I am sorry to do yet another post about Michael Ruse, but I do feel the need to reply to his latest. Partly I feel compelled to reply because of this remark:
In the case of people like me, those who endorse the independence option, our fellow nonbelievers are scornful to an extent equaled only by their comments about Pope Benedict. We are labeled “accommodationists” or “appeasers,” and reviled. Just earlier this week I got flak for suggesting that perhaps St. Augustine on original sin was not the last word on the subject and that a more evolutionary friendly interpretation can be found in the second-century thinker Irenaeus of Lyon.
As proof that he did, indeed, get flak, he linked to this post by Jerry Coyne.
As it happens, though, Coyne’s post was actually just a link, with excerpts, to my post of a few days ago. I think it would have been classier for Ruse to have linked to me directly.
I object to the characterization that what I wrote constituted “giving flak.” I merely responded to Ruse’s argument, and was not personally insulting at all. The worst thing I accused him of was making weak arguments. To judge from the amount of time he spends complaining about how put upon he is, I am beginning to think he has a very thin skin.
Still, that by itself would not be sufficient provocation for me to reply. But there was also the fact that Ruse was responding to this essay by David Barash. The essay was arguing, quite sensibly, that the idea of treating science and religion as entirely separate domains of inquiry that cannot conflict (known as NOMA in the biz) is unworkable in practice. He is right about that, but also wrote nuggets like this:
But the reality–at least in my not-so-humble opinion–is that anyone who claims to espouse both science and religion is being intellectually dishonest or else lazy, and is necessarily short-changing one perspective or the other.
Ruse uses this statement as a jumping off point for his post. As it happens, I think Barash went overboard here. Charges of intellectual dishonesty should not be leveled lightly. When I read someone like Ken Miller, for example, I fail to see how he is shortchanging either science or religion. When he talks about evolution he sounds much like Richard Dawkins. When he talks about his faith it is clear that he is not describing some watered-down version of the real thing. Personally I don’t think his religious beliefs are very plausible, but surely that’s a matter of opinion. Disagreements should not automatically lead to charges of dishonesty.
But even that would not have been enough to get me to reply. Instead, the part I really wanted to address was this:
So my question (and it is a genuine one, to which I don’t have an answer) to David Barash is this. Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion–pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept–is false. Is it then constitutional to teach science?
The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution separates science and religion. (Don’t get into arguments about wording. That is how it has been interpreted.) You cannot legally teach religion in state schools, at least not in biology and other science classes. That was the issue in Arkansas and Dover. (I am not talking about current affairs or like courses.) But now ask yourself. If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?
Ruse has been peddling this argument for quite some time. It is odd that he does so, because in other venues he writes things like this:
For myself, I simply cannot get around the problem of evil. My god died with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen.
Does he now think it is unconstitutional to teach about the holocaust? Can teachers no longer assign The Diary of Anne Frank as a required reading?
From the other side, on several occasions I have had creationists tell me that the unlikely victory of the colonial forces over the mighty British army during the American Revolution was clear evidence that the United States is a nation uniquely blessed by God. Can I now sue to get the American Revolution removed from history curricula?
The first problem with Ruse’s argument is the word “implies.” So far as I know, nobody is claiming that evolution implies that Christianity is false, if we are using that word in the way it is used in logic. Certainly Barash made no such claim in his post. What many of us do claim is that it is very difficult to reconcile evolution and Christianity, to the point where a reasonable person should not accept both. But that, you see, is a matter of opinion. Many disagree. Different people draw different metaphysical conclusions from evolution, just as they do from the holocaust or the American Revolution. In each case the conclusions go beyond the facts of the matter themselves.
Here’s another reason Ruse is the wrong one to make this argument. You see, he also writes things like this (from the same essay as before):
Of course, no one thinks that it is possible to hold every belief that someone has held in the name of religion also in the name of modern science. You cannot believe in a worldwide flood and in plate tectonics.
We should note that, as it happens, creationists do generally accept both plate tectonics and a worldwide flood. Their theory is that the motion of the continents is the result of the violent upheaval caused by the flood. So this was a poor choice of example. But we can take his point. There is certainly a flat-out contradiction between modern science and basic tenets of creationist faith. But Ruse does not think this renders it unconstitutional to teach modern geology.
In his own reply to Ruse, Jerry Coyne provides further examples of commonly taught ideas that conflict with the religious views of some. In a comment to this post, Gregory Meyer points out that precisely the issue Ruse raises has actually been litigated:
Fortunately, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on this issue in 1980 in Crowley v. Smithsonian. Crowley claimed that evolution exhibits at the Smithsonian amounted to an establishment of religion (a religion Crowley didn’t like). The Court rejected Crowley’s complaint, finding that that the balance between freedom of religion and learning
…was long ago struck in favor of diffusion of knowledge based on responsible scientific foundations, and against special constitutional protection of religious believers from the competition generated by such knowledge diffusion.
Though not, of course, the Supreme Court, a court of influential jurisdiction has thus already considered Ruse’s point, and found it wanting.
It is obvious that the standard cannot be that it is unconstitutional to teach anything that conflicts with anyone’s religious beliefs. That would render public education impossible, since anyone could then form a religion of one to object to any particular bit of the curriculum. That is why the actual standard is currently the Lemon Test, which puts forth three prongs for determining if a state action violates the Establishment Clause.
The first prong is that there must be a legitimate, secular purpose to the action. The secular purpose for teaching evolution is obvious. The state has an interest in promoting the scientific literacy of its people. The various attempts to include creationism in the curriculum plainly run afoul of this prong, as several courts have ruled.
The second prong is that the primary effect of the action must not be to promote religion. Again, evolution passes easily. The primary purpose is to teach the best current science, not to promote any particular religious view. Once again, courts have consistently (and rightly) found that teaching creationism is all about promoting a particular religious view.
The third prong, that the action not represent an excessive government entanglement with religion, has always been a bit mysterious to me. I’m not actually sure what it means. I know there’s a body of case law that is supposed to help interpret it, but I’ll leave that to the lawyers.
Creationism and ID are not scientific ideas from which some people draw pro-religion conclusions. They are religion through and through. They take for granted that God exists (in the case of ID) and certain tenets of the Bible (in the case of creationism). So far no court has been fooled by the denials of this fact by those advocating against evolution. Evolution, by contrast, is a scientific idea from which many people draw anti-religion conclusions, and many others draw pro-religion conclusions. This is the clear difference between the two, and it is not at all weakened by anything Barash, Coyne or anyone else is actually claiming.
Ruse closes his post with this
I should add that when I raised this worry with Eugenie Scott, her response was that I am just plain “dumb.”
I find it unlikely that Genie actually said that. More likely is that she described Ruse’s idea as just plain dumb, which it is.