Veto That Demand

Earlier this morning while working on something unrelated to B&W (which I do occasionally) I was reading this review by Judith Shulevitz of books on the conflict between evolution and creationism by Eugenie Scott and Michael Ruse respectively, and I was brought up short by this gloss on Ruse’s argument:

Nonetheless, he says here, we must be careful about how we use the word “evolution,” because it actually conveys two meanings, the science of evolution and something he calls “evolutionism.” Evolutionism is the part of evolutionary thought that reaches beyond testable science. Evolutionism addresses questions of origins, the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. In other words, it does all the work of a religion, but from a secular perspective.

Okay not so fast. Hang on a minute. What do you mean all the work of a religion? Who says that is the work of a religion? and even if you concede that other disciplines or ways of thinking or systems of ideas also do that work, who says that’s the work of a religion at all? why is it the work of a religion? What qualifications does a religion bring to the task? What tools of inquiry does it use? What kind of logic does it apply? What are its criteria for accepting or rejecting evidence? What is religion’s special knowledge or expertise or insight into those questions that is available only to religion and not to any other interested human inquirer? I’m serious, now – please name one. People never do. When one asks that question, people never do answer – at least not that I’ve seen. What tools does religion have that no one else has that enable it to ‘do the work’ of addressing those questions? I want to know. And if the answer is, ‘Er, don’t know,’ then why is that platitudinous falsehood so endlessly recycled? I want to know.

It’s just a big damn falsehood, it seems to me. The part of evolutionary thought that reaches ‘beyond’ testable science is the kind of necessarily (because of the reaching beyond bit) speculative thought that is open to anyone to pursue. There is no magical third category where the thought is still speculative but it has some sort of voodooish instrumentation and rules of logic or llojick and special weird untestable evidence or evvedentz that is accessible only to graduates of theological seminaries. Nuh uh. There ain’t no such. There’s only the real world of empirical inquiry of various kinds, and the unreal world of speculation and supernaturalism (or if you prefer the reaching beyond testable science), where the findings may or may not be true but are (by definition) not subject to verification. That second world is wide open. By its nature, it has no expertise, because there is nothing for it to have expertise in. Expertise in speculation about The Beyond is a peculiar kind of expertise – which is to say, no expertise at all. Thus religion doesn’t get to declare a monopoly on the subject. So it’s just flat-out false to say or imply that evolutionary thought is as it were trespassing on religion’s territory, or committing some kind of lèse majesté or blasphemy or violation of the sacred by addressing questions of the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. Don’t people think about what they’re saying? Don’t they realize that it is a disaster to claim that only religion is allowed or qualified to address those questions, that those questions are its (and implicitly only its) ‘work’? Do we want religion and only religion addressing questions of the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it? I sure as hell don’t! I want good, sane, rational answers to those questions, not woolly pious authoritarian rootless ones. Those questions are public ones, wide open ones, ones that benefit from rational inquiry; they’re not special, sacred, fenced-off, taboo ones, and religions don’t get to declare them such. Some religious believers want them to be able to declare them such, but the rest of us have to veto that demand. So if Ruse is claiming that evolutionary thinkers should forbid themselves to address such questions, by way of placating and mollifying religious believers and the ID crowd – I just think he’s wrong.

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