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The Quest For Inclusion in the Science and Religion Debate

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Neither I nor the well-known philosopher Philip Kitcher believes in the existence of God or in the claims of the major (or minor) religions. I don't know how he would describe himself, but I say I am an agnostic or skeptic. In truth, when it comes to the basic claims of Christianity and the others, I am an atheist.

Yet both Kitcher and I persist in trying to make a space for people who are religious, in the sense that we both want to accord them some kind of intellectual integrity and the justified possibility of holding to the beliefs that they do. It is not that we don't want to argue with religious people -- we do -- but that at the end of the day we want to be able to say that our differences are the differences of reasonable people rather than of one reasonable side faced with stupidity and worse on the other.

We differ in that whereas I am prepared to let people believe without much qualification in the truth of such claims as the creation, the resurrection and eternal life, Kitcher wants to restrict the grounds for such belief to the moral or ethical value that is conferred by belief in such claims. He thinks that modern science negates all of the normal truth claims of religion, whereas I think that it is possible for religion to make (potential) truth claims even given modern science.

Why do we bother? Why not simply join up with the New Atheists (Kitcher calls them the "militant modern atheists") and have done with it? Well, again I cannot speak for Kitcher, but I do so because I think New Atheism is somewhere socially between "not helpful" and "disastrous to the point of immorality." We all agree that today we face what we take to be a vile set of cultural claims about the immorality of homosexuality and women's equality and abortion and much more and that this is a set promoted by people who take a particular literalist reading of the Bible. The question is how we should fight this?

My argument is that we need all the friends we can get and that it is stupid to alienate the liberal Christians who may disagree with us about the true status of their religion but who share our cultural and social values. I do know that I speak for Kitcher in saying that neither of us could for a moment compromise what we think it is true for political ends, but if we can see a way legitimately to argue for a middle ground, we will do so even at the cost of alienating (or in my case particularly) earning the scorn of those who should be natural friends.

My last blog dealt in some detail with Philip Kitcher's stance, then explained why I don't think ultimately that it works. Kindly, he has commented on my piece, and I reproduce his words here:

I am grateful to Michael Ruse for his interest in my views, and in his conscientious attempt to present them accurately. In fact, I think his assimilation of my ideas to those of Steve Gould is likely to mislead. Gould (as I interpret him) thought religion had the right to pronounce on moral matters, a view that I, like most philosophers since Plato, reject. My thought is that religion can serve in amplifying and directing a commitment to previously accepted values: so, for example, if you are antecedently committed to relieving human suffering and to promoting equal opportunities, you may find particular parts of the Gospels inspiring. It's very important for me that an orientation begin from a commitment to values, and that these not be grounded in religious texts.

Ruse concludes that my position won't be enough for most religious people. Since most religious people do believe things I take to be almost certainly false, he is probably right about this. If you think that a supernatural being made a covenant with certain people and their descendants at Mount Sinai, or that another being who took human form was crucified, died and then came to life again, or that an angel spoke to Muhammad in the desert near Mecca, you will think that my approach to religion subtracts something crucially important. In my view, you should come to terms with the very serious arguments about the diversity of religious belief and the history of such belief, articulated from the late eighteenth century to the present, arguments that seem to me to doom the hope that any of the substantive claims about supernatural beings made by any of the world's religions is literally true. If you do that, you may be attracted by the thought that there are important human values, and that stories in religious works, whether or not they are literally true, can play an important role in focusing and supporting those values. You may end up with the agnosticism I attribute to the doctrinally indefinite. Doctrinally indefinite people hold particular values and find inspiration for their values in particular religious texts: perhaps they think we should all do far more than we normally do to relieve human suffering, and are moved by the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan. If asked what they mean when they say that Jesus rose from the dead, they reject any simple interpretation -- "He was lying there dead in the tomb, and then he woke up, and came out" -- saying instead that, although the words are highly resonant for them, they cannot provide any translation into ordinary language of what those words mean. They are in the same kind of predicament I am in when I claim that a poem I love (Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey", say) expresses something true and deep, and someone asks me to say, precisely and literally, just what that is.

Perhaps Ruse's prediction about religious believers' reactions to my approach is quite right. My aim, however, is to offer a more encompassing taxonomy of forms of the religious life, with the hope that positions which avoid false belief might become more popular.

You will note that Kitcher feels that I incorrectly linked him too closely with the thinking on these matters of the late Stephen Jay Gould. I am happy to accept the correction. You will note also that Kitcher agrees with me that he probably is not offering enough to attract most religious people. He simply doesn't feel he can do this. He reaffirms his conviction that the existence of different religions, making different claims, simply makes impossible (at least, untenable) claims that one particular religion uniquely has the truth.

This last is a very important point that he is making. I touched on it in my last blog but hardly adequately and I am reluctant now to end discussion here by raising it. Hence, in my next blog I will deal with it in detail. I am not sure I have an answer, but I do agree with Kitcher that without an answer attempts to reconcile science and religion are doomed.

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