Monday, July 18, 2011

Michael Ruse’s confusing life

I’ve criticised Ruse in the past for his accommodationism (he relentlessly pushes the idea that science and religion are somehow compatible) and because of his apparently wilful misinterpretation of arguments to the contrary.   Now he’s written a rather odd article in which he doesn’t change his mind…but seems to go almost all the way toward it, only to balk at the final fence.

There are days when, I swear to God, I am all set to enroll under the banner of Richard Dawkins and anathematize all religions and those who subscribe to them.  I take a lot of criticism from my fellow atheists, including my fellow Brainstormers, for arguing that science and religion are compatible.  I still think that, but increasingly I cannot for the life of me see why any decent human being would want to be religious, and increasingly I think one should be ashamed to be religious.

Well, some classic Ruse there.  He just can’t resist having a pop at Dawkins and it wouldn’t be Ruse if there wasn’t a blatant strawman in there somewhere.  But if he’s all set to wash his hands of accommodation, what’s stopping him?  Confusingly, he doesn’t say.  He ‘increasingly’ can’t understand why anyone would want to be religious and ‘increasingly’ thinks it’s a matter of shame.  Why?  Has he found some of his illusions stripped away by current events?  It kind of seems so and he mentions some infuriating things religion has done recently, which I’ll get to in a moment.  But he doesn’t actually say it.  It’s a shame, because that would have been an interesting and probably touching article.

Far be it for me to tell someone what article they should have written, of course, but the one he actually did write seems pretty confused.

On medical grounds—I have blood-pressure issues already—I won’t go into the views of the crop running for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race.  Nor here will I pick up in detail on the news coming out of Ireland.  A new report, the Cloyne Report, says that the Vatican was “entirely unhelpful” when it came to enforcing moral and legal practices by priests towards vulnerable children.  The bishop of the diocese, John Magee—former private secretary to no less than three popes—flagrantly ignored solid evidence that children were being abused, and he himself has admitted to an “inappropriate relationship” with a young man.

I’ve written about Magee and the Coyne report here and here. The situation is infuriating and unforgivable and Ruse seems to agree.  Good man.

Now, however, I want to turn to the Muslims, specifically in the city of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.

I won’t quote Ruse in full here because the quote would pull in half the article and you can just go and read it yourself instead.  Ruse explains that a school in Toronto runs a prayer meeting for Muslims on Fridays.  I don’t really have much of a problem with that providing it is voluntary.  And by voluntary I mean truly voluntary.  I wouldn’t want those officiating informing students’ parents if they didn’t attend prayers, for example.  But there are two severe problems with this case, one of which Ruse points out.  Women aren’t allowed to sit up front with men.  They have to sit at the back and shut up.  And menstruating women have to sit even farther back and shut up even more, segregated from everyone else.

Ruse mentions the latter and is rightly outraged by it.  Personally, I’m outraged that this practice happens at all whereas everyone else seems to be complaining that it’s happening in a school. But it’s all bad and I’m glad Ruse is incensed by it. Although I suspect he’s got it wrong:

Let me spell it out.  Girls with their periods are not sinful.  They are not sick.  They are not weak.  That anyone would think otherwise in this day and age boggles the mind.

I agree entirely, except that I don’t think the practice is about sin or sickness.  It’s about Ick.  I think there’s a culture of disgust regarding menstruation, probably because it makes sex slightly inconvenient for men for a few days every month.  The sin and the sickness is just a convenient religious veil for the feeling of Ick.  But good man anyway.

Ruse goes on in this vein and makes some perfectly good points:

But the point is not about legality or illegality.  It is not illegal to poop on your living room carpet, but decent people don’t do this.  And decent people, responsible for the welfare of children, don’t allow prejudice against girls with their periods.  They don’t, they really don’t.

Well OK, that’s a rather unfortunate remark because of the equation between pooping on your own carpet and forcing segregation on menstruating women, but I doubt Ruse meant it that way.  It was an appeal to decency and I don’t fault that.

And arguing that allowing the practice ensures that kids don’t go to the mosque and then skip school after the prayers is no answer.  If the prayers are so important, then the Muslim community should provide buses and monitoring.

I don’t know if anyone is making such an argument, but the point that the onus for making prayers work one way or another should be on the Muslim community that insists on it is a perfectly good one, which deserves to be made more widely.

So OK.  Ruse has described some bad things religion has done very recently.  This, he says, sometimes makes him feel that religion as a concept and practice should be discouraged or even railed against. He makes a strong statement along those lines:

Ultimately though, the wimps on the Toronto District School Board are not the villains, nor really are the craven-hearted politicians who are desperately afraid of losing the immigrant vote.  It is religion and religion alone that is at fault.

He’s quite right. Religion infects people and makes them do bad and stupid things.  It’s what makes school boards into wimps and makes politicians craven. It has infected Ruse, even though he’s not a believer. It has infected him so much that he can’t take that final leap and say RELIGION IS BAD! LET’S DO AWAY WITH IT!  He’s seen that religion is at fault for a whole bunch of awful things.  He’s said that he sometimes feels he wants to embrace the Gnu way. But he just can’t quite do it.

Of course there have been, and still are, many people who do good and noble things because of religion.  Read and weep about the young people in the White Rose group in Munich during the war who went to their deaths because, in the name of their Lord, they opposed Hitler publicly.  But there is such a dark side to religion.  Why do people not see this?

Why are you only just seeming to see it, Michael, after we Gnus have been badgering you about it for years?  And why hasn’t it changed your stance on the privileged position of religion which is of course the reason we’re discussing this in the first place?

As I say, I take a lot of flak for arguing that science in itself does not refute all religious beliefs. I also think that it is politically stupid to argue otherwise in a country like America where so many people are religious.

Let’s make this a mantra for New Atheism.  Let’s make it politically stupid to not argue that science and religion are incompatible.

Why should political stupid be different from just plain regular stupid?

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