Priests in lab coats

Philosopher Michael Ruse is an ardent evolutionist who thinks creationism is claptrap. So why is he accusing atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins of being as religious as born-again Bible thumpers?

Published August 6, 2005 7:02PM (EDT)

Philosopher Michael Ruse is pretty famous, for someone in his esoteric academic discipline. Ruse is a congenial, blustery, bearded fellow, with more than a hint about him of the English schoolboy he was half a century ago. He seems like he'd be great company over a couple of game hens and a decent bottle of claret, and it's not surprising to learn that he befriends people with opposing views and is widely loved in his field. But just Google him -- or better yet, run an Amazon search -- and you'll quickly learn that the admiration is not universal. (Amazon, in fact, is one place where the dispute between creationists and supporters of evolution reaches both its loftiest intellectual plateau and the depths of puerile name-calling.)

You see, Ruse is a philosopher of science and, to use his phrase, an "ardent evolutionist." He stops a crucial degree or two short of declaring himself an atheist, but he firmly believes in Darwin's theory that evolution (now established as fact) by natural selection (still under discussion, although widely accepted) is the driving force behind the diversity of life on this planet. He thinks that creationists, both of the old-fashioned "young earth" variety and the newfangled intelligent-design model -- which President Bush said earlier this week should be taught in schools -- are spewing dangerous claptrap and are in league, consciously or not, with a sinister right-wing political agenda.

Ruse has devoted much of his career, first at the University of Guelph in Ontario and more recently at Florida State, to battling the creationist agenda in science and philosophy, in the classroom and the political arena. At the same time, he has become increasingly fascinated with the indistinct borderlands between science and religion. He has leapt to the defense of scientists who profess religious faith, in the face of derision from prominent atheistic Darwinians like Richard Dawkins. He has supported Christians and other believers who argue that religious faith and evolutionary science do not necessarily contradict one another, and who have resisted the rising tide of fundamentalism.

In Ruse's 2000 book "Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?" he answered the question forcefully in the affirmative, while making clear he wasn't personally a believer. On the other hand, in his 2003 book "Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose?" Ruse answered that question more or less in the negative, politely describing creationism and intelligent design (often simply called I.D.) as intellectual dead ends -- while reasserting that he thought evolutionary thinking could be compatible with theistic religion.

Yet, even in the context of these moderate and nuanced positions and this steadfast rejection of absolutism, Ruse's new book, "The Evolution-Creation Struggle," comes as something of a surprise. On one level, the book is a fairly standard intellectual history of how the 18th century Enlightenment led to a crisis of faith in the Western world, which led in turn to two responses: a turn toward fundamentalist, evangelical religion on one hand, and a turn toward increasingly non-theistic reason and science on the other. The two forces have effectively been in combat ever since, which carries us up to science textbooks, school prayer, abortion and homosexuality, sacrilegious TV sitcoms, the last two presidential elections and the rest of today's "culture wars."

Above and beyond that, Ruse makes a heretical argument in "The Evolution-Creation Struggle" that will not endear him to members of his own team. Creationism and evolutionism, he says, are siblings, born of the same historical crisis, and they provide distorted reflections of each other. "The two sides share a common set of questions and, in important respects, common solutions," he writes. More explosively, he thinks both are essentially theological in character; they are "rival religious responses to a crisis of faith -- rival stories of origins, rival judgments about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates, and above all what theologians call rival eschatologies -- pictures of the future and of what lies ahead for humankind."

Ruse is drawing a crucial distinction between evolutionary science, narrowly considered -- which need not have any religious or spiritual consequences -- and evolutionism, the secular, atheistic religion he says often accompanies and enfolds Darwinism. Leading evolutionists like Dawkins, Ruse believes, have failed to draw clear distinctions between the two, and have led many to believe that Darwinian science is fatally allied to an arrogant atheism and a hostile caricature of religious belief. In essence, Ruse believes that fundamentalist evolutionists like Dawkins and W.D. Hamilton hold similar beliefs to fundamentalist creationists -- both sides would agree that Darwinism is a "dark theology" that removes ultimate meaning and purpose from the universe and augurs the death of God.

You might say that, in this new book, Ruse is calling for a Reformation within the church of evolutionism. He himself honors the truth claims of science and is "a hell of a lot closer" to atheism than to religious belief. But he thinks evolutionists must purge themselves of reflexive anti-religious fervor, and acknowledge at least the potential validity of the classic Augustinian position that science and theology can never directly contradict one another, since science can only consider nature and God, by definition, is outside nature. Without this consciousness, Ruse suggests, evolutionism is in fact a secular religion, a church without Christ. And if that's what it is, what is it doing in biology class? The current Supreme Court, trending ever rightward on questions of religion in public life, may wish to address this question sooner rather than later.

In the end, there can be no doubt that Michael Ruse is saying these dangerous things because he wants evolutionary science, and even evolutionism, once cured of its excesses, to carry the day. In the main, his argument is pragmatic: Amid America's long-running cultural and religious war, he seeks to identify common philosophical ground where believers and atheists can coexist without sacrificing the integrity of science. If he thinks evolutionists should learn to respect the creationists' faith and develop a deeper understanding of their arguments, that's largely because, as evangelists already know, you have to speak the language before you can convert the heathen. I gleaned all this in two long and cheerful phone conversations with Ruse, the first while he was on vacation in Canada, and the second from his home in Tallahassee, Fla.

Not everybody in the evolutionist camp is going to be happy with this book, are they?

No, they're not. There's a review coming out in Science this week that is -- well, it's not violently hostile -- but it's a little less than overwhelmingly pleased. My feeling is that, having committed myself so openly to Darwinism, and having spent 30 years fighting creationists -- if anybody's got the moral authority to do what I've done, well, here I am.

You raise this argument that creationism and evolutionism are essentially two competing religions. That's exactly what creationists say, or at least the sharper ones: "We have two competing belief systems. All we ask is to have our case considered." One could look at this and say, "Wow, Ruse is saying the creationists are right."

I am saying that. I think they are right. I want to qualify that immediately by saying that the creationists play fast and loose. Like a lot of us, creationists slide from one position to another according to the kind of argument they want to make. A major theme of the intelligent design people is that theirs is in fact a scientific position, and I think that's a double whammy.

Inasmuch as the creationists want to say openly that both sides are making religious commitments, I have to agree with them on that. I don't think that modern evolutionary theory is necessarily religious. Evolutionary theory was religious, and there's still a large odor of that over and above the professional science. The quasi-religious stuff is still what gets out into the public domain, whether it's Richard Dawkins or Edward O. Wilson or popularizers like Robert Wright. Certainly Stephen Jay Gould. Whether you call it religious or philosophical, I would say these people are presenting a weltanschauung.

You don't come right out and say this, but some of the things that the secular religion of evolutionism has proposed are more than a little troubling. W.D. Hamilton's stuff about how we should permit infanticide in order to keep sick and disabled people out of the gene pool is pretty hard to stomach.

Oh, it makes my hair stand on end.

I felt like I needed to rush off to the nearest Baptist church and be washed in the blood of the Lamb. Anything to get away from that guy!

One almost does feel like one needs to douse myself with holy water. I do say, somewhat cryptically, that the religion of evolutionism may be more troublesome than it's worth. But one of the things I'm trying to do, at least until the conclusion, is to pull back from moral evaluations.

One of the things that may alarm people in both camps is your idea that evolutionism and creationism are actually brother and sister.

The basic theme of the book is that the Enlightenment brought on a crisis. This is not my personal view -- it's a very standard position in the history of religion. In many respects, the Enlightenment was more troublesome than the Reformation, because for the first time people were faced with the possibility that, well, it's all not true.

This led to twin reactions. On the one hand, the rise of evangelical faith. It's not coincidental that Methodism really takes off in the 18th century. And on the other hand, you've got the rise of reason and progress. In France, the rise of the philosophes. But it was just as much a British and American phenomenon. That's where we're off and running, and from that point it's a question of how these two positions unfurl.

This is a sibling relationship, because they both come from the same parent. So often what they are doing is defining themselves against each other. Hamilton makes my hair stand on end -- but what is Hamilton talking about? He's talking about the family. What is Phillip Johnson talking about? [Ruse quotes Johnson, the founder of the I.D. movement, discussing family morality in a Christian-oriented "rational society."] He too is talking about the family. What I find fascinating is the extent to which one finds that the two sides are talking at each other. This is not a question of one side talking about putting a man on the moon and the other side talking about homosexuality. These two sides are talking about the same issues.

Well, and the rhetoric of both sides is subject to slippage, as you've said. The evolutionists reject creation science by saying it's not science -- but they're just resorting to a dictionary definition of science that, in effect, they wrote. As you say in the book, it's a bit too slick.

What I find particularly troublesome is the extent to which evolutionists and Darwinians say, oh no, we're doing science, and if you do this you have to be an agnostic at minimum, and preferably an atheist. I want to say, "Hang on, if the position implies this, then aren't you taking what I would want to argue is a religious stand -- namely, there ain't no God?" My position is that there isn't a necessary connection between Darwinism and atheism.

One of your central ideas is that there's a slippery philosophical slope that leads from evolution to evolutionism, from scientific naturalism to atheism.

There's no question that there's a slope. Whether it's a slope that, once one gets on it, one finds oneself inevitably carried down it, I think that's another matter. Because you become an evolutionist, it does not necessarily follow that you become an atheist. I stand on that very strongly. There are many good studies showing that the secularists of the 19th and 20th centuries became secularists because of David Hume or Tom Paine -- or because they were felt up by the local vicar and said, "I'm never going there again!" Then they find evolution, and this gives them a satisfactory alternative.

Having said that, there's no doubt that once you start on this slope, unless there are reasons otherwise, a lot of people find it's easier to go downhill than to stay put. A lot of people, having taken God out of their lives six days a week, suddenly say, "Well, on the seventh day I'd rather put my feet up!"

Another point of agreement between the two sides. Creationists will tell you that science and evolution are atheistic, and that evolution leads inescapably to the end of God. That's why they're against it.

Yeah, the fundamentalists on both sides would want to argue precisely that. Although I'm not a believer myself, I just don't think it necessarily follows. On the other hand, Christians and others need to spend a lot more time articulating a position that one can be a Christian and a scientist at the same time and bolster traditional readings of both. We've all become so polarized -- so shit-scared of the situation -- that I don't think we're doing what we should.

You're protective of Simon Conway Morris, who's a pretty lonely example: a prominent evolutionary biologist and a Christian believer. You don't feel that he's required to perform a set of difficult intellectual gymnastics?

I don't think so, really. If I were to spend another two or three years on this book, I would have done a much bigger survey, to get some notion of how many active evolutionists are practicing Christians, or at least sympathetic. At one level Conway Morris is a lovely example for somebody like me -- he's a well-respected evolutionist and a very committed Christian. So you're damn right I'm protective! To a certain extent he's, not an oddball, but an exception. I go on to people like Holmes Rolston, who explicitly want to reject or modify Darwinism [in the interest of belief]. I don't see that Conway Morris wants to do that.

Some of the attempts to wage peace between evolutionary biology and religion are a little problematic. Stephen Jay Gould's famous quote about science and religion being "non-overlapping magisteria" sounds nice. But doesn't he really mean: "Our magisterium is the truth, and yours is superstitious crap"?

Oh, he does. I don't think there's any question about that. I like a lot of Gould's writing even when I don't agree with him. He starts out saying, "Twin magisteria, we can both go our own ways." But by the time he starts talking about religion, virtually all the things religious people hold dear go out the window. Now, you may think they should. But don't give me any codswallop about twin magisteria then. If you say, "Well, I'm going to let religion have what it wants. But by the way, no Resurrection, no Incarnation, none of this nonsense about life after death." If I were a religious person, I'd have to say thanks but no thanks.

There's a creationist argument you address briefly that I find interesting: the idea that the Bible -- and the entire Christian faith -- starts to come unglued if you don't read Genesis literally. You've got no Adam and Eve, no Eden, no Flood. You can't say there was no death and suffering before the Fall if the Fall was mythical and we had zillions of years of dinosaurs and insects. When Jesus refers to Noah and Moses, he's just recycling myth; it all becomes an interesting parable to be read however you like. What happens to the divinity of Christ, or the Resurrection, or any of it? They have a point, don't they?

They do and they don't. Fundamentalists themselves don't read the Bible literally. Jesus has a whole pile of stuff about turning the other cheek -- Quakers read that part literally, but George Bush doesn't. What about when Jesus says, "Leave your father and your mother and your wife and follow me"? A sophisticated biblical scholar is going to say that Jesus was living in an apocalyptic age. Jesus thought that the end was coming. This does not deny that Jesus was God, but the point is that Jesus was man at the same time. Being man means being limited, and Jesus shows his humanity in the fact that he was limited.

We all interpret the Bible. By the time we get to Revelation -- every fundamentalist spends time deciding, is the Antichrist the pope, or is it Saddam Hussein? Is the Whore of Babylon the Catholic Church? They're all in this business. Do they actually mean that she's a female who gets shagged on a regular basis who lives in Babylon? No, they don't. You cannot read the Bible literally, or at least nobody ever does.

As you note, the Catholic Church has done an uneasy dance with evolution over the years. Intellectuals have embraced it, popes have mostly avoided it. John Paul II came awfully close to endorsing it a few years ago, and now Benedict XVI seems to be backing away or hedging his bets.

Look, the previous pope had been a professor at the University of Krakow. Who was the most famous professor at Krakow, before John Paul II? None other than Nicolas Copernicus. There's a huge paper trail on this; the pope was extremely proud of Polish culture in general and Copernicus in particular. He had a very strong vested interest in forward-looking science. So the fact that John Paul II was friendly toward evolution came as no surprise to me. He was adamant that when it came to human souls, that required a miracle. But he went to his grave without a worry that those things were compatible.

I think the new chap does not have the same sympathy toward science. Whether this is bound up with the social context, especially in America, I don't know. I'm putting together a hypothesis here. The current pope is much more sensitive to the American divide; he sees this battle being waged and he sees that conservative Catholics have aligned themselves with conservative evangelicals over the abortion issue and homosexuality. To what extent he believes that by endorsing an I.D. position, he's coming to their aid, I don't know. But it's a reasonable hypothesis.

So what has become of the Augustinian tradition within Christianity, which would be perfectly happy to accept evolution, geology, the Big Bang, the laws of physics, whatever science has got? You know, God works in mysterious ways, the Bible is a human document subject to interpretation, and so on. Is that gone?

In the great Catholic universities of the world -- and I'd include Notre Dame and Fordham in the United States -- most of the theologians would be fairly comfortable with a position like that. I've never seen Cardinal Avery Dulles [the leading American Catholic theologian] write on that, but he's very sympathetic to John Henry Newman [who rejected fundamentalism and saw little or no conflict between evolution and the church's teachings]. You may see some Thomists as well as Augustinians, you may see some wrestling with the question of natural theology, but most of them would feel fairly comfortable about evolution. But in America at the moment, with this bastardized right-wing evangelical Catholicism, I don't see a hell of a lot of deep thinking going on.

Creationists will describe evolution as a "dark theology," a view of life as a meaningless process driven by death and extinction. To what extent do evolutionists themselves agree with that?

There are those who think just that. It's not just Dawkins. The idea that life is driven basically by chance and necessity is a fairly popular refrain. Not all of them come across that way. Someone like Edward O. Wilson, who has no more theological belief than Dawkins, nevertheless sets out to present a very optimistic, humanist position. It's like Christians: You know, Calvinists present one hell of a dark picture. On the other hand, you have a few drinks with Martin Luther and you go home pissed as a newt and with a lot of funny, dirty stories.

You do your best, considering you don't agree with creationism at all, to argue that it has a coherent intellectual history, that it possesses some integrity. Is that fair?

That's a good way of putting it. Do I think that? "Coherent intellectual integrity"? At some level, if you're very careful about how you use those words. I think it's certainly got a deeper and more consistent philosophy or metaphysics than simply just ad-hoc making it up as you go along. Whether I think it's a good position or not, I think it's a deeply rooted premillennial view of life.

That distinction, between premillennial and postmillennial thinking, is very important in your book. Can you break that down a little?

It's a question of how you read Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible. It says there's going to be a millennium, a thousand-year period, and then the Last Judgment will happen. From way back when, there have been three readings of this. The Augustinian position is to say, "I don't want to get into any of this speculation." You're eschewing eschatology. You're not too worried about the question of where we're going, you deal with where we are now. Generally that has been the Catholic position.

You've got two other positions. One is premillennial, which says Jesus is going to come before the millennium. This was tarted up in the 19th century by people who argued we were going to have the Rapture and all that; that's where you find the roots of today's fundamentalism. The premillennialist believes that Jesus is coming in the not too distant future, and he's going to make a heavy-duty judgment between those who are saved and those who are not. We should focus on personal purity and evangelical work, bringing in as many souls as possible. You do not get involved in grand plans for the future. Apart from the fact that these are probably seductions of the Antichrist, they're pointless.

The more liberal interpretation is the postmillennialist position: We don't want to get into this whole business of a thousand years, a thousand days, whatever it is. Yes, Jesus is coming -- we're Christians. But that's not the point. What we've got to do is, as in William Blake's poem, we've got to build Jerusalem "among these dark Satanic mills." Does that mean that Blake thought, and the British Labor Party thinks, that you've got to build a model of Jerusalem near Huddersfield or something? Of course not. What they mean is, we've got to strive to make a better world now.

What I've found is that your evolutionists, whether secular or spiritual, are to a person postmillennialist. From Holmes Rolston to Conway Morris to Ed Wilson -- nobody could be more of a postmillennialist than Ed. He says, "No, I'm not into that," but what he means is that he's not into the whole Jesus Christ thing. But I also know that he grew up in an Alabama Baptist family, where eschatology and end things are absolutely vital. What one must do throughout life is say, not "What am I doing here and now?" but "What does this presage for the future?"

That brings us back to where we came in. These two sides distort each other like bendy mirrors at the fairground. They're both worried about the future. The question is, what should we do to prepare for the future? This is the whole thesis of my book: Evolutionism and creationism really are siblings.

So what's the most compelling aspect of the creationist case? If they take their best shot at you, what is it?

Look, I want to make it absolutely clear that I want to understand creationism, not endorse it. It's important for us evolutionists to understand what is motivating creationists. Why do people hold these prima facie lunatic views? Which I think they are. I'm a university professor; my job is to influence people. I'm certainly not going to influence any of my students if I just go in there and laugh at them for being Genesis freaks. I might get somewhere if I can talk to them a little bit about eschatology. I'm not going to convince everybody, but I might get one or two of them to think, "Oh, there's more to it than I thought."

But you've already put your finger on it: The most interesting thing that the creationists are doing is pointing, as Matthew says, at the beams in the eyes of the evolutionists. Meaning that we all too often get into evolutionism and link up our evolutionary positions with social prescriptions and with atheism.

I'm all in favor of social prescriptions, and I'm not knocking anybody for being an atheist. I call myself a skeptic, but that's a hell of a lot closer to atheism than it is to Christianity. But I want to see what grounds you have for saying that, and whether or not your positions follow from one another. If they do, maybe you should ask yourself, "Am I not being a hypocrite in teaching evolutionary biology in American schools?" Given the fact that it's clearly illegal. You're not allowed to teach religion in biology class.

I can't understand why I can't get through people's thick skulls on this one. If in fact Darwinian evolutionary theory implies atheism, then you ought not to be teaching it in schools! It's not good enough to say, "Well, I'm a National Socialist. But the fact that that meant a lot of Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, that's not my worry!" It bloody is! If your theory leads to 6 million Jews being made into soap, not only is there something deeply troubling about your theory, but you've got a moral obligation to face up to its implications. If this theory leads to atheism, then it's got religious implications.

Are the creationists genuine in their belief?

I really, truly think so. I think sometimes they have worries about how it all fits together. I know the philosopher Paul Nelson, who has said that theologically he's drawn very strongly to a young-earth creationism. Scientifically, he realizes there's a lot to be said for a much older earth. Paul is genuinely puzzled. In the end he votes for theology over science because, you know, that's his paradigm. That's not to say they don't have motivations. Phillip Johnson, after a brilliant beginning to his legal career, had become best known as the author of textbooks. It's pretty clear that he has found it very satisfying to lead a movement like this, just at a personal level.

I see the sacrifices they make. William Dembski [the mathematician and philosopher who is among the I.D. movement's intellectual stars] is a very bright guy who should have been able to get a very good job, and he's reduced to going off to some theological tinpot college in Tennessee or something [actually, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.]. Paul Nelson hasn't got a regular job. They're making sacrifices for their faith. While I think their position is terrible, I don't see them as evil people. I don't see them as Hitlers. They're caught up in an appalling, idiosyncratic American religion. So they're not the first.

How closely allied is creationism to right-wing politics? When we read that 45 to 50 percent of the public claims to believe in a literal reading of Genesis, we assume we also know who those people voted for. Is that fair?

Well, look at the 2004 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which I refer to in my conclusion. They have dug more deeply than I'm able to do. There's no question that red state equals George W. Bush equals not just anti-evolutionism, but opposition to homosexual marriage, opposition to abortion, strong support for capital punishment and strong sympathy for going into Iraq. I see the evolution-creation dispute as a litmus test for a much broader divide in American society.

Is that why you think creationism is dangerous? Or is that a kind of category confusion?

It's a two-level answer. I think creationism is dangerous because I don't think you should teach young people bad ideas. I'm a post-Enlightenment person. Inasmuch as I see creationism as a litmus test, I don't think creationism as such is dangerous. I think premillennialism is dangerous, because this inclines you to simplistic and dangerous positions. You hear echoes of this when George Bush talks about the "evildoers." I think the decision to go to war in Iraq was bound up with many different issues; Cheney just did it for the oil. But I do see it as allied to premillennial thinking, and that's even before you get to the Israel issue. Why are evangelical Christians so gung-ho in favor of Israel? Well, it's not because they like Jews. It's because of their eschatological reading of the Book of Revelation. I do think these things are very dangerous.

Well, there's also the capacity of Americans to hold essentially contradictory sets of beliefs. On one hand, we're good Christians who believe in Genesis. On the other hand, we want our kids to have a modern scientific education. I don't know how widespread that is, but I suspect it's out there.

That's quite right. There are always 5 percent who do believe in evolution but also think humans and dinosaurs coexisted. Science is part of our culture as much as Genesis. You can't turn everyone into an evolutionist, but I'm not certain that the level of opposition is as black as people think. Americans, given your exceptionalism and your feeling that you are God's chosen race, have more of a capacity for self-delusion than other people. With the possible exception of upper-class English people.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books Charles Darwin Creationism Evolution