Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Ruse gets a beta minus.

Philosophers don't get asked often enough to write for the newspapers and weeklies: so it is really annoying when an opportunity is wasted on second-rate maunderings. Michael Ruse writes in today's Guardian on whether there is an "atheist schism". And he immediately kicks off on the wrong foot.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: "What or who is an atheist?" If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.
Eh? Where on earth has that "or meaning" come from? In what coherent sense of "meaning" does an atheist have to deny meaning?

It gets worse. Eventually a lot worse.
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?
That is so mind-bogglingly inept it is difficult to believe that Ruse means it seriously. Does Ruse really, really, think that the separation of church and state means that no scientific fact can be taught if it happens to be inconsistent with some holy book or religious dogma?

Ruse is upset by the stridency of Dawkins and others, and there is indeed a point to be argued here. But it is ironic that philosophers often complain that Dawkins misrepresents too many practising Christians (or Muslims, or whatever). For related misrepresentations -- if that's what they are -- are to be found in more or less any philosophy of religion book. I blogged here a while back about the Murray/Rea introduction, and remarked then about the unlikely farrago of metaphysical views it foisted upon the church-goer, views which have precious little to do with why you actually go to evensong or say prayers for dying, and which indeed deserve to be well Dawkinsed.

6 comments:

Gc said...

Man, those atheism/christian fundamentalism discussions seem to come from the other world.
I don`t understand why Ruse thinks he`s on the unfashionable side. Neither size is fashionable, other size there are fundamentalist and the other size there are atheist baby boomers who probably think that Beatles and The Rolling Stones are still cool and have lived the times when this stuff was still relevant outside the US.

Tim Button said...

I think you might be being slightly unfair on Ruse. He could, indeed, have expressed himself better.

The first quote continues:

...Richard Dawkins denies being such a person. If you mean 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, then I guess a lot of us are atheists.

I think Ruse is just (badly) expressing the following point. Among a certain strain of monotheism, the pejorative charge of atheism carries with it the charge that a Godless universe would be a meaningless universe, and so that the atheist doubts that there is any meaning.

The correct response is: "Go away and read the Euthyphro". Which Ruse ought to say. But the sentiment is there: I don't believe in God, but of course I believe in meaning.

Then there isn't anything very objectionable until the second quotation. Which I do think is a bit stupid. It is prefaced with:

I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion. I never conceal my nonbelief. I defend to the death the right of the new atheists to their views and to their right to propagate them. But that is no excuse for political stupidity.

His point is this. In America, the debate about what is and is not to be taught in schools is couched heavily in terms of Constitutional rights. Dawkins et al have pushed the point that ID is a religious doctrine, and so cannot (by the First Amendment) be taught in schools. Apparently, the Christian right have responded as follows: If, as Dawkins says, science is incompatible with religion, then science is a religious doctrine, so can't be taught in schools.

Well, Ruse ought to be able to think up a good reply himself. Here's one he might want to use. A doctrine which is inconsistent with all religion is not thereby a religious doctrine. Otherwise P & ~P would be a religious doctrine. The end.

Peter Smith said...

Tim: "He could, indeed, have expressed himself better." Exactly. My point really. It behooves philosophers, of all people, to make themselves entirely clear, especially when writing about something like this.

Rowsety Moid said...

Tim Button: Apparently, the Christian right have responded as follows: If, as Dawkins says, science is incompatible with religion, then science is a religious doctrine, so can't be taught in schools.

That the religious right says that doesn't mean it's Ruse's line. I took him to mean that if church and state must be kept separate, then the state has no business teaching that religion is false.

I could be wrong, though. Perhaps he makes the point more clearly somewhere else.

Re the "P and not-P" point, it depends on your logic.

Rowsety Moid said...

Re meaning, I don't I have ever seen a good explanation from an atheist of how there can be meaning except in ultimately trivial technical senses. "Cats" refers to cats (or maybe to cherries). Ok. So what? What people want is for their life to have some meaning.

D. said...

It's a good one, the about religion and the first amendment. As I see it it somehow implies that a scientific world view (of a suitable sort) is somehow akin to a religious commitment. This is not a case of poor choice of words. This is a case of poor judgement. Indeed, I think is so even from a religious perspective.