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Should Atheists Reach Out to Christians?

Expectedly, my argument last week that the randomness of Darwinian evolution poses a major but not necessarily insuperable problem for the Christian has brought down on my head the wrath and contempt of the New Atheists. (The junior ones at least. The senior ones, like Aristotle’s unmoved movers, are so busy contemplating their own perfection, that they have no thoughts for chaps like me.)

Loveable, predictable Jerry Coyne is “baffled” by my constantly trying to find ways of reconciling science and religion. He thinks it a “waste of good philosophical brainpower.” (I note the adjective. Thanks for the compliment!) In exasperation he declares: “If you seek a theological solution to a scientific dilemma, then you’re not reconciling science with faith—you’re distorting science to comport it with faith.” And he exhorts me to stop catering to “unfounded superstition.”

Helpfully, Coyne does not only quote at length one (“Pianiste”) who commented here on my piece – “Ruse is being a bit disingenuous about this ‘accommodation’ business” – but directs the reader to another website, run I believe by a former Anglican priest.

Michael Ruse is tiresome, at least when it comes to talking about religion. Like Terry Eagleton, he seems to have a gene for silly religious thinking. In the end, you wonder whether they really mean it when they say they don’t really believe, or are they hedging their bets and cramming for the finals?

There is more in the same vein, and – oh my goodness – when you get to the comments! At least I am not alone in being thus excoriated:

I never associate reasonable thought with Aquinas or Augustine – I’ve always thought of them as utterly vile and revolting people with defective brains. If you read any of their claimed proofs of anything any sensible person cannot help but wonder what the hell they’ve been smoking.

This is from “Madscientist.” Well said!

And as always, there are jokes about my name. I daily thank God that I was not called Badcock or Shufflebottom or Smelly. (As it happens, my name is not the same word as the English word. I pronounce it to rhyme with goose, rather than – as “ruse” meaning “trick” – with ooze.)

There is a serious issue here, however, and Coyne does put his finger on it.

Presumably there are good reasons why Ruse rejects Christianity, so why, instead of convincing Christians why he has rejected God, does he try to help them find Jesus despite the ineluctable and contrary facts of science?

Well of course part of the reason is that I don’t think that the facts of science make Christianity necessarily false. I have written about that at length, for example in Can a Darwinian be a Christian? and Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science – so I won’t repeat those arguments here.

But my critics are right in thinking that my writing does have a political component. It is not, contrary to widespread belief, in the hope that I might win the Templeton Prize. They are never going to give it to a non-believer like me. Nor is it because I am secretly a Christian. I left my childhood Quaker faith at about the age of 20 and have never been attracted back. I have what I call a “gentle agnosticism” and I find that in my 70s that suits me just fine. And it is certainly not because I approve of everything that Christians do. I have spent four decades fighting Creationism and – on Brainstorm particularly – have made clear my detestation of much of the social and organizational side to religion. Don’t get me going on the Catholic hierarchy and the cover up of the sexual abuse of children.

This said, I live in a country – a country of which a couple of years ago Lizzie and I voluntarily and with joy became citizens – where at least half of the people are genuine, believing, practicing Christians – and with others sympathetic or as committed to other faiths like Judaism. My neighbors go to church on Sundays and believe that Jesus died for their salvation. So did the teachers of my kids and many of the folk that we interact with every day. Lizzie’s closest friend is the youth coordinator at First Presbyterian and I am co-teaching a course this fall with one of my good friends, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

I don’t believe what they believe and they know that and most of them respect it. Nevertheless we want to get along as neighbors and as parents and as teachers and as friends. I don’t want – they don’t want – differences to lead to hatred and suspicion and working against rather than with.

The great tragedy in America today is that we do have these uncompromising differences. Look at politics and at the damage that the Tea Party has done, not only to the country but to its own party. There is massive unemployment. Economists know full well what needs to be done. Remember the New Deal? But we are paralyzed because of the ideological rigidity of people in power.

I see major similarities between the Tea Party and the New Atheists. There is a moral absolutism about both movements. It scares me. Always I think of Cromwell and the Church of Scotland. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Perhaps it is not so much a question of being mistaken, but of realizing and recognizing that others do not share your views, and that while you have the right – and the obligation – to oppose them, you must live with them.

And if I – a non-believer – can show the world that it is possible to be both a Darwinian and a Christian, that is all of the political motivation I want.

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