03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Richard Dawkins Communicates Evolution (Surprise, It's Not the Same Thing as Atheism)

You would be forgiven for not knowing what goes on daily in the science-centered blogosphere--but a recent fracas there casts a lot of light on the ongoing (if not unending) battle over the relationship between science, religion, and atheism.

It all started like this: Richard Dawkins, the author of the million-selling The God Delusion and the top dog of the so-called "New Atheist" movement, has a new book out on evolution entitled The Greatest Show on Earth. In the course of promoting it, he has been doing media interviews; and in one of them for Newsweek, Dawkins was quoted making statements that seemed to suggest a more moderate stance on the subject of science and religion than he is otherwise known for [italics added]:

Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution? No, I don't think they're incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God--to name only Francis Collins [the geneticist and Christian believer recently chosen to head the National Institutes of Health] as an outstanding example. So it clearly is possible to be both. This book more or less begins by accepting that there is that compatibility. The God Delusion did make a case against that compatibility in my own mind.

It is a tenet among Dawkins' many followers that science and faith are not really "compatible" in the sense of being ways of thinking that go together logically or consistently; so this statement appeared noteworthy. So, for that matter, did Dawkins' apparent defense of Francis Collins--who has been regularly criticized by the "New Atheists," despite his strong scientific credentials.

Granted, it's also possible Dawkins was misquoted, or not allowed to provide enough nuance in the interview. But there was more [italics added]:

I wonder whether you might be more successful in your arguments if you didn't convey irritation and a sense that the people who believe in God are not as smart as you are. I think there is a certain justified irritation with young-earth creationists who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old. Those are the people that I'm really talking about. I do sometimes accuse people of ignorance, but that is not intended to be an insult. I'm ignorant of lots of things. Ignorance is something that can be remedied by education. And that's what I'm trying to do.

Actually, in The God Delusion Dawkins certainly made it appear as though he thought religious folks were somehow mentally lacking. For example, in the book he casts aspersion on "the weakness of the religious mind."

And the quotation above also suggests yet another divergence from The God Delusion. In that book, Dawkins denounced the "Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists"--those, like the prominent Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller, who defend the teaching of good science in schools but nevertheless go easy on religion, or are themselves personally religious. Now, however, it doesn't appear as though these moderates are such a problem in Dawkins' mind--instead, it's the older enemies, the creationists and "intelligent design" theorists, who matter (foes the "Neville Chamberlains" have done much to help combat).

Once again, it's important to note that Dawkins might have been misquoted by Newsweek, or not permitted to provide enough nuance about his views in the interview--but that's what he was quoted as saying.

I and another blogger, Joshua Rosenau, understandably jumped on this, because the remarks seemed contrary to other things Dawkins and his various followers have said. Based on these words quoted in Newsweek, we wondered whether Dawkins might be changing his views and becoming more of an "accommodationist" on the subject of science and religion. (I also suggested--as I do again above--the possibility that he might have been misquoted.)

Predictably, Dawkins' many followers and defenders were up in arms about this, and claimed the great science popularizer was being misrepresented. That, however, seems rather over-the-top. We're well aware what Dawkins is on record as having said and written in The God Delusion, which is after all a text that, love it or hate it, has been incredibly influential. The point is that in light of what he wrote there, his more recent words suggested the possibility of some intellectual movement, or at least a different emphasis. That's no small matter given the way some in the American scientific and atheist community have been radicalized and inspired into a new combativeness towards religion lately, in significant part thanks to Dawkins.

But here's where the story gets really interesting: Dawkins responded strongly to the comments about his Newsweek interview, and to the suggestion that he might be changing his views. He did not engage in any discernible distancing from what he'd been quoted as saying, but he also rejected the idea of a shift in position:

How utterly ridiculous. All I was saying is that it is possible for a human mind to accommodate both evolution and religion because F. Collins's mind seems to manage the feat (along with lots of vicars and bishops and rabbis). I also needed to make the point that TGSOE [The Greatest Show on Earth] is not the same book as TGD [The God Delusion] because many interviewers who are supposed to be interviewing me about TGSOE have simply ignored it and gone right back to assuming that it is the same book as TGD.

I sympathize with politicians who have to watch every syllable they utter for fear it will be misused by somebody with an agenda.

If Dawkins isn't really changing his views, that's perfectly fine, and it's nice to have the clarification. We all know that brief interview snippets aren't always fully representative of a person's positions. Still, the Newsweek quotations remain pretty striking for someone who has read The God Delusion, and it would be nice to have further clarification on some of the points raised above.

But what's truly noteworthy is where Dawkins hints as to how this all happened-e.g., he's got an evolution book to sell now, and he's sick of people thinking it's an atheism book, so he's trying to steer interviewers away from that, and seems frankly annoyed that they don't get the difference:

I also needed to make the point that TGSOE [The Greatest Show on Earth] is not the same book as TGD [The God Delusion] because many interviewers who are supposed to be interviewing me about TGSOE have simply ignored it and gone right back to assuming that it is the same book as TGD.

In other words, Dawkins appears to be grappling with a communication problem. Linking together atheist advocacy and the defense of evolution, as he has done so prominently, poses a pretty big problem when you hit the US media with a new book on the latter. After writing a million-selling atheist "consciousness-raiser" and "come-out-of-the-closet" book, is it at all surprising that Dawkins now finds his evolution book being prominently linked to atheism in the media mind?

In this context, perhaps what's really going on is that Dawkins would like to promote his new book without too much religion-bashing attached to it. And given what he's now trying to achieve--to communicate about the science of evolution, which is a very important objective--that's a very wise thing to do. If Dawkins wants to change minds about evolution, and break down barriers, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to move to the center on religion, and not alienate religious believers or the U.S. media any more than he has to.

Dawkins' followers may complain that the master is being misrepresented, but the truth is that Richard Dawkins may be something else: a savvy, adaptable communicator.