugenie Scott, whose National Center for Science Education is doing splendid work in fighting the creationist wingnuts in America. She and her fellow accommodationists bend over backwards to woo the relatively sensible minority among Christians, who accept evolution.
Get the bishops and theologians on the side of science – so the argument runs – and they’ll be valuable allies against the naive creationists (who probably include the majority of Christians and certainly almost all Muslims, by the way).
No politician could deny at least the superficial plausibility of this expedient, although it is disappointing how ineffective as allies the ‘sensible’ minority of Christians turn out to be.
The official line of the US National Academy, the American equivalent of the Royal Society, is shamelessly accommodationist. They repeatedly plug the mantra that there is ‘no conflict’ between evolution and religion. Michael Reiss could argue that he is simply following the standard accommodationist line, and therefore doesn’t deserve the censure now being heaped upon him.
Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prize-winning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.
Nevertheless – it’s regrettable but true – the fact that he is a priest undermines him as an effective spokesman for accommodationism: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he!”
If the Royal Society wanted to attack creationism with all fists flying, as I would hope, an ordained priest might make a politically effective spokesman, however much we might deplore his inconsistency.
This is the role that Kenneth Miller, not a priest but a devout Christian, plays in America, where he is arguably creationism’s most formidable critic. But if the Society really wants to promote the accommodationist line, a clergyman is the very last advocate they should choose.
Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society’s Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows, already concerned as they are by the signals the Society recently sent out through its flirtation with the infamous Templeton Foundation.
Accommodationism is playing politics, while teetering on the brink of scientific dishonesty. I’d rather not play that kind of politics at all but, if the Royal Society is going to go down that devious road, they should at least be shrewd about it. Perhaps, rather than resign his job with the Royal Society, Professor Reiss might consider resigning his Orders?
Richard Dawkins, Fellow of the Royal Society
My own take on the matter is in the previous blog.