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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, April 18, 2011

"I will regard them with contempt."

Ruse says:
I don’t think the New Atheists are bad people. I really don’t. I think the contrary, that they are deeply moral people. But moral conviction is not enough. To answer Sam Harris: Doing the right thing is not a matter of deriving morality from the facts; it is a matter of combining morality with the facts. ——And until I get some sense that the New Atheists are going to show why their present strategy does not spell disaster down the road, why it is that they can mesh science and atheism as they do and not get into trouble in the courts when it comes to keeping creationism out of the schools, I will continue to regard them with contempt.
This is extraordinary. It boils down to, "I think that some of the views of the Gnu Atheists could lead to a bad outcome (as well as being false). Therefore, I regard these deeply moral individuals with contempt."

See what he did there?

I'll be responding formally to Ruse over at the ABC religion/ethics portal, which gets many, many times as much traffic as I get here. But I couldn't let that statement go. When you think about it, it's outrageous. Just let it soak in for a minute.

(The fact that the bad outcome would only arise from some very bad legal reasoning is independently important, but beside the point I'm making here.)

I can't help (some supervillain with a mind control power obviously has me in thrall!!) observing that the relationship between the teaching of evolution and freedom of religion, as embodied in the US First Amendment and various other legal instruments, will be among the many issues discussed in my new book (working title Freedom of Religion and the Secular State) to be published by Wiley-Blackwell in late 2011/early 2012.

If I don't get to flog my book out of this, what's the world coming to?


David said...

I'm not even sure what Ruse means when he says someone is moral given that passage.

Setting aside Ruse's doomsday scenario relies on some externalities which are irrelevant (and unlikely).

Ok, so gnu atheists are moral people but they're advocating actions/states which are going to be contrary to Ruse's own moral preferences and goals... isn't that immoral (according to Ruse)?

DEEN said...

And here I thought that treating people with contempt was a big no-no in a debate. At least, that's what the anti-gnu's keep saying.

Seems as far as Ruse is concerned, New Atheists are guilty till proven innocent.

Anonymous said...

Well, look, contemptible and immoral are not the same thing, and theists do get the same sort of thing from atheists at times ("I understand that they're desperately trying to do the right thing, but I have contempt for their religious morals/disregard for reason and fact"). So his feeling contempt might not be as unreasonable as it sounds.

That being said, I do think it inappropriate for him to feel contempt in this case, and think that statement gets in the way of the argument that I think is reasonable about separation of church and state, and that strong incompatibilists need to have an answer for it. I respect Russell here because he -- while plugging his book -- suggests that he has one, which it would be worth reading ... whenever the book comes out.

And I might even get it, since I might be taking classes at the time and so would be able to get it with free shipping from Amazon as I buy research and text books [grin].

Aj said...

I take it that someone has explained to Michael Ruse that there is life (and intellectual discourse) outside of the United States of America? Or does he genuinely feel that nearly seven billion people should just neuter their discourse for the convenience of the NCSE? (Reminiscent of Mooney on the issue of Pluto’s status as a planet.)

Either way, it doesn’t seem a particularly strong point. As I understood Judge Jones decision in the Dover trial; if you are teaching evolution in order to preach Atheism as a religion, then yes, that would breach the establishment clause, but so long as the purpose of the lesson is the teaching of the science, as supported by the evidence, then there is no problem, no matter what implications that science may have for certain theological positions. Or have I misunderstood?

Felix said...

If any of the commenters here are near Bath, England, there is a potentially amusing talk on Tuesday 19th April, 7:30 PM at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.
This sounds like a great opportunity for any budding Hitchens'!

The Rationality of Belief in God - No Argument Needed
Excerpt: "belief in God can be perfectly respectable even in the absence of sound reasoned arguments"
Presented by Dr Oliver Crisp, University of Bristol


Marshall said...

And he was doing so well away from the contempt thing. "...combining morality with the facts." I'm not sure what it means but there's color there; good spot to dig. Merging the analytic into the synthetic.


Michael Fugate said...

Doesn't this also mean that any mention of the compatibility of religion and evolution would also make evolution unteachable in schools? Don't Biologos and the Templeton Foundation jeopardize the teaching of evolution? What about "Finding Darwin's God", "The Language of Science and Faith", Darwin's Pious Idea" and on and on?

Brian said...

argumentum ad consequentiam?

Sean (quantheory) said...

I'm actually rather confused about how he thinks all this will impact the courts. Does he expect the Discovery Institute to triumphantly hold up Jerry Coyne's blog as the final proof that evolution is a religious doctrine? What's the causal link here? What's going to convince the judge that teaching that schizophrenia is a brain disorder (and not demonic possession) is OK, but evolution (and not creationism) is not? Does Coyne have more clout than Francis Collins in drawing that line?

I also think Ruse is mixing up two things. One is the empirical facts about evolution negating the idea of a designer (at least, one intervening in a noticeable way). The other is the philosophical question of whether religion and science are compatible within a reasonable epistemology. It's evolution vs. design and science vs. religion vs. religion-plus-science. It's not evolution vs. all religion, even on Coyne's blog (as far as I've seen, at least). Has any New/Gnu/Canoe ever said that the empirical facts of evolution alone are somehow incompatible with all religions yet conceived? Or that biology curricula should include a primer on atheism?

Besides which, Ruse's objections have always fallen flat for those of us with different priorities. Let's say, for a moment, that the gnus actually do put science education at some risk. For some of us, either atheism in general, or at least the ability to defend and promote our own viewpoints to the fullness of our own capabilities, is so important that we are willing to take that risk (depending, perhaps, on its magnitude).

I wonder what Ruse thinks his strategy is going to accomplish. He's telling gnus that it's contemptible for them to express what they really think, so they should fold and let everyone else dominate the conversation, because everything really will go better for them if they don't try to make their own input and muck the whole thing up. That's most definitely not a compelling strategy. It will win some attention for Ruse, though, which I suppose is what he's really after. And maybe encourage some further claptrap about how evolution and Christianity are best friends.

Ophelia Benson said...

This is extraordinary. It boils down to, "I think that some of the views of the Gnu Atheists could lead to a bad outcome (as well as being false). Therefore, I regard these deeply moral individuals with contempt."

I would re-do Russell's paraphrase. I would make it: "Until the New Atheists convince me that my speculation about what their current activities will cause to happen in the future is wrong, I will continue to regard them with contempt."

He makes a very far-fetched, strained prediction of the future effects of new atheism, and it becomes the job of the new atheists to convince him that his far-fetched, strained prediction is wrong; if they fail to convince him, he will continue to hold them in contempt. Why yes, that seems perfectly fair.

Ophelia Benson said...

Verbose - it's not about Ruse's feeling contempt - it's about his announcement that unless a ridiculous and arbitrary condition is met, he will continue to hold a set of people in contempt. It's not about feeling, it's not about being in the grip of passion, it's about thinking he gets to make his non-contempt conditional on other people convincing him he is wrong about a guess he is making about future consequences of a complicated phenomenon.

Jambe said...

Surely Ruse isn't using hackneyed "atheism = religion" hooey as the fulcrum for his speculative contempt-seesaw? Is there some depth to his position that I'm overlooking?