We haven’t checked in on Michael Ruse for a while, but his latest piece at “Brainstorm,” his website at the Chronicle, is characteristically bizarre. In “Evolution in the classroom: here we go again,” he broaches the theory that bad things—in this case the resurgence of creationism—come in threes. The first was the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas trial, in which Ruse, along with Steve Gould and Francisco Ayala, successfully testified against a “balanced treatment” act mandating equal coverage of creation and evolution. The second was the 2005 case in Dover, Pennsylvania—another successful attempt to beat back creationism, this time in the guise of “intelligent design.”
The third act in this creationist trifecta is Tennessee’s new bill, about to be signed into law, that mandates “critical thought” on scientific issues like global warming and evolution. Ruse says that the wording of this law was in fact produced by Seattle’s creationist Discovery Institute. And he worries that the new Republicanized Supreme Court will find this bill constitutional. Yes, that is a real worry.
But something worries Ruse more than the new creationists. Guess what? It’s those pesky atheists who are causing the latest troubles!
On the left, the New Atheist movement frightens me immensely. Its supporters openly and explicitly link evolutionary thinking with non-belief, sneering at those (like me) who think that science and religion can exist harmoniously together. I don’t care what the law says, politically this is moronic. The citizens of Tennessee, the judges of the Supreme Court, are going to believe that if evolution alone is taught in schools the kids of the country will be getting atheist propaganda – no matter what actually happens – and they are going to want to counter it. I imagine that every time that Richard Dawkins opens his mouth, the Discovery Institute lights a candle of thanks, or whatever it is that evangelicals do these days.
Well, Ruse is a huge fan of Darwin, and nobody linked disbelief and evolution more closely than Darwin. Read The Origin: over and over again you’ll read statements about how facts about biogeography, the fossil record, embryology, and vestigial organs cannot be explained by a creator. The reason Darwin contrasted evolution and religious mythology was because creationism was the main “scientific” hypothesis for natural design in his day, and he was trying to overturn it. Under Ruse’s theory, teaching Darwin’s book is an unconstitutional incursion of anti-religion into public-school classrooms (see my post on this issue two years ago).
And creationism remains the primary “alternative” theory to evolution in America. Frankly, I see no problem with teaching students how the facts of biology and geology don’t comport with religious accounts of creation. That doesn’t differ in principle from teaching students the facts that dispel the myth that slaves were content with their lot, or that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Both endeavors teach students how to adjudicate evidence, and neither pushes explicitly for atheism. Nor are these lessons explicitly motivated by a desire to push atheism, which is the U.S. courts’ criterion for unconstitutionality.
It’s a different matter, however, to argue in the public schools that evolution automatically entails atheism. Practically, it doesn’t, as we know from religious scientists. It’s also unconstitutional. I do happen to think that acceptance of evolution and of a theistic deity are incompatible worldviews, but the science classroom is an inappropriate (and illegal) place to say that. And we teachers don’t say that. I met with a bunch of high-school teachers when I was in Georgia, and all of them stick straight to the science when it comes to evolution. Yes, they see that this discomfits some kids who were raised as creationists, but that’s not a violation of church and state—any more than is teaching about the Big Bang. If teaching science dispels children’s superstitions, well, that’s the purpose of a good education. For if you learn to think, and to weigh evidence, the rejection of religion will follow as the night the day. (Well, maybe a bit less inevitably, but remember how many scientists are atheists: about 92% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences).
And if new Atheism has been so inimical to the cause of evolution, why is acceptance of evolution rising in the US? (The figures for acceptance of genuinely scientific, nontheistic evolution have gone from 9% in 1982 to 16% in 2011, a small increase but a large one percentage-wise: 77%).
But the most bizarre part of Ruse’s argument is this: he doesn’t think that connecting atheism and evolution in public is the problem, but connecting atheism and evolution without having carefully studying one’s opponents and the issues at hand:
Note, I am not saying that if you genuinely think that evolution implies atheism you should conceal this belief for political reasons. I am saying it is irresponsible to emote on these issues without doing serious study of the issues and looking carefully at those who beg to differ on the possibility of having both science and religion. And this, as five minutes with the God Delusion shows fully, the New Atheists do not do.
Well, I maintain that both Richard and I (and many proponents of evolution) have studied the issues and read many arguments on the other side. I, for one, have spent a gazillion hours reading theologians’ and scientists’ attempts to reconcile science and religion—and I’ve found them wanting. And I disagree with Ruse’s contention that The God Delusion doesn’t seriously come to grips with whether science and faith are compatible. Has Ruse even read it? Is he worried, like Terry Eagleton, that Dawkins hasn’t fully grasped the subtleties of Duns Scotus?
But let’s hear from Jason Rosenhouse, who, unlike me, has spent a lot of time going to creationist conventions and talking to believers (see his latest book, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, which I blurbed and recommend). I’ve just seen Jason’s new EvolutionBlog post on Ruse’s column, and this is what he says about the problems caused by Dawkins:
We have been down this road before. Truly it’s hard to imagine the legal theory under which Dawkins’s views on science and religion are relevant to the constituionality of this or any other law. Applying Ruse’s logic, it should be unconstitutional to teach about the holocaust, since some people infer from it that God does not exist. Likewise for the American Revolution, since some people believe its unlikely success proves that America is a nation uniquely blessed by God.
If some right-wing judge wants to uphold the law he won’t have to look to Dawkins or any other atheist for a reason. He will just argue that the law has the perfectly legitimate secular purpose of promoting free inquiry, and if that has the indirect effect of giving succor to creationists then so be it.
And about the “atheists-are-too-ignorant” argument Ruse levels at atheists, Jason says this:
So it’s not arguing that evolution undermines religious faith per se that is the problem. It is only emoting about the issue, or sneering at those who disagree that is politically moronic. This is too subtle for me. Earlier Ruse was immensely frightened that citizens and judges would hear Richard Dawkins and conclude that kids need to be protected from evolution. Now it seems that Ruse’s real fear is simply that those citizens and judges will perceive that Dawkins has failed to do his homework. Presenting the very same arguments after putting in some serious library time is just fine, according to Ruse.
You would think, though, that this is completely backward. Even looking at it from Ruse’s perspective, if we must have folks arguing that science and faith are incompatible we would want them to be people who can be dismissed as ignorant crackpots. Why would he want serious, well-informed people arguing for views he regards as politically dangerous?
Touché. We can expect a response from the thin-skinned Professor Ruse.
What I want to know is whether the Chronicle actually pays Ruse to churn out this stuff, and, if so, how I can get some of that dosh?