Michael Ruse, an Atheist, on Why He Hasn’t Signed Up with the New Atheists (or Confidence Atheists)

Daniel Dennett. PZ Myers. Richard Dawkins. Jerry Coyne. Philosopher Michael Ruse is an atheist too. But don’t sign him up with the above confidence atheists.

Why? Here’s one reason that he gave in a recent essay in the UK’s Guardian:

[H]ow dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief.

And for sensibly counseling against intellectual hubris, what has Michael Ruse received for his pains? Well, here’s how Ruse characterizes the confidence atheists’ response to him:

Richard Dawkins has likened me to the pusillanimous appeaser at Munich, Neville Chamberlain. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, says (echoing Orwell) that only someone with pretensions to the intelligentsia could believe the silly things I believe. And energetic blogger PZ Myers refers to me as a “clueless gobshite” because I confessed to seeing why true believers might find the Kentucky Creationist Museum convincing. I will spare you what my fellow philosopher Dan Dennett has to say about me.

I like to hear, in the teeth of opposition, an intellectual of Michael Ruse’s stature holding up for a more modest atheism. It strikes me that Ruse is advocating for a pre-9/11 atheism, a sobered atheism that harkens back to Albert Camus and the grim realities of existence that atheists grappled with during and after WWII. Religion had not poisoned and fucked up the 20th century public sphere—it was secular ideologies that had done that—and an atheism sobered by this fact was, in my view, a saner atheism than contemporary confidence atheism. Camus, sounding for all the world like Michael Ruse today, once said to a gathering of Dominican Friars (in 1948):

I wish to declare also that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it.

If atheism is as compelling a philosophical position as Dennett & Co. believe it to be, then there really is no need to over sell it, for it will sell itself. The very fact that Dennett & Co. don’t trust atheism to sell itself tells you something about what must be going on beneath the surface of its most aggressive proponents. The evangelical atheist (who I imagine must be repressing a great deal in the psyche to be so confident of so many uncertain things) reminds me of the evangelical religious apologist. The broken wheel usually squeaks loudest, and against obnoxious resistance, Michael Ruse should continue to speak his modest Socratic truth: confidence atheism is intellect divorced from wisdom and humility. In not mixing the intellect with Socratic caution, the New Atheism is folly’s exhibit “A” (just as religious fundamentalism is folly’s exhibit “F”). Put in mythic terms, the New Atheists are rehearsing hubris; they are Oedipus and Jocasta before they crash. And so with Tiny Tim, and as an agnostic, I say to all those who provide pushback against the New Atheists, and try to recall to the world a saner Camus-style atheism, “God bless them!” (If there is a god.)

And Ruse even looks a bit like a character out of a Dickens novel:

And here’s William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher, making observations similar to Ruse:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Michael Ruse, an Atheist, on Why He Hasn’t Signed Up with the New Atheists (or Confidence Atheists)

  1. Jared K says:

    Michael Ruse is the atheist you want to have a beer with. He was here in Oklahoma a few months ago debating Dembski (I guess the two of them are friends?). While he was friendly to Dembski and to religious folks during the debate, he also gave good arguments against ID and did not soften his opinion.

    And he is very, very funny.

    He’s a good writer too. I forget the exact title, but he has a book on the question “Can a Christian be a Darwinian?” Ruse answers “yes.” He finds no reason why evolution and Christianity are contradictory.

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