The Ruse-Dennett feud

You may have heard that Michael Ruse has been caught out of school, sharing a private spat between himself and Daniel Dennett with the William Dembski. This isn’t too terribly surprising—Ruse’s reputation has been spiralling downwards rather rapidly, what with all his sucking up to the Intelligent Design crowd in recent years, and I’m half-expecting any day now to hear that he’s become a creationist. In his waning years he’ll be able to replace the legitimate respect of scientists, which he’s been working hard to flush down the sewer, with the fawning and lucrative love of creationists.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Dennett, and I don’t think I even own a copy of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea any more. While I disagree vigorously with many of his ideas about evolution, I think he comes off better in this exchange than Ruse, who spends a lot of time whining about those damned mean atheists.
Jason hits exactly the right note in responding to that, I think.

Now, I happen to share Dennett’s and Dawkins’ contemptuos attitude towards Christianity, but that’s not the part I want to comment on. Rather, I want to challenge this idea that the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.

This assertion is frequently made but it is never backed up with anything. Is it really true that the strident atheism of people like Dennett and Dawkins negatively influences the way people look at evolution? If that’s true, it certainly paints a bleak picture of many religious people. If I argued that I would be symapthetic to evolution, except that I see people like Ken Miller, John Haught and Simon Conway Morris drawing theistic conclusions from it, I don’t think Ruse would show me much respect. After all, evolution should sink or swim on the basis of the relevant evidence. If that evidence is strong, it should not matter what Dawkins or Dennett (or Haught or Miller or Morris) thinks.

Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It’s saying that those people can’t be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.

When I encounter people like Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris I say simply that they are right about the science but wrong about the metaphysical stuff. Why can’t religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

Bravo. Ruse is echoing a common tendency, the habit of trying to hide away the atheists on the side of evolution—it’s also represented by that common adjective, “strident”. You can’t be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called “strident”, “dogmatic”, and “fundamentalist” over and over again, as well as being told, in more or less these words, to sit down and shut up and quit scaring away the rubes…while every scientist who makes room in his head for a little credulity towards ancient myths is treated as a special gift to the cause of reason. It’s extraordinarily irritating. Can we get a little consistency, please?

We need more atheists speaking out—that’s how we’re going to get people used to the fact that we exist. The fact that we are content to work with the religious, while many of the religious will not reciprocate that tolerance and even some of our fellow scientists want to hide us away, is a good example of who is holding the moral high ground here, and Ruse’s condemnation is yet another reason why I don’t hold much respect for the guy.


  1. #1 scooter
    July 15, 2008

    Dennet has good points, but he reminds me of the last generation of ATHEISTS.


    That’s what happened to the last five hundred Atheist radio shows cancelled on College radio stations over the last 2 decades


  2. #2 Sven
    October 2, 2008

    I thought this was supposed to be a science blog. All I ever see is the same ranting that is broadcast on the cable’s public access channel. Pathetic.

  3. #3 Rev. BigDumbChimp, KoT, OM
    October 2, 2008

    Great comment Sven.