This week, The Guardian's Comment is Free site is running a series of brief pieces addressing the following questions about a supposed atheist schism:
In recent months there have been signs of clear disagreement within the atheist movement about what its proper attitude to religion should be. One of the leading lights of the older generation, Paul Kurtz, has complained about the recent celebrations of "blasphemy day", enthusiastically embraced byPZ Myers. Others, derided by Daniel Dennett as "atheists but" have also complained. Is this a real division in the movement?
One possibility is that there is no movement to divide, and that atheists merely are people who don't believe in God. But in that case, how should they spread their views? Should they be attempting to extirpate religion? Must they believe the world would be better off without it?
The first piece in the series is by Michael Ruse, who claims that there is indeed a schism and that he is on the "unfashionable" side. Udo Schuklenk and I have co-authored a piece in the same series, and this will be published soon. Ophelia Benson is one of the others involved, but we'll await the series of articles as it takes shape over the next few days.
Ruse's arguments seem to come down to (1) not all religion is evil and corrupting (surely a straw man argument); (2) the claim that Dawkins' The God Delusion was not as sophisticated as it could have been in dealing with traditional issues in philosophy of religion (true, but of limited relevance in a book that was focused on other issues and was written at a popular level); and (3) some of his best friends are religious.
As to the latter, Ruse informs us that he would gladly take advice on everyday matters from Rowan Williams, Alvin Plantinga, or Ernan McMullin:
I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men.
Well, that proves it! Like most people, I often need advice on everyday matters. Today, for example, I needed some advice on an efficient and reasonably priced shuttle service from San Jose to San Francisco Airport. The friendly staff at the hotel where I'm staying helped out, but what a pity I didn't have Rowan Williams near at hand to offer me his advice. I'm sure that he is a more seasoned traveller than I am, and that his advice on such an everyday matter would be sound.
Similarly, I need some advice about minor work on my new house to make it more cat-friendly (the current cat door is not ideal, and I'm thinking of taking a different approach). Where's Alvin Plantinga when you need him? He'd no doubt have much to say that could save me from going down the wrong path. I'm serious. I'll be needing good advice on just this issue, and I'll definitely appreciate it if I'm given any. You can't get too much good advice on everyday things like that, so someone please send Plantinga around to help.
I'm not so familiar with McMullin, the Catholic guy, but if he knows a thing or two about planting and nurturing a vegetable garden ... well, give him my new address.
I don't doubt that Williams, Plantinga, and McMullin have much to say about everyday matters that is quite useful. It's their advice on not-so-everyday matters that I'm more wary about: matters of sin, redemption, and the Last Things. Frankly, I'd rather take my cat's advice on these things - it might be cryptic and lacking in scholarly support, but at least it won't lead me seriously astray. Furthermore, Mystical Prince Felix has exactly as much access to supernatural wisdom as the three men named by Ruse, i.e. none at all.
But Ruse's worst howler is when he suggests that, if there is a contradiction between evolutionary science and certain religious belief, then it follows that teaching evolution in public schools is unconstitutional in the United States:
If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?
Ugh! Where do you start? Fortunately, Jerry Coyne has already dealt with this, so let me quote him and not say much more:
Although Ruse loudly and constantly praises himself for his perspicacity and deep understanding of philosophy and politics, he seems unable to comprehend this simple fact: the erosion of one’s faith by the facts of biology, astronomy, geology, biblical scholarship and the like does not mean that these fields are equivalent to atheism. Is that so hard to understand?
So here’s my “good argument,” Dr. Ruse: lots of things that we teach students make them question not only their faith, but their fundamental values. This is GOOD. Questioning your principles is one of the main aims of education, as Socrates knew well. As biology teachers, our job is to teach evolution, for that is the true account of the history of life. If that account leads some people to question or leave their faith, that’s just too bad. But it’s not the same thing as telling students that there is no god.
Exactly. Evolution is not taught with the purpose of undermining religion, and nor is that its primary effect. The primary effect is simply to impart an understanding of (one important area of) science. That's a perfectly good secular goal for the state to pursue, given its interest in the flourishing of children and the development of their natural talents. If some religious beliefs are contrary to the picture of the world that science gives us, then that is something that students need to reconcile for themselves. And it should be clear that at least some religious beliefs are, indeed, contrary to robust elements of the emerging scientific picture. The only question is which ones?
The argument that Ruse puts is contrary to the entire body of US constitutional jurisprudence on the issue, as well as being wrong in principle and leading to absurd results if any attempt were made to apply it as a new legal doctrine.
Finally, no argument of this kind can alter the facts: either some (perhaps many) religious views are at odds with the scientific picture - or not. It's outrageous to suggest that Dawkins (or anyone else) should cease pursuing the truth as he sees it just because Ruse sees a possible constitutional consequence that no actual judge in the American court system has taken seriously to date.
Ruse appears to support the "framing" approach to selling evolution to the American public, which avoids linking it in any way with atheism. On this approach, you say what you think will please your audience (or its various sub-demographics), rather than engaging in a sincere quest for truth.
This strategy is not going to work. Thoughtful Christians who accept the scientifically-measured age of the earth (about 4.6 billion years) can nonetheless see for themselves that evolutionary theory raises deep questions for their faith. It's futile, and rather insulting, to try to hide this from them. In most cases it is just as futile trying to coax hard-line fundamentalists, who believe that our planet is less than 10,000 years old, to convert to a more science-friendly kind of religion. For such people, the age of the earth and the special creation of each life form are doctrines that sit near the core of an integrated theological system; they are not optional extras. In any event, the framing strategy stinks of opportunism and intellectual dishonesty.
The piece that Udo Shuklenk and I were commissioned to write for Comment is Free was completed prior to publication of Ruse's article, but it will make the essential points about why we feel the need to speak out against gods and religion. The eradication of religion is not a realistic aim, but confronting the more egregious claims to authority of religious leaders and organisations certainly is realistic and worthwhile.
And we'll go on doing it.