Michael Ruse vs John Lennox: What I learned and why it matters


Christian philosopher Bruce Blackshaw attended a live audience recording of The Big Conversation.


The Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program on Premier Christian Radio, recently launched The Big Conversation video series. The idea is to feature friendly conversations between world-class Christian and atheist thinkers.


I had the pleasure of attending the most recent session, which was filmed live in London in front of an audience, and featured philosopher of science Professor Michael Ruse, of Florida State University, talking with Oxford mathematician, Professor John Lennox about ‘Science, Faith And the Evidence for God’. The video debate has since been released and is well worth your time and attention.


Michael Ruse, the atheist participant, is well-known to anyone with an interest in philosophy of science, but he has also written an introduction to atheism, called Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know. John Lennox, while a mathematician, is known for books such as God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?. So the scene was set for a great discussion on science and religion.


A central feature of these series is a friendly exchange of views, and this one started well with Lennox shaking Ruse’s hand and plenty of cordial banter. Both men are very capable and engaging speakers, and the tone was set for an enjoyable evening, especially with seasoned show host Justin Brierley moderating the discussion.


The Atheist Quaker


Quite early in the discussion, the speakers discussed their childhood upbringings. It was illuminating to hear how Lennox’s Christian parents were such an influence on him growing up in Northern Ireland. He explained how his father considered every person as made in the image of God, and was scrupulously fair in hiring employees from both sides of the sectarian divide. The cost was having his workplace bombed!


One of the most interesting things about the evening for me was finding out about Ruse’s Quaker background. He mentioned it numerous times, and it is clear that it has had a life-long influence on him.


This came out strongly when Lennox spent some time discussing the important of evidence for his Christian faith. Ruse seems to have retained the Quaker love of the mystical, and numerous times he stated that for him when it came to faith, evidence was not important. Rather, revelation was, and since he had not experienced revelation, any evidence Lennox presented was not going to sway him. In fact, Ruse seemed to think evidence was almost a negative, in that it reduced the requirement for faith. Needless to say, this was a worry for Lennox, who emphasized the importance of evidence for his Christian faith. Not proofs, of course, because the only proofs available are in mathematics, as Lennox was careful to mention!




Science & Suffering


There was an informative discussion on the influence of Christianity on the development of science. Ruse and Lennox had quite similar views on this, with Ruse stating ‘modern science owes its being to Christianity’. Lennox explained how Christianity was the source of the idea that the universe is governed by uniform laws, which was crucial to being able to do science at all. Ruse noted that over time, as this uniformity became widely accepted, God gradually became ‘a retired engineer’: he had served his purpose and was no longer needed.


Towards the close of the discussion, there was some gentle sparring on the issue of suffering. Lennox properly acknowledged the deep difficulty of the issue for everyone, atheist, agnostic or Christian, and didn’t attempt to give pat answers. Ruse addressed the free will solution, using the rather extreme example of Himmler’s evil to demonstrate why the cost of free will was too high. In the question and answer session, I tried to point out that he was using a particular edge case as the entire foundation of his argument, but his response didn’t engage with this. Lennox, however, could see the point.




Ruse made some interesting comments about the Bible during the evening that I didn’t expect. He claimed he ‘loved the Bible’, he found it ‘deeply meaningful’, and he mentioned how he found the story of Ruth ‘deeply moving’. He made it clear he was an agnostic, not an atheist: he just didn’t know. I did get the impression that at 78, he had little expectation of ever knowing.


Audience Q&A


There were some excellent audience questions after the main discussion period (the bonus audience Q&A video is made available to anyone who becomes a newsletter subscriber so sign up today!).


Two I recall in particular were about objective morality, asking Ruse to clarify his position. He seemed to obfuscate a little on this, conceding the importance of morality, but ultimately seemed to think that it was a product of evolution. Lennox pointed out the difficulty of deriving an ought from an is, citing Hume, but Ruse was unmoved. I think his view is that as long as enough people believe and act as if morality is objective, that’s good enough for a society to function.


To summarise, this was a brilliant evening. Having read quite widely in this area already I didn’t learn a great deal in terms of apologetic content, but that’s not why I was there. I did learn far more about Michael Ruse’s worldview, and that was very interesting. Most of all, I enjoyed the experience of watching a civilised and honest discussion between two public intellectuals with two very different points of view on God.


So, I highly recommend you watch Episode 4 of The Big Conversation. In the meantime, check out the earlier conversations, featuring speakers such as Steven Pinker, Jordan B Peterson, Susan Blackmore and more, amnd look out for some treats still to come, including Keith Ward vs Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer vs Andy Bannister.


Bruce Blackshaw is a philosopher currently studying for a PhD in bioethics. This article was originally published at The Philosophical Apologist

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