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Following his debate with John Lennox on The Big Conversation, Prof Michael Ruse explains why he’s not a New Atheist, but not a Christian either.
I am a non-believer. If you asked me about Christian beliefs specifically (a creator God, Jesus as redeemer, resurrection, eternal life etc) I am an atheist. However, the New Atheists cannot stand me.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, likened me to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser at Munich, and advised any reporter to check with others after they have interviewed me. Reviewing my book Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Jerry Coyne employed the Orwellian phrase that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I believe. And the blogger PZ Myers has charmingly described me as a ‘clueless gobshite’.
Alas, friendless in this world and the next. And yet, surprisingly perhaps, I am a rather jolly fellow who finds life very enjoyable and truly satisfying. Am I deluded?
I was born in 1940 and raised, very intensely, as a Quaker. Above all this filled me with a need to serve others (I am not a university teacher by chance) and an almost mystical sense of the Godhead – which, you will learn in the final paragraph of this article, explains much.
However, my faith faded around the age of twenty. I was no Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus in reverse. I sometimes joke that having had one headmaster in this life, I’m damned (pun intended) if I’m going to have another in the next. But I would hate to think that one rather bullying man would have such a lifelong effect. Like a childhood passion for baked beans and stamp collecting, it simply faded away. I did take up girls, however, which somewhat compensated.
Nevertheless, it turned out that my non-existent God wasn’t going to let me go quite that easily!
I am a fanatic about the Victorians. I read and reread the novels of Charles Dickens. At the age of nineteen, I remember standing on Parliament Hill Fields and looking down in amazement at St Pancras Railway Station, the most glorious nineteenth-century building in London. So, it was natural that, as I developed into a historian and philosopher of science, Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution through natural selection would be my main focus as a scholar. And this meant engaging with the science and religion question, in spades!
So, where have I landed up after fifty years in the business?
Science and Religion don’t need to conflict
I do think that science and religion can conflict. Noah’s Flood cannot be literally true as a worldwide deluge some five thousand years ago. But, I take this to be quite unproblematic for the thinking Christian.
The story is true in the essential sense. I see it as a warning against simplistic solutions. People are misbehaving, so God wipes them out, except for Noah and family. And what happens? When they get back to dry land, the old man gets blind drunk and his kid sees him naked and laughs. Sounds like quite a party!
The point is: Sin is still around and we learn that the theological picture of a God wiping the map clean and starting again is going to evolve.
However, overall, I agree with Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are working in different dimensions. ‘Non overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA) as Gould called them. Where I differ from Gould is in his thinking that science talks about things existing (ontology) whereas religion speaks only to morality (ethics).
Religion too makes ontological claims – God exists, for a start. But I add an extra line to the argument. Science is also deeply metaphorical – work, attraction, selection, selfish genes. Modern science is governed by what linguists call the “root metaphor” of a machine. Mechanism. The world is seen as a soulless, functioning entity, going on and on, governed by universal, unbreakable, mechanical laws.
The key point about metaphor (as pointed out by Thomas Kuhn who likened his paradigms to metaphors) is that they declare certain questions off-limits or irrelevant. “My love is a red, red rose”, means that she is beautiful and fresh - perhaps, jokingly, a bit prickly. But the metaphor tells us nothing about whether she is good at mathematics or a Protestant – both genuine ontological issues.
The same goes for the machine metaphor. It turns science into an instructional cook book… ‘First take your hare’. It’s useful because it’s functional and doesn’t press into the metaphysical questions that undergird it. If you are asking about a river, you want to know where the water comes from, but ultimately you take the water molecules themselves as a given. If I’m working on drainage, I don’t need a lecture in quantum mechanics. Likewise with consciousness, many scientists want to treat the phenomenon as the inevitable output of a complex machine. But, I’m with Leibniz. Machines don’t think. Sentience is something else.
Science can’t answer all questions
I take these as genuine questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? What is sentience, that a machine can indeed think? Science doesn’t answer them. It is open for others to try. That means religion. And it does offer answers. I believe Christianity offers serious answers to serious questions. Which is what gets me into so much trouble with some of my atheist brethren.
The answers may be along these lines: There is something rather than nothing because a good God created things. There is sentience because we humans are made in the image of God. It doesn’t mean that these answers cannot be questioned, but they must be questioned on philosophical or theological grounds, not scientifically.
So why not God for me? Most importantly, I say that religious belief – and Christian religious belief in particular – relies first and foremost on revelation. Faith and not reason. In fact this was a major point of contention when I discussed these issues with my Christian protagonist Prof John Lennox in our live audience edition of The Big Conversation.
Lennox was keen to present a case for faith that was evidential and not just revelatory. But (if you’ll allow an atheist to have an opinion on it) I don’t think that’s the way Christians should approach faith.
Certainly Christendom has a long history of elevating reason in the form of ‘natural theology’ – a strategy adopted during the Elizabethan Settlement of the 16th Century as a middle way between the authority of Rome and the sola scriptura of Geneva.
Reason vs revelation
But I think this approach is flawed. And it’s not just me – theologians such as Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th Century and Karl Barth in the 20th Century, both questioned the project of natural theology. Even Jesus himself seemed to have something to say about it:
“Then saith he to Thomas, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing’.
“And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God’. Jesus saith unto him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’.”(John 20: 27-29 KJV, emphasis mine)
All the great theologians have endorsed this at one level or another. Aquinas thought that reason has its uses. “For certain things that are true about God wholly surpass the capability of human reason, for instance that God is three and one: while there are certain things to which even natural reason can attain, for instance that God is, that God is one, and others like these.” Note however that reason is limited (we could be wrong), and in the end faith (where we cannot be wrong) is top dog.
Ultimately, without faith you only get part of the story and Aquinas makes clear that faith trumps all – after all, how else could the ignorant or stupid or lazy get knowledge of God? John Paul II, in his Encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) affirmed this position strongly. “The results of reasoning may in fact be true, but these results acquire their true meaning only if they are set within the larger horizon of faith: “All man's steps are ordered by the Lord: how then can man understand his own ways?” (Prov 20:24).”
So reason alone won’t get us to belief in God. It requires revelation. And I have simply not had such a revelation. Listen to the late eminent British philosopher of religion John Hick. As a late teenager, he was resisting the call. Then it happened:
“An experience of this kind which I cannot forget, even though it happened forty-two years ago , occurred —of all places— on the top deck of a bus in the middle of the city of Hull.... As everyone will be very conscious who can themselves remember such a moment, all descriptions are inadequate. But it was as though the skies opened up and light poured down and filled me with a sense of overflowing joy, in response to an immense transcendent goodness and love.”
But it has never happened to me.
My objections to Christianity
So, then the question becomes: should I regard myself as a blind man without a necessary sense? Here I think we can bring reason to play. Three things for me are definitive. First, the problem of evil. I have heard all the theodicies going, but I find them untenable. Second the problem of different faiths. “No man comes to the Father save he comes through me” (John 10:9). But this seems so unfair to so many. Are sincere Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others excluded? What do you do about Buddhists (moral and spiritual people if any are) but who do not accept a Creator God?
Third, I think Christianity incoherent because it is an incompatible fusion of Athens and Rome. On the one hand, God is outside time and space. On the other hand, God is a person. No can do. Beings outside time and space don’t have emotions, as the great theologians knew. Thus Anselm: “For when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling” (Anselm 1903, 13). Thus Aquinas: “To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others does not belong to God” (Aquinas 1952, I, 21, 3). But I want no part of a God who feels no compassion for Anne Frank or no sorrow at the sufferings of those made martyrs under Hitler, such as Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhöffer.
Of course, if I had faith I would accept that I simply don’t know the whole story. “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But I don’t have faith and can hence use reason to explain why I don’t think I am missing out.
My objections to New Atheism
So why then am I not a New Atheist? Partly it is aesthetic. They are so vulgar.
Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. To take one example, the Ontological Argument for God was first devised by Anselm and refurbished by Descartes. Roughly, it runs thus: God is by definition that than which none greater can be thought. Does He exist? Suppose He doesn’t. Then there is a greater who does exist. Contradiction! Hence, God exists.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins dismisses this longstanding and much debated philosophical argument with a few sneering paragraphs. His critique is on a par with someone arguing against Dawkins’ own body of work by saying that selfish genes cannot exist because genes cannot be selfish (and with about as much understanding or sensitivity). But hardly any serious theologian or philosopher thinks the Ontological Argument is valid in the way I have just described it. It has been reframed and reworked. Every serious theologian and philosopher knows that the argument leads us into important and sophisticated questions about the nature of existence. Does the notion of necessary existence – which must surely be true of God if he exists – even make sense? And so forth. To arrogantly dismiss the argument is bad scholarship and, worse still, bad taste. Ironically, I get on better with many of my Christian interlocutors than I do with many atheists.
Not closing the door on the God question
Yet I remain an atheist about Christianity. Does that mean that I think life is absurd? From an eternity of dreamless sleep and returning to an eternity of dreamless sleep? As a wag once said, “an eternity of dreamless sleep doesn’t sound too bad, so long as you don’t have to make endless trips to the bathroom!”
Actually, I think my deeply-forged Quaker mysticism kicks in here. Life is wonderful, life is mysterious… and I just don’t know. My position is not a cop-out, trying to sneak in God at the end. Cross my heart and hope to die (I will certainly get that wish)… I just don’t know. I am with J.B.S. Haldane who said: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”.
So there may be something more. There may not. But don’t spend your life agonising about it or letting people manipulate you with false promises. Life here and now can be fun and rewarding, deeply meaningful. David Hume, overwhelmed by the skeptical nature of his philosophical inquiries, took a break to play backgammon. He dined, he conversed, he was “merry with my friends”. This is also my philosophy of life. A nice cup of tea, or perhaps a single malt, and a chat. With my beloved graduate students and my Cairn Terrier Scruffy McGruff, joining in the conversation!
My practical philosophy is to live for the real present, not a hoped-for future. Leave it at that. Stop worrying yourself to death about the Great Headmaster in the Sky. The poet George Meredith had it right.
“For that life is dear,
The lust after life
Clings to it fast.
For the sake of life,
For that life is fair,
The lover of life
Flings it broadcast.
The lover of life knows his labour divine,
And therein is at peace.
The lust after life craves a touch and a sign
That the life shall increase.
The lust after life in the chills of its lust
Claims a passport of death.
The lover of life sees the flame in our dust
And a gift in our breath.”
Michael Ruse is Professor of Philosophy of Science at Florida State University
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.