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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ruse gets it wrong

I'm something of a fan of the philosopher Michael Ruse, whose work over the years in defending reputable science against creationist pseudo-science has been immensely valuable. I've also been impressed by Ruse's analysis of ethical theory in the context of what we know about the natural world, and I admire the clear way in which he explains complex philosophical ideas. Ruse is one of the good guys.

But I'm just finishing his 2005 book The Creation-Evolution Struggle. More on this tomorrow, perhaps, but what I find bizarre is the author's insistence on structuring the debate as one between two "religious" viewpoints, one based in biblical literalism and often a premillennialist apocalyptic vision, the other based in a kind of postmillennialist progressivism. We have, he says, "no simple clash between science and religion but rather between two religions."

The arguments for this are very unconvincing, even though Ruse offers quite a lot of detail about the historical context in which Darwinian evolutionary theory arose and the twists and turns in how it was received. While that's all interesting, he wants to define "religion" as if it means no more than a worldview that involves moral ideas or has social implications. His understanding of the nature of religion is so broad that it makes no distinction between (on the one hand) philosophical systems and (on the other) traditional bodies of belief that are associated with certain cultures and handed down from one generation to the next. According to this, Epicureanism, for example, was also a religion. It's difficult to know what worked-out philosophical system would not be religious. But the whole point of these systems is that they are alternatives to religion as it is normally understood; they are attempts to understand the world on the basis of rational inquiry rather than traditional teachings, faith, or mystical experience.

Yet Ruse makes no distinction between a coherent worldview based on reason and one based on faith in the truth of a holy book or the wisdom of a tradition of teaching such as that of the Catholic Church. Nor does he distinguish between a worldview based on empirical investigation of the world that presents itself to us - and which posits no supernatural beings, entities, or forces - and one that is based on belief in (or visions of) gods, ghosts, and demons.

It is, of course, sometimes difficult to distinguish exactly what is and is not a religion. Is Scientology a genuine religion? How was Nazism, with its apocalyptic vision of a thousand-year Reich, its mysticism, its commitment to irrational ideas of blood and race, its rituals and symbolism, its infallible leader (with a kind of holy book in Mein Kampf), and its comprehensive understanding of the world and attempt to control people's lives not a religion?

What about Marxism and its historical variants (think of Mao or Pol Pot)? These look very much as if they are at least analogous to religion, with their visions of an inevitable path for history, their eschatology of future struggles and triumphs leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and eventually to the withering away of the state, and so on. They even had their holy books - Das Kapital and others.

Again, are the many currents of Hinduism really the same kind of thing as Christianity? Was the pagan syncretism of ancient Rome, a tolerant set of state practices and popular superstitions with no official theology, at all analogous to Abrahamic monotheism?

It's not clear that we have a good, clear concept of what we really mean by religion.

But I can be confident of one thing. The worldview of someone like Richard Dawkins is not a religion by any plausible measure. There are no supernatural forces or beings here. Nor is there a comprehensive account of the world, or an account of how we should all live our lives. There are moral implications but nothing like the elaborate Jewish law or the Hindu notion of dharma. There is no socially-binding body of organised beliefs and rituals and symbols, no priestly hierarchy, no holy text that is believed true for all time. The works of Darwin are admired for their insights and historical importance, but are not imagined to be cutting-edge knowledge of the world. There is really no point in talking about such a worldview as a "religious" one.

If we start to do so, then we are committed to calling any recognisable worldview at all "a religion", and we still need some new distinction between (1) those "religions" that involve the supernatural, faith in traditional teachings and holy books, priesthoods, comprehensive moral codes, restricted prescriptions for life that are binding on believers, etc., and (2) those "religions" that don't have these things. But Ruse is insistent on seeing the views of Dawkins as religious, in their way, apparently because Dawkins draws certain moral and social implications from his understanding of the natural world, and because of an element of awe at the universe that he often expresses. That's a very thin understanding of what religion is like.

At times, particularly towards the end, Ruse's book almost reads as if it were written primarily with the aim of annoying Dawkins, who is not only seen as promoting a kind of religion but is also portrayed in a way that makes him sound far more extreme and far less reasonable than he actually is. Anything snarky that Dawkins has since said about Ruse pales in comparison to this 2005 book.

My verdict: clearly written, with some good information, but overall quite a disappointment. Michael Ruse can do a lot better than this.

5 comments:

Wayne said...

Hi,
I was just passing and I thought I'd post a line or two on one of my favorite topics,seeing you mentioned it.

Russel,
"It's not clear that we have a good, clear concept of what we really mean by religion."

I presume you mean Ruse doesn't.

Russel,
"But I can be confident of one thing. The worldview of someone like Richard Dawkins is not a religion by any plausible measure. There are no supernatural forces or beings here."

I would disagree, what about the awesome, all powerful God of random chance. I'm sure underneath the Oxford branch of the church of reason, Dicky regularly sacrifices Christians on his alter. The extreme view that there could not possibly be an intelligence behind the design of the known universe, is the typical type of Chaos his god tends to promote, leaving no other alternative but to believe in him.

Russel
"Nor is there a comprehensive account of the world, or an account of how we should all live our lives (Yeah sure). There are moral implications but nothing like the elaborate Jewish law or the Hindu notion of dharma."

Now I am not an expert on the God's of Abraham or the Hindu's nor their laws and notion's, but all my life has been lived under the moral implications of a country run by academics who have all paid homage to the Oxford based Deity, at some time or other.

Russel
"There is no socially-binding body of organised beliefs and rituals and symbols (Bull), no priestly hierarchy (what about the Ivory tower dwellers), no holy text that is believed true for all time(Big Bang). The works of Darwin are admired for their insights and historical importance, but are not imagined to be cutting-edge knowledge of the world( except by those that worship Darwinism). There is really no point in talking about such a worldview as a "religious" one.(unless you need to replace others with one that you agree with.)
___________________
Russel
"My verdict: clearly written, with some good information, but overall quite a disappointment. Michael Ruse can do a lot better than this."

WWW
(My comments in brackets).

Russell Blackford said...

So, you disagree? When you say something like "bull" in response to a reasoned argument, I'm unimpressed.

By the way, I didn't mean Ruse lacks a clear definition of religion. I meant that we all do. The concept is quite elusive.

Wayne said...

Sorry Russ,
may be I should of said 'Golden calf'. If you lack clear definition of religion and the concept is 'elusive, then how can you be confident that the world view of RD is not a religion?

Steelman said...

I think one of the greatest differences between a religious worldview and a scientific one is how challenges to concepts are dealt with.

Religion often expects the challenges to its concepts to lose. If you disagree with a given religious view, you're the one who has fallen short; the doctrine in question is presumed correct and faultless. Depending on the political power of the religious hierarchy being challenged, those on the dissenting side may be able to leave that religion and start one of their own (or they may not have as agreeable an alternative). Occasionally, views within the hierarchy may slowly change, but usually based on the surrounding social influences, rather than an assessment, or reassessment, of evidence.

If you disagree with a scientific view there's a chance, depending on the evidence one possesses, of winning out over the current, contingent concept or theory. Yes, there may be an entrenched academic hierarchy that can impede progress, but generally it's accepted that present knowledge is just that, and is meant to be challenged. It's called learning.

Wayne said...

Just a short note and a link to the flat earth society,

http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/

just in case you haven’t heard of them. WWW