Thursday, November 10, 2005

Intelligent design

At the risk of boring the hell out of everyone (including myself), I have to put down some thoughts about the "intelligent design" debate and how it pertains to religion. A big topic, to be sure, but also the most important issue of our time. It’s frightening to me how much attention and acceptance ID has gotten, and ID is even more frightening than other silly ideas like UFOs because its goal is imposition of religious belief on an entire country, starting in public school.

For an intelligent, in-depth and even-handed explanation of the “intelligent design” theory and debate, see this New Yorker article. Also see this article at with simple explanations from the scientific viewpoint.First of all, ID is not a scientific theory of any kind, including a theory of evolution. We already have one, and many IDers actually agree with it -- they just think a higher power got the life-on-Earth ball rolling, so to speak. ID is about religion. It is a justification for a belief in God as Creator that is clothed in pseudoscience, allowing the IDers to try to worm religion into the secular public-school curriculum.


The IDers say that there is so much irreducible complexity in living creatures that only an intelligent designer could have created things like bacterial flagella. But if they still accept any of Darwin’s theory, where do they draw the line between “designed/created by X” to “evolved thereafter through random mutation and natural selection”? And it’s simply hubris to think that “the sophisticated machines we find in organisms match up in astonishingly precise ways with recognizable human technologies” (New Yorker article, quoting William A. Dembski). Is he saying that nature is apparently as smart as a human designer, so therefore Someone must have designed nature? And God’s design skills are actually equal to that of humans? (Way to go, God!) Hmmm... it’s just possible that humans used the same accidental-change, trial-and-error, incrementally-improving-the-previous-version method of design that nature did -- but nature did it first and we arrived at the same technological destinations a good deal later.

IDers are trying to disguise the religious underpinning of their theory by making it seemingly unconnected to a specific text (i.e., the Book of Genesis). This makes the theory broader and more inclusive, so one can accept the idea of “intelligent design” from the perspective of Hinduism, Islam, etc., as well as Christianity. It also makes ID harder to nail down and argue against, since it has fewer details than creationism on exactly how and when this creator operated, giving believers a false sense of intellectual independence by “making up their own minds” about those details.

Religious faith and full acceptance of evolution are not mutually exclusive. However, to have both, I think you have to have a concept of God that is NOT that of “creator” (and of course you can’t believe that the creation story in Genesis is literally true, as the ID-precursor creationists say). More on that below.

ID is putting the cart before the horse -- starting with an assumption that there is a creator and then claiming “evidence” in the natural world for it. This is ludicrous, because the IDers don’t actually offer any evidence; they just say “there’s no explanation other than a creator.” Put another way, they’re saying: “We don’t understand or accept how something complex as flagella could come about through Darwinian evolution (even though slightly less complex things may have). Since it’s beyond the current understanding of science and me personally, therefore a creator smarter than humans must be responsible.”

Here are some more good points about the debate that were posted by readers responding to an October 23 Boston Globe article headlined "Missing Links":
apopaleo: “Evolution does not state there is no God. Evolution only tries to explain the diversity that exist in the physical world today. It might ask the question of how as a species we were created, in a purely animalistic sense, but it never touches on the soul. The only reason it is an issue is our consciousness. That is where God comes in. Faith may help explain the unexplainable at an individual level, but ID tries to give scientific validity to faith -- something that is not necessary. If we accept ID as science and teach it as part of the curriculum, then we end all inquiry into the processes of nature. It would stunt our intellectual growth because we would not ask any more question, [since] they would all be simply answered.”

dick214: “Intelligent Design is a rehash of the ‘blame God’ strategy of bankrupt thinkers. These theophiles have such weak faith that they are unable to separate the mysteries of religion from the hard realm of science... With all due respect to religious folks, and I am not one, the true source of religiousness is the mysterious -- not the concrete.”

paulvail: “We do not have all the answers. We never will... Once one [treads] down the path of ‘can't be answered,’ one has left the path of science. ‘Can't be answered by today's tools, today's knowledge’ -- sure, that's a legit answer. Making leaps of faith that are untestable in any fashion -- that's just a copout. So my question is this: has Behe's ego so outgrown the ability for him to simply say ‘I don't know’ to an answer -- needing to substitute ‘I know, it's metaphysical’? Their arrogance [is] in ‘having all the answers,’ pat and unquestionable. But inconsistent answers beg questioning. Is it possible we have made our gods in our own image, then turned the tables so that we could be 'in his image'?

chg_5: “People do need a sense of meaning, of purpose, of significance, and for many of us, it is that felt sense of God that has supplied that sense of meaning, and given hope to overcome great obstacles... Somehow I think there must be some way for there to be both meaning, purpose, God, love, right and wrong, and science -- even when science does point to random and chaotic processes as the source of life... Science will not be able to answer the real source of the conflict between faith and reason.”

Ironically, the IDers and evolutionists have something funamental in common: each starts with a basic assumption and thinks the other side is “stacking the deck” by starting from the opposite assumption. That assumption, of course, is belief in the existence (or lack thereof) of God as creator (see this article in Answers in Genesis). Evolutionists start with the assumption that there is no creator, because they see no evidence for it in nature, and IDers start with the belief in a creator because the Bible says so -- although the Bible also says the world was created in six days, but the creationists didn’t get much credibility by arguing that point, since it was very easy to refute with basic geological facts.

Accepting evolution soup-to-nuts is impossible for religious IDers (which is obvious -- belief in God is the whole underpinning and justification for the theory). This is because they can’t accept the notion that there might be a God who is NOT a creator. This idea would require people of faith to think of God in purely abstract terms -- love, peace, beauty, all the most sublime elements of human nature and the world, or in Lincoln’s phrase, “the better angels of our nature.” This in turn makes any mainstream religious observance pretty problematic. When you go to a house of worship, the liturgy (regardless of the religion) tells you to pray to someone, to thank someone, to seek the approval of someone. The assumption underlying these actions is that this “someone” is some kind of discrete being with its own intelligence, emotions, will and plan.

Thus, the definition of God is the sticking point. If you ask people whether they believe in God, most of the time you’ll get a “yes” or “no.” If the answer is “no,” what the person is really saying is, “I don’t believe in the God as characterized in houses of worship, and that fundamentalists of all stripes subscribe to.” But if you followed up by saying, “do you believe in compassion, joy, love and beauty?” then I think anyone who wasn’t clinically depressed would say yes. But again, people (including me) have a hard time keeping this idea in mind when sitting in a house of worship and being confronted with the commonly accepted notion of God.


Many people feel comforted by the idea that there is Something Out There who cares about them, who teaches them how to behave, and who can shape human and natural events if it wants to. There seems to be a leap from “there is no God in the discrete-being sense” to “life has no purpose or meaning.” This is something I just don’t understand. Why do people need a superior being or force to make them feel worthwhile, that they matter in the world? Even if they matter only a tiny bit to just a few of the world’s billions of people and eons of time, why isn’t that OK? How does belief in God make the individual more significant?

Rick Santorum put it this way in an NPR interview (August 4, 2005): “If we are the result of chance, if we're simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us. In fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us... [as opposed to the idea that] we’re the creation of a being that has moral demands.” There are two problems with this: (1) equating “chance” with “mistake,” and (2) the assumption that people aren’t capable of demanding morality (innate, learned or both) of themselves morality without the guidance of an external sentient being.

To be fair, Santorum also said in the interview that “I’m not comfortable with ‘intelligent design’ being taught in science class” and “I don’t believe it’s risen to the level of a scientific theory at this point.” But the implication remains that he thinks ID should be taught in public schools -- which class it's taught in is apparently secondary.

Elsewhere on the political front, eight of nine school board members in Dover, Penn., who support the teaching of ID were just voted out of office. However, there’s still a court case to be decided there, and the Kansas Board of Education just gave ID the thumbs-up.

One of the most prominent political supporters of ID is conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). He attached the Santorum Amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Senate in 2001. The amendment says, in part, “It is the sense of the Senate that... (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.” But the House version of the bill did not contain any counterpart of the Santorum Amendment, so the conference committee reconciling the two bills eventually dropped it, and it does not appear in the bill signed into law by President Bush. Nevertheless, IDers still managed to claim some semblance of victory by virtue of the debate itself, even though the Santorum Amendment appeared only in the Senate bill and in a watered-down version in the conference committee report.

Oddly enough, the first part of the Santorum Amendment read thus: “it is the sense of the Senate that (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science...” I’m puzzled why Santorum would include a clause that is contradictory to the one following it.

Apparently, however, it’s possible to be a devout Christian who believes God created the universe but who also strongly advocates separation of church and state. Jimmy Carter is one example. To me, he embodies everything that’s best about religious people -- compassion, conscience and intellectual rigor all at the same time. In an interview on NPR recently, he talked about his new book but wasn’t asked specifically about his views on ID. I’d be interested in learning more about how he reconciles his religious and scientific beliefs.

Here’s some more information about Carter, certainly one of the greatest ex-presidents in history. I leave it to the historians and political scientists to argue about how much the country’s problems during his presidency were his fault, or whether he was a “weak” president. On that PBS site, it notes that Carter was vilified for his “malaise” speech, in which he said the American people were suffering from a crisis of confidence and needed to fix themselves -- specifically their gluttonous dependence on foreign oil. They hated to hear that because people wanted to be led, dammit, and not told that the problems around them were even partially their fault. Another case of rejecting self-determination and taking control of your fate as much as you can, rather than leaving it in the hands of God or political leaders.

People also hated the speech because it was really a sermon, as PBS notes. Apparently people like to hear that kind of thing only once a week in a building constructed for that purpose, but not from the president. Carter decried “self-indulgence and consumption,” adding that ” owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” He exhorted Americans to reject “the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest [resulting in] constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility,” and instead urged “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.” I assume he means less individual self-indulgence and more pulling together as a community, though phrases like “common purpose” and “American values” are so overused by politicians as to be meaningless.


A religious person might ask whether it’s possible to have moral values and conscience without God or the Bible, and if so, how would you learn them, especially if you were brought up in an amoral environment? I believe that humans are hard-wired for things like compassion just like they are for language -- because it made sense evolutionarily to care for others in the community as well as oneself. The Bible merely puts in writing some of the values that the best of the species already has, and frames them in the form of parables and stories about “real” people as a teaching tool. Despite our hard-wiring, values still have to be taught, just like kids have to hear speech to learn to talk, or they lose the ability to acquire language even if someone tries to teach them later (as in several cases of feral children). But you can teach values without resorting to the Bible just like you can teach anything else, though some might say it helps to have one Big Book that contains all the rules.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the Bible, but also a lot of bad stuff in it that we should ignore. It’s up to each individual to think critically and try to absorb the good stuff that aligns with innate, species-wide “better angels” and reject the bad stuff. A rabbi I know said that strictly observant people would describe this approach as “cafeteria Judaism” -- take what you want and reject what you don’t like, even though it’s supposedly all good. To which I say, “Um, yeah; is that a problem? It’s NOT all good.”

Regardless of what (if any) religious beliefs they hold, individuals can take actions that are good or bad. You have the power to affect your own fate and that of others for good or ill, to some degree (but not total power, because there’s an infinite number of events, actions and genes that can combine to cause an infinite array of possible outcomes). This is an idea that fundamentalists have trouble with: the notion of self-determination in the personal rather than political sense -- the idea that you rather than God are responsible for your own actions, and that nothing other than natural forces and human actions influence events.

Then there’s the Biblical notion that homosexuality is an abomination, from which we derive homophobia and arguments against gay marriage. Actually, it’s just people’s discomfort or prejudice against someone different that’s clothed after the fact in a scrap of Scripture that seems to agree with and justify that view. In this Nov. 8 Boston Globe article about how gay Jewish youths struggle to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation, teacher Susan Tanchel makes raises a frequently stated yet valid point: “Many things are quote-unquote clear in biblical texts that are no longer practiced. We don't think about stoning a rebellious child. Deuteronomy 21 says take out your rebellious child and stone him. Why are some texts interpreted literally and others not?"

This is the crux of the problem -- when individuals are willing to pick and choose from the Bible's teachings, but make the wrong choices, like accepting the homosexuality wording but ignoring other parts that speak against greed, hatred, etc. Or saying they agree with those parts, but not acting on them.

Basically both sides in any Biblical interpretation argument say, “my view of what you should accept is right and your view (or that of your clergy) is wrong.” I would argue that when deciding between condemning someone vs. having compassion and tolerance for them, compassion should always be the winner. Somewhere in every religion’s sacred text is wording that exhorts compassion, but religions are much more often used as a basis for intolerance, based on the intolerance, arrogance and power hunger of their leaders (and practitioners’ corresponding desire to be told what to think and do). Unfortunately these traits also seem to be hard-wired into human nature and often triumph over the competing tendencies for compassion, tolerance and open-mindedness.

Getting back to the argument that it’s possible to have moral values and conscience without God, you might say, “Uh-oh, sounds like secular humanism!” To which I say, “Absolutely. It’s a compliment, not a slur.” “Secular humanist” is what some people called Carter, one of the most genuinely devout presidents we’ve ever had. Reagan pandered to the religious right but did not practice a religion even for the sake of appearances; George W. Bush, I think, uses religion to fill a psychological need that alcohol used to satisfy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of alcoholics (as well as others with serious problems) recover through “giving themselves to God.” Which is not to say that their addiction was caused by Satan or godlessness; rather, that once they resolve to give up the addiction or other destructive behavior, they need something in its place to make them feel good, and sometimes it’s God. Alcoholics Anonymous, though claiming not to espouse any one interpretation of God, nevertheless uses the word quite a lot in its 12 steps. They say you may interpret the word any way you like, including “community of fellow alcoholics,” but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of AA members believe in God in the traditional sense.


It seems that a belief in something like God that has been inculcated in you from birth by your parents and teachers is exceedingly difficult to change, even when faced with an appeal to logic or the heart. My bias says that people raised with scientific rather than religious beliefs would have an easier time changing their minds when faced with incontrovertible evidence -- though I don’t know what form that “incontrovertible evidence” of God’s existence could possibly take. Nonetheless, if God suddenly appeared to me and everyone else and “proved” his existence, I’d be thrilled. It would be wonderful to have a perfect supernatural parent who loved me and knew all the answers, but I just can’t buy it.

If you’ve been raised to believe in any kind of God, then rejecting that belief is frightening (again, this whole business of “life having no purpose or meaning”). But if you aren’t saddled with that belief to begin with, you have nothing to lose -- you’re free of fear as well as the comfort that a traditional belief in God seems to bring. As Richard Feynman said, “I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose.” It’s the endless attempts to find the answers, top learn more about life and the universe with the tools of science, that made life meaningful for him.

My mother put it even more succinctly in some words to my husband (I wasn’t in the room) shortly before she died of leukemia: “God is randomness.” She was an atheist who requested that her funeral service be composed and conducted by a representative of the British Humanist Association, and she was buried with no grave marker but rather a tree planted next to her.

I wish we could return to an earlier era when faith may have been just as commonplace as it is in American society today, but much more private. There was much less intrusion of religion into politics and people trying to force their beliefs on others. Religion can be constructively used to guide one’s actions toward good ends, but ideally, nonbelievers should be converted by example rather than coercion. This is the same principle that parents try to use with their children. Commanding one thing while doing another is completely ineffective (though some people still seem to fall for it because they don’t see contradictory information that would make them uncomfortable). People learn best by admiring the actions of someone and trying to emulate them.

Finally, a closing word from Charles Darwin: "It is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

What a big mouth I have. No more diatribes on this topic, I promise, though I reserve the right to post succinct news updates.

1 comment:

The Bailiff said...

Alice, this is a great post. I heard an interview with Carter a few Saturdays ago. I think it was on Weekend Edition Saturday, but I can't for the life of me track it down.

Anyway, Carter was trained as a nuclear physicist (I had no idea!), so he said that he's thought a lot about science and religion and that the two just need to be kept seperate. End of story. Heartening to say the least.

In other heartening news, did you hear that the school board considering adopting ID in Pennsylvania was voted out of office on Tuesday? You can listen to the story at NPR:


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