Myers' Friendly Middle is No Friendly Place (or, the story of the ugly duckling)

David Myers is now the latest scholar to toss his opinion into a recent surging of literature seeking to ease theist-atheist tensions. In his upcoming book, A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith isn't Evil, Myers contemplates and comments on everything from the effectiveness of prayer to a Christian perspective on homosexuality. The book won't be released for nearly a month, but the preface, the first two chapters, and the controversial section on homosexuality are all on display at Myers' personal site.

Although the book by itself is an interesting one (after reading the "teaser" chapters online, I've already penciled in a bookstore date - coffee on me), the emergence of literature by intellectuals like Myers, Collins, and Giberson deserves its own spotlight. Scrolling through the entries of Science & Religion Today reveals that one of these books seems to be coming out on almost a weekly basis.

There is a common practice among many of the vocal atheists to mock any sort of theism that tries to claim a middle ground in the theist-atheist debates ("middle ground" is probably poor terminology to describe the position. Maybe "diplomacy" is better.). Unfortunately, there is also an equaly dissenting opinion stemming from the televangelist religious right that is eager to bloody and bludgeon anything less than a literal, word-by-word interpretation of the Bible.

David Myers is interesting because he doesn't fall into either camp. I think the perception is that Myers, Collins, Giberson, Gingerich, etc. have a faith of convenience - just scientific enough to be a scientist, and just Christian enough to be a Christian. It seems easy - glean the parts that you like, throw out the parts that don't mix, and stay friends with everyone.

Well, it just isn't true.

In reality, neither camp is quite willing to fully embrace many of these Christian scientists. Apparently, they aren't reasonable enough to be a scientist, and not Christian enough to be a Christian. How can someone believe in evolution AND God? Or in Myers case, how can you believe in homosexual marriage AND believe any shred of the Bible?

I think that a good example of this sort of tension can be seen in the reactions to Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Take a look at a blog post by ID advocate William Dembski :
"So in Giberson we have an erstwhile fundamentalist who used to reject evolution, got some education, swallowed Darwin hook, line, and sinker, and now spends his days justifying why his move to embrace Darwin was the better part of wisdom — all the while proudly proclaiming that he remains a Christian. Given the mental contortions required to remain a Christian once one embraces Darwin, Giberson is loathe to admit that Darwin is passe and the mental contortions were unnecessary. Hence the need to “save Darwin,” for in doing so Giberson saves his own intellectual and spiritual credibility."
Ouch. Unfortunately, Dembski is downright chummy after we compare him to atheist PZ Myers:
"Theologians like Giberson who try to impose their fantastic personal delusions on a book like that actually interfere with our understanding — they betray the entirely human story that we should be trying to extract from it. I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter, and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth."
To Dembski and PZ, the Gibersons of the world are the ugly-ducklings of their cause: "Sure, they are part of our group . . . but only sort of."

But I applaud the people who stand in the middle; not because I believe everything they say, not because I think their books will persuade many to join their camp, but because it keeps the rest of us from running rampant in our increasingly radical and polarized tribes. After reading Myers excerpts, I'm not convinced that any atheists will switch camps. I don't think that many will leave saying, "Boy, God really is good" or "Faith really isn't evil." This is by no means a negative review, but a recognition of the reality where an atheist is about as likely to embrace God and faith as a Red Sox fan is to embrace Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees. Fortunately, in order for the book to succeed, I don't think they have to.

No matter where you stand on things, the middle opens a dialogue between the two camps; and that is good. That is very good. It prevents us from turning our own interpretations of God and theology into divine truths that were chiseled from the cliffs of Mount Sinai.

Both camps have some things right, and I'm sure that both camps have beliefs that are terribly, terribly wrong. Listen, I'm not opposed to strong opinions, or even defending those opinions with pitchforks and pickaxes a la Frankenstein. But we've driven ourselves so deeply into a nuclear stand-off that we've gone straight past the Cold War and crashed right into a Tom Clancy novel. At the very least, we should applaud efforts of diplomacy. Don't leave the phone off the hook. Don't defriend someone on Facebook. Don't key the car.

There are pages more to write about the subject (I've erased at least 5 paragraphs that could have easily turned into chapters), but for the moment, I'll leave it to the guys whose writing gets cover-art.

And in case you've forgotten how the story of The Ugly Duckling ends, I'll leave you with a worthwhile reminder, courtesy of Mr. Walt Disney himself:

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