Ruse gibbers on. . . .

November 2, 2009 • 9:08 am

Damn!  Just when I was praising the Guardian for publishing critiques of faith, along comes Michael Ruse to argue that “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute.”  By “us,” of course, he means “atheists.”  Sadly, Ruse, whose ideas are quickly approaching their sell-by date, simply expels the same arguments as all faitheists:

1.  I know theology and you don’t.

. . . unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander. There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.

The assertion that “God exists necessarily” is not a satisfactory answer to critiques of First Cause arguments. As Dawkins and many REAL PHILOSOPHERS have pointed out, one could equally well say that the Universe exists necessarily.  It is not fatuous to ask “What caused God?” — not a bit. What was God doing before he created the Universe?  Yes, there are a lot of very bright Christian theologians, but I haven’t seen any of them make a satisfactory argument for why God exists.  Theology is the business of turning empirical necessities into religious virtues.

2.  Atheists aren’t nice or humble enough.

. . .how dare we be so condescending? 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. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.

Lord help me, why would anybody turn first to a theologian if they needed advice about “everyday matters”? Do they have any special expertise?  And besides, how can we be “mistaken” in our view that “there’s no evidence for God”?

3. Atheists are politically incompetent and should shut up.

I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion. I never conceal my nonbelief. I defend to the death the right of the new atheists to their views and to their right to propagate them. But that is no excuse for political stupidity. 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?

For a long time Ruse has been making the ridiculous argument that if you feel that evolution promotes atheism, then teaching evolution is the same thing as denigrating religion in the pubic schools.  Apparently the man is serious.  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.

Who is the one bringing us into disrepute? Ruse should look in the mirror.


UPDATE:  P.Z. , who has been photographed in passionate embrace with Ruse, noticed Ruse’s screed simultaneously and has posted about it here. Russell Blackford has also posted.

55 thoughts on “Ruse gibbers on. . . .

  1. I was asking ‘What caused God?’ as a first year undergraduate. I’m still asking it as a second year undergraduate, because nobody has given me a satisfactory answer.

    Would you like to bet whether I’ll still be asking it once I graduate?

    1. Sean, I understand what you mean by your question. Certainly you will never get a reasonable answer to it in the sense in which you ask it. However, if you want the true answer, it is quite simple. Some person wanted to gain some power over someone else, so they made up a god.

      1. “What caused God?” is a silly question. If you believe, you do not want an answer because it is unnecessary, if you don’t believe, you do not need any answer.
        “What caused the universe?” is a different sort of question.

      2. “What caused god?” is not a silly question. Theists claim that god created everything but was himself uncreated. In rhetoric this is called “special pleading” and is a logical fallacy Essentially the theists are saying “everything was created except for one thing.” What if we say “everything was created except for ten things” or a hundred things or a million things?

        Pointing out theists’ logical fallacy is hardly silly.

    2. It’s amusing to me that one of the techniques deployed to defend arguments in favor of God is to assert that the atheists’ objections are hundreds of years old. Um, so how is it that an argument that has stood unrefuted for hundreds of years somehow becomes less valid over time?

    3. Sean Wills November 2, 2009 at 9:44 am:

      I was asking ‘What caused God?’ as a first year undergraduate. I’m still asking it as a second year undergraduate, because nobody has given me a satisfactory answer.

      I recommend you look to neuroscience for answers.

  2. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander.

    Except that in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins went out of his way to reiterate that he was only speaking metaphorically pretty much every goddamn chapter, to the point that I found it tedious and that it possibly detracted somewhat from the book.

    If every single preacher was careful to mention at least once per sermon, “Now, this is all metaphorical, mind you. Please do not take this literally,” I’m sure we all would have far fewer objections.

    1. What’s more, Ruse is not even applying this to all the talking snake rubbish but to the idea that “God exists necessarily”. Is he saying that‘s a metaphor? If so I’ve never heard anyone say what for, never mind once a sermon. And if not then his comparison to the ‘selfish’ metaphor seems completely pointless.

  3. If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity

    I am not aware of any “New Atheist” making this argument, ever. Many of us feel that a scientific worldview is incompatible with evolution, and of course many of us feel that Darwinism significantly weakens the case for God because it undermines various argument from contingency — but nobody has ever argued that the specific fact of evolution via natural selection is inherently in conflict with religion.

    If one is unwilling to apply a scientific worldview to theological questions (which is where the faith/science incompatibility lies), then theistic evolution contains no contradictions. The absurdity of theistic evolution lies in the fact that it is an evidence-less nonsequitir, not in any specific contradiction with Darwinian evolution.

  4. I first saw Ruse on Nightline, where he was “opposite” Dembski, I think. I wondered why they had two creationists on – Ruse sucked up to him that bad. I haven’t seen anything since to change my mind. Ruse thinks Plantiga is a good source for anything but stupidity? Seriously?

    What does “I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief” even mean? I guess if someone is honest and means well, in their own mind, then that makes their ideas of merit? Forget evidence, let’s go by personal appeal – the opposite of ad hominem? Seriously, what does he mean?

    Does anybody but theists and ID creationists (and probably Mooney) even listen to Ruse anymore? Hasn’t his fifteen minutes run out?

  5. If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity

    Funny, it’s always Christians I see making this claim. Atheists just say that Christianity is superfluous, at best, and impedes one’s ability to approach the evidence objectively, at worst.

  6. When I read this, I assumed that Coyne was parodying or simplifying Ruse’s remarks, rendering them in a mocking, sing-song, self-important style. Then I turned to the original article and was shocked to see that they were actual quotes! Ruse has become a parody of himself.

  7. I suppose it shouldn’t, but Ruse’s infantile babbling makes me angry. He starts his hackery by dangling his credentials in front of the reader (“As a professional philosopher …”), as if that made any difference. In fact, he is not so much a professional philosopher as a fucking embarrassment to the profession. But we’ll get to that. Next, he feints a definition of the term ‘atheist’ and seems quite pleased with himself when he comes up with two opposing descriptions that neither have any bearing on a presumed schism nor represent the oft-stated views of the opponents Ruse is so childishly proud to have attracted. Even that he manages to get rather tragically wrong: they do not oppose him. They ridicule him. There is simply nothing of substance to oppose.

    What there is is this. A couple of lines (“I am not whining”) about how those terrible Non-brain-damaged Atheists compared him to Chamberlain (a lie; the passage in TGD is about “a school of thought”), “loathe and detest” his thinking (plainly ridiculous, since that would presume that anybody takes it seriously), that PZ called him a “clueless gobshite” because he was sympathetic to Creation Museum visitor (again, a lie; PZ called him that for his barking mad interpretation of the First Amendment). And then he doesn’t even have the guts to say what a real philosopher, Dan Dennett, thinks of his ideas and instead hides behind his readers’ pearls that he just clutched for them.

    Next up, he engages in some ad-hoc ‘reasoning’, falsely accuses the By-now-yawning Atheists of assigning the blame for all the world’s evils to religion and of thinking “all religion is necessarily evil”, and then says “unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously”. Somebody seriously needs to take his meds.

    Then it’s some name-calling of Dawkins again and a bit of pseudo-philosophical posturing—how dare Dawkins be so childish as to question the existence of the emperor’s new clothes? No serious philosopher would do that. Which, if true, would explain why philosophers are usually safely ignored. Then he trots out the utterly absurd claims of Mary Midgley about TSG, without giving even a single argument, as if some other crackpot’s authority alone should persuade anybody of anything.

    Then he goes on about how modest he himself is and how condescending the Sane Atheists are. Oh, and of course about their atheist “beliefs”. And TGD’s message was terribly simplistic, did he already mention that?

    “Forgive me if I don’t sign on.” Don’t flatter yourself. Nobody would ever ask you to sign on. Except the asylum.

    We who live outside the asylum, though, were under the impression that is was common philosophical practice for a discussion to be rational and conducted using actual arguments. But apparently, opinion is divided on the subject.

    1. “Forgive me if I don’t sign on.” Don’t flatter yourself. Nobody would ever ask you to sign on. Except the asylum.

      Or the Job Centre.

    2. I suspect the squeamishness about Dennett is because of what he (Ruse) did in the past – which I’ve just had the bad manners to mention at Comment is Free. He initiated an email exchange with Dennett, in which Dennett was temperate and brief and Ruse blew his stack; he then sent the whole thing, without Dennett’s permission, to William Dembski, telling him to post it on his blog if he wanted to.

      I even corresponded with Ruse on the subject, because I wrote it up for The Philosophers’ Mag. He was cheerfully unrepentant.

    3. “He starts his hackery by dangling his credentials in front of the reader (“As a professional philosopher …”), as if that made any difference.”

      Ironic that he does that and chastises non-philosophers for treading on his turf, then proceeds to make mind-bogglingly ignorant pronouncements about constitutional law.

      “And TGD’s message was terribly simplistic, did he already mention that?”

      Here’s a hint for Ruse: TGD wasn’t written for his edification. No, there aren’t really any new arguments in the book, nor is it intended to be cutting-edge philosophy. It’s written for the vast majority of people who don’t read philosophy journals, don’t understand what atheism is or why anyone would be one. Go read the comments section of most blog posts or news stories about atheist topics, or listen when one of the “New” Atheists does a radio or television interview: you’re not likely to get a lot of “sophisticated” philosophy or theology, just a lot of Pascal’s Wager and Hitler/Stalin references. Maybe if “sophisticated” atheist philosophers like Ruse were better communicators, books like TGD wouldn’t get an audience because such basic issues would already be well understood by the general public.

      One might as well chastise WEIT for not presenting any “new” arguments for evolution, and being full of stuff that professional biologists already knew.

    4. Peter, I can relate to getting frustrated, because I think Ruse publishing things like this makes a mess in public that clouds more significant issues. But then I consider: Ruse is an atheist, but for some reason he defends Christianity above all other religions (and we know why, because of his Quaker upbringing) — then the arbitrary aspect of this just amuses and fascinates me to no end. Whenever I read him defending Christian believers (above other believers), I imagine him defending Thor-believers (above other believers) — not that he believes in Thor himself. His expenditure of energy seems completely arbitrary and silly.

      Also, Ruse wrote this gem: “I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. This claim is on a par with golden plates in upstate New York.” Wow, he really came out and said the Book of Mormon is bogus. I suppose he has some theological basis to bash the Book of Mormon. But it still fascinates me that his motivation to bash the Book of Mormon seems so bizarre — as if proper Thor-worship is a driving force in his life, yet he doesn’t believe in worshiping Thor personally.

      1. Which new atheists “necessarily think religion is necessarily evil and corrupting”? Oh wait, that’s one of those straw men that faitheists extrapolate every time religion is treated like any other superstition.

        I, for one, don’t think religion is necessarily evil and corrupting– it just isn’t true. It makes claims about “divine truths” it has no right to make while spreading prejudice against those who use evidence to explain real truths. Despite my explaining this, I can’t keep faitheists from accusing me of “hating religion” or “thinking it’s all evil”. (I don’t really even believe in “evil”.)

        I do think it’s dangerous to tell people that faith is a means of knowledge and necessary for salvation. What couldn’t you get someone to do if they believed their eternity was at stake? This meme makes people incredibly vulnerable to charismatic gurus and cult leaders.

        (On the other hand, I owe my involvement in internet skeptic discussions to a piece Ruse wrote in Skeptic Magazine against Richard Dawkins in 2005– so I am grateful to the door he opened for me. I’ve met many like-minded people in my discussions against Ruse… some of the most awesome people in the world, I’d say!)

  8. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.)

    What he seems to miss there is that psychological explanations all around are evidence that science and not religion is explanatory.

    Where they bring in theology, it doesn’t explain, and other theologies have incompatible “explanations.”

    Can’t he just admit that some explanations are proper, and others are not? Something like “necessary existence” is old worthless metaphysics, which is not needed for today’s discussions of what is known and what is not. It’s important for understanding how we got to this point from earlier ideas, of course, but it does not help us to understand the world, which is why it isn’t taught in science classes, or in most “philosophy of science.”

    Glen Davidson

  9. Udo Schuklenk and I have also written a piece on this topic for Comment is Free. Hopefully it might appear tomorrow – anyway, some time later this week. Needless to say, we don’t take the same view as Ruse.

  10. Ruse’s deference reminded me that, in her Edge debate with David Sloan Wilson (,Natalie Angier presented an excellent illustration of how theism is treated by many scholars,scientists included, as privileged relative to other superstitions:

    “I went to the Cornell website and came up with this example of how two different questions were treated. On the “Ask an Astronomer” website, to the query, “do most astronomers believe in God based on the available evidence?” astronomer Dave Chernoff replied that, in his opinion, modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God. People who believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions. He cited the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent. The probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics raise the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs.” He concluded that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of God and religious belief doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have anything to do with scientific reasoning. Notice how much less kind was the response to a reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology: “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” said Dave Chernoff. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.” In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them—poor gullible gits. But for the multitude to believe that, in one way or another, religious divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton …that’s OK.”

  11. Ruse gives so much privilege to theology I’m actually curious as to what led him to become an atheist (or stay an atheist).

    1. It lets him bash atheists while denying bigoted thinking. “I don’t dislike Atheists, I’m one myself! Those others are just too strident, and not modest enough in their unbelief!”

      Or so says the cynic in me.

  12. Main Entry: ruse
    Pronunciation: \ˈrüs, ˈrüz\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: French, from Old French, roundabout path taken by fleeing game, trickery, from reuser
    Date: 1625

    : a wily subterfuge
    synonyms see trick

  13. You know who pisses me off? The New Anthropologists. How dare they toss around their empirical ethnographies and grammers without showing the deference due to the musings on Man in the State of Nature by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, among others? And they’re not the only ones: I took my dog in to see one of the New Veterinarians, and this so-called ‘Doctor’ prescribed heartworm medication without even asking me if Sparky had the Buddha nature.

    And don’t even get me started on the New Physicists, the New Chemists, the New Biologists, the New Aerospace Engineers….

  14. Anybody see this yet? Dinesh D’Souza talks of scientific “evidence” for afterlife. Reviewed rather skeptically by Newsweek.

    “Afterlife studies, to coin a phrase, has been an empty field, at least until now. The AWARE study (“Awareness During Resuscitation”) is looking at “near-death experiences” (NDEs)—the recollections of people who were revived after clinical death, defined as the absence of heartbeat and the cessation of measurable electrical activity in the brain. People with NDEs sometimes report out-of-body experiences, such as looking down on themselves from above and witnessing their own resuscitations. Obviously, if this is actually taking place—and not, say, a composite reconstruction of memories drawn from years of ER episodes—then the threshold requirement for life after death has been met: the separation of consciousness from the physical brain. “Near-death experiences show that clinical death may not be the end,” D’Souza writes. Thus they support his larger point, that “neuroscience reveals that the mind cannot be reduced to the brain … consciousness and free will … seem to operate outside the laws of nature, and therefore are not subject to the laws governing the mortality of the body.” The latter assertion has been at the crux of Western philosophy since Plato, but it’s taken until now to devise an empirical test for it. In the AWARE study, randomly generated images will be projected in the rooms of critically ill patients, in locations where they can be viewed only from above—by someone having an out-of-body experience, for instance. If patients who survive NDEs can identify these images subsequently—well, not to overdramatize, but several centuries of materialism in the natural sciences will have to be rewritten. The director of AWARE is Dr. Sam Parnia, a fellow at Weill Cornell Medical Center. He told NEWSWEEK that researchers at 20 hospitals have identified about 600 subjects for interviews. Parnia expects to publish his results in 2010.”

  15. Self-evident theological axioms:

    “God exists necessarily”.

    “I don’t necessarily come from no stinkin monkeys”.

    “Jesus flew like a birdie necessarily, tweet tweet”.

  16. Ruse is embarrased to be an atheist? Well go join the RCC in pope adulation. It’s just a rhetorical ploy. Don’t be mean, I might convert!. His article stinks too. A billion billion theologians might entertain Aristotelean metaphysics and postulate a prime mover, first cause or whatever but science long showed that relying on the excellent, but mistaken, thoughts of a guy who lived 2400 years ago doesn’t help understand reality. Why should we pretend that when Catholics talk about substance transubstantiating or souls controlling the body have anything to say about reality?

  17. Not being a professional theologian or philosopher I was always slightly confused by the first-cause argument in as much as it seems to me that it presupposes the existence of causality.

    Jonathan West: nice to see you. I liked your stuff in CiF

  18. The atelic argument rebuts Ruse.
    What made or designer Him is quite appropriatee. Not only do supernaturalists special plead in so doing they beg the question of His being different in what they claim about Him. William Sahakian in his introductory volume about philosophy alleges that we make the fallacy of multiple questions with the who made Him, but that begs the question of His having the attributes and referents to be different!
    “Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr. Griggs [ Naturalist Griggsy, Rationalist Griggsy, Skeptic Griggsy]

Leave a Reply