Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sound and Fury

An article on Bill Frist's cynical support for the Intelligent Design "theory" makes an important point:

The theory of intelligent design says life on earth is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation. Nearly all scientists dismiss it as a scientific theory, and critics say it's nothing more than religion masquerading as science.
It's always nice when such articles emphasize that scientists dismiss ID as science; too many articles imply that the opposition to ID is based primarily on an atheistic worldview, rather than on the fact that ID is essentially devoid of content. The main problem with ID is that if it were a demonstrable fact, it would affect neither the goals of science, nor its methodology.

Nor, I suspect, would it affect ethics. If all evidence for evolution can be ignored, based on emotional prejudice, so can all evidence for a creator. And even if people believe in a creator, they remain intellectually free not to worship that creator. And even if they do worship the creator, they remain intellectually free to choose their own form of worship, whether it be liberation theology, polygamy, or racial separatism.

The existence of deity has been accepted as a given for centuries by a majority of human beings; I have boundless admiration for certain acts and monuments of faith, but I see no reason to believe that religion's enormous capacity to inspire and justify evil actions would vanish, were ID accepted as fact. The basic argument behind ID was accepted during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the conquest of the New World. By the scientific standards of those times, all nature revealed God's handiwork. Cotton Mather's The Christian Philosopher is a learned and beautifully written explication of intelligent design, the arguments of which were virtually unassailable in his day, but Mather nonetheless presided over the horrific injustice of the Salem Witch Trials.

ID can't answer the fundamental question, "How then shall we live?" It can't put an end to sectarian squabbling, douse the fires of fundamentalist extremism, or contradict religious and racial bigotry.

ID solves no scientific problems, and no moral problems. A world in which ID were "true" would be a world very much like our own.


Thersites said...

ID is of course political, in the broadest possible meaning of the word. It's a vehicle for attacking certain forms of authority in the hopes of establishing another. Looking at the "who" of ID is the only way to really understand it, because it isn't about scientific or moral questions, or even theological ones.

But of course you all knew that... just venting, don't mind me!

Kate said...

Very well put, Phila. Excellent post.

Cervantes said...

Indeed Phila, but I will go one step further. You wrote that:

ID can't answer the fundamental question, "How then shall we live?" It can't put an end to sectarian squabbling, douse the fires of fundamentalist extremism, or contradict religious and racial bigotry.

But acknowledging that there is no God ordering our affairs; no supernatural being who demands to be worshipped in a particular way and commands us to despise those who do not; no almighty being in the sky who will save us or destroy us; but that we, humanity, are one our own, responsible for our own actions and our own future, that will do it.

As it happens, Revere and I have both written about this subject recently. I think we're largely on the same page but the question remains of how to promote the cause of humanism and reason in what seem to be very reactionary times.

Phila said...

Well, Cervantes, as you probably know, I'm unwilling to tell people how to think. While I have little use for organized religion, I believe in pluralism and people's right to believe in whatever they want. Which, in my opinion, is one of the Enlightenment's most basic stances...anti-church to the extent that it's part of an oppressive power structure, but pro-religiosity and pro-subjectivity. So I'm unable to be as much of an absolutist on this question as you might wish...

Cervantes said...

Don't get me wrong. I very much appreciate cultural diversity, which is one of humanity's great achievements, actually -- enriching, fertile, worthy of celebration. I most definitely do not wish to see humanity homogenized.

But diversity can only work if people will agree that there is no god who is for them and against everybody else. That's my point. We do need to agree on that.

roger said...

phila--i think the last two paragraphs of your peice sum up the situation quite well. as thersites pointed out, however, this is part of a bigger struggle over authority. what will be claimed about biblical anthropology, paleantology, or even chemistry? i am also disinclined to challenge anyone's beliefs, but some hold beliefs that compel them to work at enforcing their set of social and scientific rules by government fiat, and at least some of those people feel justified in deceit to accomplish their ends.

Phila said...


Well, that kind of behavior's immoral, and I'm definitely against it. In a perfect world, separation of church and state would be a given. Unfortunately, non-authoritarians like ourselves are at a disadvantage when dealing with authoritarians. The Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt suggested that no Constitution could allow groups to exist that would threaten it. Of course, a government that doesn't allow such groups to exist is going to tend towards authoritarianism. It's an interesting much freedom does one have to destroy in order to maintain freedom?