Why I Think The New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster

Reprinted from BeliefNet,  (c) 2009  by Michael Ruse

By Michael Ruse.*

In my seventieth year I find myself in a very peculiar position.  Raised a  Quaker, I lost my faith in my early twenties and it has never returned.  I think  of myself as an agnostic on deities and ultimate meanings and that sort of  thing.  With respect to the main claims of Christianity – loving god, fallen  nature, Jesus and atonement and salvation – I am pretty atheistic, although some  doctrines like original sin seem to me to be accurate psychologically.  I often  refer to myself as a very conservative non-believer, meaning that I take  seriously my non-belief and I think others should do (and often don’t).  If  someone goes to the Episcopal Church for social or family reasons, or because  they love the music or ceremonies, I have no trouble with that.  Had I married a  fellow Quaker, I might still be going to Quaker meetings.  But I have little  time for someone who denies the central dogmas of Christianity and still claims  to be a Christian, except in a social sense.  No God, no Jesus as His son, no  resurrection, no eternal life – no Christianity.  As it happens, I prefer the  term “skeptic” to describe my position rather than “agnostic,” because so often  the latter means “not really interested” and I am very interested.  Like Thomas  Henry Huxley, I am deeply religious in a total absence of theology.  Unlike his  grandson Julian Huxley (and others like Edward O. Wilson), I am totally  uninterested in a “religion without revelation.”  I loathe the term and the idea  of “humanist.”  One religion in this lifetime is quite enough thank you.

Without burnishing my halo too much, I think – and I warned you that I am a  very conservative non-believer – that the most important parable is that of the  talents and that in this lifetime, although never succeeding (thanks to my own  moral frailty), I have tried hard to use that which has been given to me.  In  particular, I have striven to move beyond the comfortable life of a university  professor – and I have been a full-time philosophy prof since I was twenty five – to engage in the public sphere on issues that I think morally important.   Specifically, I have engaged in the science-religion debate – more precisely in  the Darwinism-Creationism debate – for over thirty years.  I have written on the  subject, I have lectured regularly on the subject (on average, I give a talk  about every two weeks and many are on this topic), and I have appeared as  witness in a court case to defend the US separation of Church and State.

That the Creationists and fellow travelers, notably proponents of Intelligent  Design Theory (IDT), would dislike my views I take as axiomatic.  They should  dislike my views for I spend my life fighting against these people.  I say this  notwithstanding the fact that, at the personal level, I have good and friendly  relations with many of the leaders, including Duane T. Gish, Phillip Johnson,  and Bill Dembski.  I do not consider these people to be evil or motivated by  money – anything but this latter, Gish could have made millions in the  motivational speaking arena – although I deplore their beliefs and think them  deeply dangerous.  I will say however that I was disappointed that when Ben  Stein tried to make me seem foolish in his movie Expelled, not one of  them sprang publicly to my defense.  Anyone who did not condemn that gross piece  of distortion of the issues should feel really ashamed.

Which brings me to the point of what I want to say.  I find myself in a  peculiar position.  In the past few years, we have seen the rise and growth of a  group that the public sphere has labeled the “new atheists” – people who are  aggressively pro-science, especially pro-Darwinism, and violently anti-religion  of all kinds, especially Christianity but happy to include Islam and the rest.   Actually the arguments are not that “new,” but no matter – the publicity has  been huge.  Distinctive of this group, although well known to anyone who studies  religion and the way in which sects divide and proliferate, is the fact that  (with the possible exception of the Catholic Church) nothing incurs their wrath  than those who are pro-science but who refuse to agree that all and every kind  of religious belief is wrong, pernicious, and socially and personally dangerous.  Recently, it has been the newly appointed director of the NIH, Francis Collins,  who has been incurring their hatred.  Given the man’s scientific and managerial  credentials – completing the HGP under budget and under time for a start – this  is deplorable, if understandable since Collins is a devout Christian.

I am not a devout Christian, yet if anything, the things said against me are  worse.  Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, likens me  to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Hitler at Munich.  Jerry  Coyne reviewed one of my books (Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) using  the Orwellian quote that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I  believe in.  And non-stop blogger P. Z. Myers has referred to be as a “clueless  gobshite.”  This invective is all because, although I am not a believer, I do  not think that all believers are evil or stupid, and because I do not think that  science and religion have to clash.  (Of course some science and religion  clashes.  That is the whole point of the Darwinism-Creationism debate.  The  matter is whether all science and religion clash, something I deny  strongly.)

Let me say that I believe the new atheists do the side of science a grave  disservice.  I will defend to the death the right of them to say what they do – as one who is English-born one of the things I admire most about the USA is the  First Amendment.  But I think first that these people do a disservice to  scholarship.  Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the  point of non-being.  Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any  introductory philosophy or religion course.  Proudly he criticizes that whereof  he knows nothing.  As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I  felt sorry for the ontological argument.  If we criticized gene theory with as  little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly  indignant.  (He was just this when, thirty years ago, Mary Midgeley went after  the selfish gene concept without the slightest knowledge of genetics.)   Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins,  Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Secondly, I think that the new atheists are doing terrible political damage  to the cause of Creationism fighting.  Americans are religious people.  You may  not like this fact.  But they are.  Not all are fanatics.  Survey after survey  shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on  social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science.  They want  to be science-friendly, although it is certainly true that many have been  seduced by the Creationists.  We evolutionists have got to speak to these  people.  We have got to show them that Darwinism is their friend not their  enemy.  We have got to get them onside when it comes to science in the  classroom.  And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of  fanaticism, is just not going to do the job.  Nor is criticizing everyone, like  me, who wants to build a bridge to believers – not accepting the beliefs, but  willing to respect someone who does have them.  For myself, I would like America  to have a healthcare system like Canada – government run, compulsory, universal.  It is cheaper and better.  But I engage with those who want free enterprise to  be involved in the business.  Likewise I engage with believers – I don’t accept  their beliefs but I respect their right to have them.

Most importantly, the new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to  keep Creationism out of the schools.  The First Amendment does not ban the  teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools.  It bans the teaching of  religion.  That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its  side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science.  But sauce for the goose is  sauce for the gander.  If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion?  Obviously it  is teaching religion.  But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply  that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism  specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment.  Perhaps indeed teaching  Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism.  This is the claim of the new  atheists.  If this is so, then we shall have to live with it and rethink our  strategy about Creationism and the schools.  The point is however that the new  atheists have lamentably failed to prove their point, and excoriating people  like me who show the failure is (again) not very helpful.

I think that P. Z. Myers and his crew are as disastrous to the evolution side – and people like me need to say this – as Ben Stein is disastrous to the  Creationism side – and the Creationists should have had the guts to say so.  I  have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an  atheist.  Let me say that again.  Let me say also that I am proud to be the  focus of the invective of the new atheists.  They are a bloody disaster and I  want to be on the front line of those who say so.


* Michael Ruse teaches at Florida State University. His latest book, published by Cambridge University press,  is Science and Spirituality

Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/scienceandthesacred/2009/08/why-i-think-the-new-atheists-are-a-bloody-disaster.html#ixzz22hXAOgU4

20 thoughts on “Why I Think The New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster

  1. I can’t have read this before – I had no idea he was raised as a Quaker. While I would suggest that ‘loving god, fallen nature, Jesus and atonement and salvation’ aren’t the main claims of evolved modern ‘progressive’ and skeptical Christianity, they certainly are in traditional Christianity which predominates in certain parts of the world. Also the whole inspiration behind evolving Christianity is skepticism and the evidence of science which gradually emerged out of the Renaissance. Beliefs do not necessarily clash with science at all, except in traditional Christianity. I have the greatest respect for Christians who understand historical context and don’t take biblical claims or Church dogma literally. If Michael had a sense of metaphorical theology, he’d probably be just as ‘religious’ as they are. In fact he probably is but evolved Christianity is more about Jesus as a human being and god is more about an expression for good.

    Maybe he’s been too embedded in a culture of ‘secular’ humanist movements if he thinks its ‘another religion’. In fact he comes across in his work, including this article, as very much a humanist.

    As to everything else which is really more to the point of what he wanted to say, and why the atheists are a ‘bloody disaster’, I couldn’t agree more. I always enjoy what he has to say so thank you very much for posting this.

  2. Having spent the last week battling in the Readercon sexual harassment debacle, linked as it has been to the Skepchick fiasco, I’m struggling to recall my generousity of spirit when it comes to excusing PZM’s behaviour on the grounds that his brain may have been fried at some point.

    This is no doubt very bad of me, but fortunately I have never been under the illusion that I have the right to wander around forgiving people for unpleasant things they have done to other people…

  3. “The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools. It bans the teaching of religion. That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment. Perhaps indeed teaching Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism. This is the claim of the new atheists.”

    I get that Ruse is trying to draw a distinction between Evolution per se and what he calls “Darwinism” as some kind of ideology (which I would deny actually exists), but he’s wrong that Dawkins et al assert or imply that evolution implies the non-existence of God. Has he ever even READ Dawkins? Dawkins is very careful to make that exact point himself and makes it repeatedly, and made it repeatedly in THE GOD DELUSION.

    I’m curious as to what specific harm Ruse thinks they’ve done to efforts to protect the Establishment Clause in public schools. ID is dead. Dover killed it. Ruse is long on accusations in this piece, but short on specifics. He accuses these “New Atheists” of being “disastrous the evolution side” (side of what is unclear), but gives no examples as to how. In point of fact, Dawkins and Meyers have been successful at making evolution better understood without doing any damage at all, that I’m aware of, to either the theory itself or to its acceptance.

    He accuses them all of “bad argumentation,” philosphically but gives no examples. he accuses Dawkins of being religiously ignorant, which is as fatuous as saying Dawkins can’t comment on the possible existence of elves unless he’s an expert on Lord of the Rings.

    This sounds like somebody more resentful of criticism than anything else. I’ve read the whole piece three times and still can’t find a single example of actual damage that the so-called NA’s have done.

    I grant that PZM is gratuitously rude and hectoring a lot of the time (though this reputation is much less deserved by Dawkins), but for every PZ Myers, I can show you hundreds of obnoxious religionist demagogues, many of them in elected office. Is there anything more to substantiate the headline “disaster?”

  4. Ruse writes: “I do not think that science and religion have to clash.”

    This is the main objection that new atheists hold against “accomodationists.” Mainstream American religion, new atheists say, clashes with science. Mainstream American religion discards science in favor of traditional beliefs, devalues the scientific enterprise, and claims an undeserved moral authority for itself.

    The “violent” (Ruse’s word) anti-religion tendencies of the new atheists are not so literally violent as the religious forces that have sought to infuse themselves into education, politics, state and federal law, and popular views on what humanity is doing in and to the earth.

    (Forgive me for being so general with the word “religion.”)

    In sum, Ruse is horribly and profoundly wrong about why the new atheists criticize his ideas. He seems deaf to the fact that very much of American Christianity, Judaism, Islam–on TV and on every Sabbath–is fighting against scientific inquiry, reasoning, methods, and (always-provisional) conclusions.

    One does not have to be rabidly or dogmatically “pro-science” to see this fact as problematic. I value the new atheists for recognizing the problem and identifying it as such.

    • Surely every non fundamentalist in America, as anywhere else in the world, sees teaching religion as faith and Creationism as science, as profoundly wrong. Certainly many oppose it and actively and vocally fight it, drawing attention to the damage it does to learning and critical thinking and society. Both liberal religious people and atheists do this in constructive and creatively informed ways. The point is that ‘new atheists’ do it badly and as I see it, and use the same tactics as the fundamentalists. I don’t value the ‘new atheist’ bashing approach. It won’t win any battles. I value the approach of clearer critically informed people.

      Personally I think the teaching of the world’s religions should be introduced to school students, as a historical critical discipline, examining the evolution of ideas and beliefs and development and history of religious thought. Children of fundamentalists need this education to demonstrate their anachronistic beliefs in historical contexts as well as children of new atheists so that they learn to understand religious people. Perhaps they can teach their parents. The hope that their parents would listen however, might be too optimistic.

      • “Surely every non fundamentalist in America, as anywhere else in the world, sees teaching religion as faith and Creationism as science, as profoundly wrong.”

        This is sadly not the case in the US, as is consistently born out by poll after poll. A majority of Americans consistently say Creationism should be taught either alongside evolution as a “competing theory.” 17% say they should teach Creationism only, and not evolution at all. Only 20% of Americans say that Creationism should not be included.

        A Gallup poll taken just last month shows that 46% of Americans believe in Young Earth Creationism (that is, 46% of Americans say they believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago). Another 32% believe in “guided evolution.” Only 15% of Americans say they believe in Evolution with divine intervention.

        It’s not just fundamentalists either. It’s virtually all church goers. Only 3% of people who say they attend church regularly say they believe in evolution. Two thirds of churchgoers in the US say they believe in Young Earth Creationism.

        Americans are also incredibly uneducated about it, since teachers spend an average of about 20 hours talking about in class, with an average of only six hours spent on human evolution. One in six biology teachers say they believe in YEC.

        I agree, by the way, that some kind of basic survey of comparative religion should be taught in schools because Americans are incredibly ignorant about non-Christian religions, and most of them aren’t even well informed about Christianity , but that is not what is at issue here. A majority of Americans still DO want to teach Genesis as science, and it’s not just fundamentalists. We are a highly superstitious and backwards people here. I have family in Louisiana that believes in demons, and that’s not seen as abnormal or unusual there. When you get into the rural areas of the US, it’s like stepping into the Middle Ages.

      • I know that the majority of ‘Christians’ in America poll that way. But the majority of ‘Christians’ in America are fundamentalists. The point is that new atheists are not the majority of the group in American society that oppose the ridiculous notion of teaching creationism as science, including the ridiculous notion of evolution as a “competing theory.” The point is that the 20% aren’t just your ‘new atheists’. The point also is that the majority of the rest of the western world is on your side and some of us actively so. I lament the state of education. Critical thinking and history including the history and evolution of human thought, are vital to a child’s developing mind and understanding. It’s a focus of change that should be a priority with government and school boards. And the final point is that eventually … we must win with co-operative constructive and informed methods and not with fundamentalist tactics which are a ‘bloody disaster’.

      • Those polls are not of Christians, Steph, they are of All Americans. 46% of ALL AMERICANS believe in YEC, not 46% of Christians.

      • Oh you mean Murikans! Like ‘Umeerikuns’ in Neuw Zild. Like those who ain’t got no songs… sort of. Neither have we. Well they have really and we have too – Maori songs. And beautiful bird songs. Murikan Christianity though? Not sure.)

  5. Although I disagree with the depection of Dawkins, and including Hitchens as well., I am not surprised to see him mention Dr. Myers – twice. I used to be a huge fan but lately, the invective coming out of some of the people at FtB (note I used the word “some”) has driven me away.

    It seems now that the “Athesit Movement” is all about “Social Justice”, and if a reader happens to disagree or have a different opinion, that person is driven off.

    I could care less about “Social Justice”. I honestly do not even know what that means outside of the context those in the blogosphere write about. It seems to me that if there is a disagreement, then the person that disagrees is a evil, money grubbing, homophobic, misogynist.

  6. “Had I married a Quaker….” This is Dr. Ruse’s “still inner voice” speaking to him today…. The logical answer is “you didn’t, so what now?” There is no fundamentally rational position to your life choices, now and again, until you have answered the fundamentally irrational corollaries, here and now… Why did I not receive the earlier, easier grace? Because I gave you a gift to overcome the harder questions in order to share them with the others…

    • I have no idea what Ruse thinks, which is why I posted this. He seems a mire of contradictions. English Quakerism was a temporal phenomenon which is why they sought refuge with Penn and Pitt in Penn-sylvania (Pitts-burgh?) where their culture and religion flourished. They were the leaders in the abolition movement; and the best Quaker poets were poets like Whittier, whose hymn “Forgive Our Foolish Ways” is perhaps the most glorious hymn ever written. English resurgent Quakers sing it as though it had been written in England. But it wasn’t. I want it sung at my funeral. The worst thing about Ruse is that while he doesn’t like the new atheisst, he doesn’t want to be a humanist–fair enough: so what is he? I doubt his marrying a Quaker would have helped; he is just another confused undertrained British philosopher who doesn’t like social constructions of gender and hates the New Atheists because they got there first. I regard him as wholy forgettable.

      • Sorry for the lecture; but your allusion to “still small voice of calm”–Whittiers’–perfectly expresses my view of religion: it is a manifestation of conscience.

  7. Ruse best makes sense … if we think of him as still being, deep down, a Quaker.

    Quakers themselves were long puzzling to many; and were even widely reviled too. But eventually I think I came to understand what they are about: they are attempting to be about what they might call just “plain,” “common” human decency, and toleration. Basically the idea was not to follow spectacular leaders or to have ministers; but to follow the simple decency of the heart (as Quakers might have alleged). In particular, Quakers we the great proto-liberals. IN that they seemed to feel that many types of behavior might be allowed, as long as they did not hurt anyone. Or in fact, in their efforts to respect many, they were strong on establishing hospitals, and helping the poor; following/developing, what would become known as “the social gospel.”

    The reason for the word “Quaker,” by the way, was their insistence on a peaceable kingdom or society. In which as Willian Penn might have suggested, all kinds of things, beliefs, are tolerated; so long as no values are enforced on others, by way of physical punishment or execution. But because of their desire to avoid violence Quakers opposed capital punishment – and wars. Accused of being afraid to fight, of trembling or quaking with fear, they were called “quakers.”

    And all that explains Ruse much better than any other label he might choose for himself. His Quaker background particularly explains his otherwise curious desire to at once be an atheist .. but also to allow Christianity to at least peacefully co-exist in our society (if it can do so). Out of the belief that so long as no particular form of credo imposes itself on us by violence … we should let it alone.

    Though of course, given the history of Christianity – the Crusades and executions for heresy and so forth – it remains to be seen whether Christianity CAN peacefully exist in a society, without trying to impose itself by force, or coercive propoganda.

    Which is why atheists are … more aggressive in their criticism of Christianity than Ruse.

  8. “I think that P. Z. Myers and his crew are as disastrous to the evolution side – and people like me need to say this – as Ben Stein is disastrous to the Creationism side”

    I completely fail to understand how Ben Stein represents a disaster for the creationists. Creationism is what it is: ridiculous. Nothing Ben Stein has does, nothing he could ever do could make it more or less ridiculous than it is. Stein’s rejection of evolutionary theory, on the other hand, has been disastrous for whatever ambitions Stein may have had to be taken seriously by sensible people.

    “I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist.”

    Ah, so that’s what did it.

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