For the last few years, non-believers have been arguing among themselves over the views of the so-called “aggressive atheists” who, it is claimed, fail to give fundamentalists sufficient — or any — respect.
The “accommodationists,” fronted prominently by Michael Ruse, have traded pot shots with “Four Horsemen” members Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, scientist and author Jerry Coyne, blog-star PZ Myers, and others.
Dawkins called Ruse a “Neville Chamberlain,” while Ruse has called the New Atheists a “bloody disaster,” going so far as to say that Dawkins’s The God Delusion “made me ashamed to be an atheist.”
What’s going on here? Should fundamentalists be encouraged by this apparent schism? Let’s leave that question for the moment, and review some of the spat. Neither side comes out of it unbloodied.
Here’s some of what Ruse has written:
Non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting.
Dawkins and company are ignorant of [religion’s] claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them.
We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. … I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.
This kind of reasonableness makes Ruse an outcast among his more militant confederates, who ignore his ardent support for Darwin, evolution, and natural selection with the same energy — and for opposite reasons — as the fundamentalists. Neither faction seems to want to listen to what Ruse is really saying. It’s more important to them to know whose “side” he is on. Such is the status of the current “dialogue.”
The core of Ruse’s argument with the most fervent atheists is one not of fact, but of tactics:
I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt.
In particular, in an email to Daniel Dennett, Ruse charges:
I think that you and Richard are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design, we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues; neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas; it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims, more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.
Even if Ruse may have a good point or two to make here, and I think that he does, he doesn’t stop when he may be ahead. Rather shockingly, for a logician, he argues that evolution which does not allow for the existence of God is just another religion — that is, if you deny religion, you’re making a religious statement:
You’re not allowed to teach religion in biology class. I can’t understand why I can’t get through people’s thick skulls on this one. If in fact Darwinian evolutionary theory implies atheism, then you ought not to be teaching it in schools!
Why literalist religion, rather than astrology or phlogiston theory or any other unsupported proposition about the properties or mechanisms of the physical world, should have special status, should be immune to disproof by alternate proof, in never explained. By Ruse’s special pleading, we’d need to throw out Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy along with Biology. One of Ruse’s targets, PZ Myers, puts the point very well:
No, no, no. You could argue that many of us find solace in secularism, or that science provides a story of origins or explanation for the world, and that it does substitute for religion in providing a rational explanation of our place in the universe, but it is not a religion unless you want to say that everything that provides a reference point is a religion. And in particular, scientific disciplines like evolutionary biology are not religions, and scientific theories like evolution are not religions. Ruse must have a very, very broad and peculiar definition of “religion” to think so. Is mathematics also a religion? How about engineering?
It seems that Ruse’s highest priority is “Thou shalt not make theists unhappy.” His disapproval of confrontational atheism is never half-hearted, as in this assessment:
I think that P. Z. Myers and his crew are as disastrous to the evolution side – and people like me need to say this – as Ben Stein is disastrous to the Creationism side – and the Creationists should have had the guts to say so.
It’s hard to imagine anything more “disastrous” to a rational argument than the rantings of Ben Stein! It’s no surprise that the well-known atheists whom Ruse challenges are equally direct in criticizing his position.
Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True, responded to Ruse’s article “Why I think the new atheists are a bloody disaster” by terming Ruse a “faitheist” (rhymes with “atheist”) and the article a “whingefest.” He is offended that Ruse’s article was posted on “the religious ‘Science and the Sacred’ website.” Coyne’s blog mocks Ruse’s association, temporary as it was, with the mock-sympathetic lament that “it’s sad that a philosopher with any pretension to intellectual rigor must consort with the mushbrained BioLogos Foundation.”
In passing, Coyne challenges Ruse to show the evidence that “the cause of evolution” is being hurt by vocal atheists. But most of his response is as ad hominem and scornful as the comments above. Consciously or not, Coyne confirms at least part of Ruse’s complaint: some of the New Atheists are very aggressive, and they have little or no respect for those they believe are infected by religion, or by tolerance of religion. Coyne approvingly repeats a reader’s comment:
Calling the new atheists violent or strident serves EXACTLY the same function as calling an african-american “uppity”. We’re standing up for our views and being really insanely polite about it considering the effects of religion.
Well, maybe not. It does seem to be more than a bit of a hyperbole to compare an atheist who might not be voted to the Board of the local Chamber of Commerce because he isn’t a member of the local church to an actual slave’s descendent who needed a full-scale cultural revolution finally to throw off the official and social degradations of racism, doesn’t it?
PZ Myers does somewhat better when he points out that Ruse’s language is markedly gentle when he speaks of the motives of Creationists, and just as markedly negative when he speaks of the New Atheists. Myers offers several debatable speculations on why this might be so (lingering belief, need to be liked, academic jealousy, and others), but his characterization of Ruse’s tone is largely accurate, despite Myers’s own inability to rein in his sarcasm:
I’m not going to accuse Ruse of being a bloody disaster to progress, though, since he has become a trivial irrelevancy and a rather silly figure who takes pride in standing on a bridge between good science and people who believe Jesus created the dinosaurs, reassuring everyone on the crazy side that it’s OK to cuddle up to ignorance.
OK, this is all rather interesting, but isn’t it an old debate? Aren’t these sibling squabbles behind us by now? Apparently not, as the New York Times reported last October, covering a conference sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism, an event attended by such new atheist luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the ubiquitous Myers. As the Times article noted:
They agreed on two things: People can be good without religion, and religion has too much influence. But they disagreed about how stridently to make those claims. … The conference came on the heels of a change in leadership at the council and a rumored rift there, which some described as a standoff between atheists, who focus on God’s nonexistence, and humanists, who are also nonbelievers but seek an alternative ethical system, one that does not depend on any deity.
The Los Angeles conference became most heated in the tactical debate over how best to promote a non-religious morality:
The disagreement was not, then, between atheism and humanism. It was about making the atheist/humanist case in America. A central question was, “How publicly scornful of religion should we be?”
Here even the humanists got less humane, as each side stereotyped the other. Those trying to find common ground with religious people were called “accommodationists,” while the more outspoken atheists were called “confrontationalists” and accused of alienating potential allies, like moderate Christians.
So it seems that the Ruse-inspired debate continues. I have sympathy for both sides. Ruse is certainly right that some atheists are rabidly anti-religious. And his critics are certainly right that Ruse bends over backwards to understand and accommodate the religious. Somewhere in between “I see where you’re coming from, and it’s as legitimate as where I’m coming from” and “You’re an f*ing idiot!” would be a reasonable stance. Something like “You’re ignoring the science, but if you do it in a way that doesn’t impinge on my ability to acknowledge it, you’re not doing me any harm, so live long and prosper.” In other words, if you don’t force other people to live according to your demonstably erroneous beliefs, you can delude yourselves to your hearts’ content. That seems reasonable enough, and it’s as far as I’m prepared to go.
That brings us back finally to the question I asked at the beginning: How much comfort should fundamentalists take from this family feud? None, I’m afraid, other than a touch of scheudenfraude. The dispute isn’t over whether evolution is a fact, but simply over how polite one needs to be when pointing it out.
Next time we look at Michael Ruse, we’ll take a closer look at his views on evolution and “Intelligent Design” in order to show clearly how, despite his impulse to reach out to religious people, he has no concurrent sympathy for the claims of Creationism itself.