Recently I came across a guest blog post that attracted me for several reasons. First, it's about the science-religion relationship, a subject I've been interested in for a long time; second, it's by an individual who has something important to say about what's called new atheism; and third, the intro to the piece mentioned that the author has a book coming out this fall. I'm already looking forward to reading it.
Not bad for one click in response to an online promotion.
The post, which appeared on Beliefnet on August 14, is by Michael Ruse, a prolific writer and philosopher of biology at Florida State University. Ruse, Bristish-born and educated, has written extensively on the impact of Charles Darwin and the creationism v evolution debate, which today also includes Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). He thinks it's possible to reconcile Christianity with evolutionary theory -- a view unappreciated and flatly rejected by new athiests. For them, religion in any form is harmful to humanity and has no place in or around science, even as a complement.
Perhaps the most visible new atheists, all of whom have their own distinguished careers and bestselling books, are biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens.
Of course, one doesn't have to be well-known or an acdemic to express wholly negative opinions about the historical or current role of religion in human affairs or its perceived interference with scientific inquiry and progress. Many people do it these days.
Ruse's guest piece is titled "Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster." In it, he mentions his own journey away from faith in his early twenties (he's now 70 and describes himself as a "very conservative non-believer"), the vociferous nature of new atheists who denigrate not only religion but also people of faith (especially scientists who believe), and the negative consequences of new atheism on scientific scholarship and combating creationism in the classroom.
What could possibly be wrong with bashing religion and pointing to a presumed intellectual weakness of people of faith while hoisting the pro-science banner? Well, according to Ruse, one problem is their arguments against religion lack rigor:
"Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy of religion course. Proudly he criticisizes that whereof he knows nothing . . . If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, we would rightly be indignant."
This is pretty strong stuff, but then so is the invective some new atheists have leveled, and continue to level, at Ruse.
Another, and perhaps more serious problem for the new atheists is that one of the largest markets for their ideas is the United States. Those are my words, not Ruse's.
As Ruse correctly points out:
"Americans are religious people. You may not like this fact. But they are. Not all are fanatics. Survey after survey shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science. They want to be science-friendly, although it is certainly true that many have been seduced by the Creationists . . . We evolutionist have got to speak with these people."
In other words, do your homework and respect the views of those you disagree with.
Ruse adds: "The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science in publically funded schools. It bans the teaching of religion." And then he asks a revealing question: "If teaching 'God exists' is teaching religion -- and it is -- then why is teaching 'God does not exist' not teaching religion?"
Of course it is, he says. And I agree. What this suggests for public-minded scientists as well as the new atheists is that teaching evolutionary theory in America, and perhaps even science itself, "runs smack up against the First Amendment." If so, he says, then it's time to rethink positions concerning science, creationism, and the schools.
Meanwhile, Cambridge University Press is preparing to publish Ruse's latest book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in an Age of Science early next year. Cambridge describes it as a "major new analysis of the science-religion relationship." The book will argue against the extreme positions of both atheism and creationism, suggesting that "by its very nature and its deep reliance on metaphor, science restricts itself and is unable to answer basic, significant, and potent questions about the meaning of the universe and humankind’s place within it."
Given the importance of science-religion intersects in the extraterrestrial life debate, CB readers might also enjoy Thomas Dixon's Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, also by Cambridge University Press (2008). The first two chapters alone -- "What are science-religion debates really about?" and "Galileo and the philosophy of science -- are well worth the $12 price tag.
Or a trip to the library.
Thank you, Michael Ruse.
Next stop: tbd
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter