Philosopher Michael Ruse has an article in the current issue of the academic journal Zygon. It is called, “Why I Am an Accommodationist and Proud Of It.” In it, he proposes to defend the notion that science and religion are simply independent of one another, and therefore cannot really be in conflict.
The article is not freely available online, but I will transcribe a few bits as we go. It is nothing that Ruse hasn’t been saying for years, however. The paper goes on for fourteen pages, but it is ultimately nothing more than God of the gaps stuff. There are certain questions that science cannot answer, so religion has room to insert answers of its own. Done! There’s really nothing more to his argument than that.
After identifying four questions that he says science cannot answer: (1) Why is there something rather than nothing? (2) What are the foundations of morality? (3) What is the nature of consciousness? (4) What is the purpose of it all?, Ruse goes on to write:
There is no great secret about what I am going to say next. I did not choose my four questions deliberately with the next move in mind. But obviously, as I was choosing them, I realized what the next move would be. The questions are questions that go right to the heart of the Christian religion. They do not cover all of the religion, obviously. They say nothing about the Trinity. But they do ask about matters central to the life and thought of the believer. And moreover, thanks to Christianity, they are questions to which the believer thinks that he or she has the answer. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God, a being who exists necessarily, created heaven and earth as an act of divine goodness. For no other reason, nor is other reason needed. What are the foundations of morality? They are grounded in the will of God. They are that which He had decreed we should do. What is the nature of mind? Being created in the image of God. What is the point of it all? That we should enjoy eternal life with God, our Father.
I think there is a lot to be said against Ruse’s answers, even if we grant Christian theologians a place at the table. But I think there is a more fundamental problem with what Ruse is suggesting. After this paragraph, Ruse writes:
Some general and specific points of qualification are needed. What the Christian cannot do is offer quasi-scientific answers. It is one thing to say that God created freely out of love. That is not a scientific answer. It is another thing to identify the Creation with the Big Bang or some such thing, as one of the popes did in the middle of the last century. That is a scientific answer and illicit. If there is something behind the Big Bang in the temporal sense, it is not God. Apart from anything else, He is outside time and space. The same goes for other answers. One is not solving the mind-body problem in a way that the cognitive scientist qua cognitive scientist would find acceptable. One is offering a different kind of answer entirely.
I wonder, though, how many Christians will be satisfied with this. It is way too facile to say that Christians are offering different kinds of answers from scientists. There is one very important sense in which the answers Ruse puts into the mouths of Christians are, indeed, of a scientific character. The Christian intends his answers to be taken as true statements about the world. Truths, mind you, that you ignore at your peril.
Ruse explicitly endorses Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria,” which is to say that science and religion are just independent of each other. But Gould’s book was savaged by almost everyone who reviewed it, and not just by, or even primarily by, atheists. Many Christian critics objected mightily to the idea that religion’s only role is to lurk in the shadows, dining on whatever scraps remain after science has held forth on the factual reality of the physical world. They do not want independence. They want mutual reinforcement.
Ruse condescendingly grants to Christianity the right to make assertions about things that science cannot definitively resolve. But does Ruse think Christians can have any basis for confidence in the correctness of those assertions? There are distinctively religious ways of knowing, such as the testimony of scriptures and divine revelation. Does Ruse grant any authority at all to these ways of knowing? When Christians make their assertions, is there any reason for non-Christians to pay attention? Or, in Ruse’s view, should Christians just be talking to each other?
Ruse grants to Christians the right to hold forth on the foundations of morality. But how does he react when Christians take the obvious next step, and apply their particular ideas on morality to issues of public policy? When a Christian says that his understanding of God’s will is that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, does Ruse think that argument should be taken seriously and treated politely? Or does he think instead that’s a lousy approach to morality? I’m sure its the latter, but what, then, of his invitation to Christians to hold forth on the foundations of morality?
What this really comes down to is that Ruse, like Gould before him, is mostly contemptuous of religious belief. He is respectful of religious people I am sure, as am I, but when it comes to the epistemic status of religious claims he is barely to the right of Richard Dawkins. I’m sure he would deny this charge, but it is no less true for that. As an abstract, philosophical question, he sees places where Christians can hold forth without fear of being directly contradicted by science. But as soon as Christians want more than this, when they want to argue that their religion provides factual insights into the world that are not available through other methods of investigation, Ruse will be scarcely more polite than any of the New Atheists.
There is more to Ruse’s essay than I have described. He goes on at some length about the importance of metaphor in science, and that science is committed for some reason to the metaphor of the world as a machine, and that under this metaphor certain questions are impermissible. I’m sure that sort of thing played well among the audience that heard these remarks (the paper is based on a talk Ruse gave at a science/religion conference), but, leaving aside the many dubious claims he makes, none of it strengthens his argument at all. There are certain questions science cannot definitively answer. Fine. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to appreciate that. The issue is whether, when science fails to answer a question, there is something else that does answer it.
I do want to point to his final paragraph, however:
And so, I draw to the end of what I want to say. I shall not be terribly upset (and certainly not surprised) if you do not agree with me in whole or in part. All I ask of you is to appreciate the need for some kind of position as I am advocating–or to provide an argument as to why we don’t need the kind of position I am advocating. I ask you if you don’t like my solution, to provide one in its stead. And to do as I have tried to do–use basic philosophy and history of science, and don’t get seduced into tender-minded thinking. It is not needed and it never really works.
Let me just say that I am all in favor of Ruse’s solution. I would be fine with a system in which Christians agree not to hold forth on the factual reality of the physical world, and to yield to science on all such questions. And I would be fine with a system where they simply talk to each other about what they believe, but don’t then insist that their religion provides special insights that are relevant to public policy. I don’t think the primary pushback against Ruse’s view will be coming from atheists. Rather, I suspect the main hostility will come from Christians, who will think, properly, that Ruse is not really being very accommodating at all.