Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Going Backwards on Darwin and Religion

Brian Tamanaha

Darwin's 1859 publication of The Origin of Species incited a wicked backlash from religious quarters in the United States, pitting science directly against religion. But within three decades an accommodation had been achieved, as Richard Hofstadter described in Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944):

Joseph Le Conte, in his Religion and Science, a collection of Bible-class lectures, followed [Asa] Gray in maintaining that the argument from design could not be changed by any possible answer to the question whether there had been transmuation of species or what the process of evolution might be. Science, he urged, should be looked upon not as the foe of religion, but rather as a complementary study of the ways in which the First Cause operated in the natural world. Whatever science might learn, the existence of God as First Cause could always be assumed.

A key factor in the reconciliation was the role played by leading religious figures like Henry Ward Beecher, publisher of Christian Union, in accepting evolutionary theory as scientifically sound. Finding that there was no necessary inconsistency, Beecher remarked that "design by wholesale is grander than design by retail."

By the 1880's, the lines of argument that would be taken in the reconciliation of science and religion would be clear. Religion had been forced to share its traditional authority with science, and American thought had been greatly secularized. Evolution had made its way into the churches themselves, and there remained not a single figure of outstanding proportions in Protestant theology who still ventured to dispute it. But evolution had been translated into divine purpose, and in the hands of skillful preachers religion was livened and refreshed by the infusion of an authoritative idea from the field of science.

More than a Century later this mutually agreeable understanding is in danger of falling apart. Evolutionary theory is again under siege, though the tenor of the attack is different. Rather than being challenged as inconsistent with biblical teaching, and therefore wrong, the theory of evolution is now being challenged by Intelligent Design advocates--a cleaned up version of creation "science"--as a weak scientific theory (despite piles of empirical support). The attack is on scientific turf, not religious turf, or at least that is the claim by ID folks, although they have little (or no) science to offer and candor presumably would compel them to admit that they are motivated by religious reasons.

This raises the question: why has a sensible way to reconcile faith and science that has worked for so long become unacceptable to many religious leaders in this country? This is not like the other ongoing battles over religion in the public sphere and the separation between state and church (school prayer, Decalogue displays, funding for parochial schools), all of which raise debatable issues of public and private values.

The validity of evolutionary theory is about scientific knowledge. It's not a debate over values.

They have gone a bridge too far. School boards and state legislatures that legally require that ID be mentioned in biology classes, as a number have done and more are considering doing, are abusing the coercive power of the state. It is no longer about defending religious values in society, which is a noble cause, but about aggressively insisting that others pay heed to their dogma.


Proponents of Intelligent Design attempt to distinguish ID from creationism to make ID seem more scientific. But why the singular? Why not Intelligent Designs? This would at a minimum indicate competition among Designers as competition is the lifeblood of so many things in our lives. So perhaps IDers would be serving their cause (or is it causes?) with greater credibility by opening the ID debate to the possibility of multiple designers, hypothetically speaking of course.

Brian, you ask but don't answer a pretty interesting question: why now? Why is the former acceptance of evolution by Christians in America breaking down now?

Is this generation of evangelicals the first one in the last half-century to be so dumb as to be unable to understand that evolutionary theory says absolutely nothing about the existence or nonexistence of God? Or have they always been quietly insistent on a Biblical literalism that does conflict with evolutionary theory (as well as current knowledge in astronomy and geology)? I suspect the latter, though I have no idea why people think that way. These people think that the Bible must be literally true, and that they are morally obligated to force their religious views on everyone else.

Separation of church and state, and hence religious freedom, is only really possible when the church doesn't try to claim to be the final authority on all human knowledge. There has to be a body of knowledge that people can agree on regardless of their religion. Without that, we'd still be living in the Middle Ages, to which these 21st-century theocrats would like to return us.

It's a damn good thing we have a Constitution that explicitly prevents the government from establishing a state religion. Any state school that teaches ID in science class is blatantly violating the establishment clause, since ID is a religious view and not a scientific one. I hope the Supreme Court has enough of a rudimentary understanding of science to understand that, because I think that's where this dispute is going to end up.

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I suspect that there is a strategic reason to push the issue now. First, simple political clout-Bush controls the White House-and it would make sense to push the issue with a president who relies on them for 36% of his vote. Second, evangelicals today ask a lot. By adding this to their list of grievances re liberal rule, they help mobilise their base and get at least some of what they are seeking.

Tom says: Any state school that teaches ID in science class is blatantly violating the establishment clause, since ID is a religious view and not a scientific one.

Some such as Michael McConnell (I believe) say that religious speech however, should not be discriminated against as it is in itself, speech. People should not be discriminated against because they are religious. However, by allowing ID to be taught in school, we automatically discriminate against those religious groups that are not large enough to make their own religious views heard.

I guess the question then becomes: how can we promote secularism without discriminating against the religious, but how can we include in the 'free exchange of ideas' some religions when we know that others will be denied voice because of lack of numbers, and may consequently suffer actual de facto discrimination for not holding a widely disseminated view?

People fail to understand the extent to which consensus in society used to be maintained by the relative poverty of those who'd dissent, and the expense of making their dissent heard. Communicating is too cheap today for that mechanism to work any longer, so those who want most people to agree with them have to get better at persuasion.

Tom's question of 'why now' is quite interesting. It seems like the groundswell of the christial fundamentalist movement may have more to do with the 'why now' than the current political climate, as the former seems to have played a role in the rise of the latter. Why the fundamentalist movement has recently gained is another interesting question adjacent to Tom's 'why now' question. Indeed, fundamentalists with their intolerant fervor have little room for anything that may give rise to alternative interpetations of biblical cannon as they see it. I would assert that 'why now' is possibly answered by the rise of christian fundamentalism.

Charles Krauthammer had it right:

"To teach faith as science is to undermine the very idea of science, which is the acquisition of new knowledge through hypothesis, experimentation and evidence. To teach it as science is to encourage the supercilious caricature of America as a nation in the thrall of religious authority. To teach it as science is to discredit the welcome recent advances in permitting the public expression of religion. Faith can and should be proclaimed from every mountaintop and city square. But it has no place in science class. To impose it on the teaching of evolution is not just to invite ridicule but to earn it."

I think you've missed a big point: Intelligent Design *is* the synthesis. It accepts evolution and geology, and merely suggests divine intervention here and there. The theory does not exclude Shag from Brookline's idea of multiple designers except by Occam's Razor, and its proponents do not claim that it requires the Christian God (because it does not-- interventionist Martians, single or multiple, would do the trick too).

It is opposition to Intelligent Design that is opposing the synthesis. The opposition goes beyond simply the theory of evolution, which ID accepts, to claim that there *cannot* be any intelligent intervention. That claim has no scientific basis, and, indeed, to prove a vast negative like that is close to impossible even if it is true. Rather, they want it accepted as dogma.

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