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Fighting the Fundamentalists: Chamberlain or Churchill?


Michael Ruse

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 31.2, March / April 2007

We who think that biblical literalism has no place in science classrooms should be standing together and fighting ignorance and prejudice.
Why then do those of us against creationism live in a house divided?

The science and religion debate in America has seen its fair share of controversy, much of it bitter. From the moment that Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, Americans have debated evolution, its place and role and significance, especially with respect to Christianity. Almost immediately, two leading Harvard professors, Louis Agassiz, the transplanted Swiss ichthyologist then building the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Asa Gray, the diminutive professor of botany, clashed over the truth of evolution. Although both appealed to scientific facts, it was clear that religious issues were close to the surface. A decade later the leading American Presbyterian theologian, Princeton Seminary professor Charles Hodge, wrote a little book titled: What is Darwinism? He answered the question himself: It is Atheism!

Before long, especially in the South and (as the country expanded) in the West, evolution was taken to be the equivalent of godlessness. The great evangelist Dwight Moody—the Billy Graham of his day—lectured on the four great evils of the age: ignoring the Sabbath, Sunday newspapers, the theater, and evolution (including atheism). As is well known, this hostility between evolution and Christianity continued into the twentieth century, most famously in 1925 in Dayton Tennessee, when the young schoolteacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for teaching that humans and apes share a common ancestor. Prosecuted by the Great Commoner, three-times presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and defended by noted freethinker Clarence Darrow, Scopes was found guilty (although the verdict was overturned on appeal) and the whole of America was riveted by the spectacle.

Many think that after the Scopes trial, Christian anti-evolutionism—such people took the Bible literally and were often known as Fundamentalists—sank with little trace. This is not true. After World War II, religiously based anti-evolutionism started to rise and gain in strength. This was in no small part because of the publication in 1961 of Genesis Flood. Coauthored by Biblical scholar John Whitcomb and hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris, this work presented a definitive defense of a young Earth as well as a miraculous origin for the whole of life. A strong defense of Noah’s Flood was also prominent, being a key part of the authors’ “premillennial dispensationalism.” This is a theology committed to periods of time ended by violent events, the first of which ended with the Deluge and the last anticipated in the near future ending with Armageddon, and the thousand-year rule of Jesus before the Final Judgment.

Now called creationism (often scientific creationism, to emphasize the scientific credentials and hence the appropriateness of introducing the ideas into science classrooms) things came to a head in Arkansas in 1981. A law mandating the teaching of creation science had been passed by the legislature, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought suit claiming that it violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The law was declared unconstitutional. It seemed that now finally the anti-evolutionary forces were conquered. This was far from so! In 1991, Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson published Darwin on Trial, another anti-evolutionary work, claiming now that the chief sin was a commitment to naturalism, and the fight started all over again. Revitalized, the new Christian evangelical cry was that an intelligent designer must have been responsible for the irreducible complexity of the living world. Supporters of the position—notably Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, and mathematician-cum-philosopher William Dembski, author of The Design Inference—gathered much support and publicity for their claims. Another court case arose in 2005, this time in Dover, Pennsylvania, with no more success than the Arkansas case. Again, it would be very foolish to think we have heard the end of the matter. George W. Bush, an ardent evangelical Christian, is sympathetic to the thinking, and has already started to load the Supreme Court with people who think that the separation of church and state has gone too far.

Our time therefore is still one when those of us who think that Biblical literalism has no place in the science classrooms of the nation should be standing together and fighting ignorance and prejudice, if only on pragmatic grounds. The big threat today to America’s status is the rapidly growing economies of the East, such as China and India. Of course, one welcomes this—better by far that the rest of the world share the prosperity of the West than that it look enviously from outside. But the aim must to be to bring them up rather than us down. No greater foolishness could happen than the castration of modern science in the name of evangelical Christianity. Science secondary education in America is in bad enough shape as it is, and there is no reason to make it worse. Furthermore, scientific discoveries are among the greatest achievements of the human spirit and intellect. We owe it to our young people to share this with them, giving them the training to go on to even greater triumphs.

Yet at the moment, those of us against creationism live in a house divided. One group is made up of the ardent, complete atheists. They want no truck with the enemy, which they are inclined to define as any person of religious inclination—from literalist (like a Southern Baptist) to deist (like a Unitarian)—and they think that anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish, wrong, and immoral. Prominent members of this group include Richard Dawkins, the biologist and popular science writer; Daniel Dennett, the philosopher and also a successful popular pundit; and Jerry Coyne, the leading evolutionist. The second group is made of two subgroups. One has as members liberal Christians who think that evolution is God’s way of creating. This subgroup contains the Catholic theologian John Haught, the Anglican physicist John Polkinghorne, and the late Pope John Paul II. The second subgroup contains those who have no religious belief but who think that one should collaborate with liberal Christians against a shared enemy, and who are inclined to think that science and religion are compatible. Members include Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, the late Stephen Jay Gould, paleontologist and popular science writer, and me. (From now on, rather than drag others into the fight, I will speak only for myself.)

The rhetoric is strong and nasty. I have accused Dennett of being a bully and someone who is pig ignorant of the issues. He has told me that I stand in danger (perhaps over the point of danger) of losing the respect of those whose respect I should crave. He and Harvard linguist Steven Pinker wrote a letter to The New York Times, after a review of one of my books, regretting that something like this might receive favorable attention. Dawkins has gone even further; in his new, best-selling book, The God Delusion, Dawkins likens me to Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who tried to appease Adolf Hitler. Dawkins introduces a new norm for journalists, begging them to interview others and get the real truth if they had previously spoken to me.

Without praising or excusing myself, I can say that I have been in the trenches for a long time. I first debated biblical literalists back in 1977. One opponent was the above-mentioned Henry M. Morris. He was joined by his associate Duane T. Gish, author of Evolution: The Fossils Say No! with then more than 150,000 copies sold, according to its cover. The site was an indoor sports arena at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the audience, at least 3,000, had been brought in from all over the local area and neighboring states. Before the debate, at least ten people in the stands believed in evolution, and, after the debate, at most ten of them believed in evolution. I was judged to have lost.

Undaunted, I have kept up the fight—first against these older young-Earth creationists (believing in that 6,000-year span since Adam and Eve), and later against the more sophisticated intelligent design theorists, those who argue that something (or rather Something) must have intervened to cause the irreducible complexity of organisms. Alongside such luminaries as Stephen Jay Gould, I appeared as a witness for the ACLU in the Arkansas case, testifying against a creationist law that the legislature was imposing on the children of the state. I have appeared many times on radio and television, usually debating creationists and arguing that they are not just wrong but that their position is in no way scientific. And I have produced more words than any reasonable person might be expected to read, let alone write.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I am not universally loved by all of those who do battle in today’s fight in America between science and religion. It is true that the creationists have not been slow to criticize. Henry Morris, who died in 2006, accused me personally of being responsible—through my Darwinian materialism—of America’s altogether-too-slack attitude toward capital punishment. Would that this were true! But the ones who really are after me are my fellow Darwinians. In a way this is odd. For the record, I am absolutely committed to the belief that science is our highest form of knowledge. I believe that Darwinian evolutionary theory is true in all basic respects, and that it applies to humankind. I have even been recently quoted (correctly) in The New York Times as saying that I believe that ethics is “an illusion of the genes to make us good social animals.” And I have no religious faith at all. You could call me an atheist, although I prefer skeptic, for I simply have no answers to the ultimate questions.

I am on the outs with the militant atheist group because I do not see that committing oneself to science necessarily implies that one thinks that all of religion is false, and that those who worship a supreme being are in some respects at one with the fanatics who flew planes into the World Trade Center. Of course, I think some religious beliefs are wrong and dangerous. That is why I fight creationists. But overall, I don’t think someone is silly or immoral if he or she is a practicing Christian or Jew or Muslim or whatever. Although I don’t think you have to be a believer to be good, I fully accept that many believers are good because of their beliefs. Moreover, I think it is both politically and morally right to work with believers to combat ills, including creationism.

The Dawkins-Dennett school allows no compromise. Religion is false. Religion is dangerous. Religion must be fought in every way. There can be no working with the enemy. Those like me who work with religious people are like the appeasers before the Nazis. This was the message thumped out again and again at a recent meeting of true believers in San Diego, widely reported in the major newspapers [see George Johnson’s report, “A Free-for-All on Science and Religion,” page 24]. With some few exceptions (notably the anthropologist Melvin J. Konner) the word was that the right approach to religion in American life is unremitting hostility and attack. Only that way will the truth prevail. Sir Harry Kroto, a Nobel Prize winning colleague at my own university of Florida State, begged the John Templeton Foundation to give to Richard Dawkins its annual prize for advances in religion!

My response is in part pragmatic. The creationists and the ID supporters simply love Dawkins and his ilk. They pray that they will say more and more. Every time the atheists open their mouths they win converts to the literalist cause. The creationists have been saying all along that Darwinism equals atheism, and now the Darwinians apparently agree! Americans in the middle—meaning, generally, religious Americans in the middle—get the message that science, and Darwinism particularly, threatens their faith. Dembski once wrote to Dawkins: “I know that you personally don’t believe in God, but I want to thank you for being such a wonderful foil for theism and for intelligent design more generally. In fact, I regularly tell my colleagues that you and your work are one of God’s greatest gifts to the intelligent design movement. So please, keep at it!”

But pragmatic factors are not my real gripe. If I thought Dawkins and company were right, I would defend them one hundred percent and let the chips fall where they may. My real problem is one of scholarship, put simply, which is I guess what you would expect of a university professor like myself. I would be a lot more impressed with the ardent atheists if I felt that they were making a genuine effort to engage in dialog with those whom they criticize. I do not necessarily mean actual physical dialog, but at the least an intense study of the claims of those against whom they fulminate. Take, for instance, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and his critiques of the various arguments for the existence of God. Why does he not acknowledge that few if any Christians have ever claimed that the proofs are the true reason for the belief in God? John Henry Newman, the great nineteenth-century English theologian, first an Anglican (Episcopalian) and then a Roman Catholic, spoke for many. About his seminal philosophical work, A Grammar of Assent, he wrote, “I have not insisted on the argument from design, because I am writing for the nineteenth century, by which, as represented by its philosophers, design is not admitted as proved. And to tell the truth, though I should not wish to preach on the subject, for forty years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” (This is from a letter written in 1872.) He continued, “Design teaches me power, skill and goodness—not sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion.”

The proofs are at best a backup for an already-received commitment. More than this, the proofs are a lot more subtle than these critics recognize. Take the cosmological argument, for example. From at least the time of Saint Augustine, around 400 a.d., theologians have been wrestling with the sense in which God can be said to be both necessary and eternal. Saint Augustine had a very sophisticated theory that entailed God being outside time—that is why Augustine would not have found the idea of evolution threatening, because for his God the thought of creation, the act of creation, and the product of creation are as one. Augustine explicitly claimed that God created seeds of life that then unfurled. The point is that for Augustine—and even more for Aquinas (1225—1274)—God is a stopping point in the chain of causation. The argument was that things have a cause and we must have some cause of the world in which we live. An infinite causal chain is no solution. Hence, there must be such a being that breaks the chain, namely the eternal God.

You may not like this argument and want to challenge it. I think I would. But I don’t find it stupid, and I do find it worthy of careful study. I want to dig into what the notion of necessary existence might mean and whether in this day of modern physics it makes sense to talk of things being outside time. (Of course it makes sense to talk of things outside time; 2+2=4 is outside time. It never became true and will never become false. The question is whether this sort of thinking can be transferred to God.) My point is simply that if you are going to consider religion the chief cause of the world’s ills, then you owe it to yourself and to others to take seriously the claims of religion, and this I do not think is done. I fear that emotion rules rationality, the very sin of which the critics accuse the religious! In other words, I start to suspect that these people are in their way are tarred with the same features of which they accuse the creationists. There is a dogmatism, a refusal to listen to others, a contempt for nonbelievers, a feeling that they alone have the truth, that is the mark of so many of the cults and sects that have sprung on American soil since the nation’s founding.

Blind religious conviction is a terrible threat in American society today. What we need is reason and cool thinking. Science is the highest form, even if not necessarily the only form. But let us not mistake science for scientism, the belief that science and science alone has all of the answers. Let us not think that those suspicious or rejecting of scientism are wrong, verging on immoral. And let us not say that those who are prepared to work with people who think that science does not have all of the answers are therefore akin to wimps groveling before Hitler. Indeed, to push the analogy, I would say rather that we are Churchillian rather than Chamberlain-like. When Hitler attacked Russia, England and America gave aid to Stalin. It was not that they particularly liked Stalin or his system, but they worked on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Fundamentalism, creationism, intelligent design theory—these are the real threats. Please God—or non-God—let us quit fighting among ourselves and get on with the real job that faces us.

Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Department of Philosophy, at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. His most recent book is Darwinism and Its Discontents (Cambridge University Press, 2006).