Rosenhouse explodes Ruse’s Darwinian explanation of original sin and defense of theology as taffy

For someone who’s an atheist, Michael Ruse spends an extraordinary amount of time trying to tell Christians how they can reconcile the Bible, God, and Jesus with modern science.  He’s now published a column at HuffPo (related to a similar and earlier column) that tries to explain how you can salvage the crucial Christian idea of original sin even if the story of Adam and Eve were completely fictitious.  Ruse’s answer: original sin is immanent in evolution. (It’s a result of natural selection, which makes us both good and bad.)  Ruse also recounts the story of John Schneider, a theologian at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who is in trouble because, following Ruse’s line, he sees original sin as independent of a literal Adam and Eve. (Schneider, however, attributes original sin to God’s particular tastes rather than natural selection).

Ruse, while defending the college’s right to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy, is sympathetic with Schneider: “So one can only welcome it when trained, serious, committed theologians try to reinterpret their beliefs in terms of (or compatible with) modern science.”

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has written a nice anti-accommodationist post in which he dismantles both parts of Ruse’s argument. First, re the “saving” of original sin by imputing it to Darwinian natural selection:

This attempted reconciliation, in which our sinful natures are equated with the selfishness we inherit from our evolutionary history, is very common in the literature of reconciliation. It is essentially what is argued by Karl Giberson in Saving Darwin and by Daryl Domning in Original Selfishness. If they find this view adequate they are welcome to it, but we should not be surprised that so many Christians of a traditional temperament are not amused. They will say that this is not a reconciliation of original sin with evolution at all. Defenders of this view are simply discarding original sin and hitching their fortunes to science instead.

Second, Jason finds it amusing—and untenable—that theological doctrine can be considered infinitely malleable:  a sort of taffy that can be stretched without limit, regardless of scientific fact, without losing its integrity. Jason puts Ruse’s comment in bold: “So one can only welcome it when trained, serious, committed theologians try to reinterpret their beliefs in terms of (or compatible with) modern science,” and comments:

That boldface comment is really the crux of the issue. As Ruse notes, modern science has shown that the traditional understanding of original sin is entirely false. Do we respond to that by saying good riddance to bad rubbish, or do we simply shrug it off and simply change the doctrines to fit the times?

For many religion is a rock on which they can always rely. It is a body of eternal truths they can return to even as the winds of popular culture buffet them into temptation and immorality. That these doctrines do not change is precisely the point. To such people it is not at all honorable to make religious teaching subservient to the demands of science.

Have a look at Jason’s piece.

Note: Ruse has been doing this specious reconciliation for some time.  See my 2001 review of his book on this topic, Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (Ruse’s answer, of course, was “yes”.)

31 Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Linky?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 20, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Fixy.

  2. Posted December 20, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    “I don’t think Templeton money is dishonorable, and I have taken it myself,” says Michael Ruse.

    I predict future cashier checks for Sir Ruse.

    • Sigmund
      Posted December 20, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      I suspect he’s after the prize.
      Unfortunately for him he’s just not a big enough fish.

      http://sneerreview.blogspot.com/2010/11/rock-stars-of-accomodationism-part-2.html

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted December 20, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        I suspect the same of David Sloan Wilson every time he says religion is terrific, even though he himself doesn’t believe.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted December 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          I can tell you why he says that.

          I recently saw a lecture by Sloan Wilson in Wellington, NZ.

          He sees religion as a fruitful field for imposing his group selection mantras on.

          seriously.

          It was a very sad thing to watch an obviously intelligent guy, literally FORCING his own projections onto entirely unrelated bits of information.

          He actually took the organizational style of an encyclopedia of religions as evidence in support of religion being a result of group selection dynamics in human culture.

          It was jaw droppingly bad.

          At the end of it, there was a brief period for questions.

          there was basically a long silence. then the moderator mentioned those participating in the related course on religious studies should come back in a half hour for another discussion.

          as everyone got up to leave, I simply stood, looked at Sloan Wilson, and said:

          “Confirmation bias much?”

          and left.

    • Marella
      Posted December 21, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      Sir Michael, you get a Sir tacked onto your given name, not your family name. In the days when they were invented no-one really had family names.

  3. Divalent
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Why don’t Christians get it? I mean, all they have to do is just convert to Hinduism and they would solve the crisis of their faith conflicting with reality. (Same with Muslims)

    • Microraptor
      Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      Why Hinduism?

  4. Stolen Dormouse
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Original Sin isn’t even a necessary interpretation of the Adam-and-Eve-in-Eden story. It is just Christianity’s interpretation. Judaism includes that story in the Torah without concluding that some “original sin” transpired that blemished humanity forever after.Further, some rabbinic commentators see the need for a balance between the “good intention” and the “evil intention” for things to get done, progress to be made.

    [My point is that there can be many ways to interpret the same bible story, and Christianity often differs from Judaism in this. I'm not making a specific brief for any religion.]

  5. Insightful Ape
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    If “original sin” is merely a description of natural phenomena then where does that leave Jesus? Army ants are good and bad, kind of like humans (they cooperate amazingly well among themselves, but bring total destruction to everything along their path). So do army ants have a savior of their own, too?

    • John Schneider
      Posted December 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      In a word, “yes.”

  6. Posted December 20, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    What a completely bizarre man Michael Ruse is! He’s certainly no theologian, and is only, it seems, a philosopher from time to time.

    His latest foray into theological biology is really quite a joke.

    First of all is the repeated misunderstanding of Augustine. Ruse writes:

    Interestingly this approach is also very Augustinian, for he stressed that Christian, bible-based beliefs must not conflict with good science.

    But this is, to a large extent, a crass misunderstanding of what Augustine meant. When are we to read something literally, and when figuratively? In his De Doctrina Christiana he spells it out in very simple, straightforward terms:

    Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. (Para 14)

    The point here is that, any passage of the scriptures which is understood as defining Christian doctrine, must be taken literally — and this certainly includes the story of Adam and Eve, because, as Jason points out, it is theologically very embarrassing to read this figuratively, for then the whole story of redemption through death and resurrection becomes figurative too. Augustine would not have been patient of an interpretation which took this all away, and turned it into metaphor.

    It’s after this that all the questions that Jason raises are particularly germane, for, if the doctrine of original sin has something profound to tell us, what is it? Ruse doesn’t say. He begins with Richard Evans’ History of the Third Reich (which is perhaps the most thorough and engaging study of that terrible period, though it is not for the faint of heart), with its unblinking account of the systematic killing of millions of people. How does ‘original sin’ help us to understand this? It doesn’t. Original sin is a necessary precondition for the death and resurrection of Jesus. It doesn’t tell us what we don’t already know, that human beings do not measure up to moral perfection very often — perhaps not at all — that our motives are mixed and our benevolence limited.

    We needed no holy text to tell us this. It is precisely what we should expect if, in fact, as Hitchens keeps reminding us, we are a species of higher primates, with all the limitations both of mental ability and moral achievement that this implies. That is why it is so important not to pay attention to religious stories, because believing that we have some source of (from Outside, as Ruse so coyly puts it) inevitably means that we think we are something else, beings particularly graced with higher insight and an eternal destiny. These ideas are deeply corrupting, and we should give them no room in our thought about the nature of being human.

    • Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Penultimate sentence should read:

      That is why it is so important not to pay attention to religious stories, because believing that we have some source from Outside, as Ruse so coyly puts it, inevitably means that we think we are something else, beings particularly graced with higher insight and an eternal destiny.

  7. Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    And another thing about the bolded comment –

    “So one can only welcome it when trained, serious, committed theologians try to reinterpret their beliefs in terms of (or compatible with) modern science”

    If theologians have to reinterpret their beliefs in order to make them compatible with modern science, then there is a conflict. That’s the conflict. The mismatch is the conflict.

    • Microraptor
      Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      Well put.

  8. Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    It completely boggles my mind that we’re pretending to have a serious discussion of the modern significance of a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant.

    So long as we let people have these kinds of discussions without reminding them that they’re obsessing over a really bad faery tale, we’re granting them a legitimacy that they don’t even begin to deserve.

    I demand equal time for other popular ancient faery tales. What about the cosmic significance of our galaxy being spurted out of Hera’s boobs? How should that affect the rights of mothers to breastfeed in public? And what about Set’s and Horus’s homosexual dominance fight — does that argue in favor or against gays openly serving in the military? The Blue Man Group — do they honor or mock Krishna?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted December 21, 2010 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      Crikey–don’t do that when I have coffee in my mouth! ;-))

  9. Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    If “trained, serious, committed theologians really want to “reinterpret their beliefs” to be compatible with modernity, the first thing they should understand is marketing. Two thousand years, and Original Sin is still the only kind on offer?

    Behold, my new religion offers you two types of undeserved guilt: Original Sin, and Extra Crispy Sin.

    • Posted December 21, 2010 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      Awww–I like Extra Spicy! ;-))

    • Marella
      Posted December 21, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

      These days sin is more about chocolate and alcohol than anything else. Choc coated bacon is about as sinful as most people are likely to get. And smoking for some, or other recreational drugs.

      My sins are almost all gustatory.

  10. אביגיל
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Original Sin isn’t even a necessary interpretation of the Adam-and-Eve-in-Eden story. It is just Christianity’s interpretation. Judaism includes that story in the Torah without concluding that some “original sin” transpired that blemished humanity forever after.

    Yeah, I’m constantly amazed at the hubris of Christians to think that THEY have the “correct” interpretation of ancient Jewish texts written by a culture they don’t understand for reasons they can’t fathom.

    I’ve trained myself to refer to the OT as the “Hebrew Bible”, which is what it really is. Pretending it was expressly written as a prequel to Jesus is arrogant as all hell.

    • Posted December 20, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been reading Isaiah, and it’s very odd to find lines like “Comfort ye my people… every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low…” and “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name JesusEmmanuel” in context, where they clearly have nothing to do with the stories in the Greek scriptures. (And if they referred to the fall of Babylon, they were failed prophesies.)

      • Posted December 20, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        The “strikeout” HTML doesn’t work here…. (meant to strike out “Jesus” of course)

        • Ichthyic
          Posted December 20, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          testing

          • Ichthyic
            Posted December 20, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

            huh, I wonder why they left that tag off?

      • Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

        So, bear with me: I’m wandering even farther astray.

        But, sitting through an endless sermon at a church gig yesterday morning, it occurred to me that the Christmas story highlights yet another polytheistic aspect of the Judeo-Christian myths, one that’s less well known.

        In every Christmastime sermon I’ve heard — and I’ve heard far more than my fair share — from preachers of every denomination, the whole “Immanuel = Gott Mit Uns” line gets a fair bit of play.

        But which god?

        Why, of course: it’s El. Head honcho of the Elohim, Genesis’s creator of Heaven and Earth.

        Jesus, on the other hand, literally means, “God’s salvation.”

        But again, which god?

        Well, this time, it’s YHWH.

        So, “Jesus Christ, Immanuel,” would be literally translated as something like “YHWH’s anointed savior, El, is with us.”

        It’s hard to get more syncretic than that — and that’s before you tack on all the Greek stuff Jesus is so well known for.

        Cheers,

        b&

  11. Ichthyic
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I remember losing any interest in Ruse when he decided to do “debate tours” with Bill Dembski a few years back.

    It was pathetically canned.

    I realized he must be just as desperate for attention as Dembski, though I still don’t know how it came to that sad state of affairs.

    • Marella
      Posted December 21, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Some people are just born attention whores, if you ask his mother he was probably one of those irritating kids who won’t let the grown-ups chat in peace. The sort that does anything to get noticed.

      People don’t really change.

  12. Posted December 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    You guys really need to spend some more time reading. relavant stuff. Like irrationality studies.

    Religion will not go away because you have found better arguments for some of its tentets. You cannot be that naive?

    The concept of love will neither go away just because we can prove its “all in our head” and unreasonable.

    we are irrational, I for one do not think Ruse is making a mistake

  13. Ichthyic
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    we are irrational, I for one do not think Ruse is making a mistake

    you mean, as far as him making money goes?

    On that I would agree.

    On misrepresenting biological sciences in his rush to create a philosophical niche for himself?

    If you agree with that, then fuck you.


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