Annals of Condescension

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.


  1. #1 Anton Mates
    November 30, 2010

    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?

    Here’s another question: is Ruse completely unaware of the people who don’t take a particular literalist reading of the Bible but are homophobic, chauvinist and anti-abortion? Such as, for instance, that guy in the Vatican?

    I mean, there are tons of liberal Christians with praiseworthy social/political viewpoints, and I’m all for giving them props, but it’s absurd to act like the inerrantist Protestants are the only significant contingent trying to drag us back to the Middle Ages.

  2. #2 Phillip IV
    November 30, 2010

    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.

    I think that’s the major logical fallacy here – whether somebody’s positions are intellectually integer is objectively determinable and has nothing to do with what you want to accord them or not. The vast majority of American Christians (with exception at both extreme ends of the spectrum) espouse beliefs that are simply and objectively intellectually inconsistent and internally contradictory. No amount of wanting to accord them intellectual integrity affects that fact.

    So it’s really just another argument about tone – for ‘want to accord intellectual integrity’ read ‘not want to point out intellectual inconsistencies clearly and directly’.

  3. #3 Divalent
    November 30, 2010

    “But Ruse never bothers to explain how it could be immoral.”

    The implication is that NA tactics not only don’t work (“not helpful”), but actually hinder efforts by others that otherwise would work (and that NAs know this). Thus (according to Ruse) it is immoral because NA know that they are perpetuating the harms by participating in the discussion.

    All this presumes that 1) the New Atheist tactics are not effective, 2) the Old Atheist tactics are effective, but that 3) the OA tactics are only effective if the NA would just STFU.

  4. #4 KeithB
    November 30, 2010

    Man, Ruse’s article is pretty much a concern troll, isn’t it?

    (BTW, Jason, did you see the article in the Panda’s Thumb about the “Four Gods” book? Looks to be right up your alley.)

  5. #5 Jim Harrison
    November 30, 2010

    The hoi polloi of both the religious and atheistical persuasions desire simplicity above all else. That’s one of the advantages of their Manichean view of cultural politics: it gets the explanatory principles down to two. I don’t see how you can get very far without complicating things a little bit more,though. It seems to me that the fight between the believers and nonbelievers is cross cut by a split between the rational and educated minority on the one hand and the intellectual proletariat on the other. To the outsider, a philosophically inclined Christian sounds and acts a lot more like a skeptical philosopher than either one resembles the angry sectarians and atheists.

    This comment is not a criticism of the strategy of the New Atheists, incidentally. If the object of the game is to win over majorities, emotional appeals, programmatic ignorance, and crude narratives have always been the way to go. Popular religiosity has very little to do with reason or knowledge and cannot be combated by valid arguments and certainly not by promoting a defensible account of human history and society. One hunts possums with a club. Of course some of us might wonder why you’re so interested in clubbing possums.

  6. #6 Craig
    November 30, 2010


    It is my opinion that most people miss the point. From an evolutionary perspective the value of organized religion is that it acts as a structure that holds our complex level of society together… the intellectual value of the belief is irrelevant. While I agree that our current religions are antiquated, I would argue that the only reason they still remain relevant is because no one has offered a structure that is better at keeping a complex society together… a structure that addresses all the aspects of the human condition and consciousness, not just logic.

    If we are to truly understand our evolution, then we must see belief and religion as a trait that has been successful. And if we study evolution, then we will see that no successful trait simply ends or goes away… they evolve, modify and adapt. So, for me, the question is not how do we stop people’s belief in things that are not logical, but how do we adapt or modify that belief to be in greater alignment with logic… thus, in turn, enabling people to build a better, more effective societal structure.

    In evolutionary terms, logic by itself has not proven itself to be as successfully as belief has.

    Have fun,

  7. #7 Craig
    November 30, 2010

    Hello again,

    I don’t mean to be a bother, but my brain wouldn’t stop… if we applied the principle of Dialectical Materialism to the issue of God and faith, we could consider the thesis being “God” and the antithesis as “No God”. Leaving this as it is will end up in perpetual stalemate. To move forward we must choose to synthesize.

    For what it is worth, my opinion is that the best way to move forward is to treat the idea of God in the same way we treat the idea of Infinity. Whether a person considers the idea to reflect a reality is irrelevant to it’s purpose and best left to the preferences of the individual. The real value of the idea of God is exactly the same as Infinity, with the only difference being that God is the symbol of infinite possibility that gives alignment to the complex formulas and processes of consciousness and civil society. If we accepted this idea, then we could move past the redundant and rhetorical arguments of whose dad is stronger and begin to structure a perspective of self and society by more logical and modern understanding… that may or may not include or build upon old religious mythology.

    Now, hopefully my mind will stop ruminating. <;P Have a good day C:)

  8. #8 KeithB
    November 30, 2010

    This is great philosophy, now try to get James Dobson, William Lane Craig and Phillip Johnson (just to pick three names at random) to go along with it.

  9. #9 James Sweet
    November 30, 2010

    . From an evolutionary perspective the value of organized religion is that it acts as a structure that holds our complex level of society together

    [citation needed]

    Many people have theorized along these lines, but the proof is far from conclusive. And even if one did show that religion had a “social evolutionary” role in the past, that has nothing to do with the present or the future.

    And if we study evolution, then we will see that no successful trait simply ends or goes away…

    Ahem. If “we” see that, “we” have not studied evolution sufficiently. See also, genetic drift, pleiotropy, etc.

    One of the many (untested) evolutionary theories of religion is that the penchant for belief is a “free rider” on some other adaptive trait, i.e. there was some genetic mutation that had multiple pleiotropic effects, one or more of which were beneficial, and one or more of which just happened to enable religious belief to take hold.

    Note that I am not asserting this is what happened — it has as much evidence for it as your assertion that religion is adaptive, i.e. none beyond a baseline plausibility. But in any case, if “we” have a sufficient understanding of evolutionary biology, “we” will see that this sort of thing happens all the time. The gene pool is not some infinitely malleable continuous substance that will be pushed by the magic hand of natural selection to some optimum; instead it is a digital medium, with only small changes in the recipe allowed at any given time, and not all traits can be cleanly “selected for” without any other side effects. Moreover, some potential alleles are difficult to reach or even unreachable, because there is no path of incremental mutations that allows a monotonically adapative or at least never-much-worse-than-neutral path from the current gene pool to the desired state.

    Given that, effects such as pleiotropy, etc., can easily result in suboptimal alleles becoming fixed in the population. Just because a particular trait is dominant does not mean it is adaptive!

    But you would be forgiven for this misunderstanding because (thanks largely to religion) the state of education in evolutionary biology is pretty abysmal, at least in the US, and increasingly so in the UK.

  10. #10 Kevin
    November 30, 2010

    Let’s see — on the one hand, we’re told that the religious tenets should be opposed because they lead to the oppression of women, send science back into the dark ages, and condemn about 10% of the population to discrimination, emotional and physical abuse, and even death death for nothing more than their personal sexual preference…(list truncated).

    And then we’re told we’re not allowed to point this out?

    Pardon me? Who’s being immoral here?

    Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he’s right with God.

  11. #11 James Sweet
    November 30, 2010

    Sorry for the scare quotes on “we”, I just realized my post probably came across as condescending. That was rude. I see you are proposing your ideas in good faith, and it is not fair that I did not respond in good faith. My apologies for that.

    I do think the substance of my criticisms — that the idea that religion as an adapative trait is just one of many currently-untested possibilities, and that some of your assumptions about what the theory of evolution has to say about how certain traits become fixed in the population are mistaken — is sound. But I didn’t need to be so snarky in making them.

  12. #12 kosmodisk
    November 30, 2010

    Moreover, some potential alleles are difficult to reach or even unreachable, because there is no path of incremental mutations that allows a monotonically adapative or at least never-much-worse-than-neutral path from the current gene pool to the desired state.

  13. #13 KeithB
    November 30, 2010

    Even if we find some manner of religion is “wired in”, it just proves that the “God-Shaped Vacuum” exists.

  14. #14 KeithB
    November 30, 2010

    Yeah, James, I think you have him confused with hubert on Ed’s blog. 8^)

  15. #15 david
    November 30, 2010

    I knew a girl, call her Lonnie, who was a beautiful girl when young, she’s now older, three children, and she still looks good. Lonnie is a foot-washing Baptist. That’s a specific denomination. She goes to a little church on a hill, same one her parents and siblings went to, and all her close friends. She’s got on her facebook page that for activities she enjoys being conservative, and she puts these Christian mantras, such as “Keep CHRIST in CHRISTmas … Who’s with me?, Let’s see how many true Christians are on FB! Press Like if Jesus is your Savior!!, Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning the Devil says, “oh crap she’s up!”, Let’s join forces as Christians and start a Jesus Christ revival! Press like if Jesus is your Savior!!!”
    Now I knew Lonnie as a sweet, kind, intelligent, and tolerant person, nothing like that stuff. What happened?

    Whatever it was, neither side of the argument as presently made, not candid, nor framing, can touch her, and probably won’t her children nor theirs. So leave her alone with that stuff, useless.

    What would touch her? My opinion: She wants to be a “good person” and to her she sees a way. She does not want to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and be responsible for it like we told the Germans they were responsible for Hitler. Whatever happens she wants to be a good person. She is not a true believer. She says she is, but that’s for saying. Probably the more intense the saying the less true believer. On that the churchers are hypocrites. So trying to get them to unbelieve something they already don’t believe is impossible; really they understand you to mean they should say something different. But then, by their lights they would not be a “good person.” Bible, they hardly read it. Theology, they could care less. They want to be, or at least thought to be, a good person.

    If I am right, and looks right to me, then the two choices argued of accommodation or confrontation are far too simple, both, to touch Lonnie and her family and friends.

    One of the problems we have in discussions on SciBlogs is that people will argue who have never persuaded nobody of nothing no time except through authority—suddenly science becomes a misunderstood authority! but it never was such in a real experiment, and even when completed can be modified and challenged. And as you see with Lonnie the arguers are so far off from arguing about the right things that might persuade her, they just as well shut up.

    Now as our blogger points out—must have been married or near— niceness and politeness are not the sole ways of showing love and affection and respect– honest confrontation is not condescending and can express that you value the other person. We can love a good argument. I do. So where’s the persuasion? It’s in listening and taking Lonnie seriously. But watch out, she might then convert you. Are you afraid? Some are. I would hope you are up to it.

    For those of you without your coffee, Lonnie is generic. If you did, thank you for taking the time to read this rant of my mind.

  16. #16 AL
    December 1, 2010

    To be fair, Ruse didn’t say the New Atheists are immoral. He said they were somewhere between not helpful and disastrous to the point of immorality.

    In other words, the New Atheists are disastrous, but just short of immorally so.

  17. #17 Craig
    December 1, 2010

    Thanks Keith,… but I feel no need to make everyone agree with me. That would be like Cro-Magnons trying to force Neanderthals to move south. I figure that, as far as beliefs go, the population falls along a bell shaped curve. Appealing to the middle third is good enough, and I would happy to let the extremists on either side pound their fists and stomp their feet.

  18. #18 yogi-one
    December 1, 2010

    I see the whole movement from religion to science as an expression of evolution. The tooth fairy is a good game for a three year old, which can later be transformed into an understanding of how teeth really grow, and why the baby teeth fall out, and, if the person is still interested, what happens to teeth after they have fallen out.

    When humanity was young, the earth was a huge, unfathomable, endless unexplored wilderness. Weather and climate seemed completely beyond our control. There was no way to know where life came from, the exact mechanism by which sunlight can become energy for life, and so on.

    At that time, a common mythology or set of stories could help organize and unify a tribe of people. And politically, whoever was seen as being the keeper of the tribe’s stories could rise to the top of society (brahmins and priests).

    In small hunter-gatherer bands these roles were not so specialized, and tended to lump together. The best hunter/warrior would also be seen as the wiseman, and he would be the chief of the band.

    After agriculture and the advent of towns and cities, specialization broke up these roles. Arguably, we are now so specialized that people charged with keeping the knowledge of how things work (scientists) are completely divorced from the spiritual leaders, who themselves are becoming more and more separated from the politically powerful.

    This complexity is part of our civilization’s maturing. The evolutionary perspective says we no longer need to believe what Bronze Age tribes believed. We have greater knowledge, better technologies to uncover the secrets of our existence and the universe we live in.

    We have totally reversed the perspective of early human hunter-gatherer clans; now the earth is seen as small and fragile, the problem is exactly that we have ‘conquered’ everything, and in keeping with our traditions of conquering, we destroy much of what we find in the conquering process. This is called ‘victory’ (which, it strikes me, is another mythology we would do well to grow out of, but that’s for another post).

    If what the New Atheists are doing is pointing out that we don’t need the Tooth Fairy, or that Santa Claus is a myth, you can hardly blame them. Maybe a few of them take on the tone of yelling it in other people’s faces, but that’s humanity for you. Sometimes we try to make people think what we want them to by yelling, name-calling, etc.

    Sometimes we just end their lives on the pretext that people who don’t agree with us need to be put to death. Arguably, religion has used that technique far too much, historically speaking.

    There’s probably more civil ways for atheists and believers to engage, its true.

    It’s also true that as humans evolve their societies, they most often don’t take the easy, logical, or civilly polite paths. They bang heads against changing realities, and bang each others heads, and there’s usually a lot of chest thumping and screeching accompanying the whole process.

    And as society has gotten complex and specialized, there are whole swaths of entrenched classes of people who are challenged by big changes, and they go through the stages of denial and fighting against changes that eventually will overtake them anyway.

    Atheists are simply saying that we don’t need to project a sky daddy or an imaginary friend anymore. Those things are great for small children, and they were perhaps right for humanity in its infancy.

    But now we need to replace the stories with understanding of how reality actually works.

    People who love Santa Claus don’t want to hear that.

    But eventually, every adult comes to have a completely different understanding of Santa Claus than a 4-year old. Even the most ardent Santa devotees.

    Society is definitely changing in the direction of becoming more reality based. You can see this by the evolving definition of God among believers. The God that atheists love to attack – the big sky daddy, is actually not the god of most believers. As society evolves, the definition of god has become more abstract, less anthropomorphic, and seen more as a causitive force powering the growth of the universe. Very few Christians today believe that some old white guy sits in the clouds who totally obsesses over whether Bronze Age Jewish tribes will defeat Bronze Age Philistines some 3000 years ago.

    It isn’t always going to be a nice conversation over tea. I prefer the civil progression myself, but I just don’t see the civil discussion as being at the center of this evolution from religious stories to science-based exploration. There’ll will be head-banging, chest-thumping, political maneuvering, propagandizing and all the rest.

    That’s how we have always weathered big changes in our society.

  19. #19 Mike Haubrich
    December 4, 2010

    @15, david:

    Your rant is important to read, not because of “Lonnie” in particular, but because you raise the point, whether intentional or no, that there is no “one way” to communicate to the religious nor to society in general. If there is some sort of struggle between science and religion, then it is poorly defined and so poorly defined that Ruse cannot possibly have any sort of blueprint for how the war can be won.

    His condescension is that the New Atheists just don’t know enough theology to effectively demonstrate that science works in a way that even the religious people can accept (if we just hide the implications of a consciousness that is entirely dependent on the brain, hide the implications on religion of a planet that is going to survive another 5 billion years and not end in apocalypse, if we hide the implications that evolution is not teleological, etc.)

    He “knows” because he has studied philosophy, he “knows” because he has had many a discussion with religious intellectuals. He knows that reason works where emotion fails, because we see how it works in politics.

    There are many ways to gain acceptance for science. Ruse may have his way, but it will come nowhere close to the sort of foot-washing baptist you describe. So, when I read rants by Ruse about how “You’re not helping,” I want to know more specifically “Not helping what?

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