Dr. Michael Ruse, an atheist philosopher of biology, speaks out against the "New Atheists".
As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: "What or who is an atheist?" If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group. Richard Dawkins denies being such a person. If you mean someone who agrees that logically there could be a god, but who doesn't think that the logical possibility is terribly likely, or at least not something that should keep us awake at night, then I guess a lot of us are atheists. But there is certainly a split, a schism, in our ranks. I am not whining (in fact I am rather proud) when I point out that a rather loud group of my fellow atheists, generally today known as the "new atheists", loathe and detest my thinking. Richard Dawkins has likened me to the pusillanimous appeaser at Munich, Neville Chamberlain. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, says (echoing Orwell) that only someone with pretensions to the intelligentsia could believe the silly things I believe. And energetic blogger PZ Myers refers to me as a "clueless gobshite" because I confessed to seeing why true believers might find the Kentucky Creationist Museum convincing. I will spare you what my fellow philosopher Dan Dennett has to say about me.
There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling – I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical. First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. This claim is on a par with golden plates in upstate New York. The Quakers and the Evangelicals were inspired and driven by their religion to oppose slavery, and a good thing too. Of course there has been evil in the name of religion – the pope telling Africans not to use condoms in the face of Aids – but as often as not religion is not the only or even the primary force for evil. The troubles in Northern Ireland were surely about socio-economic issues also, and the young men who flew into the World Trade Centre towers were infected by the alienation and despair of the young in Muslim countries in the face of poverty and inequalities.
Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, "What caused God?" as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander. There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.
Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don't have faith. I really don't. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." I don't think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.
Fourth and finally, I live in the American South, surrounded by ardent Christians. I want evolution taught in the schools and I can think of no way better designed to make that impossible than to spout on about religion, from ignorance and with contempt. And especially to make unsubstantiated arguments that science refutes religion. I never conceal my nonbelief. I defend to the death the right of the new atheists to their views and to their right to propagate them. But that is no excuse for political stupidity. If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?
Back in 1961, in the depths of the cold war, terrified as we were by the threat of nuclear annihilation, John Whitcomb Junior and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood, a six-day-creationist account of origins. Because of its dispensationalist message – God clears things out every now and then, as he did at the time of Noah, and we should expect the next (literal) blow up fairly shortly – it became the fundamentalist bible. But don't worry. It's all part of God's plans, even the Russian bomb. Today, nearly a decade after 9/11, terrified as so many still are by the terrorist threat, the atheistic fundamentalists are finding equally fertile soil for their equally frenetic messages. It's all the fault of the believers, Muslims mainly of course, but Christians also. But don't worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.
Forgive me if I don't sign on.