President Bush has touched off rejoicing among Intelligent Design advocates and consternation among defenders of evolutionary science by suggesting that ID should be taught in schools side by side with evolution. Bush presented his views as an argument for open minds and free debate, but in a White House which, in Garry Wills' words, is "honeycombed with prayer groups and Bible study cells, like a whited monastery," his remarks were perceived by both sides as a use of the bully pulpit to endorse a dubiously scientific theory with a religious subtext.
In an interview at the White House on Monday with a group of Texas newspaper reporters . . . Mr. Bush said . . . according to a transcript, "I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught." Asked again by a reporter whether he believed that both sides in the debate between evolution and intelligent design should be taught in the schools, Mr. Bush replied that he did, "so people can understand what the debate is about."
Mr. Bush was pressed as to whether he accepted the view that intelligent design was an alternative to evolution, but he did not directly answer. "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," he said, adding that "you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."
Inevitably, this cagy, on the face of it unassailable statement has been received by the party of Reason as a coded threat of an imminent return to the Dark Ages. Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has a scathing, invective-laced rejoinder on the Hufflepuff Post:
[A]nyone familiar with modern biology knows that ID is nothing more than a program of political and religious advocacy masquerading as science. . . .
The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out.
One of the funny things about this war between Faith and Reason is how threatened each side feels by the other. Christian conservatives contend that mainstream American culture, media, and the judiciary are in the clutches of a militantly secular élite that is waging a "War on Faith." The way Sam Harris portrays it -- and his statistics are scary -- the U.S. is a supersaturated solution of ignorant faith ready at any moment to crystallize into a theocracy:
According to several recent polls, 22 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years. Another 22 percent believe that he will probably do so. This is likely the same 44 percent who go to church once a week or more, who believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews, and who want to stop teaching our children about the biological fact of evolution. [Emphasis added] As the President is well aware, believers of this sort constitute the most cohesive and motivated segment of the American electorate. Consequently, their views and prejudices now influence almost every decision of national importance. . . . More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God; 70 percent think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious." . . . Unreason is now ascendant in the United States . . . Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.
It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum. . . . Whether a person is religious or secular, there is nothing more sacred than the facts. Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn't; either there is a God who despises homosexuals, or there isn't. It is time that sane human beings agreed on the standards of evidence necessary to substantiate truth-claims of this sort. . . .
The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. [Emphasis added] Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. It is time we recognized that this spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith.
This rant got a ringing endorsement from crusading atheist Richard Dawkins, weighing in in the Hufflepuff comments section:
'The End of Faith' is one of those books that deserves to replace the Gideon Bible in every hotel room in the land. . . . [M]y appeal to my American friends is this. When you read something like this Sam Harris article, don't just nod in silent agreement and go on keeping quiet yourself. Start shouting, to encourage the others. I am hard at work on my own book, The God Delusion, for precisely this reason.
Almost lost in all the shouting are a couple of intelligent centrist commenters who do not think religion as such -- only a particular brand of it -- is anathema to science. "Darell" said:
The history of science is one of theory and conjecture. Experimentation test the theory and scientists concur or disagree on the results. The one unchanging fact in the history of science is that no theory has stood the test of time. All theories are refined and in some cases discarded after a while. Evolution is one theory that has general acceptance but has not been irrefutably proven and never will. The problem lies in the fact that the evidence to work with is minimal. I personally don't find intelligent design and evolution to be mutually exclusive. I can't see how you disprove that there is a transendant spirit behind the creation. And science itself has limitaions, there has yet to be found any unifyiny theory and no evidence to show it could exist. There are also multiple theories on how existance began, none of them any more edifying than the earliest mythologies from the caves. It also seems by discounting religion, you discount many great minds of the past who still have influence today. How do you explain the influence of Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus after 2,000 years? A truly open minded person would recognize the limitations of the intellect, in the spirit of Descartes or Socrates, and and be tolerant of other viewpoints. By the way, God is not Biblical and his existence or non-existence isn't predicated by anything humans have to say.
And "Captain Frogbert" added:
The right loves to declare that “most Americans are religious,” as if that means that most Americans must therefore agree with them. This is an easily provable falsehood. Most Americans are, in fact, religious, but they adhere to a wide range of religious beliefs and dogma, most of which are not in accordance with the tenets of the radical right. . . .
The real fact of the matter is that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and most other faiths are intensely liberal faiths. All advocate compassionate treatment of the poor and weak, truth against falsehood, peace over war, non-violence over violence, etc. All these tenets are liberal values.
Liberals must speak up and embrace religion because religion, true faith, is on our side. Ours are the values of America. Our side is the side of truth. Real Americans believe and live the truth that Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists, Christians and adherents of all other religions, as well as those who choose no religion at all, are welcome here and equal partners in our American experiment. . . . Americans must be free to live their lives, pursue their happiness, as they see fit, not as the all-powerful state would have it. This is what America stands for. And this is why the religious right is wrong.
But that's getting into politics. When it comes to science and the teaching of science, I agree with Dean Esmay, who said, "I fail--utterly--to see how science will be destroyed by allowing these questions" -- even in the classroom, as long as kids are taught about the scientifc method's strict evidentiary standards. More and more, I think it's too bad that Intelligent Design was first proposed by Christian thinkers with a religious and cultural agenda (some of whose real sophistication as thinkers gets eclipsed in this emotional debate). If the idea had come from demonstrably unbiased scientists, who thought they saw evidence of a creative and responsive rather than blind mechanism at work in life's intricate variation and adaptation, then religious people could have welcomed the new theory without being suspected of having cooked it up to comport with their faith. And secular-minded people might have given it some real mind-time, and thought about how it might be tested, and appreciated its salutary challenge to evolutionary theory -- as Dean says, "If they're proven wrong, then doesn't that just strengthen Darwinism?" -- instead of dismissing it out of hand.