Note: The first paragraph has been edited, since, as Dan found out, my use of ‘old atheist’ and ‘new atheist’ is confusing. I used them in an apparently historical sense, and that’s not what I had in mind, so I have tried to clarify this, so that I do not mislead anyone else.
I tend to be a tinkerer, and I can’t forbear adding the following ”prolegomena” to this post, just to clarify further. Here is Michael Ruse talking to John Dickson, co-founder and director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, Australia:
This short video (only 1 minute and 3 seconds) should clarify what I mean by “old atheist,” for Ruse is an atheist in this sense. (Notice, by the way, how Ruse elides the question whether Christianity “works for me.”) The truth seems to me to be that the theological argument can no longer be taken, given the advance of science, as reasonable in the same sense as it was once thought to be, even by those who disagreed with it. This would be a good research project, and perhaps even a book for some enterprising “new atheist.” Ruse thinks that Dawkins should take seriously what believers believe, but it is not altogether clear why he should. Nosing around for a few minutes on the Biologos site will give any thoughtful, reasonable person cause to question whether religion can engage us rationally, as it might once have claimed to do. “New atheists” are those who, because science has soundly discredited religious belief, and the reasons given for holding it, can simply no longer accept arguments for religious belief as rational. The cultural reasons for this are explored in some detail by the Cambridge theologian (or atheologian) Don Cupitt, who in a series of books argues that classical Christianity can no longer be accepted as in any reasonable sense — as we now understand truth — true. And now I hand you over to the post as originally published with the re-edited first paragraph:
I’m trying to get a handle on what Michael Ruse now thinks about the relationship between science and religion. In his recent book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, he makes his case for the compatibility of religion and science, a position he has defended zealously against the new atheists, who, of course, disagree. The “old atheists” take it for granted that we are playing on a level playing field, and that both religion and science, though of course they think that religion was wrong, are rational approaches to reality. The old atheists do not, on principle, impugn the rationality of theology, but that is just what the new atheists are doing, and this is the point at which Ruse, an “old atheist” in my sense, while professing himself to be an atheist, parts company with the new atheists, whom he considers as intellectually disastrous as the tea partiers.
However, Ruse has now himself come upon the solid wall of contradiction between religion and science, as he states quite clearly in his response to the Pope’s Easter homily. In that homily, “the most important of them all,” says Ruse, the Pope said this:
If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason.
To which Ruse’s response is forthright and uncompromising:
The point I am making is that, as things stand at the moment, there is a flat-out contradiction between the claims of modern biological science and the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. And the fact is that the Pope, for all of his vaulted theological expertise, is either ignoring this fact or is glossing over it, probably because he has made the decision that, when push comes to shove, theology trumps science.
This, of course, is what the new atheists have been saying all along, so it is no surprise that a few new atheist bloggers took note of Ruse’s apparent about face. Whether it really is or not remains to be seen.
Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, responded with a post on “Ruse on the Pope on Evolution,” and Jerry Coyne followed Rosenhouse’s with one entitled, “Ruse admits that faith and science are irreconcilable, but messes up on human ‘inevitability’.” As Jerry Coyne asks, tying both his and Jason Rosenhouse’s posts together:
But, as Jason notes, if Ruse really feels this way, why has he spent his career arguing for a compatibility of faith and science, and excoriating those of us who see an implacable incompatibility? The man has some ‘splainin’ to do!
Now, at this point there is some technical detail about evolutionary theory, and just how inevitable or otherwise the appearance of human beings actually was. Ruse considers Dawkins, Simon Conway-Morris (a Catholic), and Stephen Jay Gould. According to Ruse:
Richard Dawkins (following Darwin) seems to think that humans are more than chance because evolution works through “arms races” — the prey gets faster and so the predator gets faster — and that ultimately this will produce human-type brains. Simon Conway Morris thinks that there exist always niches waiting to be occupied, one of these niches is for humans, and so at some point it was bound to be filled. Even Gould thought that complexity increases and so at some point, if not here on earth then somewhere in the universe, humans would appear. [my italics]
Since he had just said that “[t]o put direction into evolution is to be a supporter of the non-scientific theory of Intelligent Design,” and that this is “absolutely the position today,” the question needs to be asked: If there was an inevitability about the appearance of humans somewhere, as Ruse’s interpretation of Dawkins, Conway-Morris and Gould seems to imply, isn’t there a direction as good as built into the evolutionary process?
Jerry Coyne takes Ruse to task for attributing inevitability to either Gould or Dawkins (Conway-Morris is a Catholic, so he doesn’t count, because the inevitability is a theological presupposition), and he has a note from Dawkins responding to Ruse’s piece saying that he is
… astonished that [Ruse] could attribute such a view to Gould, who strongly advocated the opposite. He is a tiny bit nearer the mark with me because, like Conway Morris but unlike Gould, I do believe in something that could be called progressive evolution, mainly because of arms races. Unlike Conway Morris, however, I haven’t gone so far as to suggest that humans were inevitable.
And Coyne quotes Gould to this effect (from Wonderful Life):
Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay. [Wonderful Life, 14 -- see http://books.google.ca/books?id=SjpSkzjIzfsC&pg=PA14&lpg#v=onepage&q&f=false]
Notice the vital qualification ”vanishingly small.”
However, Ruse is not finished yet, for he comes back with some accusations of his own in a subsequent HuffPo piece entitled “Evolution and Christianity: Did We Arrive by Chance?” In this response to Rosenhouse, Coyne and Dawkins, Ruse expresses how surprised he was “to find that I am being strongly criticized for my characterization of evolutionary thinking about the contingency or otherwise of human existence,” and he speaks of the new atheists being “up in arms” about his claim regarding Gould’s position on the inevitability of humans being the product of evolution.
In view of the statement quoted from Wonderful Life, is it not astonishing, as Dawkins suggests, that Ruse should believe, as he says, that “Gould thought that complexity increases and so at some point, if not here on earth then somewhere in the universe, humans would appear”? If, as Gould said, there was a vanishingly small probability that the tape of evolution, if rewound and played again, would produce us, then isn’t that the same probability that this result would occur elsewhere? Apparently not, since Ruse quotes Gould to the effect that “[p]erhaps, in another form on another world, intelligence would be as easy to evolve as flight on ours.” Perhaps Gould contradicted himself, or, perhaps, since Wonderful Life (1989) appeared after his 1985 essay on the search for extraterrestrial life (from which this quotation comes) was published in Natural History, he had changed his mind. But it is certainly not obvious, in light of the “vanishingly small” of Wonderful Life that Gould “could and would and did” affirm that intelligent life was more than a chance occurrence. Ruse gets the chronology of his quotes wrong, for one thing; but it may be that Gould contradicted himself. Besides, did he have any reason for suggesting that in some places intelligent life may be as easy to evolve as flight? Ruse shouldn’t make any victory laps just yet.
In any event, it’s not obvious why he should so strenuously defend his turf, because Ruse doesn’t think, in any case, that, even if Gould did hold the belief that Ruse attributes to him, it follows that Christian belief, as delineated by the pope, is not in conflict with science. The problem is still there. Speaking of Dawkins, Conway-Morris and Gould in his first essay he says:
I am not convinced that any of these work. I am convinced that none of these give you an iron-clad guarantee that they must work, which is what the Pope needs.
In other words, evolution implies that the demands of Christianity, that humanity be a part of God’s intention and design, cannot be met. But he does emphasise that this does not mean that the incompatibility cannot be solved. Indeed, he emphasises this point:
I am saying that “as things stand at the moment” there is a clash and that the Pope is not helping. I am not saying that the clash could not be resolved.
In order to understand Ruse’s point, we have to understand what he means by “as things stand at the moment.” He considers, and dismisses, the possibility that the conflict can be resolved from the side of science. In a second article, published in HuffPo on 27th May (just three days ago), he reaffirms what he had said in the first:
There are two main reasons why it is important to get clear the thinking of evolutionists about the emergence of humankind. First, it is important to see if any shade of modern thought about the evolution of humans suggests that our appearance was inevitable. I don’t think it does and I don’t see the Gouldian position just sketched as altering this negative conclusion. So I think Christians have still got a problem here.
The question is: Why does Ruse want to solve it?
The problem here should be obvious. Ruse has gone out of his way to abuse the new atheists who have claimed incompatibility between science (evolution) and religion. In his 11th of May piece in HuffPo, “Evolution and Catholic Theology,” he states clearly that there is an incompatibility here, an incompatibility which cannot be remedied from the standpoint of science, but then he immediately goes on to say that perhaps it can be dealt with from the side of theology, and then he makes his own proposal of how it might be handled, using an idea which, he says, is his own, and of which he is therefore rather fond. Here it is:
My own thinking is that if you are going to get anywhere then you need to work on the theology. I have suggested that, since we have appeared, we could appear. Hence, God (being outside time and space) could simply go on creating universes until humans did appear. A bit of a waste admittedly but we have that already in our universe.
Now here we have, at the same time, an admission that this universe doesn’t really qualify as the creation of a God such as Christians profess to believe in — “A bit of a waste admittedly but we have that already in our universe” — and a “theological” proposal that would make Christianity consistent with science, a God who keeps on creating universes until we appear (and therefore, presumably, intends that we should, even if God has to achieve it by throwing dice often enough to get a double six). But in what sense is this a theological proposal? Theologians and Christian philosophers have been arguing for some time now that the existence of God makes our appearance less improbable than supposing that we just appeared by chance. (See, for example, Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certain Is a God, 41) The suggestion that God is just a shadowy figure behind the randomness and unpredictability of the universe or of a universe of universes does not perform an explanatory function, and therefore can perform no religious function either. The proposal is theologically sterile.
It seems, in other words, that Ruse wants to leave the question of the compatibility of religion and science open, at the same time that he wants to make sure that he still takes a view orthogonal to that of the new atheists. He can at the same time think in terms of compatibility and accommodation between science and religion, even in the absence of any reason to continue doing so, and remain obdurately opposed to those he has for so long abused so stridently. It is not a lovely picture, nor does it show a commitment to reason either.