Ruse and Bunting Talk Sinister Nonsense

Time to talk about people saying silly things. I know, I know – what an odd activity. What a futile way to spend time. What a bizarre allocation of these golden hours of early 21st century calm and prosperity. I know. One might as well try to give names to all the leaves on the trees (that’s Evelyn, that one’s Marcia, that’s Eric, that’s Deirdre). One might as well try to cook a meal by breathing on it. One might as well dust the living room when it will only get dusty again. I know. But – I can’t explain it somehow, but it seems to call to me – this peculiar avocation of holding public sages up to ridicule and disdain. Oh well what am I saying, of course I can explain it – I’m a petulant rude hypercritical argumentative kibbitzer, and holding public sages up to ridicule is what I do. It is of my essence. What else would I be doing – dusting the living room? Hardly!

There was for instance this irritating mess from Madeleine Bunting via Michael Ruse yesterday.

Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse’s argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”

We’ve encountered that part of the mess many times before – but I still don’t understand how Ruse gets there. Dawkins doesn’t claim that, of course, but even if he did, what does atheism have to do with the constitutional separation of church and state? Is Ruse just talking for effect, or what?

Evolution is losing the battle, says Ruse, and it’s the fault of Dawkins and Dennett with their aggressive atheism: they are the creationists’ best recruiting sergeants. Ruse has got to a reckless stage of his career. He prefaced the essay he submitted for Dawkins’s festschrift with the above quote from Dembski and went on to declare that he “felt intensely irritated with Dawkins … It’s bad enough having to fight the enemy without having to watch my back because of my friends.” The editors were horrified and ordered a more deferential rewrite – which Ruse duly provided.

I wouldn’t call that reckless so much as gratuitously aggressive and fight-picking. Ruse seems to be determined to pick fights, and to go about it as unpleasantly as he can.

Even more reckless, Ruse put on the net an email exchange between himself and Dennett in which he accused his adversary of being an “absolute disaster” and of refusing to study Christianity seriously: “It is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil.” Dennett’s reply was an opaque one line: “I doubt you mean all the things you say.”

He didn’t ‘put it on the net’, he sent it to – of all people – Dembski. Without (to the best of my knowledge) permission. Having initiated the exchange himself. And he’s the one who whinges about having to watch his back? But he’s got Madders putting a nice spin on his story.

But Ruse has got a point. Across the US, the battle over evolution in science teaching goes on…At the heart of many of these local controversies is the firmly held belief that Darwinism leads to atheism, indeed that it is atheism. Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion.

No, he hasn’t got a point. That situation isn’t ‘the fault of Dawkins and Dennett with their aggressive atheism’ – that’s an absurd thing to say. Does Ruse seriously think that if Dawkins and Dennett didn’t exist, there would be no ‘battle over evolution in science teaching’? Does he think most of the soldiers in that battle have ever even heard of Dawkins and Dennett? Because I don’t.

It’s important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science…This is the kind of conversation we want to have in this country, but we’re not safe from American-style false dichotomies between faith and science yet…

False dichotomies is it. Okay, MB, go on and explain how ‘faith’ and science are not in tension. Non-overlapping magisteria, perhaps? Different levels? Metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism? Worth a try – but not terribly convincing. Even some non-Americans might tell you that.

Update: Dan Jones has an excellent detailed criticism of Bunting’s piece here and PZ has one here.

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