Sunday, October 09, 2005

ID in broader context

This is a follow-up to my previous piece, to be found just below. In response, a friend has made a significant contribution to deciphering the puzzle of the continuing robustness of the ID controversy. He recalled that in his Catholic high school students were introduced to the critical approach to the Bible, specifically the four-source analysis of the Pentateuch. By contrast, religion was hardly ever mentioned in my secular schools in California. We had sex education, yes, but no religious education, which was regarded as a kind of third rail. Any teacher who touched it risked dismissal. The result was that by default most students derived their ideas of Christianity and the Bible from their churches, which were likely to be evangelical. For them, Scriptural inerrancy and the six-days of Creation were simply the way it was.

It is safe to predict that ridicule is not going to drive ID from the field. For the time being we are stuck with it, as a purported "alternative" to Darwinist evolution.

On reflection it seems to me that the ID ebullience results from the confluence of several factors. It is, if you will, overdetermined.

Among these factors are:

1) The growing demographic strength of the evangelicals, as against the declining "high church" denominations, where one might expect to find some indications of religious criticality and pluralism.

2) The deeply rooted American populist traditions of know-nothingism and anti-intellectualism, providing a continuing stream of distrust vis-a-vis specialist and "elite" opinion.

3) The American commitment to fair play and the requirement that both sides be heard, this occurring against the muted background of Feyerabend paradigm pluralism. It is true that we do not teach both sides of the Holocaust, but ID supporters do not acknowledge this parallel, which is a dubious one. Sometimes I think that the secularist anathema-hurlers do accept it, and expect that scorn, vigorously expressed, will do the trick. It will not.

4) The dearth of courses in the critical and comparative study of religion (as noted above). This absence allows the true believers to dominate the field. (On a personal note, I was brought up an atheist. I had heard vaguely of the Higher Criticism. Yet it was not until I was thirty-two, and completing my dissertation, that I learned of Wellhausen's four-source concept of the Pentateuch and the comparable three-source theory of the Gospels. Even so, I had to seek out this knowledge.)

5) The framing of ID within a kind of unified field of 1) the culture wars; and 2) the red-state/blue-state contrast. Many folks in the heartland assume that both Evolution and gay rights reflect an attempt by the pointy-headed elitists to impose their decadent values on decent people.

The conjunction of these factors makes it likely that ID will not soon expire. Analyses of the deficiencies of Behe, Dembski, or some other ID proponent (there are many differences among them), will not suffice to erase the persistence of the fostering elements I have noted above.

Recognizing the exasperation the controversy has caused, Michael Ruse, a well-known philosopher of science, has sought to explain one source of the acerbity. The following may be helpful.


The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Michael Ruse. viii + 327 pp. Harvard University Press, 2005. $25.95.

The summer of 2005, which marked the 80th anniversary of the Scopes trial, provided various reminders of the continuing controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in the public schools of the United States. The annual reenactment of the trial in its hometown of Dayton, Tennessee, attracted even greater attention than usual, in large part because of numerous efforts throughout the nation to have "intelligent design" taught alongside the theory of evolution in science classes in the public schools. This campaign appeared to gain important support in August when President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that they favored the approach. Fortunately, the summer also witnessed the arrival on bookstore shelves of The Evolution-Creation Struggle, a carefully researched and cogently argued examination of this long-standing controversy by noted philosopher of science Michael Ruse. An observer of and participant in the debate on the topic for the past three decades, Ruse offers his readers historical and philosophical insight into the issues and ideas involved.

Deftly analyzing the last few centuries of Western intellectual history, Ruse convincingly argues that both "sides" in the debate may best be understood as responses to an underlying crisis of faith. This crisis developed gradually, reaching its zenith in the Enlightenment, as the verities associated with traditional religion came under attack. Responses tended to take one of two diverging paths: Many people, rejecting intellectual currents that they viewed as having removed God from the processes of nature, embraced an emotional evangelicalism. Others took a more reason-based approach, accepting the growing importance of science in modern thought and attempting to create an appropriate faith. This road led ultimately to deism and to a belief in progress, not just in the natural world but also in human culture and society.

For people on either path, the question was what the future was going to be like and what their current obligations were. The evangelicals were "premillennialists"—they believed that Jesus was going to return before the millennium (the thousand-year period before Judgment Day in the Book of Revelations) and that people should prepare for his coming by making themselves morally pure. Individual salvation and the return of Christ would be the precursors to a better world. (Ruse cites the current popularity of the Left Behind books as an excellent example of this particular religious outlook.) The believers in progress were postmillennialists; because they didn't think Jesus would return until after the millennium, they thought that people should try now to perfect human society. This embrace of cultural progress, in Ruse's view, prepared the ground for the development of evolutionary ideas. But it was Darwin's ability to craft a "science" of evolution that provided sympathetic individuals with "a reason to believe" in the new theory.

Ruse continues his analysis by tracing the development of evolutionism, a phenomenon distinct from evolution or evolutionary theory. Evolutionism was a cultural concept, a philosophy of progress that could be embraced with few qualms by many religious thinkers, particularly postmillennial Christians. As time went on, in fact, many progressive theologians appear to have downplayed the significance of a literal Second Coming and to have emphasized instead social and cultural reform as part of the church's mission. As Ruse points out, many contemporary evolutionists remain committed to this postmillennial religious view, seeing no necessary conflict between their scientific and religious thoughts and activities.

Full Text at American Scientist


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