Dodgy Ruse

Michael Ruse is another. Funny, strange, puzzling; something like that. There’s this interview in Salon – which means you have to page through an irritating pictorial (therefore slow to load) ad to read it, which is why I hardly ever link to Salon, but there it is in case you want to read the whole thing. It’s about his latest book and the usual subject – ‘evolutionism’ is religion blah blah.

But he thinks evolutionists must purge themselves of reflexive anti-religious fervor, and acknowledge at least the potential validity of the classic Augustinian position that science and theology can never directly contradict one another, since science can only consider nature and God, by definition, is outside nature. Without this consciousness, Ruse suggests, evolutionism is in fact a secular religion, a church without Christ. And if that’s what it is, what is it doing in biology class?

Okay – science and theology can never directly contradict one another, since science can only consider nature and God, by definition, is outside nature. Fine – but then what is theology, exactly? The study of something that can’t be studied? Inquiry into something that can’t be inquired into? Research in a subject that is incapable of being researched? An ology that has no ology? It has to be. Because if ‘God’ is by definition outside of nature, then we (who are well and truly inside nature) don’t and can’t – by definition – know anything or find out anything about it. Obviously. So then what is the upshot of this position that science and theology can never directly contradict one another? Surely it’s just that one is a field of inquiry and the other is…an empty postulate. A gesturing at something that – by definition, remember – is outside nature and therefore completely inaccessible and unknowable. Well, fine – I’ll buy that. God is outside nature therefore nobody (since all the anybodies we know are part of nature, not outside it) knows anything at all about it and therefore there is nothing whatever to say about it. So why talk about it at all?

But of course that’s not what people mean by God, is it. People mean something they do claim to know a lot about. Well, you can’t do both, as Kingsley Amis so wisely though belatedly said. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say God is outside nature just long enough to shut up the pesky scientists, and then go blithely back to talking bollocks about God when the scientists have gone back to their petri dishes and statistics.

I’m all in favor of social prescriptions, and I’m not knocking anybody for being an atheist…But I want to see what grounds you have for saying that, and whether or not your positions follow from one another. If they do, maybe you should ask yourself, “Am I not being a hypocrite in teaching evolutionary biology in American schools?” Given the fact that it’s clearly illegal. You’re not allowed to teach religion in biology class. I can’t understand why I can’t get through people’s thick skulls on this one. If in fact Darwinian evolutionary theory implies atheism, then you ought not to be teaching it in schools! It’s not good enough to say, “Well, I’m a National Socialist. But the fact that that meant a lot of Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, that’s not my worry!” It bloody is! If your theory leads to 6 million Jews being made into soap, not only is there something deeply troubling about your theory, but you’ve got a moral obligation to face up to its implications. If this theory leads to atheism, then it’s got religious implications.

I beg your pardon? Thinking evolutionary biology hasn’t turned up any sweet little god-things curled up inside acorns or flying around bottle-brush trees is analogous to making Jews into soap? Is that the best analogy he could think of? Is that a good analogy? Is that even a coherent analogy?

Plus there’s the peculiar argument that if evolutionary theory implies atheism then teaching evolutionary theory is teaching religion. Eh? What he means seems to be something like ‘evolutionary theory does not need or draw on the God hypothesis to explain it therefore it is religion’ – which makes no sense. Besides which, since God is – by definition, remember – outside nature, God can’t have any role to play in evolutionary theory, because that would be dragging something outside nature into something inside nature, thus immediately making it part of nature, therefore no longer God. So…Ruse seems to be claiming that you can’t teach anything except theology in US public schools. If you’re not allowed to teach anything that doesn’t use ‘God’ to explain it – because that is atheism, which is religion, which is not allowed in public schools – then you can teach only theology. Which, we have already found, on Ruse’s own terms, means teaching nothing.

I must be missing something. Ruse isn’t silly. But this whole argument looks to me like just pure having it both ways. Making God transcendent as long as that’s convenient, and then making it part of nature when that is. But it has to be one or the other. It’s either outside nature or inside it, it can’t be both.

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