An Atheist and a Fundamentalist Walk into a Bar…

Can skeptics and believers talk civilly to one another? Can creationists and mainstream scientists ever have a constructive dialogue?

Most of the time, the best efforts at culture-war mediation leave everyone only more bitter and more convinced of the “extremism” and “irrationality” of the other side.

Thanks to coverage from the Texas Freedom Network, we recently caught up with an illuminating intellectual exchange between a leading creationist advocate and a witty, informed science skeptic.  Neither one seems to have been “converted” by the argument, but the civil yet heated discussion demonstrated the possibilities of creation-evolution dialogue.

Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptics Society, interviewed Texas creation activist Don McLeroy last month.  You can hear the full interview on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.  Also fascinating, you can follow the post-interview back-and-forth on Novella’s NeurologicaBlog.

As we’ve argued here before, trying to understand Don McLeroy is a great way to begin making sense of conservatism in American education more broadly.  As the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010, McLeroy spearheaded a campaign to overhaul Texas’ influential textbook guidelines.  In that fight, McLeroy cared about more than evolution.  He also promoted an emphasis on such disparate themes as the Christianity of the founding fathers, the beneficence of the National Rifle Association, and the civic value of country music.

In the May 8, 2013 interview, Novella and his colleagues asked mainly about McLeroy’s position on evolution education.

During the interview, McLeroy makes his case for teaching the scientific alternatives to mainstream evolution theory.  As Novella and his associates point out, McLeroy carefully avoids making a case for teaching creationism or any religious ideas in public schools. Instead, McLeroy consistently advocates only for teaching the scientific criticisms of evolutionary theory.  Most of the discussion consists of a back-and-forth on the merits and weight of those criticisms.

Are there enough real scientific challenges to evolutionary theory to merit their inclusion in public-school science curricula?

One of the most intriguing points of the exchange was McLeroy’s insistence that religious thinkers are free to be more open-minded about the scientific claims of evolution.  Since religious intellectuals are open to the idea of both materialistic and supernatural explanations, McLeroy claimed, they have greater ability to weigh the evidence. This argument did not sit well with Novella and his colleagues.

Another fascinating discussion resulted from McLeroy’s defense of his anti-expert position.  During the 2010 school fight in Texas, as captured so movingly in Scott Thurman’s Revisionaries documentary, McLeroy argued that educators needed to seize control from “experts.”  Novella and his associates explained to McLeroy why this claim seemed preposterous to them.  Why should science curricula ignore the thinking of mainstream scientists—the real experts—and instead follow the inclinations of one dentist from Texas?

I was surprised to hear McLeroy’s willingness to waffle.  As I’ve argued before, McLeroy’s indictment of “experts” has a storied history, of which Novella and his colleagues seemed unaware.  For many anti-evolution activists, indeed for many conservative educational activists on a range of issues, the baleful influence of educational experts has long been assumed.  The recent trashing of CSCOPE in Texas demonstrated only the most recent emergence of this anti-expert sentiment.  I wished Dr. McLeroy had tried to articulate some of this broader anti-expert tradition.

More important than the details of the transcript, however, was the tone of the interview and post-interview exchange.  Neither Novella nor McLeroy apologized for their beliefs.  Neither held back from pointed and fundamental criticisms of the other, though as guest McLeroy tended to be more polite.  Yet the two sides managed to speak politely to one another.  McLeroy called Novella a “scholar and a gentleman.”

For his part, Novella called McLeroy

an exemplary guest. He stayed polite throughout, and did not bristle even when directly confronted on his position. He also did something I find extremely rare in such interviews – occasionally acknowledging a point on the other side or a weakness in his own position. He also had clearly made a genuine effort to read pro-evolution material and criticisms of his position.

I came away with the impression that he is genuinely trying to understand the creation/evolution debate and to rely on only valid arguments.

Did either side walk away from this exchange converted?  Definitely not.  But was the exchange worthwhile?  Certainly yes, for several reasons.

First of all, for interested observers, this back-and-forth gave both sides a chance to make their own arguments.  Readers and listeners can see what intelligent advocates might say on some basic stumpers of the creation/evolution debate.

Second, in any tense culture-war standoff, elaborate courtesy and face-to-face meetings help defuse the tendency to demonize the opposition.  For evolution believers like me, the contours of the debate change when I hear a friendly, seemingly well-intentioned leader of the creationist cause, if only to prove that both sides can include people of good will.


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  1. Gail Musante

     /  June 20, 2013

    The only problem I see with this discussion, though, is that many arch-conservatives have been using this type of “open dialogue” to fog important issues. By demanding equal time for discussion of extreme views, they are able to suggest to the public that legitimate scientists don’t really have enough hard evidence to support their views, so it’s all just a matter of personal preference. This becomes so important in the discussion of issues such as climate change where the ability to make important decisions is paralyzed by the false appearance of scientific indecision. Powerful interests, such as the fossil fuel industry, pay to keep these dialogues going even as they tacitly acknowledge the reality of the situation in their planning for the future. I wonder whether the evolution discussion isn’t more of the same – just another way for a minority to pull the appearance of “reasonable compromise” in their direction.

    • Right. Or even worse, intentional peddlers of rigged science working for industries such as big tobacco. As Robert Proctor (among others) has demonstrated, such tobacconists have promoted sketchy research only to create a false controversy over whether or not smoking tobacco was harmful.
      But I think the specific creation/evolution version of this has unique features. First of all, I tend to give more credibilty to religious dissenters than to tobacco-company executives or tax-hating climate-change denialists. However, creationists these days usually don’t present themselves first and foremost as religious dissenters (which they are) but as promoters of a legitimate scientific alternative (which they’re not). Creationists often wedge themselves into the same political position as tobacco lobbyists and climate-change denialists due to their shared desire in promoting a false scientific controversy. This puts mainstream scientists and educators in a tight spot, as you note. If mainstream scientists deign to debate scientific issues with creationists, it gives creationists some justification to claim that there is a real scientific controversy. However, in this case, I think that risk is worth running, due to the fact that creationism in all its many forms usually results from legitimate religious dissent. As such, I think it is important not to shunt it out of all mainstream discussions, but rather to engage it and hope to disaggregate these many tangled issues.

  2. Thanks for this. I think if my research is successful, one of the most valuable things I could find is a way for meaningful dialogue between fundamentalists and critics of fundamentalism. I’m not doing well so far, running a blog that mainly antagonises my critics!

    • But with your personal history, you have the right to claim a unique role as facilitator. Like in various “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions, it takes someone who has a fair claim to have suffered to make the first move toward dialogue.

      • I hope so. And maybe I can with the wider fundamentalist community, but with ACE, I’ve generated so much negative press against them. People who’ve worked there say my name is blacklisted in the UK office.

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