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A Wedge in the Gaps
Tuesday October 25th 2005, 10:41 pm
Filed under: education,General,politics,religion,science
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It was in 1859, one hundred and forty-six years ago next month, that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, and it’s been under attack ever since. This is not surprising. In the mid 19th century, the university system of England was metamorphosing, working to shed the chrysalis of clergy and religion that despite having founded and fueled the establishments of learning, now held them back. It was time to stop asking for holy permission to accept observable evidence as scientific fact. It was time for the child to leave the embrace of the parent. It was time for true scientific enlightenment to begin.

But enlightenment, and advancement, is very hard won. Reading today of Rosa Park’s death, I was reminded that we live in a nation where the simple, humane idea that all men are created equal was not truly codified into law, whatever the Constitution says, as few as 50 years ago. Even today I could not say with sincere conviction that this humane notion is part of our national consciousness.

It’s about tolerance. The idea that we should all live and let live. Observe today the struggle waging in a Pennsylvania courtroom over whether “intelligent design theory” should be a mandated part of the biology curriculum.

Proponents of intelligent design claim that it is a legitimate scientific theory, and therefore deserves to be recognized and taught. They claim that the concept is “religion-neutral”, and that many of its supporters are secular.

Yet no legitimate scientific body recognizes intelligent design. No articles on the subject are published in the peer-review journals that are absolutely critical to the acceptance of any idea in the scientific community, excepting false peer-review systems consisting solely of intelligent design supporters. In fact, when in August of 2004 the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington published an article in support of intelligent design, the response was so negative, the debunking and dismantling of the shabby pseudo-science so vociferous, that the journal’s publisher later disavowed the article, promising to uphold proper review procedures in the future. The managing editor responsible for publication of the piece left the journal during the scandal. Not surprisingly, he is a member of the Baraminology Study Group, a creationist organization.

Scientists are kept busy every day working to defend themselves against so-called “creation science” in the various forms it has taken throughout the centuries. On the one hand, debate and rigorous defense can often strengthen that which is under attack. I take no offense to the existence of creation science; our struggle to understand the universe is at the core of what makes us human. I can therefore forgive the fact that those scientific energies could instead be put towards more measurable advancement. What I cannot forgive is that these energies are not being distracted by philosophical or scientific debate, but are instead being siphoned off to fight a never-ending culture war.

And this is where the intolerance becomes clear: The nebulous “culture war” we are told we are all soldiers in is as real as it is unreal. Perhaps my naive love of humanity is to blame for my firm belief that Americans, as much as any other people on Earth, simply want to live their own lives. We don’t care if our neighbor is Muslim or our mail man is atheist, so long as we are allowed to be whomever we want, to live our lives in peace. But no! The viral minority shouts at us with their majority voice “we are under attack!” Their bullhorn announces that Christianity is oppressed (of all the ludicrous ideas) and the only way we can ever be free is to reshape every bit of matter, every protocol of law, every aspect of society and every thought of human kind into a reflection of their own. If God made man in his own image, shouldn’t we be able to make all society in ours?

There is a simple, complex, loaded word for this: fascism. Intelligent design supporters claim their theory is secular while at the same time making it quite clear to their constituents that the fill-in-the-blank “designer” is God. The fight to keep intelligent design out of the classroom is an important one, because with each creationist success another toehold is found, another hole is ripped in the fabric of religious and educational freedom. The end goal is to devolve back into the cocoon, to bring God back into the classroom, and to change not just the teaching of biology, but the whole of education and by extension the whole of American culture.

The fight in Pennsylvania is just one of many in recent memory. Similar struggles have played out and continue to play out in Kansas, Arizona, Ohio, Illinois, Alabama, Nebraska, Texas and elsewhere, with small victories and defeats on both sides.

There is a concept called “god of the gaps”. It describes how as science concretely proves more and more observable aspects of nature, the remaining gaps in our knowledge become smaller and smaller. What was before attributed to supernatural phenomenon now has a comprehensible explanation. Yet somehow, what gaps remain are still stuffed with religious meaning. The gaps threaten to tear us apart.

Take, for example, the Wedge Strategy. Engineered by the Discovery Institute, which is also known as the leading organization in support of intelligent design theory, its purpose is to provide an action plan for the social and political mutation of our culture into one that is based around God. This strategy is now infamous in the creationism vs. evolution debate, and the Discovery Institute sluffs it off as having “outlived its usefulness” despite one of its offshoots being the Santorum Amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act. Although the amendment was modified and does not have any legal impact, it promotes the teaching of intelligent design in schools.

If tearing apart is your goal, I can think of nothing better to stick into a gap than a wedge.

This whole train of thought came about because I wondered why there was even a debate over evolution and creationism. I wondered why creationists couldn’t either be happy to hold their religious beliefs as their own, without forcing them upon others, or alternatively why they could not see evolution as part of God’s creation. Did it ever occur to anyone that perhaps God created evolution itself?

I was surprised to learn that this is actually one form of creationism, and even more surprised to learn that there are at least four major branches of creationist belief with myriad subdivisions. “Theistic evolutionism”, or “evolutionary creationism” broadly posits that what science observes is both correct and at the same time the creation of God. Evolution is His tool. I wasn’t surprised to learn, additionally, that within the realm of creationism this form takes undue flak. It’s no wonder. After all, we are in a culture war.

4 Comments so far
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Wow, as always, incredibly well-written and insightful. I never did understand Christians who argued to have creationism taught in schools, or to have books banned, or what have you. I mean, is their faith so weak, that it might be swayed by a biology class, or by reading *gasp* Harry Potter? I mean it really says a lot about these people.

Comment by veronika 10.26.05 @ 10:24 am

Excellent read Eric. Thanks as always for your well written commentary on an interesting topic. It is exhausting to see these zealots trying to derail science by disguising religious explanations as science.

I myself hold with Ken Wilber whose philosophy points to the importance of goodness (moral practice, religion, ethics, etc.), truth (science and empirical observation) and beauty (artistic expression and creativity) all make up the complete picture of how we can best act within and comprehend our universe and our place in it. This is to say that religion has a part to play as does science and a hybrid of the two does not need to be discovered. Certainly there are themes of each in each – there is a science of religion – one can see this in the refinement of spiritual practice or in the rigor of systematic philosophy applied to the interpretation of Holy Books. Similarly there is a spiritual aspect within science – the wonder and ponderance that brings us to new theories. One can see this in the recent independent film What the Bleep or in the ethics applied within the scientific community that govern the scientific method.

I do understand the temptation to assign evolution as a tool of God’s to bring about the universe we find ourselves in. As a man who loves processes as much as he ever loved a specific outcome, I think that this sort of cosmology makes sense. The reality is that this is a faith based hypothesis. It comes out of the orientation of a particular spiritual belief. That there is an entity that is guiding the universe to be what it is and what it has been and what it will be. Then it steps into using the strict observations of science. Evolution however is a scientific understanding.

I am not a rigid person. I am one who does belief that at least an overview of religions – the anthropology of religion or history of religion – would be useful education. I would be happy to hear that some of the worlds most beautiful and well studied literature (happens to be from Holy Books) was being taught to my child as something of literary value. In other words I am not one who suggests that religion has no place in public life. I believe in a free society that is not trying to evangelize one another, an open dialog and instruction about the matters of religion would become a powerful advantage to a culture.

However this is not the reality we find ourselves in here in the US. We find ourselves in a place where those of us who do not want to be evangelized must be on guard. We must guard our bodies, our minds and our souls from people who like advertising agents are constantly devising ways to get their conversion message to us.

Thanks Eric, for this great topic. I have heard the discussions but have not had a chance to ramble about them. Thanks as always.

Comment by andrei hedstrom 10.26.05 @ 3:14 pm

There is not so much a question for me about creation vs. evolution…but a question of tolerance vs. intolerance. Why is it that each of us, with our individual realities, could not have a different model for how we came to be? There is truth in everything! The point of being here is to allow truths to come to us, like bottles washing on the shores of our desert island. We need to open each message of truth and build a paradigm that is workable for us to become actualized. We send those bottles back out to touch each other’s shores and in doing so, expand the universal truths by the attention we pay to what each of us has to say.

Comment by chrisybug 10.30.05 @ 11:28 am

Evolution as God’s tool…sure I’m down with that. God, being the great other, genderless and numinous, not obsessed with the control of ideas and people.

I picked up a free copy of The Onion (a satirical newspaper/group many of you may be familiar with) the other day. The faux headline that caught my attention:

“Bush Refutes Gravity–Proposes ‘Intelligent Falling” Theory”.

It’s entertaining stuff, but we must insist on the separation of Church and State. You’re right this a war. Thanks for the sharp analysis.

Comment by tao 11.05.05 @ 8:13 pm

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