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Michael Ruse, the Charming Darwinian Atheist

Unlike the reptilian Dawkins, sinister Dennett, or smug Coyne, Michael Ruse is a prominent Darwinian atheist by whom it’s hard not to feel charmed. I have never met him but his column in the Guardian could only be written by someone who is by nature very nice, very naïve, or probably both.
Ruse considers the question of what impact belief in Darwinism should be expected to have on morality, and he answers with an “on the one, on the other hand.” Since God is dead (and Darwin killed him), there can be no objective moral ideas. Moses received nothing on Sinai. Yet, not to worry! This realization will not lead to bad behavior since our genes, inscribed by natural selection, create within us a feeling, however illusory, that moral standards really are objective. Knowing that they are subjective does not dispel the impulse to be good. We feel compelled to obey ethical dictates. God’s demise is therefore not a “significant finding”:

Now you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman [raping Sabine women]? Well, nothing in an objective sense. But you are still a human with your gene-based psychology working flat out to make you think you should be moral. It has been said that the truth will set you free. Don’t believe it. David Hume knew the score. It doesn’t matter how much philosophical reflection can show that your beliefs and behavior have no rational foundation, your psychology will make sure you go on living in a normal, happy manner.

Of course a Darwin apologist would have to assert something along these lines. The project of defending Darwinism mandates it. What else is one going to say: “Darwinism is both true and a spreading social poison. Get used to it”? There is no constituency for that message. Various Darwinians have offered their own miscellaneous theories as to why evolutionary belief poses no threat to decency. Robert Wright, who likewise comes across as a pleasant person, has written several upbeat books contributing his own thoughts on the subject.

Why do I mention that Ruse and Wright (whom I also don’t know personally) give off vibes suggesting decency? Because making the case they do — that we needn’t disturb our night’s rest fretting about the non-existence of objective religion-based morals as traditionally understood — is a lot easier if by nature you’re a nice person.
In fact, we know that some people have an easier time being good, while others feel tormented by their evil impulses on various fronts. The Talmud tells a relevant story. The sage Abaye observed an unmarried man and woman heading off across a lonely meadow together, apparently seeking privacy for a tryst. To keep them from sinning, the rabbi followed after the pair for some miles, only to observe them parting at the end with a friendly farewell. Abaye leaned his head and wept, knowing that in such a situation he himself would not have resisted the temptation. He was comforted when an old man found him and explained, “The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination” (Sukkah 52b).
Perhaps an old person with a lifetime’s experience behind him would likelier grasp the point. There is a spectrum of struggle. Some people do not have to work very hard to be kind, fair, and honest. Others have to work very hard and are subject to frequent internal battles and screw-ups.
For the former, whether an intelligent being designed life and accordingly provided a tradition describing transcendent standards of right and wrong — that might truly make no practical difference whatsoever. For the latter? Of course it does! What are you, crazy?

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.