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January 3, 2012 5:11 pm

Atheism and Pedophilia Part II: The Incoherent Moral Philosophy of Michael Ruse

avatar by Moshe Averick

Dr. Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He has a winning smile, but an incoherent moral philosophy.

On 8/29/11, I posted a column on entitled, A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia is Next on the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It’s Too Late.

Many of the hundreds of comments posted were thoughtful and insightful, but most were angry and indignant push backs from non-believers who felt I was accusing them of child-molestation. Many also charged that it was unfair and misleading of me to cite statements from atheistic philosophers of “ethics” that seemed to indicate that there was nothing inherently immoral about pedophilia. The most common complaints were (a) that I falsely implied that these philosophers approved of pedophilia and (b) I was guilty of presenting a sweeping generalization that atheists have no moral values.

Based on the above, it is clear to me that a good number of those who posted comments did not read the article carefully. In an attempt to eliminate further confusion, let me clarify my position on these matters. Please read the following points carefully before commenting.

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  • Atheists certainly have values and principles that guide their lives and decisions. The word(s) that one chooses to describe or conceptualize these values – morality, ethics, utilitarianism, humanism, etc. – is beside the point; the values are whatever they are, no matter what one calls them.
  • I have never called into question the existence of atheistic values; it is the significance of atheistic values that is the crucial issue under discussion. In other words, it is an attack, if you will, on the concept of atheistic ethics and morality, not an attack on atheists themselves.
  • I have never accused any of the so-called atheistic philosophers of “ethics” – be it Peter Singer, Joel Marks, Michael Ruse, Michael Tooley, (Sam Harris?) et al – of approving of pedophilia. I accused them of laying the philosophical groundwork that could pave the way for the acceptance and approval of pedophilia.
  • My assumption was and is that the overwhelming majority of atheists who live in the United States of America and Canada strongly oppose the acceptance of pedophilia.
  • The central point of my presentation was that an honest, consistent, and candid articulation of an atheistic worldview must admit that “ethical” values (including those on pedophilia), have no significance at all outside of the heads of those who espouse them. They have no objective reality and any actual significance ascribed to these values is rooted squarely in the human imagination. They are desperate attempts to create the illusion that human actions and decisions have real purpose and meaning. In other words, they are as foolish and illusory as (what the atheist would consider to be) my imaginary notion that God spoke to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.
  • Human beings have an innate sense of compassion, empathy and the ability to love. Human beings also have an innate sense of selfishness, the ability to hate, dominate, and the desire to act with brutality and cruelty. From the viewpoint of the intellectually honest atheist, none of these – in objective reality – are “better” or “worse” than the others. How an individual views these different emotions and drives and chooses to prioritize them are matters of personal preference. If one so desires, he can label these personal preferences with the words moral or immoral; the word that one chooses does not change the fact that they are nothing more than personal preference or perhaps societal conditioning.
  • To put it a different way; in an atheistic world, the terms morality and personal preference are identical and interchangeable. Examples: (1) I believe it is immoral to put Down-syndrome babies to death so as not to waste medical resources that could be used more efficiently = My personal preference is that Down-syndrome babies not be put to death…etc (2) I believe it is immoral to sodomize young boys in a shower room = My personal preference is that young boys not be sodomized in a shower room. In many cases the term societal conditioning could also be substituted: I have been conditioned by my society to believe that young boys should not be sodomized in a shower room.

The moral philosophy of Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is a Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. Some of his recent posts on the Brainstorm section of The Chronicle of Higher Education site, on the subject of morality, have been the focal points of a disagreement/discussion between Dr. Ruse and Dr’s Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse (all three are non-believers). Those who are interested in “the full monty,” that is to say a comprehensive understanding of the disagreement should read the different posts in their entirety. My interests are only the parts that illustrate the atheistic concept of morality.

In a Brainstorm article entitled “Scientism Continued,” Ruse makes the astounding claim that not only is pedophilia immoral, but that this moral principle is an objective truth!

“I want to say that what Jerry Sandusky was reportedly doing to kids in the showers was morally wrong, and that this was not just an opinion or something based on subjective value judgments. The truth of its wrongness is as well taken as the truth of the heliocentric solar system.”

Where is this source of objective moral truth that Ruse seems to have discovered or what is the identity of this absolute moral authority with whom Ruse has been consulting? In an earlier article that appeared in The Guardian in March, 2010, Ruse appears to contradict what he wrote above:

“Morality then is not something handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection…Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothaches and marking student papers…now that you know morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you from behaving like an ancient Roman? Well, nothing in an objective sense.”

Here, Ruse is clearly stating that morality is purely subjective. It’s not like he is the first thinker to come to this conclusion. To most believers it’s rather obvious. Bertrand Russell said the same thing: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.” In Russell’s atheistic world all values are subjective and the only thing that could possibly be wrong with wanton cruelty (or pedophilia, for that matter) is that he doesn’t like it. Ruse understands the dilemma quite well. A subjective system of morality is nothing more than a rickety shack with no foundation; it will collapse in the first good wind:

“But it [morality] is, and has to be, a funny kind of emotion. It has to pretend that it is not that at all! If we thought that morality was no more than liking or not liking spinach, then pretty quickly it would break down…very quickly there would be no morality and society would collapse and each and every one of us would suffer.

How then do we escape this seemingly intractable problem? Ruse offers us his solution:

So morality has to come across as something that is more than emotion. It has to appear to be objective, even though really it is subjectiveBecause that is what morality demands of us. It is bigger than the both of us. It is laid upon us and we must accept it, just like we must accept that 2+2=4.

In another Brainstorm article entitled, “The Nature of Morality: Replies to Critics,” Ruse “clarifies” [?!] the issue further:

“If you place “subjective” in opposition to “objective” and mean by the latter something external, then clearly the kind of ethics I propose is subjective…but it is not subjective whether you think sodomizing little boys is right or wrong…My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection. It is in this sense I claim that morality is not subjective.

And back to the original article “Scientism Continued:”

“So how do you justify moral claims? Some philosophers and theologians think you can do it by reference to so-called non-natural properties or perhaps the will of God. Others, and this includes me, think that perhaps morality has no objective justification in this sense…So what does this make of morality… As evolved human beings, the rules of morality are as binding on us as if we were the children of God and He had made up the rules.”

If all of this sounds incoherent it is because it is incoherent. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Some prominent atheist thinkers agree.

The moral philosophy of Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse

On 12/20/11 Dr. Coyne offered us a post on his WhyEvolutionIsTrue blog entitled, “Ruse goes after scientism again, but screws up on morality.” Need I say more?

We don’t even need to cite anything from the article. Ruse himself had written, “My most doughty critic, Jerry Coyne, says: “While science can inform moral judgments, in the end statements about right or wrong are opinions, based on subjective value judgments.” Much to my chagrin, I actually find myself enthusiastically agreeing with Jerry Coyne!

For once, I actually agree with Dr. Jerry Coyne!

Coyne also tells us that Dr. Jason Rosenhouse on Evolution Blog had already pointed out the glaring flaws in Ruse’s approach very effectively. Rosenhouse echoes my own observations regarding the incoherence of Ruse’s position:

“I can’t follow this at all…He seems to be saying that Sandusky’s actions are really and truly wrong because natural selection has programmed us to believe they are wrong. Can someone explain what I am missing? It sure looks like Ruse has contradicted himself here…Concepts of right and wrong differ among contemporary cultures. They also evolve over time. Can Ruse help us make sense of this? Can Ruse apply his methods to resolve any current area of moral controversy? Do appeals to psychology and natural selection help us resolve questions about abortion or homosexuality?…Ruse’s essay was meant to establish that there are moral facts that we come to know by non-empirical means…To the extent that I understand what he is saying…he has established neither that there are moral facts nor that he has some reliable, non-scientific means of determining what they are.

To which I can only add, Amen. Let us sum up. Michael Ruse’s proclamation that child-molestation is objectively immoral is based on an incoherent and self-contradictory, atheistic moral philosophy. However, I do understand what is creating the cognitive dissonance in Professor Ruse and frankly, I feel for him. It is the same terrible frustration expressed by Bertrand Russell about wanton cruelty. Ruse is psychologically unable to accept that the only thing wrong with child-molestation is that he doesn’t like it; or perhaps even more terrifying, that his abhorrence of Jerry Sandusky’s behavior is nothing more than the results of his societal conditioning. He therefore has no choice but to take a leap of faith and declare his moral principles to be true with mathematical certainty and to be binding as if they were proclaimed by God himself. To their credit, Dr’s Coyne and Rosenhouse were not fooled by this gibberish.

We are back where we started from

We are, of course, right back where we started from. In an atheistic world there is nothing inherently wrong with pedophilia or anything else for that matter. No one has stated it more clearly than Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven, Dr. Joel Marks:

“The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’…a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

Dr. Joel Marks, as an atheist he "embraces" amorality

Dr. Marks specifically addresses the atheistic attitude towards child-molestation:

Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God…just so, I now maintain, nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality.”

Dr. Marks goes on to confirm what Coyne, Rosenhouse and Russel have already said about atheistic morality. It is nothing more than personal preferences and societal conditioning:

“Yet, as with the non-existence of God, we human beings can still discover plenty of completely-naturally-explainable internal resources for motivating certain preferences. Thus, enough of us are sufficiently averse to the molesting of children, and would likely continue to be so if fully informed, to put it on the books as prohibited and punishable by our society.”

We all know of course that human preferences are notoriously fickle. What is the deadly, logical outcome of Dr. Marks’ atheistic moral philosophy?

“I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime…if a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? (Jeffery Dahmer)

What is the point, indeed? If we are not accountable to a higher power for our actions, it only becomes a question of “am I psychologically able to jettison the societal conditioning to which I have been subjected?”  Please ask yourselves the following question: If I had the sexual desires of a pedophile, how  would I view the actions of Jerry Sandusky? If there is one thing we have learned from the horribly bloody history of the 20th century, it is that there is nothing that human beings are not capable of doing.

I reiterate my “plea” to atheists

Michael Ruse and I do agree on one thing. Once the atheist realizes that all of his noble moral principles are nothing more than subjective feelings – “no more than liking or not liking spinach” – then “pretty quickly it would break down…very quickly there would be no morality.” Actually, it’s not that there would be “no” morality. It’s just that the moral values would change according to societal whim.

I repeat my original plea to atheists:

“The choices before us are clear: we will either seek a transcendent moral law to which we will all submit, or we will seek our own personal and societal indulgence. If we turn to God in our quest to create a moral and just world, we have a fighting chance; if not, we are doomed to spiral into the man-made hell of the human jungle.”

Atheism stands for nothing, signifies nothing, and affirms nothing except for one thing: All the moral aspirations of the advanced primate we call a human being are nothing more than a cosmic joke….and not a very funny one at that.

If you wish to be notified when Rabbi Averick’s new columns appear, send an email to [email protected] and simply write the word Subscribe in the subject bar.  Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. .

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