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The Mental Schism of Michael Ruse

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Michael Ruse, who repeatedly calls himself a professional philosopher, wants to answer, in the UK Guardian, the question, “Is there an atheist schism?”. He seems to mean a schism about what it is to be an atheist, and the schism he refers to is that between himself and most other atheists. Put that way, the answer is easy. Yes, there is a schism between Ruse and most other atheists because Ruse seems to be an atheist who has open yearnings for a god. Is that possible? Most other atheists think not, and that is the schism, and he says he is “rather proud” of it.

He says that, as a professional philosopher, his first question is naturally “What or who is an atheist?”. He gives a choice of two answers:

  1. someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning
  2. someone who agrees that logically there could be a god, but who doesn’t think that the logical possibility is terribly likely, or at least not something that should keep us awake at night

He infers there are “not many” in the first group, but there are “a lot of us” in the second. The literal meaning of atheist, its definition, is clear enough. From the Greek (a theos, “without God”) it means someone who does not believe in a God or gods. So both of Ruse’s categories are atheists. If someone does not believe in any god, whatever the reason for the disbelief, or whatever the strength of the conviction, that person is an atheist. So, there can be no schism over that. So what is the schism, if there is one?

There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling—I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical.

Here is a confession of the reality. Ruse will only speak for himself but thinks he is typical because he is in a category by himself. In short, the schism is between him and the more critical atheists he calls the “new” atheists, people like Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and so on. The difference is not over whether God exists or not, but whether religions are evil or not. The so called new atheists think religions have a preponderantly bad influence, while Ruse says it is not true that “all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting”. He implies that is the view of his second, larger category of atheists. So the schism is not about atheism but about religion.

For a professional philosopher, Ruse is fond of being imprecise when it suits him, and excessively precise when that suits him too. Note, for example that, in his first definition of an atheist, he does not restrict the definition to disbelief in gods but also disbelief in “meaning”! That is a curiously careless mistake for a professional philosopher to make, but allows a hole for his respect for theologians and their scams—religions.

Then he slips in the little word “all” when denying that religion is necessarily evil and corrupting, which allows him a get out if even one person claims allegiance to a religion which has done no evil or corruption. As far as I am aware, the Adelphiasophist religion has done no such wickedness, so Ruse’s little trick ensures he is sure to be right. That, though, is not the point.

Religions generally lead to terrible deeds being done in their name, and the perpetrators are always convinced that whatever they are doing is not wicked because they have God on their side. That is the wickedness that men do in the name of religion, and that is the wickedness that the atheists, new or geriatric, argue and have often argued. Ruse seems unable to comprehend it. He says to argue that religions generally have terrible consequences, is like the Mormons claiming to find “golden plates in upstate New York”. He must mean it is a grotesque lie.

Besides that he observes that Quakers and the Evangelicals opposed slavery for religious reasons, and that was a good thing. Of course, it was a good thing that anyone opposed slavery, but he chose to name Quakers and Evangelists, because the traditional mainstream Christian churches had an abysmal record in that respect which lasted for 1800 years from the time of Christ, and abolition of slavery was opposed by most Christian bishops sitting in the House of Lords of the British Parliament. Moreover, many of the men who got rich on the back of shackled and ill treated slaves were themselves observant Christians able to cite chapter and verse from the bible in their defense. Their religion might have driven some Christians in minor sects to oppose slavery while others exploited slaves while receiving honors, but right from the time of Paul, the greatest apostle for most Christian sects, slaves were told by Christians to suffer their burdens and to pray for their oppressors.

Evil Never Religion’s Fault

Ruse thinks that even when religions are obviously acting evilly, they are not to blame—socio economic issues, alienation, despair, poverty, inequality all played their part, Ruse thinks, often a dominant part. It leaves you thinking, though, why these terribly good religions did not stop or seek to stop the terrible cause outlined, but instead, apparently got caught up, through no fault of their own, in provoking and perpetuating the fierce hatred that erupted. Whatever the socio economic issues, the Irish fought over a sectarian divide, and the divide was, and still is, perpetuated by faith schooling in a largely segregated system. The professional philosopher is not immune to blindness over such matters, but it is puzzling nevertheless. He seems to be apologizing for religions, even though, as he claims to be an atheist, he can hardly think that anyone following any of them is thinking at all clearly.

Yet, he boasts that he is unlike his new atheistic critics in taking scholarship seriously. For example, Dawkins’ The God Delusion made him ashamed to be an atheist, he said. It seems, then that Dawkins is not a scholar, despite his distinguished career as a professor of biology, the public understanding of science, and as an author of popular science books, as well as scholarly papers, all from the deserved place he held in a most distinguished university. Could it be that even a professional philosopher cannot honestly draw the proper conclusions from empirical investigations? Once something is established, is it proper to continue humoring those who simply refuse to accept it, while believing incredible things merely because their parents, priests, and best friends believed it.

Ruse thinks he is a more serious scholar because he makes the effort to understand what these obtuse people understand by their beliefs, an endeavor that ought not to require a great deal of effort. Why do people throw salt over their shoulder when they spill it, say “bless you” when you sneeze, and touch wood for good luck? Understand those and you understand belief in God, and religion. It is superstition, an old and outmoded belief still held. Why should anyone want to perpetuate false and outmoded beliefs? Who else, but those who gain by it.

Surely these reasons are not too difficult to comprehend for a professional philosopher, especially one who still claims to be an atheist, yet Ruse is surprised that less compromised atheists are contemptuous of religious beliefs, and those who try to give them an undeserved credence, men like Ruse.

It is apparently wrong to ask any believer, “What caused God?”, but it is all right for a philosopher, Mary Midgley, to criticize the metaphor of a “selfish gene” on the obvious grounds that genes cannot have emotions. It must be that God is a metaphor, but what then is God a metaphor of? And are the priests and prelates telling their flocks that God is a metaphor and not some all powerful being with a human personality dutifully looking after everyone who prays, except those whom are overlooked and die or get maimed? If Ruse is an atheistic scholar, as he claims, and has discovered that somehow the clever theologians he admires have found a truth we have all missed, then why not share it with us. Maybe it would be too embarrassing for him.

He says it wouldn’t be, because he doesn’t have faith, he really doesn’t, yet he is not condescending to believers even though he thinks they are wrong:

I think they are wrong. They think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men.

He will! He will! Perhaps he is correct about the ones he specifies, people like Rowan Williams, but men can be misguided when young and led into a bad life in spite of themselves. Williams might be the nicest and most sincere Archbishop of Canterbury you could wish to meet, but the argument is not about how nice or sincere these men are.

They have reached high positions in their religions, Williams the highest there is, but who pays them? They are living off the sweat of others—much poorer people. Their privileged position is from exploitation no different in principle from the robbery effected by the bankers recently. And they are doing it while supposedly espousing the principles of a man who emphasized the virtues of poverty to such an extent, that it is impossible to be a Christian and be richer than their neighbor. It proves their insincerity or their unintelligence.

Theology cannot argue them out of it because the man whose principles they ignore in practice while holding to them in theory was actually God, according to their own belief. They are bold enough to say God was wrong, and every greedy Christian breathes a sigh of relief while the poor ones continue in their blessed state of poverty. It sounds very much like hypocrisy, and their God, Christ, speaking from his own divine lips also told them not to be hypocrites.

“You May Be Mistaken”

Ruse thinks he can explain faith in terms of psychology. Can’t we all, but that explains it, it does not excuse it. Psychology cannot excuse hypocrisy, especially if the hypocrites are intelligent. They know they are hypocrites and the psychology is incidental. The same is true of robbers. Indeed, using psychology to help to keep a large proportion of humanity poor and shackled by erroneous belief is disgusting in itself, and that is what these Christian shepherds have always done.

Ruse says he hears Cromwell writing in his letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

But the analogy is a poor one. Squabbles between two varieties of unfounded Christian belief surely cannot be compared with the reasoned arguments of science with the perpetuated unreason of the believers. Ruse is evidently impressed by what he calls the “integrity of so many believers” which makes him modest in his unbelief. It is more evidence that Ruse is actually moving towards the believers. There can be no integrity in believing contrary to the evidence, and to continue spreading the false notion of faith, which it amounts to, cannot be commendable. Science has to be disdained to do it, and that is what Ruse tries to do by making disparaging remarks about men who are far superior in most respects than he is, and certainly more honest. Ruse seems to be like Paul of Tarsus, he is kicking against the pricks, but will succumb to his passion for Christ!

He wants evolution taught in the schools, but sees criticism of religion as stopping it, in the US southern state where he lives. He must think science has to be attenuated in some way so that it becomes acceptable to believers. That is quite impossible. It is yielding firm ground to false belief, and it is the utter opposite of science. Ruse says “we cannot make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion”. But we can, it seems, make unsubstantiated arguments that religion refutes science. Unquestioning faith is diametrically opposed to the central principle of scientific inquiry—skepticism.

It is certainly possible for some Christians, like F S Collins, to be good scientists, but it is by being mentally double jointed. What is shown to be true by observation and experiment cannot in the next minute be compromised by saying something like, “but you needn’t believe it”, or “it might not be so”. If you are going to teach evolution in schools, the believers are the ones who have to suspend their beliefs. But that is what Ruse calls political stupidity. He finally shows his own complete confusion, professional philosopher or not:

If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

Is he saying that science is a religion itself? That is all it can mean surely. Science, which has no concern at all per se in religion, yields up information incompatible with the unfounded religious belief that God exists. So science suddenly becomes a religion, as far as the US Constitution is concerned. Sadly, he seems to be going bananas. Does he want a constitutional ban on counting too, because:

1 + 1 + 1 = 3

but Christians think:

1 + 1 + 1 = 1 ?

His parting shot is to compare The God Delusion with Christian fundamentalist ideas spread in the 1960s that forthcoming nuclear annihilation was the equivalent of Noah’s Flood, a dispensationalist message. Never mind that God promised, in his diaries, not to do anything like that again, it is God’s plan, and needless to say, the fundamentalists promise themselves a grandstand seat in heaven to view the fireworks. Such comparisons seem to suggest a fading mind, comical but sad.

Ruse has written well on atheism and on evolution in the past, but now is cozying up to IDers while finding reasons to think religion and belief in God are at least partially respectable. The schism seems to be in his own thinking or mentality.

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Written by mikemagee

15 November, 2009 at 5:10 pm

2 Responses

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  1. And his research is shotty at best. If Ruse had any idea of what scholarly work was, he would have done the research of the earliest anti-slavery movement in America. He would know that it was NOT christians beliefs that brought a couple of christain sects into the anti-slavery movement. It was the Native American’s influence. The Native influence was responsible for the women’s movement as well. Christains have been trying to take credit for that too and nothing could be further from the truth!

    http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/wagner2.html

    Amy

    4 March, 2010 at 1:53 pm

  2. I like the way athiests and athiesm are now branded a ‘religion’. It seems to me that is a defensive reaction to a position that is known to being lost by organised religion.

    Dawkins is right, God and the belief in God is a delusion, what I don’t understand is how so many people can be delusional, all at the same time.

    Colin

    4 March, 2010 at 9:52 pm


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