The Problem is not New

We have some allies in the battle against Ruseism and Evansism. PZ at Pharyngula is kind enough to say that I’ve been on a tear lately. Pardon me while I blush and simper. But then who could help being on a tear, with so much provocation around. Anyway PZ is helping with the tearing and shredding, which is good, because my desk is about to collapse under the weight of work I have on hand.

Evans has this idea that religion is a kind of symbolic art, and that atheists are criticizing it as a bad painting, while all the good religious people are sharing his view of it as an elaborate metaphor for life. That is false. Atheists can appreciate the religious music of Bach, the quality of some of the books of the Bible—I even have a favorite book—and that the concentration of wealth in the religious hierarchy has supported a lot of great art and literature and thought. Most atheists are not interested in taking a flamethrower to the next choir singing Handel’s Messiah. Likewise, it is ludicrous to imply that religious people are largely sensible of the metaphorical nature of religion and share his view of it. Face it: most religious people in the western world believe that god is real. Heaven and hell are real. Jesus is god. Etc., etc., etc. They do mistake the art of religion for reality, and as he condescendingly puts it, must be “only a child”.

Indeed they do. If they didn’t (bless their hearts) there wouldn’t be any problem, would there. If everyone agreed that this was all just a story, there would not be any problem! Obviously! There aren’t any campaigns to force schools to teach that Hamlet was King of England from 1555 to 1603. There is no Osama bin Laden-equivalent who wants us all to live according to the morals and manners of The Tale of Genji. There is no Pat Robertson who wants us all to model ourselves on Dorothea Brooke. There is no pope who spends her time issuing edicts and encyclicals about what really happened in Pride and Prejudice. There are no settlers building houses in disputed territory because they think it was promised to them by a character in Little Dorritt. There is no guy in the White House who thinks he doesn’t have to think about anything carefully because King Lear wants him to be where he is and do whatever he decides to do. If the whole mess were art and nothing else – then it wouldn’t always be telling us what to do and peddling ignorance every chance it gets. It wouldn’t be threatened by everyone who doesn’t buy its fantasies.

PZ also commented on the Michael Ruse article. And I did a search at B&W to find some other Ruse material. There’s this review in the LRB of a book of his on the supposed relationship between science and religion. Sounds ghastly, as Marvin would say.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are usually doomed to failure, as in the Radio 4 exchange, because nearly all religions make claims about the real world – the domain of science – that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Faced with these difficulties, advocates resort to circumlocution, sophistry or absurd speculations that offend both scientists and believers. Despite the difficulties involved, however, reconciling science and faith remains a popular project…Michael Ruse’s book is an astonishing contribution to this literature. It astonishes because of the bravado of its thesis. Instead of espousing Gould’s tame view that religion and science are distinct but complementary, Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science, maintains that at least one form of science (Darwinism) and one form of religion (Christianity) are mutually reinforcing. They are reconcilable, he asserts, because virtually every tenet of conservative Christianity, including original sin, the immortality of the soul and moral choice, is immanent within Darwinism and an inevitable result of the evolutionary process.

Hoo-boy. Read the whole thing – it’s interesting. The reviewer is polite but deeply unconvinced.

Perhaps aware of the weakness of his arguments, Ruse makes a final evolutionary plea to sceptics: ‘We are middle-range primates with the adaptations to get down out of the trees, and to live on the plains in social groups. We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown.’ One can only wish that Ruse had heeded his own advice. In the words of the physicist Richard Feynman: ‘I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.’

That’s enough for the moment. There’s a lot more Ruse, but there aren’t a lot more hours in the day. More later.

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