“Awash with the intolerance of enthusiasm:” Michael Ruse Takes on the New Atheists

I don’t think I’d like to be Richard Dawkins in a dunk tank.  The provocative and prolific New Atheist, though, seems to relish his role as cultural provocateur.  Dawkins is well known for his biting and vicious jabs against faith.  One of his most famous books derides “The God Delusion.”  In 1996, Dawkins told one audience, “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”  Elsewhere, Dawkins opined, “I think there’s really something very evil about faith.”

A recent article by philosopher of science and anti-creationist Michael Ruse takes Dawkins to task for being so fanatically religious in his atheism.  Ruse argues that the virulent anti-religion of Dawkins and his followers awkwardly conceals “the enthusiasm of the true believer, and this encourages a set of unnerving attributes: intolerance, hero-worship, moral certainty and the self-righteous condemnation of unbelievers.”

Ruse himself claims to be more atheist than Dawkins, more Darwinian.  Ruse has fought tirelessly against creationism in schools and culture.  Yet he insists that Dawkins’ brand of in-your-face atheism misses the point.  Instead of condemning religion as fit only for the ignorant or insane, as Dawkins likes to do, Ruse insists, “I think my religious friends are mistaken, but I don’t think they are stupid or crazy or ill or evil simply because they are religious.”

Though Ruse claims this is not a personal issue, his feelings have clearly been hurt.  Dawkins and allies such as Jerry Coyne have made it personal.  As Ruse complains,

“I, and others of my ilk, am reviled in terms far harsher than those kept for the real opponents like the Creationists. We are labelled ‘accommodationists’ for our willingness to give religion a space not occupied by science.”    

Ruse makes a powerful argument that the “enthusiasm” of the New Atheists resembles nothing so much as religious sectarianism.  But he strangely conflates the New Atheism of Dawkins and his allies with a far broader Humanist movement.  There are certainly connections, but it does not make sense to use the two terms interchangeably.

And, as Ruse must certainly be aware, his diatribe will likely be most celebrated by the very creationists he and Dawkins both condemn.  The notion that humanism itself is a religion has long been a central strategic point of conservative religious activists.  For example, in the early 1980s, evangelical Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer condemned “humanism” as a set of ideas that placed humanity at the center of all things, and made humans the “measure of all things.” Fundamentalist school activists Mel and Norma Gabler similarly denounced humanism as “a religion with an anti-biblical, anti-God bent.”  And as blockbuster fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye insisted in his 1983 book The Battle for the Public Schools:

“Don’t be deceived into thinking that humanism is merely a philosophy.  That is a masquerade humanists have utilized for over three centuries to deceive millions in the Western world.  And don’t be duped into thinking that because religious people believe in God, those who do not believe in God are not religious.”(pg. 75).

My hunch is that Ruse would not relish the intellectual company.  All the more since such arguments about the essential religiosity of humanism have long been at the core of conservative strategies to transform public schooling.  Most famously in the 1980s case Mozert v. Hawkins County, religious conservatives had initial strategic success portraying humanism as a religion.

If humanism counts as religion, the argument went, then public schools have no Constitutional business promoting it.  Textbooks with an evolutionary perspective, books that promote a notion of material origins of humanity, schoolbooks that teach the primary importance of human reason, such things smack of government instruction in the religion of humanism.

Strange bedfellows.

As Professor Ruse notes in his essay, his anti-creationist credentials are impeccable.  Yet just as sectarian disputes among religious folks have provided some of the most profound and influential arguments against religion in general, so the clash between these atheistic Darwinists will likely provide the very best reasons to include more creationist-friendly ideas in public schools.



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