In 2002 I attended an ID conference near Kansas City. Among the speakers was philosopher J. P. Moreland. During his talk he unleashed a broadside against Michael Ruse, accusing him not only of perjuring himself during the famous 1981 Arkansas creationism trial but also of having publicly admitted to his misdeeds.
I had an audio recording of the talk and wrote to Ruse to ask him about it. I transcribed Moreland’s exact statement and asked Ruse if he had admitted any such thing as was being alleged. Ruse flatly denied Moreland’s assertion and was kind enough to give me a quote to use in my write-up (PDF format) of the conference for Skeptic magazine.
Ruse’s e-mail to me contained another interesting nugget. I was a post-doc at the time. Ruse, knowing this, observed that I was very young, and that fighting creationism should be left to older folks like him. I think his concern was that creationism can be something of a black hole, and not something a young academic early in his career should be worrying about. Obviously, I chose not to take that advice.
I was moved to think about this again in light of two recent developments. The first is reported in this post over at Jerry Coyne’s blog. Seems Ruse is not happy with Coyne’s recent writing about science and religion, and decided to express his displeasure in the form of an e-mail to Coyne. As quoted at Coyne’s blog, Ruse’s e-mail contained the following statement:
But as it is, we are in a battle in America for the scientific soul of its children. I don’t know who does more damage, you and your kind or Phillip Johnson and his kind. I really don’t.
Yeah, that’s a tough one.
Phillip Johnson spearheaded the ID movement. In doing so he revitalized creationism after the setback of the 1987 Supreme Court decision in Edwards v. Aguillard. Through his eloquence and relative sophistication, he successfully promoted a streamlined version of creationism that gained respectful coverage in virtually every major media outlet in the country. The people he recruited to the movement managed to get their books published by reputable publishers. He was able to unite diverse schools of creationism under one banner, making them a very potent social force. School boards were besieged with efforts to rewrite science standards and curricula along ID lines. Things even got to the point of having to be litigated in 2005. Mercifully, the verdict ended up being a huge setback for ID. That notwithstanding, the movement Johnson and his kind started still thrives today, and continues to make trouble among school boards across the country.
Jerry Coyne, by contrast, wrote a book review for The New Republic. Then he continued to defend his views at his blog. “His kind” have written books expressing their antipathy toward religion. Occasionally they even speak publicly about it.
Real hard to tell who does more harm, don’t you think?
Still, maybe we benighted atheist types can learn something from Ruse’s strategic prowess. What sorts of things has Ruse been doing since 2002, when he told me creationism-fighting should be left to him?
In 2004 he edited a book with William Dembski called Debating Design, published by Cambridge University Press. In doing so he effectively cut the legs out from under those fighting school board battles on the ground. It’s pretty hard to argue that the evolution/ID issue is a manufactured debate when Ruse has one of the most prestigious university presses in the world certifying that it is, indeed, a real debate.
Making matters worse was the fact that the four essays Ruse chose to represent “Darwinism” added up to a very weak case for the good guys. If all I knew about this issue came from that book, I would be an ID proponent.
More recently Ruse said, in a public debate with Dembski, that the book The Design Inference was a valuable contribution to science. I’m sure this will come as news to the scientific community which, to the extent that they noticed it at all, dismissed the book as worthless.
When the ID folks were putting together a book in honor of Phillip Johnson, Ruse was happy to contribute an essay to a section entitled “Two Friendly Critics.” The other critic? David Berlinski. Get the idea?
It would not have occurred to me that the proper response to a political/religious movement striving to inject bad ideas into science classes is to put my arms around them and legitimize them in any way I can. Shows you what a dumbass atheist I am. Perhaps, though, I am justified in being suspicious of strategic advice coming from Ruse.
The second tidbit is this essay from Andrew Brown, writing in The Guardian. Seems Ruse recently visited the Creation Museum, and wrote to Brown of his experiences. For example:
Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit …I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true — it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people.
Ruse has been doing this for how many years and he is just now tumbling to the fact that YEC can seem pretty darn convincing when it is presented slickly? Ruse continues:
It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false — that eating turds is good for you is [also] false but generally people don’t want to [whereas] a lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.
Gosh! To be that clever. Who would have thought that defeating creationism involved more than just marshalling arguments against it?
I assume, though, that part of that psychological analysis would involve an examination of whether at least some of what creationists believe is well justified. On the question of whether evolution genuinely poses a challenge to central principles of Christianity (not just fundamentalist Christianity mind you) many of us think they are completely justified. For myself I say that not because I have failed to consider the elaborate theological arguments to be found in books like Ruse’s Can a Darwinian be a Christian, but precisely because I have read so many such books. I don’t think creationists are being unreasonable in rejecting Ruse’s arguments on this subject. Ditto for Haught, Polkinghorne, Zycinski, Domning, Miller, Dowd, Giberson….
Brown’s essay goes on to repeat the standard brain-dead canards of this topic. P. Z. Myers has already levelled the proper vituperation in his direction, so I won’t go into that here.
The hysteria directed at people like Coyne on this issue is really hard to comprehend. If you don’t like his arguments, then by all means go offer better ones of your own. But just think of the level of insanity it takes to suggest that publicly arguing that science and religion are not so easily reconciled does as much harm to the cause of science education as does the work of the ID movement. With this sort of rhetoric we are way beyond honest philosophical disagreements or disputes over strategy.