Michael Ruse is back to being good (sort of)

This week the Guardian is running a series on “What can Darwin teach us about morality?”

Michael Ruse is the first to answer, and he’s pretty much on good behavior, asserting that morality comes not from God, but from natural selection:

Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection. It is as much a natural human adaptation as our ears or noses or teeth or penises or vaginas.

Well, let’s put aside the fact that we simply don’t know how much of human morality was built by selection. It seems likely that at least part of our moral instinct evolved in our ancestors, but really, we don’t know that for sure, and we don’t know how much of morality originated that way versus how much were cultural conventions that help us get along.  Perhaps it’s better not to rely so much on natural selection, and to simply point out that most people’s morality can’t come from God, because most people accept a concept of good that is prior to God.  That means that there must be sources of morality more important than religion.

Nevertheless, at least Ruse—for this week—isn’t catering to the faithful.

I said that there are no grounds for being good. It doesn’t follow that you should be bad. Indeed, there are those – and I am one – who argue that only by recognising the death of God can we possibly do that which we should, and behave properly to our fellow humans and perhaps save the planet that we all share. We can give up all of that nonsense about women and gay people being inferior, about fertilised ova being human beings, and about the earth being ours to exploit and destroy.

I agree completely.  What I don’t get, though, is that Ruse has written several books about, and has harped on, the continuing viability of religion, and how it must stand by side with science as a valid “magisterium.”  So what does Ruse mean by “recognizing the death of God”?  Is he really telling Christians, whom he’s repeatedly schmoozed, that “your God is dead. Defunct.  He’s an ex-god.  Bereft of life, he rests in peace“? Well, maybe, in view of the above, it’s petty to quibble about Ruse’s alarmingly ambivalent attitude toward faith.

But I do fault Ruse for the end of his piece, in which he simply can’t resist getting in a slap at the new atheists.

God is dead. The new atheists think that that is a significant finding. In this, as in just about everything else, they are completely mistaken. God is dead. Morality has no foundation. Long live morality. Thank goodness!

Of course it’s significant that “God is dead,” if by that he means that religion is relaxing its hold on the minds of Americans, or people in general.  That’s highly significant. And, anyway, the mention of new atheists here is completely gratuitous.

Ruse’s behavior lately almost has a Tourette-like component. No matter what he’s discussing, at unpredictable intervals, and at inappropriate times, he suddenly feels compelled to shout “New Atheists are BAD!!!” I’m starting to think that his dislike of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins stems from a deep-seated jealousy of their literary success.  This theory is supported by Ruse’s first statement in this video.

Russell Blackford has a mini-essay in the Guardian series later this week (see his reaction to Ruse’s answer here).

h/t: Russell Blackford

20 Comments

  1. Nofanofruse
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Good grief. Ruse gets worse every time I read or see him. What’s up with his nervous cackling on that video? Every time he uncontrollably lurches into saying something sensible, the Templeton Prize side of his addled brain tells him, “Better soften that with a dig at Dawkins!” Your diagnosis of envy is right on the money (pun intended).

    Thanks for the links.

  2. Gingerbaker
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I gave him a little bitch slap on that last bit – used the same word “gratuitous”, too. Called him “strident”, as well, which felt so good it has to bad. “Shrill” is still available for general use. 😀

  3. newenglandbob
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    All we should do now is just laugh at everything Ruse produces. He has become an irrelevant clown.

  4. Posted March 15, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    My guess at what Ruse is thinking: God is dead, in the sense of a ghostly paternal dictator demanding sacrifices and tribute and blind obedience; but religion remains strong and necessary, in the sense of providing people with a sense of purpose, a sense of place, or whatever other nonsense that the New Theologians (heh) think we are lacking. Just a guess…

    As far as his baffling slur against “New Atheists” at the end, he is half right, and could be completely right if he would just, you know, look around at what the fuck is happening in the world. It’s not a significant finding that God is dead, at least not in the sense that it is a particularly new idea (and we know this; remember, it’s not us who put the adjective “New” in front of atheism) or that educated non-morons for the last couple hundred years would be particularly shocked at the notion.

    But the vast majority of people in the world haven’t gotten the message yet, and that’s what is significant. So Ruse is right in the sense that there’s no reason to be all proud of ourselves that we figured out that God is dead, that part should have been obvious. But he’s wrong in that he thinks there is no significance in spreading this message. It’s rather important, I would argue, as evidence by the fact that the Guardian even asked him to write about it!

  5. Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    All morality is based on the concept of universal truth. Without universal truth as it is described in the Creator of the Universe’s Manual for Living (The Holy Bible) the world comes down to “I get you before you get me”.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      This is a Poe, right? A joke?

      I am seeing Jack Nicholson saying: “You can’t HANDLE the truth”.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted March 15, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      All morality is based on the concept of universal truth. Without universal truth as it is described in the Creator of the Universe’s Manual for Living (The Holy Bible) the world comes down to “I get you before you get me”.

      It is unfortunate for your thesis that Western Europe, which is probably most moral region of the world when measured by lack of inequality, access to education and healthcare regardless of ability to pay, levels of discrimination and laws to prevent discrimination and number of other measures, is also one of the least religious.

      I might suggest you could rectify your misconceptions by reading about The Enlightenment.

    • Posted March 15, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Mimi, simple thought experiment: What if God said that raping children was righteous, and that all good Christians should rape children at every possible opportunity? Would that make it right?

      Or do you know that God would never say such a thing, because raping children is wrong, and God is perfectly benevolent, therefore He would never command people to rape children?

      If you agree with the second paragraph, then you have just admitted that morality exists independent of God. Otherwise, how would you know that God would never command you to do something evil?

      On the other hand, if you continue to insist that the morality/immorality of child rape is exclusively defined by God’s command, then you are admitting that you would gladly rape children if a voice in your head told you to. And that’s fucking sick.

      • KP
        Posted March 15, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        “What if God said that raping children was righteous…”

        Numbers 31:17-18, 32-25.

        • KP
          Posted March 15, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          typo that’s verses 32-35.

          • Tacroy
            Posted March 15, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            Oh, so that’s why the Catholic Church is so insistent on aiding and abetting child rapists.

    • Posted March 15, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Also.. Creator of the Universe’s Manual for Living sez: get your daddy drunk and have teh seks with him!

      That’s a lot closer to “I get you before you get me” than any ethical code I live by. How about you, Mimi?

    • Posted March 15, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Except for some carefully selected bits from the NT, and some even more carefully selected bits from the Hebrew Bible, the morality of the Bible is downright horrible.

      One needs a pretty good independent moral compass to even begin to pick through the Bible to find the good stuff and reject the huge amount of immoral and even downright evil moral examples and teachings.

      Luckily most religious people are a lot better than their holy book. Otherwise, we’d be have to contend with stonings for minor offenses, execution of gays and pagans, genocide of “Yahweh’s enemies”, or conversely on the NT side total passivity in the face of violence and evildoing of all sorts.

      IOW, it’s good that you don’t actually believe and follow the book that you think you believe and follow.

    • Spirula
      Posted March 15, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      The Creator of the Universe’s Manual for Living? Universal truth? Must be pretty clear in its meaning, prescriptions, and proscriptions. I mean, something so important would be wouldn’t it?
      This, of course, explains why there are currently around 30,000 denominations of Christianity.

      • Posted March 16, 2010 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        Obviously, 29,999 of those sects are just not honouring God’s perfectly clear and easily understandable Word.

  6. Posted March 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Amazing though it may be, our opinions of the presence or absence of the unproven absolute amounts to the absolute value of our opinions /0/=0 Perception of truth is not truth. My opinion does not make it better or worse than any other opinion. If this can be taken as a foundation, then the working hypothesis must begin with we’re all in the same boat. If we all continue to row vigorously in contradictory directions, we will remain exactly where we are. Assigning responsibility for history is a dangerous game since history is always written by the winners. Far better IMO to begin where we are, recognize our common wants and needs, dump the irrelevant and get on with working to restore our home. Who really cares if there is a Santa Claus in the sky in an unknowable direction? I take it all back. There are far too many who are willing to watch the Titanic sink because the ritual decorations in their staterooms are in disarray. God is not dead because what has never existed cannot cease to exist. The concept of God may have begun another slow demise, but the hope for a savior will never die in the hearts and minds of the unfortunates who do not believe they are just as they should be already.

    • Posted March 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      our opinions of the presence or absence of the unproven absolute amounts to the absolute value of our opinions

      I may have to borrow a paraphrasing of this.

  7. Daws
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the debate I watched between Micheal Shermer and Dinesh D’Souza… I kept thinking “What about the third option of… people just fashioning their own morality out of reasoning mixed with a dash of life experience? That thought shapes our actions?”

    Of course, this is a philosophy student speaking… >.<

  8. articulett
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    I credit Ruse for inadvertently yanking me into the online skeptic community. I was so peeved at something he said about Dawkins back in 2005, that I sought an online forum for venting my ire, and my participation has only grown since then.

    So, Ruse’s obtuseness has its uses… (say that three times fast!):)

  9. Posted March 18, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    My answer, written before I saw Ruse’s, is now up. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/mar/18/evolution-morality-psychology


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