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.