Professor Michael Ruse is probably the lightest-hearted atheist I’ve had the privilege to meet. Less anguished than a Christopher Hitchens (‘God is not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything’) and less angry than a Richard Dawkins (‘The God Delusion’), Ruse comes across as a cheeky, self-confident, intelligent and life-affirming grandfather figure—a delightful combination of qualities. A strong advocate of Darwinian evolution, he is but a gentle critic of religion and indeed has a lot of time for Christians: “Very decent, caring human beings”, he says. Far from Darwin’s bulldog, he’s more like Darwin’s lapdog, happily acknowledging the strokes and attentions of religious types rather than barking and trying to bite their arms off.
Ruse is baffled by the unwillingness of a Richard Dawkins-style atheist to admit that Christians often have interesting arguments and legitimate evidence for the views they hold. Ruse himself freely acknowledges that Christianity has brought more good than harm into the world. He’s not a Christian himself, but he dislikes the dismissive and belittling tone of attack used by some of his atheistic colleagues. “Christians have got some grown up responses to these sorts of things,” says Ruse.
We interviewed him in the CPX studio during his visit to Sydney where he had just spoken on the future of Darwinism as part of the University of Sydney’s Ideas Lecture Series. His first comment when he arrived in our North Sydney office was, “This isn’t a Christian organization—I can’t see any nylon shirts!”
Fashion sense aside, Ruse is willing to give Christian thought a chance to defend itself, and has carefully examined the history of Christian theology and philosophy. He grew up as a Quaker but his Christian beliefs “faded away’, just like his love of “stamp-collecting and baked beans”. I guess that’s not the most philosophically acute critique of Christianity, but more tellingly he identifies his view of God with a bitter Presbyterian school Headmaster. He describes himself (in Thomas Huxley’s words) as “deeply religious in the absence of theology”.
Ruse freely acknowledges that Christianity has brought more good than harm into the world
Ruse’s main interest, which he has explored in careful and entertaining books such as Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? and his latest, Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, is the compatibility or otherwise of the Christian worldview with scientific discoveries. He disagrees with Dawkins, happily acknowledging that there is a valid Christian viewpoint which holds together belief in a Creator God with an understanding of evolutionary processes. Whereas Dawkins seems to think that Christians ‘fudge’ this, Ruse has described Darwinism as “the bastard child of Christianity”, obsessed with stories of origins, of human nature and of moral purpose. “Darwinism is a challenge to the Christian, but not necessarily a refutation,” he says. “It’s something the Christian must use to come to a more articulated faith”.
“Science asks one sort of question; religion asks another sort of question”, says Ruse. So what does science do with the central claim of Christianity, the one that arises every Easter: the death of Jesus for the sins of the world and his reported return from the grave? Does Ruse’s science preclude him from accepting this claim?
“I’m a non-believer, not because of science, but I guess because I just don’t have faith,” says Ruse in the publicchristianity.org interviews. “I just don’t have that inner conviction. My whole being isn’t flooded with the belief that Jesus died for my sins.”
Darwinism is a challenge to the Christian but not necessarily a refutation
Ruse finds it personally difficult to reconcile belief in a good God with the suffering and evil he sees in the world, but he acknowledges that Christians genuinely struggle with this issue. “I do find the problem of evil a very strong one, but I can well imagine saying ‘Nevertheless, I know that my Redeemer liveth and perhaps ultimately it is all a mystery’. I don’t think that’s a stupid position to take.”
With that admission, Ruse brings the question of belief into focus. Very few people seem to become atheists because of science. Some do—famously Richard Dawkins, for whom Darwin provided, in the theory of evolution, a satisfying way in which to explain the world without reference to God. But Ruse suspects Dawkins was driven by the desire to find just such an explanation—it is the inner, personal struggle that leads the quest.
Ruse’s forthcoming book, he told me, is about “making room for faith in an age of science”, a welcome reprieve from the Christian-bashing of recent years, and in my view an approach more likely to win friends not only in the churches but also in most science faculties and laboratories.
This article first appeared on ABC online opinion on Thursday April 9, 2009.
Dr Greg Clarke is co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University.