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An Interview with Professor Michael Ruse, FRSC on Personal Background and Intellectual History, and the Flavours of Belief (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/11/15


Professor Michael Ruse, FRSC is a British-born philosopher of science who lived and worked for a significant period of time in Canada, as a Canadian. He works on the lines and overlaps between religion and science, on the socio-political controversy between creationism and evolution (not intellectual or scientific controversy), and the line between science and non-science. He is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. He discusses: personal background and intellectual history; and the flavours of belief structures influential on him.

Keywords: Britain, Canada, creationism, evolution, Florida State University, Michael Ruse, philosophy of science, religion, science.

An Interview with Professor Michael Ruse, FRSC on Personal Background and Intellectual History, and the Flavours of Belief: Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from personal history, which is online. It is a question, in a way, that answers itself. Are there any parts of personal history and intellectual life that are not online that should be told, to start?

Professor Michael Ruse: I don’t really think so. Basically, my life has been pretty uncomplicated, starting with the first quarter of my life – I am 79 now – until 22; I was born and living in England and then moved to Canada.

It was rather fortuitous. It was not a long-thought-through decision.  Because I had the opportunity to do an MA at McMaster University and financial support for it. I made the move. Like a lot of people who came to Canada in the 60s, or the 50s too, as soon as I got to Canada, I never thought of moving back [Laughing].  It seemed like my kind of place.

Going back to the life in England, I was raised very intently as a Quaker. That is a 2-fold thing. On the one hand, certainly, in my days, they were very intensely, not only theistic but, Christological. They believe in Jesus as the Son of God. On the other hand, Quakers are strange. They have no dogma and no priests. That sort of thing.

There are three parts to Quakerism that affected me. One, just mentioned, is dislike of the formal nature of religion – priests, ceremonies and that sort of thing.  Second, is the intense urge for social work. I don’t mean to be a social worker.  But to reach out to serve others.  The pacifism is very much part of this. I do not think it is any chance that I would be a professor or a teacher than, say, a used-car salesman [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: Nothing against car salesmen. I’m sure you know what I mean. There are plenty of good Quaker salesman. But the urge to help others was very strong in my childhood. I never wanted to be a schoolteacher, but, as soon as I walked into the classroom in 1965, I knew that was what I would be doing for the rest of my life. That’s what I have been doing.

The third thing is that Quakerism is very much Apophatic Theology. Quakers are very much better at saying what God is not rather than what God is. To Quakers, God is much more of a mystical experience; an old man in the sky with a long sheet and a long beard is not it.

Quakers believe in a theistic God. But they were very loath to say, “God is clearly good, all-powerful, and the Creator.” Exactly pinning God down on his nature.  There was not much enthusiasm for law-breaking miracles. They didn’t deny the resurrection.  They tended to interpret the resurrection more in naturalistic terms; the disciples were, on the third day, desperately downcast and suddenly felt, “Our Saviour lives.” The actual body was totally irrelevant.  That was the third thing. It was important to me.

The Quakers are absolutely adamant about not asking or expecting children to believe what they believe. In other words, it is not like being Presbyterian or being a Catholic, where you’re taught what to believe like the Catechism. Quakers are loath to do that.

Like I say, by my early 20s, I was basically starting to lose my faith. My Quaker mentors, if you like, were incredibly sympathetic about that. They didn’t think that I was wrong in any sense or anything like that. That is what happened to me.

By the time I went to Canada, I thought, “When I get to 70, I can’t afford to not believe it.” [Laughing] You cannot afford to make too many mistakes there by the time that you meet Saint Peter. What is interesting, I do not feel any stronger urge to believe in God than I have for the last – well – 60 years.

I think this reflects my Quakerism too. I do not think that I have ever been a hardline atheist, like Richard Dawkins or others like him. If I were Thomas Henry Huxley, I would be called an agnostic. But think what this means.  I’m sure as you know. To many, it means, “I don’t give a bugger.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: Not me.  Like Thomas Henry Huxley and his grandson, Julian Huxley, I am a deeply religious person, but without theology. I don’t know if there is something. I very much doubt that Christianity is true. If you want to pin me down on atheism, I would, by and large, say that I do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or that his death on the Cross made possible my eternal salvation. I do not buy any of that.

By that standard, I am pretty atheistic. When I die, I rot. I would be less uncomfortable about saying that than when I made the joke about Saint Peter or sitting on the cloud playing the harp sitting on a sheet.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: I think the other thing is becoming a philosopher was, if you like, not chance. The whole thing about being a Quaker was that we were expected to do this thinking for ourselves and try to think what it means, what God means, and, particularly, after Second World War.

Because unlike the First World War, this was a good war in that one really had to fight for one’s land. This was important. The First World War was also tremendously important. But in a different way.  You as a Canadian would know this. In some ways I think Canada was defined by the First World War.  It was a growing-up experience.  Basically, you turn around to the other country and say, “We have left the Mother Country and turn our own way.” Other countries said, ‘You’re damn right.” Every day, I used to walk past John McCrae’s [Laughing] birthplace – “in Flander’s fields the poppies grow.”

The Second World War, Canada was fighting as an equal and not just as an extension of the Mother Country.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] right.

Ruse: As I say, growing up in the 40s, the Second World War was a good war – Hitler had to be fought and beaten — in that sense. It wasn’t easy to be a pacifist. You are working these things through. By chance, I took a couple of philosophy courses, a subject in which you spend all day working things through.

Again, it was like teaching.  It was my destiny, as it were. I was pre-adapted for it. I always felt that being a philosophy professor was something that I clearly enjoy, as I am still doing this at 79 [Laughing]. In spite of having to support my children having children in their 30s with babies, and all busy with their lives.

Oh dear, my wife is listening into this. She has heard me say this stuff so many times [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: She is awful cynical about this whole thing [Laughing]. The whole thing made sense to me. I had gone to Canada. In ’65, I got a job at the newly formed University of Guelph. It was formed on the backs of the Ontario Agricultural College, the MacDonald Institute, and the Ontario Veterinary College. I taught there until 2000 quite happily. I taught philosophy.

I became interested in philosophy and science, and Darwin. I became interested in philosophy of science and its relationship to religion more. You cannot do Darwin without science and religion being a major factor. Whether that was part of my destiny, I am not sure.

Growing up in Britain, I loved the Victorian novels like Dickens and others. Not because I am an Empire loyalist or anything like that; rather, there always seemed to be something interesting about Victorians. I liked the Victorian architecture. I remember being a teenager in London and standing at the top of Parliament Hill Fields, which is at the bottom of Hampstead Heath. I was looking across London and seeing St. Pancras Station, which, in those days, they were threatening to knock down.  Now, it is, of course, much beloved and the terminal for the Eurostar.

That whole Victorian thing appealed to me. Working on Darwin, it became natural for me. Like I say, once you get into working on Darwin, you don’t have any choice but to look at science and religion. As you may know, by the end of the 1970s, in other words halfway through my life, the creationists became a major force, particularly in America.

Obviously, I am not saying that I am especially talented. But I was called down from Guelph to Arkansas to challenge the idea of teaching creationism in schools. I felt strongly there. You should understand. The people fighting it. The ACLU had many expert witnesses who were Christians. They were not agnostics or atheists.

One of our big witnesses was Langdon Gilkey who was the eminent Protestant theologian from Chicago Divinity School. It was not atheism versus Christianity. It was certainly science versus a particularly dogmatic form of Christianity. That, as I say, is where I felt comfortable. I never felt threatened or hostile to religious people as such. I got along well with the creationists.

I have always been ecumenical. At the same time, I never felt as though I want to change the views from my early 20s. In that, I don’t believe in the existence of God. Certainly, I do not believe in the Christian God. On a more fundamental level, as I have said, I am an agnostic. The well-known geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

I agree. Something like quantum entanglement blows my mind. Something happening on one side of the universe immediately impacting the other side. Possibly, I think the world is potentially queerer than I think it is. I am saying that it is a happy view, but it is not a bad view.

It means, at least, that God is not like my late headmaster who hated me on spot.  God, for some reason, was always a bit of a Calvinist. He created human beings [Laughing] and rather disliked them.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: He didn’t want them to get into heaven. Obviously, I have written extensively in the second half of my life. It was the case that before the call south and part of the reason for the call south.  I was working on a book, where I was talking about morality and why we can have a morality without God. Still am writing that sort of stuff.  Yesterday, I was quoting C.S. Lewis who wants to argue that ethics proves a God. I want to say, “It bloody well does not.”

What shall I say?  I am orthodox enough for Canadian atheists, which says I am not all-the-way atheist [Laughing]. How does that sound?

2. Jacobsen: [Laughing] it sounds reasonable to me. In my experience, I note flavours of atheism. Even flavours of agnosticism, it really depends on the premise or the premises.

Ruse: Yes, I think it does. I really think it does. It depends on what you are asserting. As I say, I have always been firm on what I don’t believe in. Certainly, I do not believe in the conventional Christian God. Yet, I was raised a traditional Christian. The most important parable for me is the parable of the talents. That, if we given these talents, then we not expected to do nothing but to do something with them [Laughing]. I don’t think that makes me a Christian. It means at that level I am very strongly influenced by Christian thought.

On the other hand, am not influenced by St. Paul when he said that you have to believe in order to get into heaven. That never appealed to me. But many aspects of Christianity, I imbibed as a child and still feel very comfortable with. But I am very surprised if Richard Dawkins rejected the parable of the talents. Anyone who works harder on this Earth, like Richard Dawkins, it would be hard to imagine. Wouldn’t it?

Jacobsen: When it comes to the idea orthogenesis and progress in biology…

Ruse: …this is the thing. This is when my agnosticism kicks in. I’m sure I talk about Dawkins, but I certainly talk about in the past people like Julian Huxley. Or my friend E.O. Wilson at Harvard. It seems, at some level, that these people are working to develop a secular alternative to Christianity. Often, these people call themselves secular humanists.

I feel that these people are attempting to create a secular religion with humanism.  Some, like Philip Kitcher, are pretty explicit about this. I have always pulled back from that. I always said, “Having given up one religion, I do not want to take up another religion, even a secular one.” I have felt rather strongly about that.

Being Unitarian has absolutely no attractions to me, apart from the fact, that I have no desire to put ribbons on from Oak trees. It is pagan-like.  Although let me add that there are aspects of paganism I find rather attractive.  I think, “The Unitarians have a moral sense. But if being anything, then I will be a pagan and shag myself silly.” I have to say. Polyandry  was a lot more attractive when I was 15 than when I am 79 now. You know what I mean.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: I have always been uncomfortable in trying to get meaning out of the world. We cannot get this out of God. So, we look to the world. We look to humans to provide moral insights. Which, of course, people like Herbert Spencer find.

But people like Julian Huxley and Edwin Wilson were also very keen on the idea of morality as not a subjective thing. That morality is laid on us, but not by God. It is laid on us by the way nature is. We see nature is, at some level, progressive, aiming for the good. It is our moral obligation to help this. It is a natural thing.

I am comfortable with that. Although, I am agnostic, at certain levels, I am rather Calvinistic agnostic, as you might say. In other words, my agnosticism is not an easy way out. In other words, I do not think of my agnosticism as a basic of way saying, “I don’t know. I don’t care. So, whatever.” I do not think in those terms at all.

That’s why I don’t believe in spiritual religions. I don’t believe in secular religions. That’s, basically, where I stand. That, to me, almost is more important than God exists or God doesn’t exists. Even if God exists, I describe myself as an existentialist, a Darwinian existentialist. There is a pretentious name.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Ruse: I am very empathetic to Sartre. He said, ‘As an atheist existentialist, the atheism isn’t really the point of my existentialism. My existentialism says, ‘Whether a God exists or not, that’s not the issue. The issue is that we get to freedom, if you like, and have our freedom, and what we do with our lives is what’s important and not somebody else’s.’”

I am empathetic to that view. I spent most of my life in Canada. Can you think, basically, of a better country to live in than Canada? Really, maybe Norway, or somewhere like that, Canada is a wonderful country.

I have had health.  I have had a wonderful job. I enjoyed my job. My first marriage wasn’t very happy, but my second was. I practiced polyamory between them. I will put it this way. I do not have any regrets. I have been very fortunate.

I have this strong moral urge. I have these opportunities. I ought to do something with them. If you like, it is selfish in a sense. I think only through some self-realization is one going to find any kind of happiness.

I don’t think there is any question about that. I find working with my students, for instance, on the Second World War and taking them on a trip to the battlefields of the First World War, deeply fulfilling. I look at this. I say, “My goodness me, that is something which gives me John Stuart Mill kind of happiness.” Socrates is satisfied, but not in the way a pig is satisfied. I think that is true. It is trying to express yourself as a human being.

Kant said, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”  I agree with Kant on this. Trying to understand the world through a good book or something like this, I think some of my books haven’t been quite all that bad, in a modest English sort of way.

At the same time, my wife and I have built a family together. It has been a very worthwhile relationship. As I say, the joy I have with my students and working with them, and the joy of family, are what count for me. I don’t go and build houses for the indigent in Uganda or other sorts of things. The very thought of doing that; it is just not me.

I do think that I have been able to give a lot to a lot of young people. That’s what I have done with my life. It really has meaning. It is so complex. Maybe, there is a God. Maybe, there is not. That is not the point of living.

It is not to get brownie points for the future. I think the point of living is to live it. That’s why I call myself a Darwinian existentialist. How is that?

Jacobsen: It’s excellent.

Ruse: I don’t know many people who talk as much as I do.

Jacobsen: It’s good. It is a richer reservoir of life experience than I have.

Ruse: That’s right.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor, Philosophy, Florida State University; Director, HPS Program, Florida State University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: November 15, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2020:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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