Ruse: The gift that keeps on gibbering

December 23, 2010 • 8:30 am

UPDATE:  Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse, the original inspiration for Ruse’s ire, has responded to his dumb Constitutional argument.


I try to keep this website classy, so, in response to Michael Ruse’s latest public display of stupidity, I’ll refrain from calling him a “clueless gobshite”.  Let’s just say that his brain has passed its sell-by date.  And just when you think his arguments can’t get any loonier, he comes up with a new one.  This time he argues that anyone who maintains that science and religion are at war, and are mutually exclusive constructs, is begging for the courts to ban science from public school classrooms.

Ruse’s piece is in response to a surprisingly strong article by David Barash, “NOMA? No thanks!” at his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Barash has no truck with the popular accommodationist view, made famous by Steve Gould, that science and religion are happily coexisting and non-overlapping magisteria (“NOMA”):

Rather, let’s acknowledge the truth: Science and religion overlap substantially, notably whenever religion makes “truth claims” about the world.  And when that happens, time and again, religion has a long track record of being simply and irretrievably wrong. . . of course it is possible to argue that God created evolution by natural selection—presumably, along with Newton’s Laws, relativity, quantum mechanics, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, coordinate covalent bonds, and so forth—and then backed away, letting the system run according to these accumulated natural laws.  But the reality—at least in my not-so-humble opinion—is that anyone who claims to espouse both science and religion is being intellectually dishonest or else lazy, and is necessarily short-changing one perspective or the other.

Ruse, in contrast, is a long-time accommodationist, and, though an atheist, spends a lot of time devising ways that the faithful can reconcile their beliefs with science.  His own Chronicle piece, “From a curriculum standpoint, is science religion?“,  is nominally a rebuttal of Barash, but also serves the two other purposes Ruse always instills in his essays.  First, he uses them to sell his latest book—two of them in this case (I won’t name them).  Ruse’s books don’t sell that well—certainly not as well as the books of Gnu Atheists—and he’s always resented that deeply.  But there’s a good reason for this disparity: at least over the last decade, Ruse has written the same book over and over again, and not very well, either.

Second, Ruse loves to lick his wounds in public, and never misses a chance to trot out the epithets he’s garnered from atheists.  Gruff and nasty as he is, he has a thin skin:

In the case of people like me, those who endorse the independence option, our fellow nonbelievers are scornful to an extent equaled only by their comments about Pope Benedict.  We are labeled “accommodationists” or “appeasers,” and reviled.  Just earlier this week I got flak for suggesting that perhaps St. Augustine on original sin was not the last word on the subject and that a more evolutionary friendly interpretation can be found in the second-century thinker Irenaeus of Lyon.

Note that the “I got flak” statement links to my website, but there I was merely drawing attention to a critique of Ruse by Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog. The serious flak came from Jason.

Before Ruse arrives at his most monumentally idiotic argument, he takes time to make a few others.  First, he tries to equate science and faith by claiming that science, too, is based on a metaphor—a metaphor that makes certain questions unanswerable unless you’re an exponent of the dreaded practice of scientism.   And he then claims that religion is a valid way to answer these questions:

Basically, I argue that science is inherently metaphorical, that today’s science has at its core the metaphor of a machine, that metaphors rule certain questions out of court—not wrong, just not asked—and that it is legitimate for religious people to try to provide answers.  Religious answers not scientific answers, about ultimate origins and purposes, about morality, and perhaps also about consciousness.

First of all, science is not based on a “metaphor”, which my online dictionary defines as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.”  I believe Ruse uses the word “metaphor” here to denigrate science, putting it on the plane of religion, which for many is based on regarding sacred texts as metaphors.  Instead, science is based on the idea that we can gain understanding of our universe by applying principles of logic, observation, experimentation and reason.  That’s not a metaphor.  Yes, Descartes analogized organisms as machines, but we don’t think of that as a metaphor—it’s a reality.

And yes, of course it’s legitimate for religious people to try to provide answers.  It’s just that those answers are either wrong, conflict between different religions, or aren’t really the answers people apply in their daily lives.  And even if religion provides the illusion of giving answers, that doesn’t mean that the tenets of religion are correct.  There must be a name for the fallacy that confuses the religously-based search for truth by believers with the legitimization of the existence of God and of the empirical tenets of a faith.  Scientology is also a way to find “answers” about life, but that says nothing about the existence of Xenu and thetans.

Another dumb assertion:

We recognize that of course science and religion can conflict.  That was why we were in Arkansas.  But our argument—my argument, let me speak for myself—is that much that conflicts with science is not traditional religion but (in the case of Christianity certainly) stuff added on, mainly in the 19th century for social and political reasons.

Unless I miss my guess, accepting the literal truth of scripture, which is the real reason for the conflict between science and faith, had a long, long history before the 19th century—say, about 1900 years.  Yes, science as it’s practiced today wasn’t around for most of that time, but the conflict between fantasy and reality was.  The conflict only became evident when we began finding out stuff about the universe that wasn’t in the Bible, culminating with evolution.  Regardless of the dumb arguments about Galileo, the conflict was immanent all along, and had little to do with social and political issues.

But Ruse’s main point—an argument of (excuse the allusion) breathtaking inanity—is that we must be accommodationists and accept the happy coexistence of science and faith.  For if we don’t, and maintain that science and faith are mutually exclusive and that science implies atheism, then teaching science becomes equivalent to teaching “religion” (i.e., atheism). Since the American Constitution prohibits discrimination against religion (or among religions) in public schools, non-accommodationism will lead, says Ruse, to the courts ejecting science from school curricula:

So my question (and it is a genuine one, to which I don’t have an answer) to David Barash is this.  Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept—is false.  Is it then constitutional to teach science?

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution separates science and religion.  (Don’t get into arguments about wording.  That is how it has been interpreted.)   You cannot legally teach religion in state schools, at least not in biology and other science classes.  That was the issue in Arkansas and Dover.  (I am not talking about current affairs or like courses.)  But now ask yourself.  If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?  And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want science removed from schools.  I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution.

Here’s your answer, Dr. Ruse.  It is indeed illegal, as it should be, to teach in the public schools that evolution—or science in general—implies that “God does not exist.” (I believe that this is a reasonable conclusion from science, which implies that certain types of Gods do not exist, but I never mention it in class.) But teaching science is not the same thing as explicitly teaching atheism.  If students want to draw a conclusion from the palpable facts about the world, so be it.  The purpose of science classes is to teach science, not religion or anti-religion, but it’s not our place, as teachers, to prevent students from thinking outside of class. Some students may become atheists after learning about evolution, while others may simply, like BioLogos, incorporate the science into their existing faith.  Not everyone agrees with the proposition that science implies that God doesn’t exist.  But even if they did, that’s no reason to kick science out of the public schools.  Atheism is the notion that there’s no evidence for the existence of God.  That’s not the same thing as science.

Is the teaching of medicine illegal because it contravenes the tenets of Christian Science?  Is the teaching of American history illegal because it contravenes the tenets of Mormonism? The facts are the facts, and we teach them as best we can.  After we do our duty as teachers, and expose students to the facts and to the ways that we ascertain the facts, let those students conclude what they may.  That is, after all, what education is all about.

I don’t know anyone save a creationist who can pack as much stupid into a 1200-word piece as Ruse did in his essay. It’s amazing to think that at one time people took him seriously as a philosopher.

102 thoughts on “Ruse: The gift that keeps on gibbering

  1. Secular education of course is generally committed to empiricism, not faith, as a route to facts about the world. This could be construed as a bias in favor of worldview naturalism, which after all takes science as its epistemic exemplar. But as you point out, no one is forcing public school students to draw any metaphysical conclusions from the success of science.

    1. But that is what we teach, isn’t it? We teach empiricism and naturalism, which are quite specifically anti-religious. I want us to be teaching these things, but I think it is important to realize that at some point, it’s very possible that the religious among us will notice that their kids are being taught a specifically anti-religious worldview. Critical thinking, logic, and rationalism are all anathema to religion, yet I’m sure many middle-ground average religious citizens “want” their kids to be taught these things. I saw “want” because I doubt they’ve really thought about it–they don’t realize that the same skills that lead to writing a good analytical paper or doing good scientific research will most likely lead their children away from God and religion. I just wonder what happens when the non-fundamentalist religious Americans realize this.

      1. “…empiricism and naturalism, which are quite specifically anti-religious…” except to the religious folks who have no problem with empiricism and naturalism. In God and the New Atheism, A critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, John F. Haught makes the point that the new atheists cited would have a different view of religion if they read religious scholarship as deeply as they do the science of which they are expert. Excellent point with one problem, he fails to cite the religious scholars whose divergent views would give pause to the narrow religious view held by the new atheists he critiques.

        For me, the three religious scholars worth reading are Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering and John Shelby Spong although the latter has a ways to go in my view.

        As one who enjoys the accuracy and precision of scientific writings, I would enjoy the critique of religion more if the language was more precise. There are many non-theistic religious people who accept scientific findings as fully as any anti-religious scientist. I have named but three.

  2. Ruse manages to say many strange things. I wonder why he feels the need to have such strange beliefs.

    I think of NOMA as a kind of stance. It’s not that there is no conflict between science and religion. Rather, one takes the position that there is no necessary conflict, and that any actual conflict is entirely of religion’s choosing.

    I don’t see that science implies atheism. The appropriate response from science is that “Does God exist” is not a scientific question, and is not a question that is amenable to the methods of science. Many (perhaps most) sensible scientists will conclude that it is a bogus question, but that is a personal answer that comes from their own clear thinking rather than from science (as an institution). So I don’t see a constitutional problem for science.

    1. I think science necessarily implies that that which has no outward effect that can be measured, does in fact not exist.

      If you were to rephrase it… say… “Does the Fakeosaurousraptor exist?” I think science would have a position. I mean. I just invented Fakeosaurousraptor… and science should rightly so say that non such thing exists.

      It does this because certain properties of the claim make it so.

    2. Does God exist is not a scientific question.

      Does God exist that does X,Y,Z is. How many religions claim absolutely nothing about their god?

      1. A number of the Eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism) have nothing to say about the existance or nonexistance of a creator or other supernatural beings. In fact, Buddha specifically included that question among those he refused to comment on.

        1. Buddhism and Daoism both make supernatural truth-claims about the world. Even if many/most/all Eastern religions have nothing to say about the existence or nonexistence of God, a god, or gods, they do make supernatural claims about reality. More often then not, these claims are shown to be false, or at best unverifiable. While I’m certainly amenable to some practices from non-Abrahamic religions, let’s not start patronizing the “Far East” by suggesting that their religions are any more rational, logical, or real. They’re not.

      2. The reason that “does God exist” is not a scientific question, is because, from observation and experimentation with nature, there’s no reason why the question should come up.

        1. And the term “God” itself is a pretty useless and meaningless term. As a definition, it is scientifically vacuous.

          1. As noted below by Ben G and others, “God” is also a nebulous term in theology as well. I would wager that if one asked a typical evangelical congregation folks to write a paragraph defining God, the number of different definitions would be close to the number of respondents.

    3. Science may not imply atheism, since gods are not part of science. But science does imply a methodology of confirmation that does imply atheism — unless the religious can come up with a more satisfactory method of confirming their beliefs. But then, of course, religion would — mirabile dictu — become part of science, for the only acceptable methodology of confirmation is one that does not privilege personal experience. So far, there is no sign that religion can do this. I do not think it is very likely, do you?

      1. Science may not imply atheism, since gods are not part of science. But science does imply a methodology of confirmation that does imply atheism — unless the religious can come up with a more satisfactory method of confirming their beliefs.

        In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels the Church remains as powerful in modern times as in the Dark Ages. Science is considered to be a branch of Experimental Theology. I liked the bit of including sentient, talking animals but having them engage in politics with the humans. The king of the armored bears of the polar regions contemplates embracing Christianity to forge a tighter economic alliance with the humans, the same decision many pagan kings made all those years ago.

        But then, of course, religion would — mirabile dictu — become part of science, for the only acceptable methodology of confirmation is one that does not privilege personal experience. So far, there is no sign that religion can do this. I do not think it is very likely, do you?

        That’s what I love about science. Eggheads can tell me some absolutely baffling, crazy crap about QM, relativity, stuff that seems every bit as crazy as religious claims. I say “prove it” and the scientist pulls out some miracle of modern gadgetry. “If we were wrong about QM, these chips couldn’t be built. We might still not be entirely correct but are right enough to build these chips and any refinement or replacement of QM theory will only make science stronger.”

        Could you imagine if we really did have magic and experimental theology? Men really put god or gods to the test. Is praying to Odin or Yahweh more effective in gaining blessings? Which god is more strict in the inflicting of curses and misfortune for violating his commandments? Does the embrace of homosexuality withdraw a veil of protection that directly leads to more earthquakes, hurricanes, and possibly a tsunami?

        We’d see commercial theologians roaming the world, seeking out new religious beliefs that might lead to new thaumaturgic applications. The Vatican would vigorously defend its patent on transubstantiation against zorastorians who insist they have a claim on prior art and fast food companies seeking to lower their material cost and major wineries argue that turning water to wine is a violation of their trade secrets if the new wine bears too great a similarity to their vintages.

        1. “The king of the armored bears of the polar regions contemplates embracing Christianity…”

          Come to think of it, is Pullman’s “Magisterium” explicitly Christian? I can’t recall a single unequivocally Christian element to it – plenty of Roman Catholicism, though.

          1. Mormons aren’t Christians, they’re more like the fanboys who didn’t get the point of the book.

          2. “…to many Christians, the Catholic Church is not Christian…” does not seem like a rational (scientific) argument. What is a true Christian? Can you cite a reference? I can’t, but I know many who claim to be Christians who allow a broad definition of the term.

  3. He’s sort of right in his assumptions about science, but philosophically wrong about it.

    Science isn’t exactly metaphorical, it’s model based. If you want to get picky, EVERYTHING is, as it’s filtered through our senses. Science presents a self-consistent model, religion doesn’t.

  4. Ruse’s clueless gobshite argument would have the inevitable consequence that anything ever claimed in the name of any religion is science, and everything in the realm of scientific investigation that even tangentially touches upon a claim made by any religion is itself religious.

    As far as education goes, science education needs to do exactly what science itself does: explore the world around us using self-referential iterative techniques in a constant attempt at refining our understanding, and let the chips fall where they may. Whether those chips confirm or refute beliefs people hold to in the name of one religion or another is completely irrelevant.

    I’m unaware of any significant scientific research into the existence of popular major deities; as such, discussion of that topic really isn’t germane to any science classes. There is, of course, a non-trivial body of work on the existence of all kinds of minor deities, especially ancestor spirits (aka “ghosts”). However, there’s no more interest or significance to that research in the modern scientific community than there is in phlogiston or the luminiferous aether. There’s little reason to mention such deities in more than a passing fashion, if at all.

    A more appropriate class to discuss the theoretical existence of deities would be a logic class, as I’ve yet to encounter a proposed definition of a god that’s logically self-consistent. However, again, logicians have much bigger fish to fry. Even at the high school level, even passing mention would be a questionable waste of classroom time.

    So wherever Ruse is smoking…well, I’d really rather he stopped trying to blow said smoke up our asses.



  5. Surely religions are OMA – overlapping magisteria – as their claims conflict with one another?

    This bit gets my goat –
    ‘If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?’

    Because atheism is NOT A RELIGION Michael Ruse, it is a LACK thereof.

    I shall go & have a cup of coffee to calm down…

    1. But now ask yourself. If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?

      I’ve never made or heard the “God does not exist” claim.

      I have heard the question, “If God exists where is the evidence ?”

      And I have heard it said that given the complete lack of evidence for a god and the mountain of evidence that backs up a material explanation of reality that it is highly unlikely that there is a god.

      1. Evidence, schmevidence.

        Give me a logically-coherent definition of the term, “god,” that doesn’t necessarily entail a contradiction and then we’ll talk about what kinds of evidence that might theoretically be applicable.



        1. Dream on.

          When it comes a definition of god the goal posts get moved around so quickly it’s a wonder they don’t spontaneously ignite.

        2. It’s not that hard to give a definition god: a conscious entity that created our material world, formed the laws of physics and can alter them anytime it wills. You can add more superpowers if you like.

          1. But such definition explicitly excludes thousands of so called gods.
            Neither Minerva nor Thor “created our material world” but were, and still are, considered to be ‘gods’.
            It is *very* hard to give a coherent definition of a ‘god’.
            Your falls well before the first hurdle, I’m afraid.

          2. It was just a definition of god. And the reason I posted it is that there are many who have claimed it is impossible to define god. In fact, if you read Ben Goren’s comment, you see that he’s asking for one logically-coherent definition of god not a definition that encompasses all the notions of god that human race has come up throughout centuries.

            Starting from a post by Steve Zara, there has been a lot of arguments on whether there can be any evidence for god. Just take a look at this.

          3. Here is a logically coherent definition of a god: Me.
            That’s got that out of the way.
            Before one can determine whether one has evidence for anything, it is incumbent upon one to define that for which one is looking!
            Cart, meet horse.

      2. Even still, why would “God does not exist” be more of a religious claim than “Xenu does not exist” or “Unicorns do not exist”? When there is no evidence for something, and it is identical to nonexistent things, why would it be a religious claim to say such things don’t exist? I suppose it would be more accurate to say “there is no evidence for such things.”(I wonder if Ruse would think that is a religious claim?)

        I agree, that few say “God doesn’t exist”, but I don’t agree that it would be a religious claim to make such an assertion. I think it’s on par with “There is no such thing as ghosts” or “I don’t believe in bogeyman.”

        1. I don’t completely accept the “no evidence – not existing” equality. The American Dental Association has long held that the 50% mercury content of amalgam fillings is harmless, the Hg magically inert, etc., and made the “absence of evidence = evidence of absence” claim. My preference is that science be presented as agnostic, and as Coyne notes, this will lead some students toward atheism and others toward accomodating their faith to fit the realities of science.

  6. This argument seems to be of the form “The law says that I can’t keep uranium in my appartment, but you can’t store dogs and uranium together, making them logically the same thing, so how come dogs are allowed?”

  7. Excellent comments all.I feel humbled.I suggest someone photocopy the original post,and mail it to teachers everywhere(o the sly of course)However,I suggest you also mail a copy to Mr Ruse,and allow him to respond.His brain is past its due date.puhhleeze.

  8. Sadly, Ruse brings philosophy into disrepute. What he is saying would be torn to shreds by a competent philosopher in seconds. What Ruse leaves out, consistently, is any consideration of the epistemological for what he is trying to say. He never seems to ask the very simple question: What makes it reasonable to say what I just said?

    Obviously, that’s why he keeps stepping in cow patties as he walks across the Elysian fields.

        1. I’m quite inclined to agree with you.

          I suspect he’s they type of “agnostic” who insists that a particular class of gods — indistinguishable from those favored by modern theologians — are capable of hiding their existence…and therefore it’s perfectly reasonable for somebody to believe in them and act as if they’re real. It’s exactly the same kind of “atheism” that both CS Lewis and Francis Collins experienced, as best I can tell.

          He might even be a true-believing Christian who hates Jesus for some personal tragedy and who’s punishing Jesus by pretending to not believe in him. That’s pure speculation, of course, but it’s a theory far more consistent with his behavior than the one that he sees Jesus as indistinguishable from Luke Skywalker.



          1. I see it more of a case where, if he says there is this overlap and religion loses, then he’ll lose out on his friends, his lectures, his tv appearances…in short, he’ll have to give up his life as he’s become accustomed to it, and deep down he doesn’t want that. So he keeps making these inane arguments. It’s either that, or he is a clueless wanker, and I thought I’d at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

          2. >I am quite convinced that, deep down, he does still really believe.

            Eric, I agree with you. I did a paper on Darwin recently and came across (for the first time!) the Ruse. In reading his book, I was struck by his accomodationist treatment of Darwin’s religion. I do believe, although he never actually made the matter clear, that he thought Darwin was a deist–a completely inaccurate reading of the man. Ruse argues that Augustinian non-literalism provides some congruency between evolution and Xianity. (246)

            Somewhere deep within the “atheist” Ruse, lies (double entendre) a Christian.

          3. My first exposure to Ruse was on Nightline, where he was supposed to be the voice of reason opposite (I think) Dembski. I couldn’t believe that this guy was actually supposed to be supporting science. If he’d sucked up any more he’d be inside his supposed opponent. That was my first exposure to the ID-Evolution “debate” and even then I could tell both of them were full of shite.

    1. Sadly, most philosophers “bring philosophy into disrepute” by opening mouths connected to brains that are brimming with nonsense medieval notions that are totally disconnected from reality.
      At least robust scientists such as Sam Harris are challenging these mentally hobbled folk.

      1. Wait… Sam Harris is a SCIENTIST now? Makes me wonder about your competency to judge anything that gets said on this blog. Which philosophers have you been reading, friend?

        1. Sam Harris is a neurologist.
          That is sufficient for him to be classed as a scientist in my opinion.
          If you should disagree, then it is incumbent upon you to state why a neurologist is not a scientist.
          Good luck.

    2. Yea maybe.But wouldnt a truly refined philosopher demonstrate to Mr Ruse the error of his ways without tearing him to shreds in seconds.Dont you get the viciousness of your approach.I dont follow Mr Ruses ideas.But look-the truth is the truth-nature bats last.She collects her dues in time.Busy yourselves with more constructive endeavors than this mindless bickering

  9. Anyone who maintains that trepanation and modern neuroscience are at war, and are mutually exclusive constructs, is asking for the exclusion of modern neuroscience from medical school classrooms.

  10. One of these days, I wish you would quit holding back and tell us what you really</i? think about Ruse.

    This is one of those asked/answered questions. It's definitional.

    Atheism: A belief that no god exists.
    Theism: A belief that a god or god exists.
    Religion: A codified set of behaviors often based on the worship of a god or gods.
    Science: A systematic method of understanding the natural world based on observation, experimentation, and logic.

    One of these things is not like the other.

    Science has as much to do with atheism as Einstein had to do with hair care.

    However, I will say this: If your religion teaches you that science is wrong, your religion is wrong.

    If science determines that a particular closely held religious tenet is wrong, that religious tenet is wrong. No wiggle room, no NOMA, no "different way of knowing". Science wins, religion loses. Period.

    There is absolutely not one single iota of a quark's difference between the religious objections to evolutionary theory today and the persecution of heliocentrists 400 years ago. Not one.

  11. There’s scarcely any aspect of science or history that would survive in our classrooms if contradicting a tenet of one or another religion disqualified it. Jerry’s examples of medicine and American history are compelling– we don’t ban them from public schools because they contradict Christian Science and Mormonism.

    Fortunately, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on this issue in 1980 in Crowley v. Smithsonian. Crowley claimed that evolution exhibits at the Smithsonian amounted to an establishment of religion (a religion Crowley didn’t like). The Court rejected Crowley’s complaint, finding that that the balance between freedom of religion and learning

    …was long ago struck in favor of diffusion of knowledge based on responsible scientific foundations, and against special constitutional protection of religious believers from the competition generated by such knowledge diffusion.

    Though not, of course, the Supreme Court, a court of influential jurisdiction has thus already considered Ruse’s point, and found it wanting.

    1. There’s scarcely any aspect of science or history that would survive in our classrooms if contradicting a tenet of one or another religion disqualified it.

      Yes, and think of all the books that would bite the dust if they had to meet the same criterion.

      Think of all the general interest books there are, written by scholars or by informed outsiders, that explain or describe some aspect of the world without ever claiming that God did whatever it was. Books of that kind are secular. It would be extremely weird to be reading a book on the history of abolitionism, or cognitive science, or Victorian popular culture, and suddenly encounter a goddy claim.

      There’s a reason for that.

    2. Evidently Ruse is a clueless gobshite when it comes to constitutional law, too.

      He’s not even internally consistent. He asks: “And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?”

      The implied argument being that we either have to declare that science has nothing to say about God, or allow Creationism in schools. But as Jerry and other commenters have pointed out, there are at least some religions (or sects of religions) whose fundamental beliefs are contradicted by science, in ways that even Ruse cannot dispute: I assume that Ruse agrees that there is a conflict between science and Young Earth Creationism.

      What Ruse is trying to do is solve his invented constitutional dilemma by claiming that “true” religion or religion as “properly understood” doesn’t conflict with science, and in the process handwave away any other religious beliefs as somehow not counting for religious purposes. But that’s exactly what First Amendment jurisprudence doesn’t allow you to do! You don’t get to say that fundamentalist religious beliefs don’t count under the First Amendment, any more than you can say that non-Christian beliefs don’t count.

      Ruse is pulling the equivalent of those Christians who would defend public school prayers to a Christian god on the grounds that “hey, we’re not telling you which version of Christianity to be, only that you are a Christian! See, you totally have freedom of religion: you’re free to be Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian or Baptist or….”

      1. Basically, he wants the government to be able to say “you are a religion, you are not” with more authority than they do now (for tax exemptions, etc). He really wants to toss the first amendment out the window.

        1. I don’t get the impression that Ruse wants anything of the kind.

          I think his argument here is just an inaccurate argument from consequences: if the Gnu Atheists are right about science and religion being in conflict, then (claims Ruse) the U.S. courts will allow creationism in schools. That would be bad, therefore the Gnu Atheists can’t be right. Therefore the Gnu Atheists should shut up. Or at least stop persecuting poor, poor, martyred Ruse.

          1. Maybe “wants” is not the right word, but the implication of what he is saying. You are probably right in what he is implying, but if his argument is accurate (it isn’t, of course), then the implications for government control of religion are pretty obvious to me, and completely against the first amendment.

  12. The term “religious answer” is no more than what we would otherwise label “conspiracy theories”; with some unanswered questions about something, and lack of actual evidence, people go and try to conjure up fantastic claims and speculations about the hows and whys.


    Assumptions. Speculation. Hypothesis at best.

  13. Interestingly, Ruse echoes John Calvert, the choreographer of the 2005 Kansas hearings. Calvert was fond of claiming that conventional evolutionary biology established materialism, and that, in order to provide a secular science education, students must be exposed to “the controversy”. The fact that Calvert and his droogs never went anywhere with that argument suggests to me that they understood it would not stand.

  14. Ruse asks, “If ‘God exists’ is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is ‘God does not exist’ not a religious claim?”

    Suppose an astrologer tells me, “Influences exist between the planets and your personality traits.” If I reply “No such influences exist,” do I thereby engage in astrology? Of course not. You’re allowed to deny the claims in a pseudoscience without thereby engaging in that pseudoscience yourself. Otherwise it would be impossible for a pseudoscience not to contain true claims!

    1. Compare:
      ‘God does not exist’
      ‘I have yet to see sufficient evidence for your god claim’

      1. Compare the classical creationist claim:
        (1) The biblical god created life as described in Genesis.

        with the intelligent design sanitized claim:

        (2) Physics, chance and necessity are insufficient to have caused biological life and can’t explain its diversity in form, algorithmically controlled functioning; therefor all biological life must have been artificially created.

        (2′) Biological life is artificial, not natural.

        Clearly (1) is religious, but I don’t see much problem with (2) as the basis for a testable scientific hypotheses?

        1. There are several things wrong with that hypothesis, the primary one being the fact that it is unsupported by empirical evidence. See, e.g, the recurrent laryngeal nerve – if there were some intelligent designer (or even some goal-based algorithm) behind evolution that thought to itself “I’m gonna make something with a huuuuge neck!”, it would not have looped that nerve all the way down and back up through a giraffe’s neck.

          The other glaring problem is that in the hypothesis statement you are assuming facts absolutely not in evidence.

          You state that “Physics, chance and necessity are insufficient” to explain the current state of biological life, when in fact the entirety of modern evolutionary biology shows that it is.

          So essentially your “sanitized” version doesn’t work either; the best you can do without contradicting things we already know to be true is “evolution works, but every once in a while God gives it a nudge and we’ve never found any evidence for those nudges”

          1. I was referring to:

            “No non trivial algorithmic/computational utility will ever arise from chance and/or necessity alone.” — See

            There is not one reason to doubt the above hypotheses.

            From what I could gather, the above could very well pose a problem for the current interpretation of *how* evolution has taken place because is means that chance and necessity are intrinsically insufficient to explain the appearance of life and observed historical evidence for evolution.

            Note that no scientist seems to deny that the evidence clearly shows that life has changed over time. The difference of opinion is about what kind of evolution we are talking about: Evolution as a natural process or like when we say the “evolution of the car”, a mostly artificial process?

            In the end the discussion comes down to a very simple difference: “Is biological life either natural or artificial?” Depending on our preferences we may like to assume that biological life is either, but what scientific evidence do we have for our assumption?

            One side tries to show that life is purely natural, the other tries to show that life is artificial. Restricted to actual scientific evidence it seems to me that both paths are compatible with science and in fact seems to be complementing each other.

          2. Really? And the scientific evidence that supports the idea that evolution is somehow artificial is where?

  15. Indisputable fact about the world: Whenever religion and science have been in direct conflict, science has been right and religion has been wrong, 100% of the time.

    Easiest way to prevent relgion from getting its pants pulled down in public (again): Simply declare that religion is never in conflict with science! See, wasn’t that easy?!

    And it’s the same kind of facile nonsense that every religious apologist peddles.

    What a steamy heap of shite!

  16. Ruse is arguing:

    Metaphysics = Religion

    This is false

    Religion requires metaphysics (of a certain sort, which happens to be in conflict the metaphysics of naturalism (the only sort that conform to the data)).

    [metaphysics] &#8800 [religion]

    As you said, Dr. Coyne, the brighter and less prejudiced kids may well see this conflict of metaphysics, educate themselves on the data, and then conclude that the metaphysics inculcated into them since birth are incorrect. We can hope!

  17. I guess Ruse didn’t hear the news: philosophical relativism has been proven to be a load of crap.

    Ruse is in my books as the sole confirmed godless creationist. I think it’s hilarious how his supporters (and Ruse himself) would deny he’s a creationist, but hey – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck …

  18. Ruse has been offering this “constitutional” claim for awhile. Remember Andrew Brown recycled it awhile back? In a comment here, if I remember correctly, as well as in a post at Comment is Free.

    It’s just bullshit, isn’t it? Are there any sane legal scholars who think it’s sound?

    1. See my reply to comment 11, which I’ll try not to rehash here.

      I don’t think you’ll find any sane legal scholars who think that Ruse’s claim is a correct description of current constitutional law. Under current law, U.S. courts don’t do what Ruse seems to want them do and determine what really “counts” as religion and tell those folks who think their religious beliefs are also scientific/historical facts that no, those aren’t really your religion at all.

      I think Ruse may honestly be misunderstanding the law and overstating the significance of the “implications” of something that is to be taught in schools. Under current law, if there is a valid secular purpose for teaching subject X in a public school, you can do it. Hence the Big Bang can be taught in physics class even though many believers (including some physicists) think it implies a Creator (and even a specific Creator). You can teach about World War II and the Holocaust in history class, and about tsunamis and other natural disasters in earth sciences, even if some atheists think those things imply the non-existence of a benevolent god.

      The reason creationism has run afoul of the Establishment Clause is that it is so intellectually bankrupt that the courts have concluded — correctly — that the only reason for teaching it is a religious one. That’s why the Dover trial considered evidence of the school board members’ motivations, of the history of the ID movement (cdesign proponentists and all that), etc. If ID or creationism had scientific support such that there was a good secular (i.e. scientific) reason for teaching it, the religious implications wouldn’t rule it out.

      1. My statement above that “if there is a valid secular purpose for teaching subject X in a public school, you can do it” is probably an overstatement. There is some balancing that goes on, so that a secular purpose that is very minor compared to the purpose or effect of advancing religion might not pass muster. An English teacher can explain that certain references in literature come from this or that Bible passage; a football coach who starts every practice with a reading from the Bible is not likely to get away with claiming that he’s just trying to help his players understand Shakespeare.

        1. Very well put.

          I think Ruse may honestly be misunderstanding the law and overstating the significance of the “implications” of something that is to be taught in schools.

          He’s definitely misunderstanding the law. Whether or not his misunderstanding is an honest one, is perhaps another question.

        2. Thanks.

          Now that I’ve actually (cough) read Ruse’s post, I see that he claims he’s saying what the current court could do, and that Scalia has form in this kind of tortured interpretation. I don’t think I’ve seen him hedge the claim that way before.

          I still doubt it, but after Citizens United, I probably shouldn’t doubt anything along those lines.

          1. Well, it’s a reasonable prediction to say that at some point in the next two decades, the Supreme Court will get rid of the Lemon Test that it currently employs in Establishment Clause cases. Not a sure bet, mind you, at least in part because it’s not so easy to come up with a better alternative, but plenty of justices have expressed dissatisfaction with it.

            But what replaces it — and how creationism will fare under the new test — has pretty much nothing to do with whether us uppity New Atheists believe that science conflicts with religion.

            For that matter, Justice Thomas is on record as saying that he doesn’t think the Establishment Clause should apply to the states at all. If he had his way, Louisiana could create its own official church and teach that dogma in public schools.

            So if Ruse is trying to come up with a theory of science-religion interplay based on satisfying right-wing justices, then even putting aside the intellectual dishonesty of tailoring one’s beliefs to the political-legal consequences rather than their truth, he’s playing a mug’s game.

          2. Thomas pretty much wants to make sure the Constitution doesn’t apply to the states at all. He’d prefer the Articles of Confederation instead. That’s pretty much what he’s said when he argues “states rights”.

          3. Thomas’ view of the establishment clause is exactly as Screechy says it is. Thomas sees it as a state’s rights issue. Thomas: “[the establishment clause] is best understood as a federalism provision –- it protects state establishments from federal interference but does not protect any individual right.” So yeah, as far as he’s concerned, the purpose of the establishment clause is not to keep church and state separate, but rather to make sure that the federal government can’t override local theocracies with one big federal theocracy. He doesn’t appear to think theocracy itself is such a bad idea, so long as each state gets to pick their own poison, free of Uncle Sam’s interference. This view of the 1st Amendment is quite at odds with everything Madison and Jefferson wrote about keeping religion and civics separate. So Thomas’ whole state’s right’s reasoning is unsound; and from what I recall, freakin’ Scalia doesn’t even share it. I like the straightforward way Hugo Black put it in 1947:

            The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. [boldface added]

            (Side note: Nice to see how Black also recognized that the government preferring one particular religion and the government preferring religion in general (“aid all religions”) are BOTH violations of the establishment clause. You can’t promote one religion, and you can’t promote religion in general either. Tell that to the “National Prayer Breakfast” folks…)

      2. The reason creationism has run afoul of the Establishment Clause is that it is so intellectually bankrupt that the courts have concluded — correctly — that the only reason for teaching it is a religious one.

        Exactly. If it turned out that genetic testing showed American natives were related to Jews, presumably one could teach that in school, despite the fact that it supports a main tenet of Mormonism. Likewise, if geological evidence pointed to a worldwide flood, that could be taught in schools, despite the fact that it supports an aspect of Biblical literalism.

        Science is a methodology, not a belief — it could have turned out that science did find evidence for various religious beliefs. That it did not is not an ideological position, but a contingent fact.

  19. Sceptics like Professor Ruse think that science and religion can be made compatible so long as appropriate adjustments are made on each side. Atheists like Professor Coyne think the incompatibilities run so deep that any honest adherence to science will preclude any notion of religion worthy of the name. Ruse’s rhetorical flourish pushes a reductio wondering if the separation of science and religion can then be maintained in the classroom. Coyne says it can, by making a distinction between the corpus of scientific knowledge and the consequences of that corpus and stating only the former should be taught, while the consequences are up for grabs.

    I’m guessing that Ruse might reply that this is roughly the same distinction he needs to support his accommodationism: religion needs to give up any claim that directly contravenes scientific theory, such as creationism or the world was created only 6,000 years ago, but it need not give up theism in general. The latter does conflict with naturalism and other worldviews that take science as the paradigm of knowledge, but that is more a philosophic position than a logical consequence of science.

    There is much to wonder about this latter argument, but isn’t the question of how you define science a bit tricky in this regards?

    1. Ruse might reply that this is roughly the same distinction he needs to support his accommodationism: religion needs to give up any claim that directly contravenes scientific theory, such as creationism or the world was created only 6,000 years ago, but it need not give up theism in general.

      That pretty much only leaves the weakest of deisms, and there are literally no religious implications for true deism.

      1. I would have thought without question this distinction would allow for any form of deism or pantheism. Most forms of mysticism and Gnosticism also strike me as being safe. You might find them all hokum, but none of them make any empirical claim that science could pronounce on.

        But the counter is more substantive than this. Coyne makes a distinction between the corpus of scientific knowledge and the possible consequences of that knowledge. The former is what gets taught and consist of topics like Newtonian physics, plate tectonics, the Kreb’s cycle and the theory of evolution. This is the stuff that gets published in scientific journals and collated into textbooks. There is no talk here of heaven or hell, the hereafter, or angels because these lie outside the bounds of sensible empirical discussion. This is the stuff that is up for grabs. You will still have your reasons for finding it nonsense, but it is no longer in conflict with science as it is now being defined.

        Look, I’m not saying that Ruse is right here, but I think he is raising a valid question. Coyne generally uses a fairly broad definition of science when discussing the conflict between science and religion, but in responding to Ruse in this post, the definition appears to be narrower. This may not be inconsistent but it is cause for comment.

        1. I would have thought without question this distinction would allow for any form of deism or pantheism.

          Not any form that would allow for personal worship or prayers or entreaties or rituals or sacraments — you know, all that stuff we associate with religion. If the deity or deities only acted once, at the beginning of the universe, then have kept hands off since, one might as well worship Maxwell’s equations, as the god(s) isn’t much different than them. And any form of pantheism that simply says the deity is actually co-extensive with the universe again isn’t making any meaningful claim, especially if said deity doesn’t act as if it exists.

          To the extent that deism and pantheism involve non-interacting deities, they don’t really constitute a religion. To the extent that the beings do interact, they are amenable in principle to scientific investigation.

          Most forms of mysticism and Gnosticism also strike me as being safe.

          At the very least mysticism makes truth claims about the experiences one has, namely that mystical insight is granted by a god or spirit. In other words, this is a truth claim about the nature of the brain — if I can reproduce such experiences in the lab via temporal lobe stimulation, or prevent them via anti-psychotic medication, that strongly suggests such truth claim is false.

          As for gnosticism, are there varieties that make no truth claims about the world? Certainly notions of a demiurge who created all things is a truth claim, as is the nature of such demiurge — would the standard evidence against design count against such a view?

          1. Not any form that would allow for personal worship or prayers or entreaties or rituals or sacraments — you know, all that stuff we associate with religion.

            These are all rituals that need not make truth claims. Prayer need not be an entreaty.

            one might as well worship Maxwell’s equations, as the god(s) isn’t much different than them.

            I respect your view, though it differs from mine. But I don’t see how science can adjudicate a person’s decision regarding who or what to worship.

            To the extent that deism and pantheism involve non-interacting deities, they don’t really constitute a religion.

            This is incorrect as matter of definition: I don’t know any reputable source that would not classify pantheism and deism as a form of religion. Perhaps you’re saying no one could actually hold this view, but Deism has a stellar pedigreed among the founding fathers and, I guessing, is a dominant belief among Unitarians.

            if I can reproduce such experiences in the lab via temporal lobe stimulation, or prevent them via anti-psychotic medication, that strongly suggests such truth claim is false.

            Many mystics understand that their religious experiences don’t just happen. Some Native Americans take peyote, Sufis dance, and Christian mystics fast and live in silence. Why would they be surprised that these same physical conditions could be reproduced in a laboratory setting? There isn’t any disagreement regarding the physical facts, but how the resulting inner experience is interpreted. I don’t see science, per se, having much to say here one way or another.
            The mystic does make truth claims, and you do have grounds for questioning these claims. Data from psychology, neurology and anthropology may all provide auxiliary support. But I don’t see how you argument can work without something like the following:

            Science is the sole arbiter of truth.

            A principle that is both plausible and respected. My question is: does this principle belong in the curriculum of science?

  20. ” more evolutionary friendly interpretation can be found in the second-century thinker Irenaeus of Lyon”

    Whisky Tango …?!!

    Here’s Irenaeus on original sin. Can anyone, ANYONE explain how Ruse first started digging this rathole?

    Even though Eve had Adam for a husband, she was still a virgin… By disobeying, Eve became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race. In the same way Mary, though she had a husband, was still a virgin, and by obeying, she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 22

    And Irenaeus held to the literal interpretation of Genesis. Irenaeus would view evolution in about the same way that Ken Ham views evolution.

    1. He’s employing the standard tactic of creationists – look for the oldest source you can find and use that, even if there are more recent things that may contradict what you want to argue. He’s just cherry picking what he likes, and from the look of things, might be misunderstanding that as well.

  21. This is a good yule theme, bringing harmony to the sciences by kicking religion out. But this isn’t one of WEIT’s best posts, it is misrepresenting things.

    Shortly (since yule trip awaits):

    we began finding out stuff about the universe that wasn’t in the Bible, culminating with evolution.

    I would think that the culminating was with the discovery that the universe is part of a process, the local end of inflation. (This is yet to be tested, but it is the natural state of inflation.)

    Moreover, as Hawking notes, we now know that the universe may be, and likely is, self-contained. This obviates religious texts in toto.

    Biology may be more aggravating in its explicit and up close disembowelment of religious claims on human exceptionalness, but cosmology makes the more full monty.

    Atheism is the notion that there’s no evidence for the existence of God.

    There are many flavors of atheism that doesn’t fit into this definitional notion. It is better to say that atheism is a rejection of theism.

    This leads into my main problem with the post, the claim that it is illegal to teach in the public schools that science implies that “God does not exist.” While at the same time acknowledge that it is a reasonable conclusion. Obviously this is not a desirable state of affairs.

    I believe the US constitution, like many other nations founding documents, maintain a separation between secular and religious sectors of culture, combined with freedom for religion. It would be no favor or disfavor for any specific religion to present the secular, indeed scientific, reasonable conclusion that gods do not exist.

    This can in no way be construed as anti-religious propaganda, which would be targeted at religion but not present unavoidable conclusions as we find them.

    [Disclaimer: I have an interest in the correct and inclusive presentation of atheism as it is usually presented.

    Because it is my testable hypothesis that science theories cohere into materialism, say by sharing characteristics such as energy preservation. (And I maintain, well tested hypothesis, since ~ 70-80s amassed enough published theories permit testing at 3 sigma.)

    The very fact of such a monism kicks out dualisms of souls but also gods for which there are no observations.

    That there is no evidence for perpetual motion machines of any kind doesn’t mean that the evidence for the 1st and 2nd law of thermodynamics is lacking.]

  22. Yes, Ruse’s protestations about his being a sceptic (a term he says he prefers to ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’) ring very false when you read his endless and endlessly infantile apologetics for Christianity – talk about trying to save the appearances! But no matter, I foresee what Ruse’s reward in eternity will be: to be stuck in a small Huffpost box with all those foolish and loquacious commentators who append admiring comments to his pieces and gibber on excitedly about God and how he made the world and about Jesus and redemption and blood… I shall sit above, of course, and enjoy the spectacle in the manner of Tertullian (or was it Origen?).

  23. I find this deterioration very sad. Ruse’s “Darwinism Defended” was perhaps the first book I read on the creationism controversies and I liked it very much, back in the early 80s. Unfortunately, I loaned it to someone and never got it back, so I’m not sure if I’d like it as much today. Yeah, I could go look in the library, if I had the time and inclination.

    I first realized there as a problem back in the mid 90s when I was debating creationists online and one of them started quoting Ruse in defense of some creationist argument. I suspected R. was losing it. Sounds like maybe that’s true. I find it sad. Aging is not helpful after a certain point. What happened to Anthony Flew appears to have been even worse.

  24. Never mind that the defenders of NOMA try to delimit science. They also presume that they have been given the authority to define religion.

    Any self-styled prophet or theologian can define their religion so as to contradict the most basic tenets of science. A Christian Al-Ghazali could appear tomorrow who denies the possibility of the entire scientific enterprise. Why does Ruse assume that he commands the authority to deny this as a genuinely religious claim? Has he now become the Uber-Pope, who can adjudicate, now and forever, what shall be considered real religion and what shall be considered false? What utter bollocks! And as it would be a genuinely authentic expression of religion, by Ruse’s argument, its very existence would abolish the teaching of all science of any kind, since it would contradict this religion. It’s no surprise that Ruse is now a quote source for creationists. What an ignoble end to a brilliant career.

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