Ruse will immediately accuse me of contributing to the narcissism of small differences, since that is how he regards the New Atheist tendency to respond critically to criticism. What, I wonder, did he expect? His own criticism is so unwieldy and chaotic that its difficult getting a handle on what he really wants to say. I don’t know whether his books are like this or not, but he writes in such a loose, disjointed style, that it is hard to tell what exactly it is that he is trying to convey to his readers. Yes, of course, the basic idea, that the new atheism is a humanism and that this humanism is like a religion, with its sacred texts, orthodoxy and sacred persons, is clear enough. The problem is that he doesn’t really achieve very much by way of justification of the claims made. And then there is his apparently happy-go-lucky “I don’t mind being the butt of jokes, and I like to court controversy; in fact, anything that will put me in the public eye is fine with me” attitude is starting to wear just a bit thin, and does not convince. Indeed, it is hard not to detect a seam of pure jealousy running through what he says about Richard Dawkins and charisma.
No doubt his title is not of his own choosing, but I think it captures his intent fairly well: “Why Richard Dawkins’ humanists remind me of a religion“. Who, I wonder, does this refer to? Perhaps there is, and I am simply unaware of it, a claque of fawning disciples around Dawkins, but while Dawkins seems fairly actively involved in the British Humanist Association, the renewed trend towards disbelief, of which his book The God Delusion may have been a herald, has no organisational unity that I know of, and is certainly not invested in humanism as such, though I am sure that many of us are prepared to acknowledge the importance of associations that represent some of our beliefs as well as our disbeliefs. Nor can the book be considered a holy text, for we are quite prepared to dissent from Dawkins’ views, just as we are of any beliefs which we consider unfounded or poorly expressed.
There is a longer version of Ruse’s (pronounced ‘Roos’ by the way, though of course this may be just a ruse) over at Aeon Magazine. There entitled “Curb your Enthusiasm,” and subtitled “High priests, holy writ and excommunications – how did Humanism end up acting like a religion?”, Ruse clearly thinks that weighing the issue down with as many words as possible — it clocks in at just under 6000 words — will make his case better than clarity, but, as the first comment says:
Oh dear, I think through the babble you reveal feelings of envy for Mr Dawkins.
Which, as I have already suggested, was my own feeling too.
Ruse complains about being demonised — the barb in The God Delusion about the Neville Chamberlain school of accommodationism quite clearly still smarts — and does a bit of demonising in his turn, repaying the compliment by speaking knowingly of humanism in its “most virulent form.” In fact, he begins the Guardian version of the essay with these words:
Humanism in its most virulent form tries to make science into a religion.
And by doing so sets science and religion in opposition, and this, for Ruse, is a problem. Speaking about the “debate” between Dawkins and Rowan Williams, he says:
And here’s the rub: I, like Dawkins, am a non-believer. Yet I, like Williams, refuse to put science and religion at war. This is partly because I do not think they have to be — I see them as asking different questions. But it is also because I think there is something socially and psychologically unhealthy about the course that the debate has taken, especially by those on my side of the fence.
The trouble is, as Ruse himself notes, that there was nothing anything like a war going on when the two men met in the Sheldonian. Not at all. The whole thing was carried out in a very civil, gentlemanly way. Voices were not raised. No one was called names, but probing questions were asked. Ruse thinks that the difference between religion and science is that religion asks different questions, when the truth seems to be — and it was on display during the debate — that religion asks questions to which there are no answers supportable by the evidence, and can only be expressed in the vaguest terms. A classic case of religious believing lapsing into vagueness is this one, where Dawkins interviews the Archbishop Williams:
Perhaps this is as good a point as any to bring Spufford into the discussion. Spufford has given a fairly lengthy response to Jerry Coyne’s criticisms of Spufford’s publicity pieces for his new book Unapologetic (also the name of his blog). As Jerry notes, it’s really a way of promoting his book, which is not something he wants to do, but he does respond briefly to Spufford’s critique. The question is one of evidence, and Spufford objects to Jerry Coyne’s say of using the three words ‘evidence’, ‘truth’, and ‘belief’, accusing Jerry of shifting them around to suit his purposes, whereas Spufford wants to say that scientists, like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins, are playing fast and loose with philosophy, and ignoring the fact that there are second-order questions that can be asked about science’s claim to be the arbiter of truth. Consider this, for instance:
Evidence is a means of ascertaining truth; an organisation of data as part of the human effort to tell what the truth is, through the scientific method. Truth, meanwhile, is just a state of affairs, something which is so whether we currently know it or not. You would like it be the case that evidence is the only means of approach we have to truth, and that conversely truth is the kind of thing we can only approach through evidence – in which case you can indeed treat them as terms which are effectively substitutable. But this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. It is a philosophical picture of the world that gives science a monopoly position as the supplier and definer of truth, but that does not make the picture, itself, scientific.
Jerry Coyne’s response to this is to express his frustration:
I am SO tired of this trope. It may indeed be the case that we can’t justify a priori via philosophical lucubrations that we arrive at the truth about nature only by using the methods of science. My answer to that is increasingly becoming, “So what?” The use of science is justified because it works, not because we can justify it philosophically.
And that’s true so far as it goes, but Spufford is right insofar as this does not provide a license to science to make the claim that the only kind of knowledge is scientific, and that only scientific evidence can legitimately support belief. But neither does it give Spufford the license to mint new truths without providing grounds for them.
Notice that Spufford thinks of truth as something already out there, ready to be adopted, if we can only get access to it. “Truth,” he says, “is just a state of affairs, something which is so whether we currently know it or not.” This is a very peculiar notion of truth, which is something usually taken to characterise statements or propositions. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of the philosophy here, but for Spufford to suggest that truths are states of affairs is to contradict what he has already said, that truth is somehow dependent upon theory. Propositions are true within a cultural context. Science is a cultural pursuit with its standards of truth, structures of theory in relation to which certain statements can be regarded as true. And religion, Spufford apparently wants to claim (with a good dose of vagueness thrown in for good measure), may provide another avenue to truth, but to the truth now understood to be somehow out there just waiting to be discovered. By eliding the fact that truth is dependent on theory, he still hasn’t provided any reason for thinking that religion can simply skirt around the need for evidence, which is what, within whatever discipline it occurs, permits us to call certain statements true and others false.
Spufford seems to think that only science demands evidence. Truth is accessible, he thinks, in other ways, without requiring it to be grounded — which is what evidence does. Now, Spufford thinks he has the decisive answer to the question about the content of religious belief and its justification, and it’s based on the idea of truth as somehow out there, whether we know it or not. There are whole regions of truths, he thinks, to which we will never have evidential access. Meaning and intention, he thinks, come within that range of inaccessible truths. But notice that, by thinking of truth as being states of affairs, whether we have access or not, he gives a license to quite unprincipled types of believing, for, after all, it could be true. That’s just the way things might be. So, he says:
Within the limits of knowledge, we don’t need to believe things. We don’t need to believe in gravitation, or natural selection, or the geological history of the earth. We can just know they are the case, the engine of evidence having brought them within our knowledge. But beyond the limits of knowledge – or rather, beyond the limits of all possible knowledge – radical uncertainty holds, and here believing becomes appropriate, ordinary and essential, and can also be a form of appropriate reverence towards the real. Belief is the condition of holding a conjecture about something which you cannot resolve the truth of; which you maintain in your mind while remaining aware that you may be being absurd, that you may have it got it all wrong. Hence the intimate affinity of belief with doubt, for they share, in two different emotional modes, the same state of not-knowing. [my italics]
But this is just silly, I’m afraid. Knowledge is justified true belief, as philosophers have said time out of mind. Just because it constitutes knowledge doesn’t mean that “we don’t need to believe” it. Knowledge means that our beliefs are justified. Beliefs that are not justified, that is, are not obviously supported by any evidence, are conditional on the amount and kind of evidence we can produce for them. In the absence of evidence belief is neither appropriate, ordinary nor essential. Here is where we should suspend judgement. But Spufford seems to think that all we need is emotion to carry us over this obstacle. But if we believe things for which there are no obvious justificatory reasons, we are simply being credulous, as, for example, those who believe in astrology, alien abduction, the Loch Ness monster and the Bermuda Triangle are, no matter how much emotional charge we get out of it.
Strangely, Spufford thinks of most of the ordinary things that we know as things that we can never know, and this allows him to sneak religious beliefs into the same class:
The truths to which we have no access are a large part of everyday experience. The things we can’t know, and must therefore negotiate as best we can by forming beliefs about them, include: what the world looks like for other people, what we ourselves mean by the language we use, how that language is going to be understood; what we ought to do in most situations; what our society should be like; how we ought to vote; what colour we should paint the spare room. Belief in God belongs among this mass of shockingly normal problems, not alongside debates about the value of the cosmological constant. [my italics]
This is very peculiar, indeed! ”The things we can’t know, and must therefore negotiate as best we can by forming beliefs about them.” Curiouser and curiouser. When we ask someone their opinion about something, or ask them what they see, or how they feel, we are not negotiating as best we can by forming beliefs about them; what we are asking for is some evidence as to their state of mind. Police interrogators may have to negotiate through the thickets of lies and misdirection in order to find out what happened, how it happened, and who is responsible for what happened, because in such situations we expect that people may lie or tell half-truths. But generally we can take people’s word for it, and can know fairly accurately about what someone thinks they see, what they are feeling as they see it, and what implications that has for them. When someone says, “I don’t like fish,” we can take it they would rather eat something else instead.
However, to parachute God into the “shockingly normal problems” that we are faced with day by day, is really to step completely outside the range of those things about which we can have fairly good evidence. Some of them — like who I should vote for, for instance — may be wrapped up in how I look at the world, what I think of as justice, whether I believe one party or another is more likely to be effective in governing, etc., but still they are within the range of things about which I can have what is reasonably thought to be evidence. But mentioning God in this context makes one wonder whether Spufford is looking at the world in a reasonable way, or is simply trying to find a way to squeeze belief in God into a context where people will ignore the fact that belief in God is nothing like beliefs about another person’s state of mind, or about a political party’s fulfilling a person’s expectations, and so on.
And that brings us back to Ruse. While Spufford is doing his level best to introduce religious claims and questions into the realm of shockingly normal everyday problems, Ruse makes it clear that religions deal with out of the ordinary things, like why there is something rather than nothing, or whether or not life has a purpose. And he says that
[i]f religion wants to have a crack at answering these, then science cannot object. You might criticise the religious answers on theological or philosophical grounds, as I would, but not on scientific grounds. I don’t see Huxley or his intellectual descendents allowing this.
Now, this strikes me as an odd position to take. Certainly, science is going to have something to say about religious beliefs, for some religious beliefs quite clearly intrude upon scientific turf, as David Hume noticed long ago. If the beauties and wonders of nature are thought to be evidence of a creator, then the quality of that creator is immediately at issue, and features of the world that make the creator look either slipshod or cruel or simply uninterested are justly thought to be a challenge to religious beliefs formed on this basis. And with the coming of Darwin and the mechanism of natural selection as the key to understanding the development of life forms on earth, a simple calculation of the sum of harms to sentient creatures spread over millions of years seems a completely insurmountable obstacle to belief in a god thought of in terms of the god’s goodness, love or care. So at some points at least there will inevitably be conflict between science and religion.
Moreover, simply to suppose that beliefs can be reasonably formed without providing evidence or grounds of any kind to justify those beliefs, even if scientific evidence is only one of the kinds of evidence to which we can appeal in justifying our beliefs, is completely unreasonable, and it is surely significant that religion everywhere shows a tendency to retreat as scientific understanding of the world increases. Of course, there are “sophisticated” forms of believing which can take apparent account of scientific discoveries and continue to believe in supernatural beings and agencies, or, alternatively, where religious believing is somehow transformed into the status of myth or story in terms of which human life is given a comprehensive emotional sense of wholeness. These may still provide room for holding religious beliefs despite apparent contradictory scientific evidence, or for a kind of religious “believing” which provides a comprehensive emotional outlook on one’s life and the world; but on neither option can religion be reasonably thought to be consistent with science or meaningfully accommodated to it. Where religion is understood in terms of myth or story, then the concept of truth does not apply to such believing in any obvious way. Where religious beliefs are held, on the other hand, despite apparent contradictions with scientific findings, but with ongoing apologetic efforts to demonstrate the consistency of one’s religious beliefs to one’s scientific commitments, there is surely scope for disbelieving scientists to raise questions about the legitimacy of the project. Why Ruse should take issue with those who question to legitimacy of, for instance, trying to show that Christianity is consistent with science, or that the Qu’ran shows evidence of scientific insight that is exceptional for the time when Qu’ran was originally composed, is hard to say. For religious people do not simply ask questions such as, Why is there something rather than nothing? They are much more concerned about the truths of claims such as that the Qu’ran was conveyed to Muhammad by an angel, or that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. And these claims are much less amenable to the canons of scientific observation and justification, and do obviously come into conflict with them.
That of course still leaves the philosophical or theological grounds on the basis of which Ruse thinks a critique of religion can still be reasonably carried out. But of course amongst the philosophical grounds for questioning the value of religious believing must inevitably be the fact that science has provided us with answers to many of the questions which religion originally asked, about the origins of the cosmos, for instance, or about the development of life, and especially of human life, or simply about the nature of the physical world and the explanation of such things as the causes of rainbows or tides, or the nature of the sun, the moon and the stars. One of the areas in which most religion gets this completely wrong is in the idea that human beings are in some sense exceptional and distinct from the rest of “creation”. As Darwin knew, human beings are continuous in their cognitive and emotional lives with other forms of animal life, so there is no obvious reason to privilege human beings over other animals when it comes, say, to a god’s regard for them. Of course, in the gospel it is said that God sees the sparrow fall, but it goes on to say of how much greater worth human beings are. Yet there is no obvious sense in which this greater worth is displayed by means of a greater good of which humans are partakers. This is something for which we must wait until after death, it is often said; and yet there is simply no reason to suppose that life persists after death, and this is another matter upon which science may reasonably be thought to have some say.
This post is already becoming far too long, so I must bring it swiftly to an end. Of course, both Ruse and Spufford leave themselves open to detailed comment. Spufford’s emotional warrant for religious belief is simply too slight a foundation on which to build a religious superstructure. And Ruse’s complete divorce between religion and science seems obviously untrue to the facts. Religions just do butt up against the discoveries of science, which have a very destabilising influence on religious believing. Nor is the basis upon which Spufford builds his unapologetic faith sufficient to justify the intrusion of religious beliefs into the public sphere. Amongst his responses to Jerry Coyne is this one (the italicised words are from Jerry’s original post):
3. Eric Macdonald’s point: ‘If religious believing had implications only for the individual believer, then it could easily be dismissed as a harmless idiosyncrasy, but since almost all religious beliefs have inescapably serious implications for many people, religious belief cannot be dismissed as harmless.’
Ideas have consequences? Hey, who knew? I’m interested in this handsome suggestion that the existence of religion might be tolerable if it had no discernible effects whatever …
Which shows that Spufford simply doesn’t get it. The point is not that religion has consequences — of course it does! – but that the consequences for people in democratic societies — in theocracies this goes without saying — can be harmful, because people who do not accept the religious beliefs upon which some public policies are based are forced nonetheless to obey laws for which the only justification are the beliefs of a religious minority or majority (it makes no difference either way), beliefs which they simply do not, and cannot be required to share. Religion may have all sorts of other consequences for individuals and the way they live their lives, but when religious beliefs dictate the way others must live, even though they do not share the religious beliefs upon which these requirements are sometimes grounded, then religion is a positive menace to those who do not want to live according to the dictates of others and according to beliefs they cannot share.