In May, the Boston Globe (online) published an interview of zoologist, philosopher of science and popular writer Michael Ruse discussing his new book The Evolution-Creation Struggle. More recently, the American Scientist Online published another interview. The book expands on the arguments made in an article Is Evolution a Secular Religion, published in Science Magazine in March 2003.
I noticed a preliminary review of Ruse’s book and commented on it in an entry called Atheists, Darwinists.
Ruse claims a moderate position in the struggle over whether a religious story – that the Universe was created in the manner described in the biblical book of Genesis as understood by fundamentalist Christians – should be taught in American schools as the best scientific explanation for the existence of matter and life. Ruse’s view, evidenced in his own writing – for instance a recent book review – is that the fundamentalist Christian versions of the story of biological life, including theories like Creation Science and Intelligent Design should not be taught as science in American schools. He has never wavered on that issue.
He is critical of the way that scientists have talked and acted in the debate with creationists. If his point is that there is no discourse, or that the discourse has not been civil, his point is well taken. There is lot of abusive rhetoric on both sides of the debate, which is really a debate about the cultural and political status of science and religion in modern America.
Ruse describes some of the more visible and vocal modern teachers of scientific method, empiricism, materialism and atheism – Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson as the priests of a secular religion. Ruse’s arguments are stated in various other writings For instance he wrote an essay for the religious site Beliefnet called “Double-dealing in Darwin”. Dawkins and other scientists and public intellectuals assert the primacy of reason and the scientific method. They are intolerant of religion to the point of being hostile to the role of religion as social practice. They unecessarily demean religious people and the role of religion as means to genuine happiness. (I demean superstitious and fundamentalist thinking myself, so I am putting some stress on the word unecessarily).
The Evolution-Creation Struggle received a largely hostile review by James Clark, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Sunday August 7, 2005. Clark say that with friends like Ruse, scientists don’t need enemies. Reviewers more attuned to philosophy and the history of ideas like Karen Armstrong, writing in the New Scientist, or Alan Batten in the Toronto Globe and Mail have been more supportive of Ruse. Clark was unhappy with Ruse’s references to Dawkins and other such public intellectuals as being a priesthood. I think there is some merit to Ruse’s comparisons between the way religious leaders and atheist public intellectuals present themselves and interact with people who share their insights and values, and with those who do not, and with those who believe different insights and hold different values. This deserves its own discussion. I agree with Clark if he means that Ruse is engaging in some dodgy logic when he makes that comparison. There are valid psychological, sociological and philosophical points of comparison, as both groups are trying to build or solidify public economic, political and cultural support for their programs. They both engage in polemical arguments and propaganda. But there are large differences between their programs.
I agree more firmly with Clark that while Ruse claims to be helping to get the disputants to respect and understand each other, his contributions are not constructive. Ruse discusses the development of the movement now called scientism, in the 19th century, as if the people involved were planning to overthrow religion. His starting point is in the history of ideas, which is a discipline which lies between the analysis of ideas and concepts, and historical and descriptions of how people actually live and have lived. His reconstruction and analysis of the ideas of Haldane and Huxley is plausible. His review of the writings of the 19th century evolutionists on religions and science is probably accurate, although not particularly new or shocking. It is well known that after the Enlightenment and the start of the modern era, many scientists and intellectuals have held religion in disdain and have held a general expectation that the popularity of religions will diminish in a more affluent and well-educated society. It is well-known that there the belief that the conditions of human life would improve as scientific knowledge, technical achievements increase became prevalent in the 19th century. Many people believe or assume that society and social organization is improving or progressing in a particular and positive way.
Ruse’s theory that this intellectual movement represents a self-conscious or unconscious movement to form a new secular religion of evolutionism presents problems, starting with his conflation of the ideas of evolution and progress philosophy, religion, ideology and science. He uses a very sloppy concept of religion. He tends to inflate the writings and interactions of a few scientists and public intellectuals – who did in fact know each other and interact socially and professionally – into a religious movement. He can be given some leeway here, because the ideas of progress and evolution have become privileged in our culture, and the history of those ideas is certainly interesting and important. However his argument that there was an organized movement to promote science or evolution as a religion is hyperbolic. The 19th century evolutionists viewed themselves as scientific atheists, not as as the founders of a secular religion. We can look back on ideological movements, like Marxism, and draw parallels between those movements and religious movements. Bertrand Russell compared Christianity and Marxism as social movements and grand theories in his History of Western Philosophy, and Lyotard canonized the idea of metanarratives, but these are analytical, rather than descriptive, categories. Neither the efforts of a few theorists to create a grand narrative of evolution, nor the multi-faceted appreciation of evolution in modern thinking, supports the view that evolution is a religious theory or a religion.
The religious right has been trying to get the fundamentalist creation story into the schools through a propaganda strategies, the Wedge Strategy and “Teach the Controversy”. Ruse’s writing plays into this strategy, and some passages from his books, articles and speeches are cited on Creationist web sites. Ruse has appeared in public discussions with creationists, and appears to have adopted their arguments about some issues. More conventional scientific writers view him with some suspicion as fellow-traveller, perhaps a traitor. Ruse’s arguments will comfort Christian fundamentalists who claim that arrogant scientists are trying to ram a skeptical, secular, liberal, atheist agenda down their throats.
Fundamentalists, in the quest to be able to enjoy their beliefs without unpleasant skepticism, claim that America has a state religion – they call it secular humanism – and claim that atheist scientists, intellectuals and social engineers are working to undermine and suppress Christianity. The accusations run this way (quoting from a section of Wikipedia article called Conflation of Science and Religion as it appears today):
A popular accusation among creationists is that evolution is itself a religion based on secular humanism, scientific materialism, or philosophical naturalism. Creationists argue that there is an atheist bias in the scientific community that systematically discriminates against their religious views. Creationists involved in the controversy do not believe distinction can be made between science and religion, and hold that the modern philosophy of science is informed inappropriately by rejection of a deity. They also balk at skepticism aimed at claims of supernatural events or miracles.
In the nineteenth century there was a movement by certain scientists and intellectuals to form a quasi-religion of scientism. Since that time, most members of the scientific community have moved to maintain a pragmatic separation between scientific theories and religious faith, but creationist participants in the controversy continue to charge that there is a conspiratorial movement on the part of evolutionists to maintain paradigmatic hegemony over all aspects of culture (see, for example the Wedge strategy which is an attempt to combat the perceived attack on religious thought). Additionally, many atheists involved in the controversy extrapolate from science to declare that religious faith is falsified.
Ruse’s arguments encourage the religious right to keep pushing their religious stories onto the public school curriculum in two ways. He legitimizes their view that the scientific outlook is a religious outlook, and he legitimizes the religious right’s sense that secular and liberal forces are deliberately working to suppress religion. He seems to promote the idea that there is a conspiracy to attack religion by promoting science. The true believers in traditional religion will have no further use for him when their day comes, and they will not be tolerant of his semi-liberal ways in a political order based on fundamentalist values. His support for an anti-biblical teaching would bring him to the stake under their rule.
Ruse says he is not a believer, and it seems clear that he is not an evangelical or a traditional Christian. He appears to support religious practice or spirituality as a means of understanding the real world, rather than as a means of self-care and happy living. This place him in the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, with views like those of William James. Moreever he seems to be associated with the vacuous transcendentalism underlying Web sites like Science & Theology News and the Templeton Foundation sites.
The social practices and the belief-content of religion are a necessary part of the happiness of the majority of human beings, even highly educated and intelligent human beings. Vigourous pluralism leaves all belief systems open to criticism and discussion. Ruse and his more sympathetic reviewers would seem to want to respect all beliefs, and criticize none. The questions of knowledge, belief and faith have to be disconnected. There is a common-sense distinction between knowledge of facts through analysis of observations of the physical and social world, and belief in facts through faith in the truth-value of religious discourse. Ruse’s version of pragmatism, like that of William James, is not particularly convincing to scientists and empiral thinkers. Nor does it help atheists to come to terms with the emotional and political force of religion.
He doesn’t ask why the teaching of the history of science is necessary in the curriculum, or how opposing interests might be accomodated in a way that lets everyone benefit by continuing research of genetic and biological issues, without unnecessary disrespect for the emotions, status and beliefs of fundamentalists. As intellectual history brought to bear on the question of whether either Creation or evolution should be taught in public schools, his writing is tendentious and somewhat pointless.