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Friday, September 23, 2005

Another perspective on Intelligent Design

Bonnie and I both live in New York. I spend a lot of time looking at The Hudson River; Bonnie spends a lot of time kayaaking, and crewing on other boats in The Hudson River.

I read Bonnie's blog Frogma to learn about our shared city from a totally different view point.  I'm constantly in awe of Bonnie's New York; it's much more fascinating than mine.

I'm a native New Yorker. Bonnie comes from a state far from the mainland and New York, Hawaii where the story she's going to tell really begins.

On Fridays at Bring it on!, we like to present guest authors with different perspectives, and voices. I like how Bonnie presents her arguments; with logic, reasoning, and she remembers high school science.

I have been following the debate over the teaching of Intelligent Design in our schools with great interest, concern, and not a little mystification over how this has gotten as far as it has. Recently, around the time that the article from which the above quote was taken first ran, I took a break during a late evening at work to participate in an online discussion of the topic, posing a few simple questions to those who were arguing in favor of ID.

"Much has been made of a 2004 poll showing that some 45 percent of Americans believe that the Earth - and humans with it - was created as described in the book of Genesis, and within the past 10,000 years. This isn't a triumph of faith. It's a failure of education."
-- Verlyn Klikenborg,

Their arguments seemed to be running in circles, and I was hoping that they'd break out of those circles and talk a little more about what was driving each of them. Having never had a chance to speak to anyone who was actually a supporter of that concept, I was curious to see what they'd say.

I am not an atheist; however, I do not feel that acceptance of the theory of evolution and belief in God are mutually exclusive; and in fact, as I see the issue, my personal religious convictions aren't even really relevant to whether I find the theory of evolution to be a convincing explanation of how life came to be as it is on this planet.

I began reflecting on why so many people now have come to believe that being a person of faith and being a person who understands (and accepts) the theory of evolution are somehow irreconcilable.

I speak as one who identifies herself as a Christian. Yet I cannot identify with, or even begin to agree with, those who would have Christian precepts taught in our public schools. I am in complete agreement with statements that have been made here and elsewhere that teaching ID in public schools is in violation of the First Amendment. And I think that our Founding Fathers were very wise to institute the separation of church and state, allowing Americans individual freedom of worship (or lack thereof, as the individual sees fit). And that's coming from someone who is, at least in part, the product of an education overseen by clergymen.

I am of the school of thought that finds religion and science to be, quite simply two entirely different modes of thought. They are only contradictory when the boundaries & purposes of the two are confused -- which I feel is definitely the case in the arguments in favor of Intelligent Design.

Following my brief participation in that on-line discussion, the quote with which I began this post kept running through my mind, and I began thinking about what I myself had been taught in a freshman or sophomore biology class in high school. It was a long time ago, but I have clear recollections of Lamarck's giraffes (taught as an example of a hypothesis that was directly contradicted by observable evidence), Darwin's finches, Mendel's genetic principles, peppered moths, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, convergent evolution, and a lot of other evidence offered in support of Darwin's theory of evolution that stuck in my head because it all worked so well together.

God (either as God per se, or in the guise of an "Intelligent Designer") was never mentioned in this classroom.

This is particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that the school, a very highly regarded institution in Hawaii, was a private one run by the Episcopalian Church. Religion was absolutely present there. The staff was made up of both laypeople and Episcopalian ministers. The headmaster was one of the latter. We attended chapel on a weekly basis; religion classes were part of the standard curriculum, and for those who were interested, Episcopalian confirmation classes were available. 

Science classes could easily have been run with a theological spin, had those in charge felt that was appropriate. Why did they not do so?

I don't know the answer for sure, but I suspect that it was because the primary mission of the school was to offer the children of Hawaii a quality education. Teaching science as science, religion as religion, and refraining from muddling the boundaries between the two was evidently completely in line with that commitment.

What I do know is that being taught as I was absolutely did not make me into an atheist. It just made me into a person who has an understanding of science that is separate from and does not conflict with my personal beliefs.

In fact, I remember learning about the two in very different styles -- as is, I think, appropriate to two very different types of thought.

Most of what I know about science and evolution, I learned at school. My religious beliefs were primarily formed by what I was taught and saw practiced at home, and at church, and I think that's as it should be. In fact, I have to admit that I can't remember any specifics of what the fathers taught in religion classes, just the most general recollections - like a concept that the ideas contained in the Bible were important and could lead a person to a spiritually fulfilling life. But that the Bible itself, from Genesis to Revelation, was a collection of writings by human beings - inspired and reverent human beings, yes, but still human, and therefore fallible.

The fathers at Iolani were intelligent, caring teachers with great confidence both in their faith and in the ability of our young minds to find room for our own faith to thrive alongside of the concepts we were being taught in science, math, history, literature, languages, and all the other secular subjects offered by the school. They were there to teach us, and their teaching did not include forcing any particular dogma down our throats.

By taking that approach, and teaching us in such a way that religion was not confused with other subjects, I think that the fathers allowed for a triumph of both faith and education (in a fashion of which Mr. Klickenborg would approve), in a fashion that the ID people don't seem to understand is possible. What I see in the statements I've read from ID supporters doesn't look to me like confidence in their beliefs.

Their need to have their personal spiritual beliefs validated by science, their thirst for secular acknowledgement - those don't strike me as things that people with real confidence in their beliefs would require at all.

Posted by Pia Savage at 12:01 AM in Current Affairs, Politics, Right Wing Nut, Science | Permalink


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Not to long ago I was flipping channels and stumbled upon a woman on CSPAN discussing her book on ID & Christianity - had my then 2 year old allowed it I would have written down her name - because her concept of false truths was captivating to say the least.

Her premise was that science, the notion that events/effects can be studied and foreseen/predicted through experimentation and data collection is not at all based on truth/fact. She beleives & preached that science practiced by man is just as fallible as the testimony provided by the writers of the Bible.

She believes that religion & faith (I thought it was interesting how she coupled these two terms as if one could not exist without the other) should be elevated to an "established truth" status, just as science is perceived by the vast majority of our society ; even if it means using our government as a means to enforce the idea of religion/faith as an inherent part of life.

As a self-declared agnostic I see the absolute seperation of Church & State as one of the basic pillars of our culture, and it really frightens me to think that I might have to prepare my own daughter to live in a less tolerant world - less tolerant on both sides of the aisle. I can see my own reaction becoming more and more volatile every time I feel "them" imposing "their religious" standards on me.

I couldn't agree more with your well versed and logical (remember the enlightenment people - or did that occur in a vacuum?) statement on Bring it On...Thank you.

Posted by: Vanessa | Sep 23, 2005 11:36:01 AM

You're right... If one needs to look to science to validate one's faith, what does that say about the strength of one's faith? And conversely if one only thinks science is valid only when it completely interesects with one's personal beliefs, what does that say about the potential validity of a scientific theory? Faith and science can support and compliment each other, I think, but only if they're left to their proper sphere. Otherwise it's just "garbage in, garbage out" and both are damaged.

There are different ways of knowing about the world, and revelation is a completely valid way of knowing about the world. I don't believe that revelation is somehow an inferior way to know about the world than science, so I don't feel the need to try to prop up the Bible with science. It stands very well on its own, I think. I think the creationists and ID-ers suffer from a significant inferiority complex.

ID is, it seems to me, even worse than Creationism. At least creationists have the strength of their convictions to actually call their beliefs what they are. The entire concept of ID is just a pathetic (and dishonorable) attempt to be disingenuous with words. Last time I read the Apostle's Creed it said, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth..." Not "I believe in the Intelligent Designer..." :)

Posted by: alan | Sep 23, 2005 12:58:23 PM

Science SUCKS!!!! Why? Because I am not good at it, therefore I will impress on everyone else my beliefs, thus to hide my retardness, who am I??

George Fuckin' Dubya Bush, asshole, that's who I am, and I'm de presee----dent!!! Back off mofo, damn the booze, I'm drinkin again!!!!

Who would have thunk I could drink again? Anyone have blow?

Posted by: The Bastard | Sep 23, 2005 1:12:56 PM

thanks for the comments so far - sorry I am working under a lot of deadlines today & don't have time to say more than that right now!

Posted by: bonnie | Sep 23, 2005 1:52:55 PM

As I posted on JABBS, I have a suggestion for those who want to teach Intelligent Design or Bible history in public schools: Can we also teach our kids Biblical archaeology? Because biblical archaeologists have been able to show -- with the same amount of scientific certainty as say, proponents of evolutionary theory -- that many of the stories of the Bible are just that ... stories.

Posted by: david r. mark | Sep 23, 2005 5:33:30 PM

Lately I've been wondering how Christians reconcile the two creation stories in the Bible (1 Genesis and 2 Genesis, respectively). Genesis 1 is the one where God created everything first, and then created man and woman at the same time--no "flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones" lines to be used to subjugate women throughout history. Genesis 2 and 3 are the ones with the "rib story" and the downfall of man as done by women (Which 1 Genesis doesn't even mention). So if the Bible is always correct, which creation story was it?

Posted by: Tracey | Sep 23, 2005 6:01:04 PM

I'm actually less concerned about Intelligent Design (which I believe in but agree isn't science) than I am about people looking to government choices as a vindicator of who is right. The whole debate feels like a tug-of-war between a small group of wounded Christians and a small group of nervous atheists and frankly, I don't want any school board making choices about the curriculum to anoint either group. That's the part that scares me.

Thanks for a very thoughtful post, Bonnie. And thanks, Pia, for sharing your smart friend.

Posted by: doug | Sep 23, 2005 6:48:41 PM

If we weren't so busy teaching students how to take tests, perhaps we could find the time to squeeze a philosophy class into the high school curriculum. In the class, different religious philosphies could be taught alongside standards like Plato and Aristotle. Let the students decide for themselves which way they want to look at life. There would be no need for religion in the science classroom.

You'd never find a European kid who had never taken basic philosophy in lycee- why can't we teach our kids how to think as well? If we did, we wouldn't even be having this debate.

Posted by: Daedalus | Sep 23, 2005 8:01:58 PM

I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church. We had a visiting preacher one time tell me he was excited anytime someone found a dinosaur because it showed just how great God is. He had no problem beleiving that God created the universe, that the Earth was billions of years old, and that dinosaurs once roamed the Earth. I'm amazed at how much things have changed in the passing years. I'll make this concession to the IDers: I'll let you teach ID in public schools if you teach evolution in Sunday School.

Posted by: hiikeeba | Sep 23, 2005 8:17:15 PM

Hi! Thanks for your comments - I was half-expecting to get beaten up and instead I end up getting a lot of takes on the same issue from different points of view which is of course even more to think about. I'll be thinking about it a lot, too - Pia sent me a link - http://msnbc.msn.com/id/9444600/ - to an article about ID having it's day in court. Literally. I hope the judge is truly judicious. Otherwise, as I said to Pia in my response, we will have to have a new play written. It will be called "Disinherit the Wind", and it will be a tragedy.

I actually had written a pretty long response to everybody's comments, but then in responding to the comment about philosophy classes, I got curious & went over to my old school's website to see if they offered philosophy courses (I'm pretty sure they did, probably as an upper school elective - I know they had a Philosophy Club) and my dialup modem choked on the course catalogue download and POOF! All gone.

Lots of interesting ideas here though. More to mull over - I love that. Philosophy? Teaching students how to actually think for themselves? That would be so good for this country. Somewhere in my high school career I got a good solid introduction to logic theory, which I've actually found to be most valuable - especially that warning that an argument can be completely logical but still false if the underlying premises are false. I think that might be why the ID argument is being as accepted as much as it is - some of the pro ID arguments I've seen LOOK logical, but the premises are false and/or misleading - but people are so impressed by the logic, they don't think to question the underlying assertions.

Can't necessarily give the fathers credit for the logic theory, I think that may have been after my dad got reassigned to a naval base on the West Coast in my junior year - that was a tough transfer and I missed my old school a lot, but there were some pretty good teachers at the public school I attended in my junior & senior years.

Hiikeeba, thanks for a good laugh at the end of a long week - that was brilliant. I can just see it - "OK, children, first we're going to sing 'He's Got the Whole World In His Hands', and then I'm going to tell you a story about a nice man named Mr. Darwin who took a wonderful boat trip".

I could go on all night but I have a long day tomorrow - thank you all so much for your warm reception and for all these viewpoints. Great stuff.

Posted by: bonnie | Sep 24, 2005 12:09:19 AM

You're lucky. I had never read any philosophy until college and never had anything that resembled a logic class. It was all studying for tests, and that was BEFORE every child left behind.

It'll be interesting to see how far backwards we go before people realize how ludicrous this debate is.

Posted by: Daedalus | Sep 25, 2005 12:24:43 AM

"Their need to have their personal spiritual beliefs validated by science, their thirst for secular acknowledgement - those don't strike me as things that people with real confidence in their beliefs would require at all."

Well said!

I've been saying the same thing for years - One who must seek to RATIONALIZE their FAITH must be a person of very weak faith indeed.

Posted by: Jersey McJones | Sep 26, 2005 7:44:46 AM

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