Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Latest Battle Front In The Culture Wars: Intelligent Design

There are times when the Religious Right would try the patience of Jesus Christ Himself.

The growing battle over “intelligent design” is the latest evidence of the literalism that threatens the independence of school districts by imposing the religious beliefs of a few onto the education of the whole. We predict that any day now the Shelby County Board of Education will wade into the religious thicket and try yet again to inject Christianity into the school curriculum.

It seems a strange irony that the Religious Right, the professed people of faith appear to lack any faith at all. Rather than have faith to accept and worship the Bible as a sacred book, they instead are compelled to insist that it is a science book and a history book. Oh, ye, of little faith.

It’s hard to believe that on the 80th anniversary of the Scopes’ “monkey trial” in East Tennessee, we are heading toward another showdown with the fundamentalists determined to impose their religious views on every one else. We could only imagine if Muslim-Americans, or even Jewish-Americans, were trying to do the same. The outrage from the Right would be deafening.

But people engaged in holy wars rarely reflect objectivity. Rather, they claim everything is evidence of anti-Christian bias and use the word, agenda, to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with them. There is the gay agenda, the atheistic agenda, the liberal agenda and the anti-Christian agenda.

What is most remarkable of all is that they make these kinds of inflammatory, simplistic statements in the most religious country in the history of humankind – the United States. If there is indeed an anti-Christian agenda that is undermining this nation, it would represent the greatest upset since David beat Goliath.

But, back to creationism, excuse me, I mean intelligent design…in about a month, scientists and creationists will battle in Dover, Pennsylvania, over the teaching of evolution in public schools. You may have thought that we had already resolved this issue. After all, the courts have ruled over and over that these religious-based theories about the origins of the species are violations of separation of church and state.

Then again, the Religious Right discounts the principles of separation of church and state, too. It’s a myth created by Godless liberals (like Jefferson). Once you can dismiss historical precedents this easily, science is relatively simple.

“Intelligent design” is the latest disguise for that good old-fashioned favorite of the Religious Right -- creationism. Proving that they have learned the lessons of Karl Rove, they have dressed up creationism in new clothes and given it a new name. At the same time, they attack anyone who has the temerity to question them.

Of course, creationism did need some updating, since it was based on the argument that our world is 6,000 to 10,000 years old; the fossil record shows they are off about 4.6 billion years old.

This time around, no one argues such a wrong-headed position, and proponents calmly suggest that “intelligent design” should be taught in the interest of fairness, because Darwinian evolution is nothing but a “theory.” Of course, so is gravity and the atom, but that fact doesn’t slow down their efforts in treating textbooks like rap cd’s. They would label them with a warning: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

It sounds so reasonable and so fair…until you look under the hood. There lurks the latest pseudoscientific version of creationism. Actually, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. Darwin uses the word, evolution, precisely one time in On the Origin of the Species. (By way of comparison, the Bible never uses the word, rapture, even once, but that’s another story.)

In truth, it is hard to understand why Darwin’s writings engender such visceral rhetoric from the Right. The central proposition of evolution is this -- millions of years ago, a species of primates split into two branches. One became chimpanzees and the other become humans. In other words, humans did not evolve from chimpanzees, but from the common ancestor for both of chimpanzees and humans.

(At this point, it’s hard not to hear the voice of Mark Twain saying: “It now seems plain to me that that theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one...the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.”)

Our connection to ancient ancestors seems obvious. Our appendix, the thin coat of hair that vanishes shortly before we are born (apes keep theirs and it becomes their fur) and the vitamin C in our diets unlike most mammals are vestiges of our genealogy. Or consider the oddity of goosebumps; coming as a response to the cold, they are intended to fluff up our fur to keep us warm. Such peculiarities certainly don’t point to intelligent design, because the presence of these characteristics is meaningless in modern humans. More to the point, the presence of these peculiarities indicate the evolutionary process that is still at work.

In response to such obvious facts supporting evolution, the intelligent design school offers up Of Pandas and People, offered up as a textbook. The book doesn’t mention religion, but it might as well. The name, “intelligent design,” begs the obvious question: who was in charge of such intelligent design? The book trots out old creationist fiction that organisms appeared spontaneously and have remained unchanged since their creation.

Every high school student knows this is not true. Different organisms and animals appear in different fossil records. First, bacteria; then algae; then animals with shells and marine life; then the Cambrian explosion that produces an array of life including vertebrates. The timeline is about three billion years.

The truth is that never have we had so much historical, physical evidence of the evolution of living organisms as we do today. The fossil record is rich in details and gives no support to the view of instantaneously created species that remained the same since their sudden appearance on the scene.

In light of the insistence of intelligent design advocates, it would stand to reason that its theory would be the subject of intense scientific research. That is hardly the case. Virtually no research has been done, and that is the strongest reason that it can find no respect from the scientific community.

In the end, intelligent design is not the solution to a scientific problem. It is the latest response to a religious problem among fundamentalists whose faith is not strong enough to countenance anything short of a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The latest evolution case comes up for a ruling in a few weeks, and at least some of us will be praying for reason to prevail.

We remain baffled as to why there is any contradiction between evolution and belief in God. To us, evolution is the most intelligent design of all.

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