February 2, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Ruse Gives Dennett Poor Grade on “Evolution of Religion” Book

Daniel Dennett is one of those Darwinists not shy about getting in the face of religious people, particularly Christians.  Philosopher and pro-Darwinist historian Michael Ruse, on the other hand, has spent enough time around theologically-inclined people to give them a more sympathetic hearing.  Ruse has regularly appeared on panels and in debates with leaders of the intelligent design movement,1 and appears to have softened his stance somewhat against the anti-Darwinists, ID leaders and religious people in general since his staunch anticreationist testimony in the 1981 Arkansas “Balanced Treatment” trial that was a major influence on Judge Overton ruling that creationism was inherently religious.  It was interesting to see what Michael Ruse would say, therefore, in a review of Daniel Dennett’s new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking/Allen Lane, 2006), which appeared in Nature this week.2
    Dennett’s assumption is that religion has evolved by natural selection just like everything else and therefore has no validity when it talks about God, truth, or the natural world.  Ruse is concerned that a book like this is not particularly helpful in a country so polarized between blue states and red states (which, he alleges, is as much a religious divide as a political one).

It is against this background that we should read Breaking the Spell by the US philosopher Daniel Dennett, a notorious non-believer.  You would not expect this book to bring comfort to Christians, and it certainly does not.  So little impressed is Dennett by religion’s claims to truth that he does not even bother to produce new material.  He simply quotes at length from earlier writings.  He is nevertheless trying to move the discussion forward, following in the tradition of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume and providing a natural history of religion.  Dennett aims to give an account of how and why religion appeared, and how and why it has the hold it has today.  As you might expect, given that he is an ardent darwinian, for Dennett religion and its origins are ultimately a matter of biological fitness to survive and conquer.   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Though Ruse agrees that religion is a product of evolution, one can sense him distancing himself from Dennett’s brashness and not wishing to be pictured as a “notorious” non-believer.  This perception is reinforced in the rest of the review.
    “In the United States today there is a need for a good book on religion,” he says, but later answers, “Dennett’s is not the book for which we search.”  Ruse sympathizes with Dennett’s portrayal of the commercialized mega-church movement as “farcical” except that such churches are filled with people with political clout on moral issues like abortion, homosexual attitudes, capital punishment and the war against terror.  Merely ridiculing these people is not going to help critics.  “If we do not like what the churches are feeding people, we had better come up with an attractive alternative,” he says.  Apparently this means Dennett’s book is not attractive.
    Ruse expressed both philosophical and historical problems with the book.  Dennett treats religion as a “delusion” that is all “smoke and mirrors” and therefore “a rationally justified belief system” it is not.  “However,” Ruse continues, “a naturalistic analysis of religion in itself has no direct bearing on the truth of religious claims.”  By that he means they must be dealt with, not merely dismissed, or they can run you over.  “My eyes are the end products of a long process of natural selection,” he illustrates, exhibiting his own darwinian belief for the sake of argument: “Does that make any less real the truck I see bearing down on me as I stand in the middle of the road?”
    Ruse also complains about historical flaws in Dennett’s presentation, and inserts a suggestion of an empirical difficulty in the naturalistic story for religion:

Most problematic is Dennett’s blind spot regarding history.  There is no real account of the way religion has developed and of how we have ended up where we are today.  Another major weakness is the exclusive focus on the United States, which is a peculiar country where religion plays a huge role, far bigger than in most of Europe.  This difference is reflected in many diverse ways, particularly in the social values mentioned above.  You cannot begin to talk about biological bases for religion‘genes for God’ and that sort of thing – without taking account of the fact that peoples of very similar biological background behave in very different ways about religion and its implications.  Only history – the fact that the United States was founded by people with major religious concerns, and that this has persisted for four centuries – can help us to tease apart the cultural and the biological.

Though Ruse agrees with Dennett that non-believers can report “properly” on religion, he ends by advocating more empathy than Dennett displayed in the book.  Ruse ends with his own version of “friendship evangelism” –

Unless you have some sense of what fires people up, you are never going to reach them or have any hope of shifting their beliefs.  The debate over religion in the United States is intense and profoundly affects the status of science.  I hardly have to remind Nature readers of the battle to introduce ‘intelligent design’ into biology classrooms.  But we need better books than this to address the issues.


1Michael Ruse has had friendly sparring matches against Phillip Johnson on TV, for instance, and will be appearing on a panel Feb. 23 against Paul Nelson at Missouri Western.
2Michael Ruse, “A natural history of religion,” Nature, 439, 535 (2 February 2006) | doi:10.1038/439535a.

Michael Ruse seems to be walking a tightrope between not offending his Darwin Party colleagues too much and yet not inviting valid criticisms from his newfound Christian friends like Paul Nelson and Phillip Johnson.  He knows for one thing that they are not using intelligent design as a religious argument, and he also knows that they are not delusional morons in a hall of mirrors but smart, rational, knowledgeable people.  He has experienced up close the kind of beliefs that fire them up and knows it is more than just crass commercialism or “genes for god” that they have and scientists do not.
    As a historian and philosopher, Ruse also knows that the materialistic answer is not so well defined or easily defended.  J. P. Moreland has said that Ruse took a pounding from fellow philosophers of science after testifying at the Arkansas trial that there were clearly-defined demarcation criteria between science and pseudoscience, when he knew better.  Ruse knows of esteemed philosophers who deny that creationism can be so neatly pigeonholed as religion.  He knows that science cannot speak definitively on matters of history.  Though he still accepts materialism, he understands that David Hume was not the last word on the subject.
    It’s hard to demonize people you have had lunch with.  We applaud Michael Ruse for spending quality time with ID leaders rather than just regurgitating the epithets of his fellow mad-dog Darwinists.  He probably had to include enough pro-Darwin cheering to get his review past the Nature censors, but appears to genuinely want the Dennettses and Dawkinses of the party to tone down their rhetoric and listen for a change.  We encourage Ruse to promote empathy, and hope he will proceed beyond it to understanding – maybe, after enough pondering of his own brain, even to enlightenment.

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