A few days ago Michael Ruse published a dreadful piece in the Guardian that made two points:
1. We New Atheists and humanists are essentially religious in our behavior, with our own “jihads” (crusades against religion), “worship” (of divinities like Richard Dawkins), and what Ruse calls “the narcissism of small differences” (the feuding over trivial matters, like those that caused schisms within Mormonism). There’s some justification for faulting atheists on the third count, but that still doesn’t make our views a religion. After all, many secular organizations fracture for a variety of reasons.
2. He, Ruse, has been unfairly maligned by atheists even though he is a nonbeliever and doesn’t much like religion. Yet we call the poor boy names like “clueless gobshite” (a monicker coined by P.Z. Myers, and one Ruse never tires of citing). But after complaining about all the opprobrium he receives, in the end Ruse admits that he likes it!:
As I said, I don’t care about the personal attacks. I have the kind of personality that welcomes being in the public eye, even if the attention is critical. I have teased Coyne and sent him $50 as a retainer to make sure I am not forgotten. But I do think it all tells us something. Call it a secular religion if you will, but the humanism I have been discussing in this piece does bear strong similarities to conventional religion. One finds the enthusiasm of the true believer. And as a non-believing Darwinian evolutionist, as one who is a humanist in the broader sense, this makes me feel rather ill.
In other words, in the second sentence Ruse admits he’s the Paris Hilton of philosophy (there are other parallels, too, but I won’t go into them). One would think that a serious academic cares less about publicity than about his reputation among fellow academics, which itself depends on the quality of his scholarship. Lately Ruse has been below par on the second two counts, and yet doesn’t get near the publicity he thinks he deserves.
David Sepkoski, Ruse’s friend (who always noted, erroneously, that Ruse was maligned unfairly) urged us to read the longer piece in Aeon Magazine from which the Guardian piece was excerpted, “Curb your enthusiasm: high priests, holy writ, and excommunications: how did humanism end up acting like a religion?” At nearly 6000 words, the Aeon piece is a slog, but someone had to read it.
I must report that while the Aeon piece is longer, it isn’t much better. It’s padded with some potted history (do we really need to hear about the Huxley-Wilberforce debate again?), but makes exactly the same two points as does the Guardian piece—at greater length. The one addition is a gratuitous attack on scientism.
Rather than dissect such a long piece, I’ll present a few quotations:
Why do I get upset by this? [“Science behaving like a religion?”] Firstly, because I didn’t give up one faith to take up another. There are many aspects of religion that I find really offensive, celibate old men in skirts telling young women how to run their private lives being one. Not all scientists are keen on authority; plenty would say that the best thing about science is that it is anti-authoritarian. Nonetheless, when scientists start talking about values, they often find it hard to resist the temptations of moralising and authoritarianism.
Secondly, I am uneasy that Humanism puts human beings at the centre of things in a way that is reminiscent of religion, especially monotheistic traditions. Huxley’s world vision makes humans as central as Christianity does. This kind of self-importance has contributed to world pollution and appalling behaviour towards plants and animals.
As if humanists aren’t largely concerned with saving the planet! Take a look at the Republicans and religious fundamentalists, Dr. Ruse: your ire would be better directed at them. A lot of opposition to environmentalism and anthropogenic scenarios for global warming come from religion.
It’s this kind of nasty and undeserved attack on atheists and humanists (another lesson for Ruse: atheism does not equal humanism) that draws our ire. Even those concerned largely about human welfare recognize that saving the planet, and its other species, is essential to our destiny.
Thirdly, although science and religion can clash (you can’t believe in modern paleoanthropology and a literal Adam and Eve), I don’t think they are always in opposition. There are some meaningful questions that science simply does not address. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ‘Does life have a purpose?’ If religion wants to have a crack at answering these, then science cannot object. You might criticise the religious answers on theological or philosophical grounds, as I would, but not on scientific grounds. I don’t see Huxley or his intellectual descendants allowing this.
We don’t object at religion asking these questions; we object at their pretense of being able to answer them. Religions give no real answers (e.g., what is God’s nature? How should we live/copulate/eat?), as witnessed by the schisms among faiths in how they answer such questions. When will people like Ruse learn that asking or addressing questions is not the same thing as answering them? Seeing that distinction doesn’t require a lot of neurons! Religion will never answer why there is something rather than nothing; science has come up with answers, depending on your definition of “nothing.”
Frankly, I’m surprised at Ruse’s obtuseness here. Clearly science and religion are in opposition because their methodologies, ways of assessing “evidence,” and outcomes of “understanding” are completely discrepant. Science can answer many of its questions; religion can’t answer a single one.
We don’t object to religion beating its head against the wall; we object to its pretense that it can find real answers, without good evidence, about what exists in the universe. Only science can do that.
Ruse then objects that the “religion” of humanism can’t provide us with morality, either:
The trouble is, there is no simple line from evolutionary biology to the ethical life, and there is no guarantee that an alternative secular religion will lead us there. Huxley’s vision of a rationalised world united by Evolutionary Humanism makes me uneasy.
But he fails to note that neither, as we know since the time of Plato, can religion! And philosophy, Ruse’s own discipline, hasn’t done a particularly good job either. Nevertheless it’s the atheists/humanists whom Ruse goes after, not the faithful, who can’t even admit that their morality doesn’t come from God. Scandinavia, the home of “secular religion,” is, I maintain, more moral than the hyperreligious United States.
And Ruse wonders why we atheists scorn him! His logic is simply rotten to the core, and he has some bizarre animus against atheists whose source is hidden in his cerebral fissures.
But wait—there’s more bad logic!
The bible of the movement, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, defines itself not so much in its aggressive statement of non-belief, although that is certainly there, but in putting science in opposition to religion and replacing it as the basis of a world view. This is not new. Dawkins has been arguing for a long time, as have many evolutionists, that reconciling a Darwinian natural world with Christian belief is impossible.
The God Delusion is not a “bible,” it’s not nearly as aggressive as Ruse makes out, and the worldview it espouses it not one that neglects morality, or even bases morality on science (as Sam Harris does), but simply advances the reasonable view that beliefs based on evidence are better than those based on superstition and wish-thinking. Clearly, religiously-based views are the source of many of the world’s ills. Without religion, we wouldn’t be throwing acid into the faces of schoolgirls or terrorizing children for masturbating. And Jews could eat bacon!
Ruse’s longer piece then repeats many of the traits of “humanism” he sees as essentially religious. These are false parallels, for the essential characteristic of religion— its acceptance of supernatural beings that usually interact with the world, and reliance on revelation instead of evidence—are missing from humanism.
And, argues Ruse, the faithful’s dislike of other religions is mirrored in our dislike of fellow atheists like him. Once again he whines:
As I said, I don’t care about the personal attacks. Indeed, I have the kind of personality that welcomes being in the public eye, even if the attention is critical. I have teased Jerry Coyne (something he does not entirely appreciate) and sent him $50 (something he did appreciate) as a retainer to make sure I am not forgotten. But I do think it all tells us something. Call it a secular religion if you will, or call it something else entirely. The Humanism I have been discussing in this piece does bear strong similarities to conventional religion. One finds the enthusiasm of the true believer, and this encourages a set of unnerving attributes: intolerance, hero-worship, moral certainty and the self-righteous condemnation of unbelievers. As an atheist Darwinian evolutionist, as one who is a humanist in the broader sense, this makes me feel really ill.
Really, Michael, at long last have you no sense of decency?
Well, I did get $50 from Ruse, and spent it on a fine meal to compensate me for having to read him. But fifty bucks goes only so far, and my willingness to publicize Ruse’s terrible arguments is once again exhausted. So please, Dr. Ruse, send no more infusions of cash. Unlike some religions, atheists don’t sell indulgences. It’s not worth my time or money to read 6000 words of bad philosophy and criticism of atheism by someone who claims to be on our side but is absolutely desperate for publicity. That is what makes me ill.