francisco ayala, the master of the dodge
You may remember the debacle over the recent £1 million Templeton prize awarded with the help of the NAS over the vocal objections of several of its prominent members. Rather than embracing controversy in the form of Francis Collins and his forceful attempts at playing theologist with their grant money, the Foundation went for a light touch and chose a former priest and evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala. As mentioned before on this blog, Ayala is a noteworthy scientist and even campaigned to teach the facts of evolution in schools rather than delude them with pseudoscience and creationist canards. But he’s also quite a cunning politician, eager and willing to bust Dawkins’ chops on the direct and uncompromising style of today’s atheists, but seemingly unable to say anything concrete when asked to reveal any of his beliefs, dodging his way through interviews.
It’s a move that tends to be quite typical of many accommodationists. They love to talk about civility and berate those they believe to be obstructing their mission of spreading harmony, but when it comes to answering a tough question where they’ll have to take a real, honest to goodness stance, they shrink from the task and fall back on criticizing their critics’ manners, periodically whining about “vicious attacks on their efforts.” Ayala has been sticking to Templeton’s script so far, talking about non-overlapping magisteria and repeating that there’s no need for science and religion to be in conflict, steadfastly ignoring the fact that whenever scientific studies fail to support the belief of the faithful, the faithful rebel against science, perpetuating century old debates. We see this all the time in the very creationism manufactroversy in which Ayala actually took a stand and earned a mention from the NCSE after winning the Templeton Prize.
Then again, why would the NCSE congratulate Ayala for winning a prize in advancing the kind of apologetics a group of high-minded Christian Evangelicals finds to be highly agreeable? Robert Luhn, the NCSE’s Director of Communications, told me that Ayala made huge contributions to defending the serious study of evolution in public schools from creationist interjections, and it only seemed appropriate to congratulate him on the award while including the following disclaimer in his reply…
The NCSE’s congratulations is not intended as, nor should it be regarded as, blanket approval of the Templeton Foundation, its mission, or any previous recipients of the award (who include the creationist Charles Colson, for example). Nor should it be construed as signaling any change in NCSE’s mission of defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools.
There’s a very wide range of views on these subjects among the NCSE’s staff, members, board of directors, and supporters. But what matters is that we’re united in the need to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Ayala has done much to support this cause, and we’re happy to see that he’s being recognized in part for it.
Translation? Ayala is an ally and we don’t want to alienate him in any way. A big part of the NCSE’s strategy is to show that learning evolution does not require some sort of conversion to atheism and invalidating most creationist speeches pitting science against religion. And it’s true. Millions of people happily reconcile a need for a deity in their worldview with the scientific facts without a problem. However, they’re not the type of people who tend to fall prey to the with-us-or-against-us speeches. Those who do, already see Charles Darwin as an agent of Satan and freely proselytize in science classes “to save their students’ souls.”
And as much as I respect the NCSE and its mission, I have to point out the politics involved with supporting Ayala because he’s willing to stand up for the integrity of evolutionary biology in the classroom are rather bizarre. Knowing how the Foundation chooses its award recipients, it’s probably a safe bet that scientific integrity in evolutionary biology had very little to do with their selection. This year was all about buying legitimacy and avoiding controversy as much as possible by putting on a show with the help of the NAS.
But because Ayala is a former priest and a great illustration that even expert level knowledge of evolution and theistic beliefs can and do coexist in the same mind, the NCSE had to diplomatically skip over this point. And yes, Ayala indirectly links the organization with a group which once funded the Discovery Institute until they saw the Institute’s politics as a liability. Ironically, a fair share of the pseudosciences the NCSE fought in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case were made possible by Templeton’s grants. Also, let’s consider the history of the prize itself.
Once awarded only to religious figures, it was later given to scientists who tried to find gods by poking into the quantum ether despite having the expertise to know their arguments were unsupportable. Ayala was the first actual scientist to be given an award for being a scientist first and a believer second in order to win a guise of respectability for the Foundation. Ayala obviously knows this and that’s why he’s dodging challenging questions that require him to take another firm stance. The more he keeps his views to himself, the less we have to discuss and fewer reasons to dig up the tricky politics of his affiliations…