November 26, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-23: Why some religious people hate the theory of evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

To understand why there is such a deep-seated opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and how intelligent design creationism (IDC) came into being, one needs to understand its essential idea and the motivations of the people behind it.

On the surface, IDC seems to accept almost all of evolutionary ideas since it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the key elements of the Darwinian structure, such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no sudden discontinuities), the multiplication of species, an old Earth, and natural selection as the driving mechanism for the process.

So how was IDC to advance the cause of religion if it seemed to accept so many evolutionary ideas? The strategy is explicitly outlined in an internal strategy document that has been labeled the 'Wedge Strategy' or the 'Wedge Document' put out in 1999 by the Center for Science & Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded 'think-tank' that funds and supports the work of intelligent design creationists. This document came to light fairly recently, before the Dover trial, and it helped to undermine the case for the school board since it showed the religious motivations of those behind IDC.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art. (my italics)

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. (my italics)

This is why these religious people violently oppose Darwin's theory. They see him, along with Freud and Marx as the source of the decline of modern society. Of course, Darwin is the most prominent target since the works of the other two do not carry quite the same paradigmatic status and are not taught in public schools.

A little later in the Wedge document one comes across the "Governing Goals" of the movement, which are:

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

So the goals of the IDC movement are clear. It takes aim at what it sees as the source of all evil, the idea that materialism is the basis of all knowledge. They feel that if they can displace materialism as an operating principle, then they can hope to eventually bring back a non-material god into the schools as an acceptable explanation of phenomena. The way they tried to do that was by arguing that there were a few biological systems of so-called 'irreducible complexity' whose existence was inexplicable using Darwinian materialistic methods and thus had to have non-material causes.

The long-term strategy of the Discovery Institute seems to be to first have the ideas of evolution undermined by allowing for the possibility of non-material causation for at least some evolutionary changes, then later introduce IDC as an alternative to the undermined theory of evolution, then bring god back into science education, and finally put god and the Bible and prayer back into public schools everywhere, thus saving the world from sin. They saw this as a slow, incremental advance, taking many years to reach its goal.

The strategy was quite carefully crafted and seemed to be making some progress. They got supporters elected to state school boards in Kansas and Ohio who inserted IDC-inspired language critical of evolution into their state science standards.

The IDC movement knew that eventually someone would challenge the use of IDC ideas in schools in the courts, and tried to avoid giving any reason for ruling IDC out on the basis of establishment clause violations. Their whole approach was to run a stealth campaign, based on what was essentially a public relations strategy. They carefully avoided talk of god as much as possible (at least in public). They did not even insist on teaching intelligent design in schools. Instead they adopted the strategy of asserting that evolution was 'just a theory,' that it had problems, that there was a controversy over some of its basic tenets, and that good science and teaching practices required that students be exposed to the nature of this alleged controversy. They got Cobb County in Georgia in 2002 to insert stickers in their biology textbooks that asserted that evolution was only a theory and not a fact.

This stealth approach caused some tension within the religious community since many religious people did not quite get it. Many fundamentalist Christians are militantly proud of their faith and do not feel at all apologetic about their attempts to kick evolution out and put god back in the classroom, since they felt he rightfully belonged there. They were proud of being Christians and they felt that the US was a Christian country. They viewed the delicate maneuvering of the IDC strategists not as a constitutionally astute strategy but as being somewhat cowardly, and needlessly accommodating of anti-Christian beliefs.

When I attended various IDC meetings in 2002 and 2003 I found a huge gulf between the IDC theorists who were the main speakers, and the rank and file attendees. The latter were largely fundamentalist, young Earth, Biblical literal Christians and they did not speak the sophisticated language of the IDC theorists. These people had a much simpler view of the world. In their view, the US was rapidly going to hell in a hand basket. Everywhere they looked, they saw signs of increasing decadence: more nudity, sex, pornography, abortions, crime, violence, profanity, blasphemy, and so on. They saw this as a direct consequence of removing god from the schools and teaching godless evolution, which said that we were no better than monkeys,

So while everyone agreed on the ultimate goal of removing the teaching of evolution from schools, the religiously naïve wanted to mount a direct assault to bring religion back into the classroom, while the more sophisticated IDC strategists felt that one needed to first subtly undermine the idea that materialist explanations were the only ones allowed by science, before introducing more overtly religious ideas.

These internal differences and tensions within the religious community about how to deal with the Darwinian menace stayed below the radar screen. It took the Dover trial to bring them completely out into the open.

POST SCRIPT: Chomsky on Iran

An interesting interview with Noam Chomsky on US-Iran relations.


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