Michael Ruse has this interesting op-ed in the Florida newspaper The Tallahassee Democrat. He begins:
This has been a good year for evolutionists. First, at the end of 2005, a judge in Pennsylvania – a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush – decreed that so-called Intelligent Design Theory is not genuine science and hence cannot be taught in publicly funded science classrooms.
Intelligent Design Theory – Creationism Lite – is the latest attempt by religious fundamentalists, biblical literalists, to argue that the origins of organisms were not evolutionary but the result of injections of divine power. In other words, God was not prepared or able to let things unfurl naturally according to unbroken law, but got directly involved through miracles. The judge rightly ruled that this is not science, it is religion, and violates the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
Well said. I haven’t always approved of some of Ruse’s recent activities. He strikes me as way too friendly with the ID folks, and his criticisms of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are very unfair. But when he actually sits down to write about evolution, he always does a good job.
But I was especially interested in the closing of the article:
The cry will go up that people like me – people who think you can be an evolutionist and equally be a sincere Christian or Jew or Muslim (or whatever) – are simply wrong. It will be said that we ignore traditional religion and embrace some newly fabricated, modern illusion. This is simply not true. Christianity (to speak of just one religion) has always had in it the power and necessity to interpret the Bible metaphorically, if the science dictates. St. Augustine, around 400 A.D., insisted that the Bible is written in the language of primitive folk and that we who come later must interpret it according to the knowledge of our day. I am not saying that Augustine himself was an evolutionist – although as it happens, since he believed that God stands outside time, he did think that God created seeds of life that then develop. I am saying that traditional religion demands that we use that which makes us in God’s image, namely our powers of sense and reason.
So let us celebrate the findings of science. Darwin’s finches are drab little birds, living on outcrops of hot, inhospitable, volcanic rock, in the middle of the ocean. But they tell us more about the wonderful world in which we live, and of our powers of understanding, than do years of misguided poring through the leaves of the early chapters of the Old Testament.
I agree with what Ruse is saying here, and I especially like that last paragraph. But I also think the fundamentalists have a point in protesting the willingness of people like Ruse to interpret the Bible metaphorically. The creation story in Genesis sure reads like history. There’s nothing in the text itself to suggest that it is anything but a description of actual historical events.
To many Christians, Ruse’s suggestion seems like substituting fallible human judgments for the holy word of God. After all, why would God present his Word in a form so vague and malleable that it must be reinterpreted in the light of every new scientific discovery to come down the line? And if you concede that the Bible is routinely wrong in scientific matters (as all sensible people should concede), then why does it retain any worth when addressing moral or historical questions? If the merits of its empirical statements must be assessed on the basis of outside sources of knowledge, why shouldn’t we also assess it’s moral claims on the basis of non-Biblical sources? Either the Bible is the holy and inerrant word of God, or it is an ancient document written by people with no more claim to authority than any other document that has survived from that time. It’s hard to find a logically consistent middle ground.
Ruse generally describes himself as an agnostic and a skeptic of traditional religious claims. With that in mind, I find the following statement from him interesting:
…Rabbi Slifkin shows us that modern science is in the end a wonderful hymn to what God has wrought, and its appreciation enriches our lives and makes possible an even greater respect for, and love of, the Author of all things. (Ellipsis in original)
I found this statement on the back of the recent book The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter With Science, Cosmology and Evolution by Rabbi Natan Slifkin. This book turned up in my mailbox today, and I expect to have much more to say about it once I’ve had a chance to read it. But Ruse’s statement struck me as inconsistent with his past statements on this subject. It sure sounds like he is saying that he agrees with the Rabbi’s conclusions. On the other hand, he might have meant something more like, “Rabbi Slifkin shows how it is possible for a religious person to use an understanding of modern science to deepen his appreciation of God’s work.”
UPDATE: The Ruse quote above appears on the back cover of the book. I have just noticed that the full quote appears in the book’s frontmatter. It doesn’t clarify very much, but here is the whole statement:
No one could read this book without being aware of the author’s deeply spiritual nature and his absolute devotion to the faith of his fathers. At the same time, one meets a man for whom the world is God’s creation and it is for us, made in God’s image, to go forward bravely exploring and trying to understand this creation. Rabbi Slifkin shows us that modern science is in the end a wonderful hymn to what God has wrought, and its appreciation enriches our lives and makes possible an even greater respect for, andlove of, the Author of all things.