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    Michael Ruse on Darwin and atheism. Thinking like Jesus

    Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Darwin, 1866. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

    Today an interesting article showed up at the Huffington Post. Written by Michael Ruse, an atheist who is interesting, the piece is about Darwin and atheism. It was written in the wake of Darwin Day, which occurred this last weekend. He points out the oddity of Darwin’s near saint-like status among many atheists. In particular, he uses as a object for his lesson a photo of an atheist flag flown this last weekend in conjunction with Darwin’s birthday.

    All Alert Readers should give his article a good once-over; it’s not long. Yet because we sympathize with those who may be a tad-bit busy, we provide herewith, in an easy-to-read enumerated format, the clip-and-save message:

    1. Charles Darwin himself would be embarrassed greatly by atheist flags associated with him, especially atheist flags flown in celebration of his birthday.

    2. Darwin was never an atheist.

    3. What Darwin did was make it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist. Ruse writes, “I don’t think that showing that the argument from design doesn’t work now means that one should be an atheist. But I do think it makes it possible to be one.”

    We at psnt.net agree with Ruse — and Richard Dawkins (!) and Al Mohler (!!) — on this: Thanks to Darwin, it is possible to be an atheist and retain one’s intellectual integrity. So, although Darwin was not into atheism, he made today’s atheism possible (however, whether or not the bulk of today’s atheism is intellectually respectable is another question altogether). So from this point of view, he is an important figure for the ever-growing horde of nonbelievers.

    Which brings up a question we’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

    Is it possible to be a Christian and maintain one’s intellectual integrity?  Or, to be more precise, Is there a unique Christian species of intellectual integrity? For example, is intellectual integrity for the Christian no more than strict logical consistency? (We think not.) What about our tradition makes Christian intellectual integrity look different? In the words of the old Apple ad campaign, How should Christians “think different”?

    As a possible starting place, it is well to recall what that jolly old chap Bertrand Russell had to say about Christianity and intelligence:

    So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.

    He is right. As we have written elsewhere, intelligence is not a Christian virtue. But it is important, right? We are commanded to love God with all our minds. What does that mean? And how is love and the life of the mind connected?

    How would Jesus think?

    Just some questions to further brighten a beautiful Tuesday afternoon.

    Do with them what you will, dear Alert Readers.

    Comment Pages

    There are 6 Comments to "Michael Ruse on Darwin and atheism. Thinking like Jesus"

    • Tom Harkins says:

      Well, I am not sure whether the word “intelligence” is used in “the Gospels,” but clearly the Bible extols wisdom and seeking wisdom, as a merely cursory review of the book of Proverbs amply and easily demonstrates.

      As to whether one can be a Christian and “intellectually honest,” or the like, I admit to being amused. It is impossible to prove that the universe is created by “chance.” But atheists nonetheless believe this. Is that being “intellectually honest”?

      I think the real point behind the poke of fun is whether a belief in special creation as recorded in Genesis 1 is “refuted” by the findings of science. Of course, some who profess Christianity take an “easy out” by claiming “theistic” evolutionist status. Sort of like, it all happened by chance, as the atheists they are following say, but that God “directed” how those chance events transpired. Talk about “intellectual honesty”!

      Myself, and perhaps I have too high an opinion of my own mental facilities in this regard, which is possible, but I find that special creation is actually the most “intellectually honest” of the various “options” on the intellectual horizon. There is a lot of order, and complexity which simultaneously is harmonious in zillions of manners, not the least of which is human life and its sustenance. Sounds like a prime candidate for “intelligent design” to me. Perhaps its just my own idiosyncrasy, but I nonetheless select it as the most “intellectually honest” posture.

      Tom Harkins 02/15/2011


    • Tom,

      A couple of points: Firstly, I can’t discuss a 6,000 year-old earth with a straight face. The only argument in favor of that premise is “the bible tells me so.” which just doesn’t hold water. The book of Mormon says a lot of things too, as do uncounted other mythologies, and you dismiss them as rubbish. What’s the difference?

      Evolution happened by chance? You simply don’t understand or don’t want to understand the theory, because it might challenge your belief system. Evolution is anything but “chance”. It is the repeated selection over geologic time spans (hundreds of millions, indeed billions of years) of creatures better adapted to their own particular niche in the environment, and more fit to pass on the information in their DNA. It allows for virtually infinite variations, as seen in nature. It takes a long, long time. It doesn’t happen in 6,000 years, or in 6 days.

      If I can help you understand one thing, let it be this: attacking evolutionary theory through this “chance” argument only demonstrates ignorance. Ignorance of evolutionary theory, and indeed of the whole issue being discussed. Like Paul, I’m not going to explain again and again that evolutionary theory doesn’t invoke “chance” as it’s basis. I like to debate questions on their merits, but straw man arguments like this are a waste of my time. I have better things to do.

      Paul, this is a great topic – I think it is at the root of many people’s inner struggle between their intellect and religion. Between the pursuit of ethical behavior, lives of meaning and purpose, and a mind which is curious and bright, and seeks to understand, indeed loves the natural universe. Reconciling the bible with modern science is a tall order. One can take the position that the bible is metaphor and allegory, and maintain intellectual integrity, while simultaneously seeking deeper meaning from the bible, but as far as I’m concerned, trying to twist scientific knowledge into a literal interpretation of the bible lacks integrity, intellectual or otherwise. Are there any other bodies of bronze age knowledge that are “off-limits” to being questioned, and seen as authoritative? No. Of course not. Folks in those days had very limited knowledge of the world and how it works, much less the universe. Why on earth would we consult them on the origin of the cosmos? They firmly believed the earth was flat. They really didn’t have a clue when it comes to science and nature. Why we would consult their writings to seek knowledge of these things just defies logic and common sense. What’s next – we go back to Galen for surgical procedures?

      That’s one of many things I can appreciate about your own take on religion. You don’t attempt that. You’re a scientist by training, and your view of god doesn’t require suspending your the function of your intellect and all five senses. Religion with a little dose of reality might go a long way toward the good. Keep up the good work!



      • Paul Paul says:

        Thank you for the encouragement, Andrew. I have recently decided that, after I graduate in May, I’m going to take a year and work part-time while I get this book written. It’s banging around in my head so much, it hurts. Almost literally. It’s a long shot, and I need all the support I can get. Folks like you and comments like this one really help keep me going.



    • Tom Harkins says:

      Andrew, there are a couple of brief points I would make about your comment, given limited time. First, it is of interest to me that you seem willing to go with Paul as to “some type” of “god-ness” in or of the universe–just not the God of the Bible. Thus, are you really an atheist, or just “undecided,” or instead with Paul as to his view that God exists, but we can’t say a lot of definite things about him? I’m just trying to ascertain your position as to, in your words, “integrity, intellectual or otherwise,” with respect to what seems to be a rather nebulous position as to “God.”

      Second, your position as to my reference to “chance” I think is off the mark. “Chance,” in the evolutionary scheme of things, means “undirected.” The universe is either “guided” in how it develops, or it simply “happens to develop” in that fashion. I think you are simply saying that, look, what actually did happen, with no guidance, is that things turned out to proceed in a very organized fashion after all. They did not have to proceed that way, since there was no “guider”; they just, coincidentally and luckily for all concerned, did proceed that way. That’s still “chance” in the ultimate sense of what “caused” things to proceed in some fashion or another.

      Doubtless you are right that there is not much point to further debating the issue of whether “unguided” evolution could be the cause of so much order, organization, symbiosis, complexity, etc., to an astonishing degree of many multiples of powers of some initially very large number to begin with. You seem to think that changes of such a slow nature that in the recorded history of mankind none has ever been observed is a rational way of explaining things. Obviously I disagree. I guess we each have our own opinion about how much intellectual integrity the other party to the debate is exhibiting.

      My last point would be that people who do believe the Bible are not basing their acceptance of special creation on some view of how intelligent or learned men of a mere few thousand years ago were in comparison with the obvious sages of our day. What “conservative” Christians believe is that God REVEALED these truths to such men; not that they “figured these things out on their own” back in the “bronze age.” Your position, simply stated, is that such inspiration could not have occurred because there is no “revealing God” who could give any such revelations. That is arguing in a circle just as much as you accuse Christians who believe the Bible to have been inspired by God of doing.

      Tom Harkins 02/17/2011


    • Andrew says:

      Simply put, my take on god would agnostic tending towards atheism and maybe deism. I hold in awe and reverence life, reality, and existence itself, as opposed to some ‘super superman’ who is intimately wrapped up in each of our lives. You can describe my position on god as nebulous – I’ll take that as proof of the integrity of my position, since I have never seen god, Jesus, heaven – any of that stuff. I’m pretty sure you haven’t either, yet you claim certain knowledge of these “things unseen”. Your extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the burden of proof of your extraordinary and supernatural claims is on you. The only knowledge I claim can be demonstrated in the real world. It can be repeated by unbiased third parties with the same results. It can be shown in laboratories, under microscopes, by the fossil record – for crying out loud, it can be shown in living creatures, and in the rocks under your feet, and the stars in the sky.

      I am going to apologize for sounding patronizing here – not everyone needs to have multiple advanced degrees in the natural sciences, but frankly, it’s a little infuriating for those of us who do to be lectured about how the natural world works by people with very limited knowledge of the natural world, or science in general, quoting from bronze age texts. There, I’ve said it. You might as well pull out a bronze age map of the world and tell the guys from NASA who have mapped our whole planet in exquisite detail that they have it all wrong, because your map was inspired by god. A big piece of intellectual integrity is being able to say “I don’t know”, but again, that’s way too terrifying for some.

      If I couldn’t laugh about this, I’d cry. What’s truly disturbing is when school boards try to get this thinly disguised chicanery called ID taught in publicly funded classrooms. It’s snake oil for the 21st century. I cheer every time one of those moles gets whacked. Your concept of evolutionary theory is still confused. It is not driven by chance. It is driven by natural selection. By survival of the fittest. By the successful passing on of DNA into subsequent generations. It is purpose-driven. The purpose being survival and reproduction. Do those things successfully and move on. Fail to do those things, and become extinct, like the vast majority of species which have ever lived. You mention speciation not having occurred in “all of recorded human history”. First of all, this is completely wrong: Speciation has indeed been observed, even in mammals, (but don’t let a little reality get in the way of what you want to believe). Six instances of speciation in house mice on Madeira within the past 500 years have been the consequence of only geographic isolation, genetic drift, and chromosomal fusions. A single chromosomal fusion is the sole major genomic difference between humans and chimps, and some of these Madeiran mice have survived nine fusions in the past 500 years. Second of all, how long do you think “all of recorded human history” is? A very spotty few thousand years, that’s how long. Life has been evolving for some 3.6 billion years. That would be roughy one million times as long as all that recorded human history. If life had been around for a day, your “recorded history” is not even the blink of an eye at the end of that day. But I’m forgetting myself – some folks with no scientific knowledge or training want to believe that all of this happened by magic 6,000 years ago, and by golly, that’s what they are going to believe, all scientific evidence and common sense to the contrary.
      So no, my logic isn’t at all circular – I don’t believe in the “revelations” you refer to (young earth, special creation) for one simple reason – they are demonstrably wrong, unless that cosmic charlatan’s been playing tricks on us again.
      The bible is true because the bible says it’s true? You can’t have a better example of circular logic than that.

      I’m happy to debate the ethical, philosophical and spiritual with you or anyone else, but I’m not going to waste any more of my time talking about the “young earth” or the bible as a trove of scientific knowledge, which it is clearly not. Whatever real value the bible might have, IMHO, needs to be gleaned by an open, flexible intellect that can grasp subtleties and deeper meanings, rather than clinging desperately to a simplistic, literal interpretation which flies in the face of reality and all known experience.




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