As a way of easing our way back into regular blogging, let’s take a quick look at what Michael Ruse has been up to. This was posted at HuffPo on October 28:
Neither I nor the well-known philosopher Philip Kitcher believes in the existence of God or in the claims of the major (or minor) religions. I don’t know how he would describe himself, but I say I am an agnostic or skeptic. In truth, when it comes to the basic claims of Christianity and the others, I am an atheist.
Yet both Kitcher and I persist in trying to make a space for people who are religious, in the sense that we both want to accord them some kind of intellectual integrity and the justified possibility of holding to the beliefs that they do. It is not that we don’t want to argue with religious people — we do — but that at the end of the day we want to be able to say that our differences are the differences of reasonable people rather than of one reasonable side faced with stupidity and worse on the other.
I’m sure the world’s religious are simply delighted they have Ruse on the case, fighting for their intellectual integrity. I suspect they were unaware of their need for his services. The phrasing of this paragraph is revealing. It suggests both that currently there is not a space for people who are religious and that his efforts to create one have so far been unsuccessful.
The basis for this post is Kitcher’s recent paper, “Militant Modern Atheism,” published in The Journal of Applied Philosophy. The paper deserves serious consideration, but Ruse has helpfully provided a summary. Picking up from where the last paragraph left off:
We differ in that whereas I am prepared to let people believe without much qualification in the truth of such claims as the creation, the resurrection and eternal life, Kitcher wants to restrict the grounds for such belief to the moral or ethical value that is conferred by belief in such claims. He thinks that modern science negates all of the normal truth claims of religion, whereas I think that it is possible for religion to make (potential) truth claims even given modern science. (Emphasis added).
That boldface line is highly significant. Kitcher argues, more forcefully even than RIchard Dawkins, that modern science has rendered many traditional religious claims implausible to the point of unbelievability. But since he then graciously allows the religious to take inspiration from their holy texts, even while being forced to concede their falsity as history, Ruse includes him among those trying to make space for religion.
But Kitcher, as I read him, is doing no such thing. He is basically saying that religion must simply retreat from huge swaths of territory it formerly claimed. If it is content to live on the tiny island that remains then it may continue to exist. As Ruse himself argues, quite correctly in my view, most religious folks will not be happy with Kitcher’s proposed reconciliation.
Moving on, I certainly can’t let this go by:
Why do we bother? Why not simply join up with the New Atheists (Kitcher calls them the “militant modern atheists”) and have done with it? Well, again I cannot speak for Kitcher, but I do so because I think New Atheism is somewhere socially between “not helpful” and “disastrous to the point of immorality.” We all agree that today we face what we take to be a vile set of cultural claims about the immorality of homosexuality and women’s equality and abortion and much more and that this is a set promoted by people who take a particular literalist reading of the Bible. The question is how we should fight this?
Vigorously criticizing religion is now immoral? Charming. The “not helpful” part I get, even though I do not agree. But Ruse never bothers to explain how it could be immoral. And it is precisely this sort of overheated rhetoric that makes it so difficult to take him seriously on this issue.