the creationists’ unwitting butler

Philosopher Michael Ruse would like his discussions about science and religion to have a lot less science and a lot more credulity towards faith...

teach the controversy flat earth
Illustration by Amorphia Apparel

Philosopher Michael Ruse doesn’t like vocal atheists, especially the ones who actively speak about the merits of their ideas; the so-called New Atheists. He liked the old ones better. They old ones kept quiet and if you barked at them loud enough, they’d go away altogether. And despite his agnosticism and detailed notes on what exactly he doesn’t believe about theistic doctrines, when it comes to debates about whether kids should be taught creationism in science class or not, he likes to compliment creationists and their religious fervor as he excruciatingly politely disagrees with them. Even when they say absurd things that deserve a swift and brutal rebuttal.

So as any proponent of good science would do, he made a big guest post on a religious site to bemoan how bad the New Atheists are, how creationists aren’t motivated by money (yes, not even the stream of tax-free donations they get every year and their six figure incomes) and worst of all, how the atheists in his crosshairs pick on little poor him for trying to be gentlemanly and struggle to understand the ardent creationists’ point of view. But since that’s not enough of a critique for a scientifically minded reader, he also accuses the New Atheists of wrecking scholarship.

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 or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing.

Now, to a philosopher who talks about viewpoints all day long, this might seem like a weighty charge. To a scientist who’s tacking the direct points at which religious belief and scientific fact clash, this is just random griping. Dawkins doesn’t set out to write treatise after treatise on religion. He sets out to put a million watt spotlight on the places where theism is trying to replace reality. What he needs is a solid scientific base first and foremost, letting the facts speak for themselves. If Ruse wanted to keep his criticisms consistent, he would’ve noted that creationists would fail any basic scientific curriculum and proudly ridicule something they haven’t the slightest grasp of. However, they’re all fine chaps who are just a wee bit misguided at some points as far as he’s concerned.

And here’s the big difference between accommodationists like him and the New Atheists. The likes of PZ and Coyne and Dawkins are willing to say that the reason why the creationists are a wee bit misguided is their religious belief which forces them to view facts through a prism and gives them the ability to pick and choose what parts of reality they’ll accept. Ruse, on the other hand, thinks that pointing that out is simply terrible and would offend creationists’ sensibilities. Like Mooney and Kirshenbaum, he seems to think that if you’re really, really nice to people who couldn’t give less of a damn about the facts if they tried, they’ll suddenly open their eyes and accept a point of view they see as evil and sinful. That’s not going to happen. You might as well try turning cats into dogs.

The creationism/evolution “debate” is first and foremost a culture war issue that pits good science against stubborn dogma. Pointing that out will get you called a few nasty things but trust me, a few choice names later, I managed to survive. Ruse would too. But of course, that runs against his mantra…

I engage with believers — I don’t accept their beliefs but I respect their right to have them.

Sure, they can have all the beliefs they want. If we don’t respect people’s right to have their own ideas, we’d lose a vital part of public discourse. However, I don’t see why respecting people’s right to an opinion must mean that the opinion itself can’t be criticized in no uncertain terms. The very creationists he names as his friendly sparring partners over the years blame the horrors of Nazi Germany on Darwin, teach their students how to be apologetics trolls on “hostile” science blogs and insist on cramming theology into the classroom by casting scientists as villains who reject God because evolutionists are just evil by nature. How much respect do we have to dole out to arrogant liars and shameless ignoramuses? Ruse spends absolutely no time pondering this question aloud and instead whips out this ridiculous argument by assertion…

If teaching ‘God exists’ is teaching religion — and it is — then why is teaching ‘God does not exist’ not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.

If this argument were actually true, we would have to shut down every secular science class around the world. With no respect for the century and a half of scientific progress, he uses the word “Darwinism” to describe evolution and hacks up the facepalm-inducing “atheism is a religion” claim you can hear from any overzealous religious pundit. It seems that Ruse’s desire to bend over backwards, sideways and twist himself into a pretzel to be the living, breathing manifestation of politeness to creationists, has finally made him talk like them. It’s as if he’s serving up their arguments on a platter like a butler who doesn’t know he’s become one.

In the scientific worldview, you can’t use the supernatural to explain events. You can’t create a cop out and call it a day. No, you have to get to the bottom of things. When you study scientific theories, you make the assumption that unless you can spot evidence of something, you can’t say that it exists with any certainty. And this, exactly this, is what both atheism and science classes teach. They instruct students how to be skeptics, how to explore and how to ask for proof. No one should ever tell them that we have absolute proof that something that can be considered a higher power doesn’t exist. Just that we have no evidence of one at the moment and it could be anything from an omnipotent, omniscient God with a flowing white beard, to a group of enigmatic supercomputers ala The Matrix, or giant, scaly alien lizards.

Michael, if you no longer understand what science teaches and that “maybe God exists, maybe he doesn’t and maybe we have the whole God thing wrong and it’s really something else entirely” is not even close to teaching that “God doesn’t exist, never had, never will,” maybe it’s time to get your head out of the philosophical clouds, come down to Earth and pick up a few actual books about science. The ones with the difficult words which don’t involve frequent references to Greek legends and big numbers arranged into formulas. Then we can go on a tour of school board meetings where angry people are literally thumping Bibles not to let their children study real science. Perhaps then you’ll finally realize that hugging Dembski after politely disagreeing with him about fluffy nothings, isn’t the best way to defend scientific literacy. And I daresay, you just might consider that the New Atheists are really quite a sensible, if fiery, bunch.

# science // accommodationism / atheism / evolution / science education

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